We’re Turning A Corner, And We’re Not Turning Bzzzzzzzzt

The radio gameshow Just a Minute has been running on the BBC for over 35 years. The premise is simplicity incarnate: guests must speak on a given subject for 60 seconds straight. The trick is that they must do so without “hesitation, repetition or deviation.” A buzzer sounds if a player stammers, stalls, starts reiterating or resorts to filler, and another contestant gets a crack at the topic.

It’s hard to even fathom how much better the Presidential Debates would be if they adopted this format.

For starters, the ban on repetition would pretty much obviate 90% of what Bush would otherwise say. Just imagine if he was limited to using each of his talking points one time only:

Moderator: The next topic is taxes. Mr. President?

Bush: In my first term, I had a choice: do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I give massive tax breaks to the wealthy? Faced with that choice, I will give tax –

Bzzzzzzzzt!

Moderator: I’m sorry, but you’ve used the ‘forget the lessons of September 11th slash take the word of a madman’ line seven times in the last 40 minutes. Would you like to try again?

Bush: Uh, “Stay the course?”

Bzzzzzzzzt!

Kerry, meanwhile, would have to choose his words carefully, so as to not run afoul of the “deviation” restriction. This would entail disabling his Random Prepositional Phrase Generator that tacks four qualifying clauses onto every declarative statement, to the point where figuring out what answer (if any) he has given is like trying to solve the “Cryptic Crossword” in the back of Harpers. (In fact, here’s a great line you Republicans can use: “Some have grave doubts about whether Kerry is qualified to serve as commander-in-chief. But though Kerry may not be well-qualified, at least all his statements are.” Admittedly, this joke might go over the heads of much of the electorate, but it will probably cause Republican and Uber-grammar-nerd William Safire to snort English Breakfast Tea out his nose, and that’s worth something.)

Best of all, every answer would be no longer than a minute, and the whole debate could be shoehorned into half an hour . Some might argue that 60 seconds isn’t nearly enough time for a presidential candidate to fully explicate his position on complex issues, but let’s be honest: if you strip all the unnecessary verbiage and prepackaged catchphrases away from a seven minute debate answer, you’re pretty much looking at a 13 second reply; add a requirement that they have to keep talking for 47 seconds more, without hesitation, and who knows? Maybe we’d actually learn something.

That’s why I think “Just a Minute” would be the perfect gameshow format for the debates. Either that or the show where the participants have to eat scorpions and centipedes.

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15 comments.

  1. Would probably get better ratings too. It would also allow bush less chance to say something stupid.

  2. You’re on to something… quick, call Mary Beth Cahill! :)

  3. I vote scorpions and centipedes. I don’t want a president who’d spend 10 minutes crying and blubbering on national television that he’s scaaaaaared of scorpions and centipedes.

  4. Why not combine the two and see how many scorpions and centipedes the candidate can eat in 60 seconds, without hesitation or deviation?

  5. How about a transparent bucket full of scorpions and centipedes, requiring each contestant to guess the number inside. He with the greatest misunderestimation eats the contents while outlining his 28 point plan for health care reform.

  6. That came from the BBC? Here in Chicago, the hip-hop station does it and calls it “Don’t Say Uh”–you have to talk for a minute, and you can’t pause or say “uh” or any of those other little verbal placeholders.

    I wouldn’t have expected a Brit import on 107.5, but that’s life for ya.

  7. If you took away Dubya’s 30 second pauses in between each sentence, and then took away repeated phrases, I don’t think he could come up with 60 seconds of material on any topic.

  8. Sir Clement Freud was an MP in Britain for three terms of government and now is a JAM pro. Perhaps he could make a run for parliament; under your stipulation, in his speeches, he would specify how his policies would have benefits for Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, …

    With his sufficiently slow delivery, he could almost certainly run out the shot clock before reaching those tricky “New” states.

  9. Abe Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth–”
    *BZZZZZZZZZZ*
    Paul Merton: “Oh, drat, I thought he said four.”

    Nicholas Parsons: “No, I’m sorry, that was not repetition. Abe, you get a point and you have 54 seconds left to dedicate Gettysburg Cemetery.

    Abe: “…on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or–”
    *BZZZZZZZZZZ*

  10. By the way, I’ve been listening to “Just A Minute” online for 2-3 seasons (er, series) now, and while it would certainly be illuminating to hear politicians talk like those folks, it’s more likely that they would engage in the common tactics of the panelists on the BBC show, namely listing, rambling in support of an innuendo or pun based on the topic, narrative rambling, or, and this isn’t really a tactic, freezing.

    It’s obvious that Kerry would excel at listing– he could, for example, list the positions he has taken on the given topic for 60 seconds, easily without repetition. He could also manage the innuendo method, since he’s perfectly comfortable ducking a question by explaining what Bush did wrong instead of what he would do right. Clearly the deviation rule is his foe.

    Bush, though, could have difficulty with those, so he should stick with narrative rambling, since he’s already a master of saying the same things in different ways. But I do see Bush getting slammed by the hesitation rule, but the judges are often tolerant to hesitating speech if it has the momentum to remove doubt that there’s another word coming. (As noted above, the absolute master of the slow delivery is Sir Clement Freud; he is also a champion lister.)

  11. look @ us, we’re all so COSMOPOLITAN!!

  12. Sounds like a great idea. Perhaps if offered in game show format, the “average voter” would actually tune in.

  13. actually, I would like to avoid hearing polititians speak at all. Who is up for a scorpian eating to determine who wins?

  14. would they get to compete for fabulous prizes?

  15. Maybe combine them so that when they fail, their punishment is bug/scorpion eating? I’d watch that!