The other morning I ambled down Main street into the town center of Vineyard Haven with my noble yellow lab Floyd. We stopped at his usual oasis, the generously filled water bowl outside The Green Room, and the lapping commenced. He usually doesn’t stop drinking until his bladder assumes the proportion of water associated with that of the Earth’s surface. The sound of Floyd’s tongue sputtering like a small plane engine about to engage dominated the dawn. But in short order it was drowned out by the rumblings of a garbage pickup rendezvous. A ridiculous refrain then bounced through my brain: “Papa-oom-mow-mow, papa-oom-mow-mow . . . (repeat)” What was triggered was a 1963 tune called Surfin’ Bird, whose excuse for lyrics amounted to “Everybody’s heard about the bird. Bird bird bird. Bird is a word.” At this point, I would write “etcetera,” but that would erroneously imply there were other lyrics. So why did I pick up on this garbage as I watched a garbage pickup? Because it was “sung” by the Trashmen! How’s that for a cerebral synapse?
This dimwitted yet catchy tune made it up to number four on the billboard chart. It was categorized as a novelty nonsense doo-wop song. They probably called themselves the Trashmen because they trashed the original 1962 “Papa-oom-mow-mow” song by the Rivingtons and cannibalized it.
The fact that I even know this piece of trivia is why I have spent the past 16 years as a panelist on Says You, the weekly public radio comedy quiz show. I’ve got a lot of garbage in this brain, and this has been the perfect forum to make use of it, or should I say, to dump it out.
Besides serving as a cranial wash, Says You has been our free trip off the Island several times a year — bonus breaks from our comfortable continuum. Allow me to explain how this show works.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Says You, locally it’s on WGBH (89.7) and WCAI (90.1) Saturdays at 8 p.m., and repeated on WGBH Sundays at 2 p.m. Nationally the show is broadcast in more than 100 markets (check saysyou.net). The show began as a half-hour, but now in most markets runs an hour. The format consists of two teams of three panelists each, dealing with all fields of alleged knowledge with questions asked by a host who’s into brain-teasers. Twice in each show there’s the old dictionary game, in which one side tries to bamboozle the other by concocting fake definitions of an obscure word and offering them alongside the correct ones. The keys to all this are levity and wordplay. The real competition is not in the scoring but in the wisecracking.
The cast — the usual gang of Barry Nolan, Francine Achbar, Tony Kahn, Carolyn Faye Fox, my wife Paula Lyons and me, along with host-producer Richard Sher — operates without a net. There is no rehearsal, no discussion about the games, no muzzles on the cast members. Those attending a live taping will usually witness more than an hour’s worth of folderol. But afterwards, Sher will tighten the pauses, eliminate over-the-top and below-the-belt responses and fumigate the program of all topicality. Timely references are taken out so each show can run any time.
On a fairly loose schedule, we travel about once a month seven or eight times a year to a city that broadcasts Says You. Over the course of a two or three-day weekend, we record four to six shows before live audiences of 300 to 1,000-plus. Each performance consists of two programs separated by an intermission. At each venue we showcase a local music ensemble to entertain, primarily while we are fabricating those definitions.
For us as newly-minted year-rounders, such travel nicely fills out our off-season off-Island dance card.
What we’ve discovered over the years is no matter where we perform, the public radio audience is basically the same — which is to say, socially, education trumps fashion, and, politically, blue trumps red.
Time Magazine called our shows “parties for smarties,” contending Says You “restores some intellectual equilibrium to the airwaves.” The New York Times labeled our silliness “hyper-literate but not smug.” Depending on your definition of entertainment, such compliments can be seen as back-handed, if not left-handed. Which reminds me of a personal highlight in this “game of words and whimsy, bluff and bluster” — a spotlight on absurdity under the category heading Odd Man Out.
Who doesn’t belong in this group and why: Paul McCartney, Babe Ruth, John McEnroe and Eric Clapton? This one was asked of me in the show’s early years and it clearly demonstrates the definition of cerebral garbage — at least my own. Thanks to visual memory, I actually got this one fairly quickly. The answer? Clapton. He’s the only one in that group who is right-handed. Now why would I even know that?! Paula stared at me and asked, “Who ARE you?”
As Sher has said, you don’t have to know the answer, you have to like the answer. What else would you expect from a show that has used such taglines as “Wit Happens” or “More radios are tuned to our show than any other appliance”? Says You has honed and tickled my language skills. For example, here’s a haiku I wrote during a show. I call it Hospitality:
Another shift ends,
Nurses doctor their salads,
Doctors nurse their drinks
So we have had the privilege of free travel that affords us hints of other American habitats. From time to time we find ourselves saying, “Well, if we got stranded here, it wouldn’t be awful.” Or, “Kindly remind me not to rush back.” So far, nothing has favorably compared to the magic that has drawn us to spend the rest of our days right here, at least most of them.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.