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 –
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?”
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.