Like any institution with a tradition, the Northwest Arkansas Gridiron Show has built up a surfeit of terminology that only makes sense to the initiated. Below, the Gridiron writers offer a few explanations of words, phrases and characters that have become part of our vocabulary.
“And that’s all the time we have” – Surprisingly, one of the most difficult parts of writing a sketch is to find a way to end the sketch. For any sketch using a television show as the vehicle, the simplest ending became: “And that’s all the time we have. Tune in tomorrow when we [fill in the blank].” Monty Python’s Flying Circus was famous for trying to avoid a punchline ending for their sketches and their first movie offered inspiration for another oft-used way to get off stage: “Run away. Run away!”
Brother Billy Bob – In the mid-1980s during a surge in the political influence of the Moral Majority, writer and actor Mike Gauldin created a character named Brother Billy Bob and his Bible Bonanza of Brentwood. The brother expounded on the virtues of vice and the righteousness of indignation, frequently reciting verses from the book of Adverbs, verily, and handing down the acts of Nahun the Vegemite.
closing song – After the final sketch, the cast sings a closing song rewritten from the song “Oklahoma.” It was used in one of the very early shows and retained since. Only one piece of it changes each year, which is enough to throw singers for a loop every time. One of the last lines chastens the audience: “We’re watching you waste our money: Legislature, school board, U of A, ——, quorum court! Next year!” The dashes get traded out for a new culprit each year. Originally, the closing song wasn’t a closing song and may have actually been an opening song. That version started: “Journalism, as we rake muck, rewrite and retract. We twist the news, inject our views, and we don’t get tripped up by the facts!” See opening song.
cold open – Just like Saturday Night Live, the Gridiron Show begins without any setup by the emcee, an opening referred to as a “cold open.” Because the show is written by journalists, our cold open is very often set in a newsroom or at a news conference to lament the current state of the Fourth Estate or simply to make fun of it. By necessity it’s also written in such a manner that the entire cast ends up on stage for the opening song. See opening song.
Crock, Johann Sebastian – During the early years of the Northwest Arkansas Gridiron, a reporter and columnist named Guy Barnes brought to life one of the fictional characters from his own Springdale News column, “Barnestorming.” The character was a slightly tipsy and frequently irreverent visitor to the Springdale Jail and known as Johann Sebastian Crock. Guy covered Springdale City Hall and city police, so he never lacked material.
Elvis and Elton – The NWA Gridiron Show was produced at the old Fayetteville Elks Lodge in 1990, the show that Gridiron writers hoped would be produced in the new Walton Arts Center. Unfortunately, the center wasn’t yet open, so the show was staged in the lodge’s large meeting hall, which wasn’t really designed for a theatrical show. Among other minor issues, the stuffed heads of two very large elk hung on opposite sides of the hall near the front edge of the stage. We considered asking the Elks Lodge to take them down during the show but instead incorporated them into the show with speaking parts for Elton and Elvis, as we named them, giving them their own turn in the spotlight.
emcee – Each year, the Gridiron Show prevails upon a well-known person from the region to serve as the emcee for the show. Mayors, professors, civic leaders and university chancellors have taken a turn as the Gridiron emcee and have generally escaped with their dignity. Generally.
gridiron – Although the word is most associated with a football field or rugby pitch today, it started out as a description of a series of bars over which fish or meat could be grilled on an open flame. In 1885, the Washington Gridiron Club was formed to produce a show that would grill politicians. Journalist organizations across the United States perform similar gridirons today. The Northwest Arkansas Gridiron began in 1978, performed 13 seasons, went into hiatus for 13 seasons and has been performed annually since 2004.
Gridiron Liberation Army – The Gridiron Liberation Army was established in the 1980s along the lines of the Symbionese Liberation Army, but in this case, cast members in ski masks occasionally hijacked a script that was particularly dull. As with the SLA and Patty Hearst, the GLA faded into history as the writing got better.
Leko – In the 1930s, a spotlight was developed and brand-named as Lekolite. It became the dominant spotlight used in traditional theatrical venues, but Gridiron has never understood traditional theatre. The writers didn’t know a Leko from taco. One year a local journalist joined the troupe to offer stage direction and, as she let us know, she was “of the theatre.” It was not a good match, but we didn’t really recognize the issue until she started yelling from the top of a ladder about “lekos” and their lousy placement. In some measure, the Lekos became a metaphor for us, the actors, because we never seemed to enter or exit or simply be where we were supposed to be, according to the theatre person. So to join Lekos with another person’s name today is about as strong an epithet as we can deliver.
Macadoodles – This beer and wine shop began business just over the Missouri state line and quickly became a favorite of anyone living in Benton County, which was “dry” at the time and didn’t allow liquor sales. The name itself was funny, so it soon became a reference in every year’s show, occasionally taking center stage such as the year that Gridiron writers allowed Macadoodles to start selling medicinal marijuana.
Meyers, Col. William – During the 1980s, the Republican party in Washington County had only a smattering of members and very few candidates for elective office. Col. Bill Meyers, a Republican, became a perennial candidate for office, unsuccessful each election cycle until he ran for coroner. His chief recognizable accouterments were very loud ties, which became a Gridiron tradition during the 1980s whenever an actor was called upon to portray the colorful Col. Meyers.
