Scripps National Spelling Bee: Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em spell with comedian

Chuckles rippled through the audience.

Then again. And again.

What's going on here?

The cool blonde knew.

Her stealth mission was a success.          

May I have that in a sentence, please?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has a long-held reputation for seriousness. Serious children spelling serious words with serious meanings. The annual competition, begun in 1925 and administered since 1941 by The E.W. Scripps Co. of Cincinnati, is known for its pressure, its nervous contestants, its anxious parents.

Paige Kimble, the 1981 champion and now executive director of the Bee, decided in 2008 that the contest needed jazzing up. She targeted the Bee's sample sentences, nuggets of correct usage that spellers can ask for to help them figure words like "cymotrichous" or "guetapens."

"It was like the difference between a black-and-white photograph and a color photograph," she said. "We had been writing black-and-white sentences. They were perfectly good, illustrative sentences, but could we add more color and entertainment for our spellers and for our viewers by injecting comedy?"

So, together with her supersecret "Word Panel" -- a task force that develops the word list and guides the contest -- Kimble aimed to storm the 2009 Bee with humor.

Using Hollywood connections made while consulting on the 2006 movie "Akeelah and the Bee," Kimble quietly found some writers to take up the charge. Like the Word Panel, their identities are need-to-know.              

Whoa, tough crowd!

Comedian Paula Poundstone knows the challenges of writing funny lines. She even says she prefers to work off the top of her head for her regular appearances on "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me!," the weekly NPR News quiz show.

Writing jokes for the Bee "would be really, really hard to do," she said by phone from her Santa Monica, Calif., home. "Plus, you're playing to such a specific audience. You're playing, first of all, to people who likely don't want to be entertained in that way at that point. It's a distraction, I would think."

Poundstone says the writers of "Sesame Street" are the masters of writing to multilevel audiences like the Bee must capture -- spellers, parents, the million or so folks watching from home.

"They are the pioneers of this entertaining on more than one level," she said. "They really got that thing of writing this really great stuff for kids and this tongue-in-cheek really funny stuff for adults."

The Bee comedy writers work up funny lines that can be substituted for straight sample sentences for about one-third of the 800-900 words fired in the national match each year.

Then it's up to the Bee's official pronouncer and field general, Dr. Jacques Bailly, to deliver the laughs.

I don't get no respect.

 Bailly, who followed Kimble as spelling champ in 1982, must read the speller's demeanor, decide if a funny or straight sample sentence should be lobbed onstage and regulate the use of humor through the rounds.

Who better to draw howls of laughter than a University of Vermont professor of Latin and Greek classics? Woot! Woot!

"I pretty much deliver everything straight," Bailly acknowledges. "I'm not sure I'm much of a comedian, but I said I'd try. I'm game for anything."

A busy married father of two from Burlington, Vt., Bailly said he doesn't get to watch much comedy, but he's a fan of Rodney Dangerfield and Steve Martin.

Bailly's family "kind of enjoys" his stabs at standup. "Once in a while I substitute names in the sentences for people I know, and that's what they really get a kick out of." He's sneaked in the names of his son, his daughter and some of the neighborhood kids.

Bailly says that asking to hear the word in a sentence is "usually the least helpful of the questions" a struggling speller can ask behind etymology, country of origin and definition. "It's just a way to hear the word in a more natural way. It might jog your memory."

He says he doesn't rehearse the lines, but just checks them for technical issues. That comes as a relief to Poundstone, who says Bailly's delivery won't land him a gig at the Improv.

"He does not look like a man with a sense of humor as he does it," Poundstone said. "It looks like it comes as a surprise to him."

Thems fightin' words to Tim Weinkauf, producer of the Bee for ESPN. He calls Bailly's delivery "fabulous." Even if he didn't see the humor attack coming.          

Well, excuuuuuse me!

Weinkauf was outside the Grand Hyatt Washington in the production truck that day in 2009 when the chuckles started. The second or third time the crowd cracked up, "someone said, 'Dr. Bailly's gotten pretty funny. What's going on?' " he said.

"Paige alluded to something, but she still was kind of quiet," Weinkauf recalled. Later, Kimble 'fessed up.

She and her comedy crew had launched their sneak joke attack, reasoning that if the lines worked, great. If they were duds, no one need ever know humor had been added to the arsenal.

"I thought it was great," Weinkauf said. "It brought a lot of energy inside the ballroom."

But energy's one thing. Appropriate "Bee-tiquette" another. What if a dirty line soiled the squeaky-clean contest?

The seven words you can't say on TV

Very much unlike the list George Carlin used to rattle off in his famous "Filthy Words" routine, Bee jokes can't be ageist, sexist or racist. No potty humor. No sexual innuendo. No politics. No religion. No violence. (No soup for you, Andrew Dice Clay.)

Clean is good, says comedian Carol Leifer, who has written gags for everything from standup to the Academy Awards to ABC's "Modern Family." Clean has kept her in cash and corporate gigs. In fact, Clorox recently announced Leifer as spokeswoman. She'll pen its "Ick-tionary," a saucy glossary of spills and stains.

"If (comedy's) clever, it's clever," she said by phone from her home in Santa Monica. "I think it's good to go for the broadest audience possible."

And if there are duds along the way, so be it. Kimble says a handful of jokes fall flat each year.

Maybe that's not a reflection on the writers.

After watching an ESPN-provided highlights reel of hilarious Bee moments, Poundstone said, "I didn't think the jokes were brilliant by any stretch, but part of it might be that I didn't always understand the words."

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