Tuesday, June 3, 2008
The Spelling Bee Is the Bee’s Knees
Reposted from YesButNoButYes.
If you had told me ten years ago that eventually I would look forward to the National Spelling Bee every year, I would have scoffed. Yeah, right. Then you’ll tell me that a former stripper will write a movie script that is basically a John Hughes tale with more obscure references that had me rolling me eyes every seven minutes and almost inspired uncontrollable vomiting and it will win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Please. That’s kooky talk, mister.
I still can’t believe that happened.
If I would have told you ten years ago that Spelling Bee would wind up in primetime on a major network, I doubt too many would have believed the prognostication either.
Oddly, all the above has come to pass.
In a television landscape where D-List “celebrities” trying to ballroom dance is a bona-fide hit and “Two and a Half Men” has outlasted “Arrested Development,” sometimes you have to look a little deeper to find quality entertainment. If you step outside the box a few thousand feet, you’ll discover the hilarity of the Spelling Bee.
This past weekend, 13-year-old Sameer Mishra from West Lafayette Indiana correctly spelled “guerdon” to take the coveted spelling title. He enjoys playing the violin and hopes to be a neurosurgeon. When I was 13, I wanted to be Steve Largent and was desperately searching for my next Skittles fix.
I think Pardon the Interruption’s Tony Kornheiser says it best when describing his love of the Bee, “I just love watching those twitchy little freaks.” That’s a little more eloquent than saying it makes him laugh. I think. The Bee is beyond funny. It’s a Marx Brothers film. A dwarf on a tricycle. A waterskiing squirrel.
This year we had the instant classic “numb-nuts” incident. It was comedy at it’s highest level. It approached the infamous “Does that sound like a musical robot?” episode from the documentary “Spellbound.” That film is well worth the rental, by the way. Classic.
What seems to happen is the Bee rounds up the most eccentric pre-teens in America, puts them in a ballroom, cranks the temperature up to health-spa-sauna levels, whips up a tremendous pressure to succeed and then waits for the funny to happen naturally. You never know what you’ll see. Weirdoes cracking wise to the moderator, bizarre celebrations, even more bizarre attempts at completing a high-five, facial ticks, talking to themselves, fainting spells and other hijinks and tomfoolery. I keep hoping that there will be some smarty pants who, after asking for the part of speech, definition and language of origin will ask the moderator dryly, “Can you spell the word, please?” Maybe it’s happened before, but I’ve never seen it. If wishing made it so.
I watch the Bee as a sociological experiment. Like a child that puts ants into a jar and rolls them around until they fight. Just seeing what happens. There is a voyeuristic curiosity that we all have, secretly watching events that we find odd or funny. You ever pretend to read the newspaper on an airplane while listening to the older couple across the aisle argue about what brand ginger ale is best? Or watch the child in the park experience the joy that is bubbles? (Whenever I see that now I think of Paul Rudd in “Knocked Up,” “I wish I liked anything as much as my kids like bubbles.”) I watch the Spelling Bee in awe. It’s way more interesting than ants fighting.
One thing the Bee should do, is provide a deterrent for home schooling. I’m not sure being able to spell “staphylococci” is a fair swap for having no idea how to interact with the other kids. There’s something to be said for having basic social skills. Parents, think long and hard before you isolate your youngsters from the outside world to learn Latin in the basement. I’m unclear on how the home-schoolers get into the damn thing in the first place. I don’t recall them being bussed into Adelaide Elementary School to compete with us when I was a kid. I would remember that. “I got out on ‘schooner.’ How did that kid I’ve never seen before with the big head spell ‘psoriasis?’ What does psoriasis mean? Is it hot ham and cheese day? Who wants to play kickball?”
ESPN made a brilliant move when they starting putting up little factoids about the spellers on the screen during their turn. That’s solid gold. We get nuggets like “Favorite Activities: Fencing, video games and physics.” Or, “Favorite Performer: Beethoven.” Those are real. I’m not making them up.
It’s interesting to note that in the last few years, The Spelling Bee has hammered the Stanley Cup Finals in the ratings. The “twitchy little freaks” have given hockey a solid check into the boards. Here’s a sure sign your sport is dead; People would rather watch 11-year-old oddballs spelling words nobody has ever heard of than Canadians with no teeth follow a puck around the ice. That’s a death knell if there ever was one.
What would make the Bee even better is that ESPN and ABC have a simulcast during regular coverage. While the main broadcast is happening, over on ESPN 7 there is a quasi Mystery Science Theater 3000 version with wise cracking comedians giving the play-by-play. Maybe Michael Ian Black, Patrice O’Neal, and the ghost of Mitch Hedberg. Who wouldn’t tune into that?
It’s admirable how the little buggers are such thorough etymology detectives. They’re little Sam Spade’s and Jane Marple’s. It’s astonishing. “The word come from the Greek? That must mean it has a silent ‘M’ in it.” Those young scamps amaze me.
Tell you what, I’d rather watch the Spelling Bee over 90% of the dreck on network television every day of the week and twice on Sunday. How else am I going to learn how to spell “autochthonous?” “Two and a Half Men” doesn’t cover that.