Dallas — National Public Radio presides over a wide-ranging Renaissance of brainy quiz and game shows. The well-known Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! mixes news and pop culture while Because News is a tangy recap of current events and noteworthiness. Says You! evokes the classic erudite British quiz shows with a touch of pub trivia tossed in.
Mix all those together with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude and the friendliest snark in the business courtesy of host Ophira Eisenberg to create Ask Me Another. Recorded at The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY, with quite possibly the most insanely fun audience on NPR, it’s a blend of brainteasers and pub trivia, with a thorough lacing of music and wry asides by indie rocker Jonathan Coulton.
Ask Me Another is a playground for the mind, fashioned by puzzlemasters who are the cleverest kids in school, and presided over by the class smart ass. Challenges, often with a Big Quiz Thing spin, might require you to guess two diverse concepts by using just one clue, or hear a variety of tales and guess which one is true. Sometimes the answers must not only be right, but rhyme, and many riff off song lyrics and titles. Words and phrases are sliced and diced and anagrammed. The "one-man house band" Jonathan Coulton adds to the fun.
The road show version pulls into The Majestic Theatre this Tuesday, presented by WNYC and the local NPR afiliate, KERA. The VIP guest is Brooklyn Decker of Netflix's Frank and Gracie.
One of the show's puzzlemasters, Art Chung, the Ask Me Another Puzzle Editor, joined Eisenberg for a discussion with TheaterJones on the what is actually on the line in a quiz show, the joys of liberal arts degrees, and how stand-up is the perfect training to be host of a rambunctious live show.
TheaterJones: Let’s start with differences and similarities between comedy brain and quiz brain. In a Venn diagram of the two, where do they overlap?
Art Chung: To write a good joke is to write a good trivia question. You have to be pretty observational about life and interested in pop culture. It’s about making connections between things and doing it quickly. You have to think in terms of possibilities, all of them, and make that fit.
Ophira Eisenberg: The constructions are very similar. You have a compelling premise and a payoff. That very much like a trivia game where the answer makes people laugh or go “Oh wow, surprise!” Sometimes they just go “uh ha!” in recognition. If I had a whole act where people did that, I could live with that; it would be gratifying.
There’s been a resurgence of quiz shows, venturing out even into prime time and big marquees.
OE: There is a rise of game shows all over the place. I’m happy that we get to be a part of that. We’ve heard from a lot of people who yell at their radios or out loud if they’re podcasting during the show. They’re really into it. I love that. But in Europe, particularly Great Britain, they have a long history of pub trivia and games, everybody does it, old and young, and I’d like to see more of that.
AC: We have a comedic take on the quiz show. We’re not as typical as Jeopardy, we’re not trying to stump anybody. That’s the fun thing about a quiz show; you can find out about so many things without feeling like you’re being talked at.
Ask Me Another is an elevation of pub trivia. Do you prefer audience liquored up or not?
OE: [laughs] A half-glass or a merlot or a Shiraz doesn’t do anyone any harm. Where we perform in Brooklyn, The Bell House, is a hipster rock bar. Our audience is drinking a craft beer or artisanal bourbon. Of course, when we go on the road we play a lot of theaters where maybe people come with a drink in hand and maybe they don’t. But I’ve noticed that too many drinks make people just yell out the answers from the crowd as they lose their inhibitions, and that’s when I’m like, “OK, maybe you should have stopped a half beer earlier.”
You have to stay sharp. In Ask Me Another the points actually matter.
OE: We think a lot about that. There’s no cash prize, you don’t get to progress, but there will be a winner because there need to be some stakes to create some momentum. It’s amazing too, what you can tell people the prize is a t-shirt or plastic cup, some object that is meaningless. But what is always on the line is them and how they come across and that is the highest stakes thing for everyone.
I notice there’s a little bit of history in most shows. Are you trying to sneak in some book learning?
OE: I’m against it, I hear you, but it happens. [laughs] I’m a Canadian, and there’s a lot of American history I don’t know. In Canada, they don’t teach American history. So I am learning a lot about the White House and such. I feel I’m getting pretty good. I can spin out quick trivia on the presidents. But all that aside, there is a little bit of learning in the show, you just can’t get around it. You want to have a little bit of substance.
Is this what people do with liberal arts degrees these days?
OE: [laughs] I think that’s a wonderful thing. At least you are doing something.
Were you first host considered for Ask Me Another? Did they ever consider anyone but a comedian?
OE: They saw over a thousand people and a lot were comedians. They saw everyone, I mean everyone, but turned out there was still me.
AC: [laughs] We were looking for Americans first.
OE: Citizenship, they wanted citizenship.
At the shows, you’re in charge of managing a live audience. The logistics of a performance hall or theater pose a much bigger challenge than in a nightclub. What kind of issues do you deal with?
OE: That’s where to have a history of stand-up is useful all the time for the job. Especially as a woman, I’ve cut my teeth on stages around the country and internationally where you have to command an audience, make it very clear that you are the authority, that everything is going to be fine, they just have to relax, and you’re going to take over from there. And you do that with a full variety of skills that include presence, stature, volume, and command, something I’ve worked on for a decade. [Editorial note: Her tight jeans and power-woman kick-butt boots also help.]
Do pop culture experts study Ask Me Another? Seems like one could do a lot of trend surfing there, reflecting on the American psyche, what’s on people’s minds and what they react to.
OE: That’s a real challenge for all of our pop culture stuff. And there’s so much of it now with Netflix and streaming and all, it’s hard for us to keep up. With pop culture, we’re always dealing with this line of what is general knowledge and what is specific to a demographic in terms of age or where you grew up or what you’re into. Where we find this the most is on music. Sometimes we’re like “Why don’t you know the band Queen?” That’s where we find a lot of age things. Many older people are not much up on their hip-hop. We’re always trying to ask questions in the space of a five or six question game, so there’s something that everyone will be able to get. But we could use a cultural anthropologist to sort this out.
AC: Gone are the days when a big TV show could get 15 million viewers. Now if you get five million, you’re a hit. Being National Public Radio, we are trying to figure out a cannon of current references we feel people should get. That’s part of our challenge is to come up with pop culture references that fit both old and young. But for every Taylor Swift—and while tons of people don’t listen to her, she’s the biggest thing out there—there’s something obscure and interesting.
On an NPR scale of naughty to nice, where is Ask?
OE: [laughs] I’m always trying to push for naughty; Art brings us back up to nice. I’ll tell you the scale that we use: highbrow to lowbrow. We are always trying to mix a little of both. Like a game that is ultimately about literature, but the way you will guess about it is we’ll be reading you one-star reviews on Amazon of classic literature.
Do you think humans are evolving into a species that is learning, that is headed to some kind of goal like the show?
OE: I think about that all the time.
AC: Evolving into what?
OE: That’s a good question. I do, I actually do. I guess I’m an optimist. But I also think robots are evolving. We are in a race of human versus machine. I just don’t know who’s going to win right now. [to Art:] Who are you rooting for?
AC: Robots are nice.
OE: I’m kind of rooting for the humans. Do you think we’re evolving?
It’s a cha-cha, two steps forward, one step back.
OE: Sometimes I think all the push back, that makes us think we’re de-evolving, is because a small amount of people are reacting to the fact that we are all evolving and they’re very angry about it.
You got that right. Let's just make them laugh about it.
VIDEO Ophira Eisenberg struts her stand-up chops on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson