NPR’s Ask Me Another

By Andrew Andrews

Puzzlemaster Art Chung, house band Jonathan Coulton and host Ophira Eisenberg quiz celebrity guests Lewis Black and Kathleen Madigan.

It’s no secret that New York City is a great place to catch your favorite shows recorded in front of a studio audience, but you might not realize that taping occurs beyond the bounds of Midtown—and it’s not always for television. Ask Me Another—NPR’s puzzle-themed game show co-produced by WNYC—is recorded twice each month at The Bell House in Gowanus, and it’s a lot easier to get spur-of-the-moment tickets at the door than for most other nationally-syndicated shows.

Continuing our trend of reviewing South Brooklyn events, tonight we did just that and happened upon an unusual episode of A.M.A., in which the contestants were returning guests that were given a second chance to compete due to “various circumstances” surrounding their original appearances. Host Ophira Eisenberg warmed up the crowd with some rather funny stand-up comedy, noting that the audience seemed smart despite seeing fewer eyeglasses than usual, and recalling a recent visit home to Calgary where a former high school class mate asked her if she thought she was better than him because she moved to New York City. The truth, she confided, was the opposite: she moved to New York City because she thought she was better than him! Based on the response there were a lot of transplants in the audience... many of whom were in agreement!

Eisenberg then introduced “returning puzzle guru” Art Chung and “one-man house band” Jonathan Coulton, who performed his song Creepy Doll before instructions were issued and two guests (Sunny and Scott) were called to the stage for brief introductions before competing. In the first round, titled Complaint Department, the contestants were presented with quotes from complaints about errors submitted to the show, and had to “buzz in” with the word that was missing. According to one listener, for example, Ross Geller on the television show Friends would receive a degree in geology, not paleontology. Columbia University was consulted, however, and confirmed that the listener was wrong—at least in regard to their school, where the character earned his Ph.D.! Word to the wise, folks: if you’re going to write a critical letter to a radio program, be sure to have your facts straight, and be ready for public retribution!

In their second round, the same two contestants were challenged to come up with words that sound the same, given a sentence describing the pair. What’s the term for romance novels targeted at women and gum that’s targeted at everyone? Chick lit, of course—and Chiclets! One contestant (we won’t spoil the show by revealing whom) won both rounds and was sent from the stage until returning for the finals.

A food scientist, Andrew Kaufman, was called upon next to play a special game titled The Wisdom of the Crowd, based on the phenomenon that the average estimate from a large group of people is often better than any of the member’s individual answers. Tasked with choosing whose answer was more likely correct—Coulton’s or the average answer from a previous audience—Kaufman managed to guess correctly a complete six out of six times, including the question, “According to a study by the Rand Corporation, what percent of Americans still have a land line telephone?” Coulton, after thinking through the problem, chose the number 60% at random, while the crowd averaged 44%. Kaufman sided with the audience on that one, and the correct answer, it turns out, is a very close forty-nine percent. How close was your guess?

Our second pair of contestants (Kaya and Rob) competed first in The Final Countdown, a round in which Coulton sang alternate lyrics about post-apocalyptic movies to past hit songs, and the guests had to name the movie and—possibly stealing the point—the name of the original song. Surprisingly to Eisenberg and Coulton, the contestants were much better at identifying the movies than the songs themselves. In their second round, Eisenberg described items for sale in the gift shops of museums, libraries and sites dedicated to historical figures, leaving the contestants to identify the famous people. If you ever find yourself in Winterset, Iowa, for example, be sure to stop by the John Wayne Museum for a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in remembrance of The Duke. Kaya and Rob each won one round, so the finalist was chosen by a penalty-shot-style tiebreaker in which they were asked to name the eleven most expensive properties on the classic Monopoly game board. Again, for the sake of the broadcast, we won’t reveal the victor.

Before the final contest, each taping of Ask Me Another includes a “V.I.P.” (Very Important Puzzler) segment in which special celebrity guests play custom-written trivia challenges. Tonight’s V.I.P.’s were comedian Kathleen Madigan and her friend Lewis Black, and the two were pitted against each other to answer questions about “life on the road,” such as, “What is the single dirtiest object in a hotel room when you’re not in it?” Madigan’s guess—the bedspread—was very good but incorrect, as was Black’s toilet. If you knew that the right answer is the television remote control, maybe you should apply to be a contestant on the show! Madigan and Black embellished the game with personal anecdotes that thrilled the audience and filled the room with laughter.

After an long-needed intermission and Coulton’s song Sky Mall, the finalists returned to the stage to determine the winner. Tasked with stating the only word in each of a specified category that contained a specified letter, one correctly identified “pawn” as the only chess piece containing the letter “A,” after which the other correctly named “nickel” as the only U.S. coin containing the letter “K.” The round continued neck-in-neck until a contestant won the final question, knowing that Arizona is the only U.S. State name containing the letter “Z”.

After the end of the show, the hosts and guests were tasked with a handful of retakes—repeating statements made earlier that didn’t come across cleanly on the recording. This phase took a little longer than expected, partly because Eisenberg had trouble saying the word “Georgia” in take after take after take. Coulton managed to keep the crowd laughing with the observation that the retake session is like experiencing “the same show but with all of the life sucked out of it!”

Whether you’re a fan of the radio program on N.P.R. or just looking for something to do in Brooklyn, catch a recording of Ask Me Another for an evening of laughs, learning and libations—The Bell House, don’t forget, has a fully-stocked bar! Not only is it a great show, but also an interesting opportunity to see what goes on behind-the-scenes to put a radio program together. Our only (very minor) complaint is that there are too many breaks in the action; we’ll assume, for the benefit of the doubt, that they’re necessary for the technical production. But don’t let that stop you from checking out the next recording of Ask Me Another at the Bell House or as part of their traveling show—and don’t forget to wear your glasses, so Ophira will know what a smart audience you are! 4

Andrew Andrews attended NPR’s Ask Me Another at The Bell House in Brooklyn on Monday, January 30, 2017 @ 7:30pm to write this review.