Neck, Dr. Red – As part of the Timely News Update, a character was introduced to provide news of medical discoveries. The character of Dr. Red Neck was based on a real TV doctor, Dr. “Red” Duke, a trauma surgeon from Houston who became nationally popular during the 1980s for his reports on medical research. Steve Voorhies has played the part of Dr. Red Neck with similar Texas panache, pontificating on the latest medical discoveries, even if they only exist in his head.
opening song – Traditionally, the cold opening sketch ends with an opening song, usually a recognizable Broadway melody until we rewrite it to fit the exigencies of the day. The only difficulty is finding a sufficiently upbeat tune within a melodic range that the whole cast can sing and a lyric that allows “the Gridiron Show” to fit snugly within the tempo and cadence. So, impossible. Nevertheless, we keep at it. The Bugs Bunny Theme was perhaps our greatest opening song, replacing “On with the show, this is it” with “The Gridiron Show, this is it?” See closing song.
running gags – The term “running gag” is usually used to refer to a gag that recurs within a performance — such as the gag one year in which a surveyor repeatedly walked on stage to let the emcee, Rogers Mayor Greg Hines, know that Bentonville was annexing more and more of the Rogers Victory Theatre into the Bentonville city limits. Gridiron has taken it a step further by using some gags in repeated seasons. See Col. William Meyers, Dick Trammel, Macadoodles and Who Sat in the Tree.
shepherds – The quick turn-around between each sketch doesn’t give actors much time to make costume changes. So we assign a “shepherd” to each sketch who has the responsibility of making sure all the participants in a sketch are actually ready. The shepherd then informs our stage manager of the same who notifies the tech manager to be ready for light cues.
stage Arkansas, stage Texas – Because most of the Gridiron performers haven’t had a lick of theatre training, they don’t know whether “stage right” refers to the audience’s right, the actor’s right or some unforeseen Constitutional right. In rehearsals for a sketch one year about immigrants coming to the Arkansas border at Texarkana (these were Texans seeking to enter the University of Arkansas), one of the border officers, played by Flip Putthoff, kept trying to exit on his last line toward the Texas side of the stage. Rusty Turner, directing the stage rehearsals, said: “No, Flip, you need to exit stage left.” Flip Putthoff and the rest of the cast on stage looked at Rusty like he was speaking Russian. “Go back toward Arkansas, Flip. Go back toward the Arkansas side of the stage.” And now the Gridiron players enter and exit stage Arkansas or stage Texas. Unless they enter at center of curtain — the state line, of course.
Stufflebeam, Elmer and Letitia Mae – The Stufflebeams, Gridiron’s version of American Gothic, presented clear-eyed commentary annually on matters both trivial and extraordinary, from Jesse Jackson’s run for president in the 1980s — “We found out he’s not one of us. … He’s a Baptist!” — to climate change in 2017 — “Mother Nature appears to be going through the change.” Columnist Brenda Blagg played Letitia Mae and came up with the Ozarkian malapropisms, double-entendres and portmanteaus that husband Elmer could only dream about repeating. Reporter and editor Rusty Garrett played Elmer for close to 20 years, and then Steve Voorhies provided the straight lines for the taciturn Elmer for another ten. Occasional stand-ins have included Mike Gauldin as Elmer’s Cajun cousin, Boudreaux, and Natalia Pizarro as Letitia’s alter ego south of the border, Tia Lupe. Ain’t that right, Elmer? That’s right.
talking dogs – The Gridiron writers try to ground most sketches in some level of reality. During one writing session, though, we created a sketch with several dogs talking about a particular plight related to animals. Later during the same session, a draft for a political sketch drew sharp debate about some anomaly in the writing that didn’t jibe with reality. At some point, though, one of the writers suggested that reality wasn’t necessarily necessary, after all we had just written a sketch about talking dogs. Since then, “talking dogs” has lived on as a shortcut to challenge any instance in which we become too attached to the seriousness of reality.
theater – The Gridiron Show has been performed in five different venues. Its first show was in the old Springdale Rodeo Community Center, which was near what is now the north end of the Springdale Airport runway. The show moved to the Arts Center of the Ozarks in downtown Springdale for nearly a decade. The show then moved to the “new” Rodeo Community Center just east of the rodeo arena for a year. The last venue during the Gridiron Classical Period was the old Fayetteville Elks Lodge on Zion Road. Since the Gridiron was rejuvenated in 2004, the show has been performed at the Victory Theater, first under operation by Rogers Little Theater and now managed by Arkansas Public Theatre.
Timely News Update – Just after intermission each show, the first sketch in the second act is a news show with two anchors and a surfeit of twisted news. The Timely News Update, sometimes shortened to “TNU,” was based on the recurring and long-running Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. Dave Edmark has nearly always been one of the co-hosts for the show. Peggy Trieber, Stacey Roberts and Antoinette Grajeda are among the women who have served as a co-anchor. Dr. Red Neck, played by Steve Voorhies, also appears during each news segment with a medical update. See Dr. Red Neck.
Trammel, Dick – During the first decade of the 21st century, we annually looked for a way to poke fun at Dick Trammel, one of the most vocal supporters of Benton County and the region in general. The joke, of course, was that he was so involved in the community that he seemed to be everywhere all the time. He appeared at countless fundraisers, civic events and cultural festivals, and inevitably ended up with his picture in the society section of the newspaper on a frequent basis. Why, he even emceed the Gridiron one year. There should be some kind of drinking game connected to that.
Who Sat in the Tree? – When Bill Clinton first ran for office in 1974 and challenged incumbent Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt for the 3rd District Congressional seat, a spurious rumor arose that Clinton had protested the Vietnam War by sitting in a tree on the University of Arkansas campus. Someone had protested the war by sitting in the tree outside Memorial Hall, the student union, but it had not been Clinton. He had been away at Oxford. Nevertheless, whenever a skit involved Clinton, the Gridiron writers had a tough time passing up a joke at his expense about sitting in the tree. The joke reach its zenith in 1985 when a whole sketch — a court case to determine who sat in the tree — was built around the gag, featuring Judge Thomas Butt and evidence in the form of a poster-sized derrierre print instead of a fingerprint.