F-U-N: the DC Spelling Bee
The DCBee's organizers, Nick and Juhi (pictured) crack a lot of jokes. They modify existing example sentences for comic effect, and pronounce spelling words correctly about half the time. In between rounds, an eliminated speller gets out of his chair (a hot commodity in the cramped, packed theater) and takes drink orders from Nick and Juhi, the contestants, and anyone in the front few rows who offers up money for their drink. One of the final rounds was delayed because a speller was in the bathroom. "I have to pee," she announced right after her word, and hopped right off the stage to presumably do just that. A woman performed a well-rehearsed and FUNNY rap about the spelling bee... the crowd got right into the call-and response.
Narky naysayers and spelling bee highbrows might take umbrage at the relaxed goofing in the room, but this bee is about much more than spelling. It's about community -- celebrating the nerdy, the obsessive, the silly and the fun. It would be easy to dismiss the DCBee as an event for twenty and thirtysomething hipsters, although there were a number of fresh faces who showed up out of a love of spelling and language.
But look at who current hipsters are: they're culturally critical, savvy, intellectual people who like using their brains. Sure, the clothes can be obvious and the music pretentious -- but using you brain is FUN, and doing it around a bunch of friendly new people is even more fun.
One Belushi-built guy of Indian descent wore a massive pair of sunglasses a la Bobby Fischer in his heyday. He took a cocky stance, posing for photos onstage and frequently swigging from a beer. When one of the audience's hecklers nailed him, he dramatically removed his giant shades, saying "who said that!" to reveal another pair underneath.
There was an abundance of heckling at the Bee tonight, actually. Some of it was actually funny, but mostly it was an attempt to outshine the people in the spotlight. It's tough to pull off, and for every laugh a heckler gets five people quietly think he's an asshole.
Such was the case when one gentleman jumped up and shouted "I have a note to pass to the judges concerning the integrity of this competition." My friend Nate was on the mike at the time. Full disclosure: I was pulling for Nate pretty hard. I was actually holding flowers to throw at his feet when he got his next word right.
It seems that Nate spelled a word incorrectly, and the judges missed it. Fair game, I say -- when a ref misses a call, them's the breaks. These guys felt differently. They wanted to go so far as to have one of the evening's videographers run a tape back for proof. Nat got flustered. He's a shy man, and standing behind a mike under hot lights and spelling already had him at his threshold. This pushed him over.
Nate got his next word wrong on a clumsy flub, mistaking a critical 'c' for a commonplace 'k'. Everyone cheered for him anyway. Somebody shouted "Spell 'WHAT A BUNCH OF DICKHEADS" Nate!"
At another point in the show, a woman with pink streaks through her blond hair shouted "THIRD GRADE VOCAB!" right as a finalist was spelling. That finalist was none other than the eventual third place winner, Michelle Robison. Michelle stopped for a second, pulled it together, and got the word right anyway.
I asked Michelle how she felt about heckling.
"I know I had some hecklers. I just try not to listen to haters. I was just up there to spell... that's all I wanted. People just heckle because they are just mad they're not on stage anyway. Or they're drunk. Or both."
Ryan Kailath, the grand prize winner, was just there to spell, too. "I love spelling," he said. "I'm a big word nerd."
"I got into the Bee on a lightning round a few weeks ago," Kailath says. "I hadn't officially entered, but I just jumped up on stage and elbowed in. You had to have some kind of talent to share to participate in the lightning round, and I couldn't think of anything. Juhi made me take my shirt off. She said that would be enough for her. So I had only lived in DC for a month and I was standing there in a room full of strangers with my shirt off, and I got real, real nervous. I had been drinking. Then I spelled 'deciduous' wrong, but I got to stay in anyway. Now I'm here, and I won!"
Owls and Crows took the stage after the Bee closed and ripped it up with some dirty, loud classic rock. Man, I love that stuff. It's nothing new, and it's not technically difficult -- but it's like soul food -- it looks easy but it's hard to do just right.
So yeah: spelling, heckling, some loud rock music and home by twelve on a Monday night -- tell me, what's not awesome about that?