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April 22, 2013

Monday's Child: Hangin' With Richard Sher of 'Says You!'

Sher2Well, I didn't exactly hang out with Richard Sher, host of the public-radio show "Says You!" But he and his cast of panelists were guests at a reception put on by Vermont Public Radio in Stowe last Saturday, and so was I. And though I'd had no idea what Sher looked like prior to this night, I recognized his voice immediately.

An interesting connection of dots happens when you meet someone you've known only through one modality, whether voice or written word (email, newspapers, books, etc). It's like little cognitive pieces fall into place, correcting misperceptions you didn't even know you had.

I'm not sure I'd given much thought to what Sher looked like, to be honest, but I've listened to him and his panelists many times — I'm often in my kitchen cooking dinner when VPR broadcasts his show on Sundays at 6. Sher has a slightly mournful, soulful face, with big, expressive eyes. (That's him in the photo here, with VPR president and CEO Robin Turnau). In person he's warm, down-to-earth, unpretentious and witty. As we were about to witness, he — and his panelists — are even funnier in action. Or what passes for action on the radio.

Sher and crew were in Stowe for a live taping of their show at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center. My friend and I arrived a tad late, having started the evening at an art opening down the road at the West Branch Gallery. After making our way from the bone-chillingly windy parking lot through the maze that is Spruce Peak, we got to the reception with enough time to down a glass of wine and a couple hors d'oeuvres, rub shoulders with some VPR peeps and meet Sher. Then it was time to retrace our steps back to the resort's beautiful theater (and if you haven't been there yet, check out the performing arts and film season here).

"Says You!" is a show about words — or, as its tag line helpfully specifies, "a game of words and whimsy, bluff and bluster" — played/performed before a live audience. From what I could glean on the "Says You!" website, it's taped about half the time at home in Boston and the other half at venues around the country. The nationally broadcast show has a lot of fans, including in Vermont: Saturday's event (which recorded two shows) at Stowe was sold out, as was the one in Bellows Falls on Sunday (ditto). My friend and I were lucky enough to get front-row seats, right next to VPR's Turnau.

"Says You!" has two teams of three people each who try to figure out the "definition and derivation" of words presented by Sher, and stump each other in a variety of other linguistic head-scratchers. Of course the panelists, all of them longtime veterans of the show, are vying for laughs as much as for points. And in person, it must be said, the crew is even funnier than what you hear on-air.

In part that's because bloopers, which can be hilarious, get edited out; and in part it's because the visual elements missing on the radio — facial expressions, gestures, the interactions of the panelists, and Sher's with the audience — further escalate what we humans consider humorous.

Actually, the in-person experience gave me new respect for an audio engineer's challenge: making the show entertaining and lively for listeners at home, without benefit of visuals or the collective energy of "being there."

If you're a regular listener of "Says You!" you'll likely recognize the names of the panelists we witnessed on Saturday night, sitting at a long table, as Sher put it, "stereo left" and "stereo right": Carolyn Faye Fox, Arnie Reisman, Paula Lyons, Tony Kahn, Francine Achbar and Barry Nolan. You can read their bios here. (Reisman and Lyons are husband and wife, and the quick-witted duo were like an older version of Andy and Meredith Gordon of Burlington's Potato Sack Pants Theater.) One of the young scorekeepers was Benjamin Sher, Richard's son and the voice you hear in the show's sign-off.

"Says You!" also features interludes of live music while the panelists are thinking up their definitions. At Stowe on Saturday night, the instrumental tunes were courtesy of a talented pair who call themselves the International Guitar Duo of Loren and Mark. That's Loren Barrigar and Mark Mazengarb —from upstate New York and New Zealand, respectively — and their nimble picking was an unexpected delight in a highly entertaining show.

Not surprisingly, there were some smartypants audience members apparently on the edge of their seats and ready to call out definitions to arcane words or phrases — but not until asked by Sher, of course. And I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they didn't discreetly consult Mr. Google. All in all, it just warms my heart to know so many people care about words.

In other public-radio news, Vermonters will have a couple more opportunities this year to see what their favorite, normally unseen casts look like.

"Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" is coming — in a live staging simulcast on cinema screens — on Thursday, May 2, 8 p.m., to Brattleboro's Latchis Theatre, Middlebury's Town Hall TheaterCatamount Arts in St. Johnsbury and at Palace 9 in South Burlington (encore May 7). Check websites for prices and to buy tix. The Metropolitan Opera screenings, which launched this whole HD phenom, might have suggested the broadcasts would always be highbrow, but no!

Last but certainly not least, Garrison Keillor returns to Vermont with his "A Prairie Home Companion" show — in the flesh! — on Wednesday, July 31, at the Ben & Jerry's Concerts on the Green in Shelburne, courtesy of Higher Ground.

 "Monday's Child" contemplates events, people, places or things experienced over the weekend past.


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