The Spelling Bee, and What Happened There

Over the weekend, Keith, Dave and I made our way to Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica for 826LA‘s Spelling Bee for Cheaters! Thanks to your generous donations, we were able to raise over $1,700 for the tutoring center, and we learned that the entire event raised over $70,000 — 20K over their goal. Thrilling!

The judges of the bee were folks from the Broadway show The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and they styled the event to seem just like a traditional Scripps-Howard spelling bee that you might see obsessive kids win on PBS — with the exception that jokes were built into the format of the show. They advised each contestant to ask for a word’s definition and for it to be used in a sentence, and while the definition would be correct, the sentence would take the form of a joke. Here’s video of some of the celebrity contestants, if you’d like to see how it worked! They gave some of the celebrities deliberately easy words to advance them into the later rounds; the words for the regular contestants were quite difficult.

As I watched the other contestants compete, it was clear that this whole enterprise would be a gamble. I knew about one out of every eight words — oubliette, capybara, centavo and cystitis were some where I recall thinking “Dang, I wish I’d gotten that one” — but the rest of them were totally foreign to me. Luckily, our team had used the $1,700 we raised to buy cheats, including what basically amounted to a free pass to Round 2: a “Make Up Your Own Word” cheat.

Right before I was to go up, fellow contestant Jimmy Kimmel made a big show of tearing up his cheat coupons, proving that he was going it alone. When my turn came, I made a big show of gathering up his torn pieces and attempting to cash them in. It was no use! I was given a word so difficult that I didn’t even register it. I believe the definition indicated that it was an archaic term for a Siamese opium-den manservant, or something like that — I honestly could barely hear it (what with the echoey speakers) and knew at once that I would have to cash in the big cheat. I invented the word “blofax,” explaining that it was “a little-known spelling-bee rule wherein trophies are awarded to contestants based on handsomeness.” Fingers crossed! Thanks to the cheat, that word, as far as this bee was concerned anyway, was now canon.

Round Two went quicker, as most everyone had used a similar cheat in Round One and were now coming up empty. “Glee” star Dianna Agron (pictured above, in what is probably my first national-newswire editorial photo) was given the very difficult word “cow” in Round Two, but I was given a word in Yiddish that I had never heard before and probably had never met anyone who had ever heard it before. I am from California, you see.

I took a bold guess and ventured F-A-T-U-T-Z-E-D. It turned out to be FATOOTST. Ridiculous!

So, I was out. I sat back down in the audience with my teammates — I had been our team’s speller, and now that was it — and watched the rest of the bee. Ms. Agron performed respectably enough with the softballs that they threw her, and so lasted until a final face-off with a legitimate contestant who ended up taking home the grand prize (a giant dictionary signed by the celebrity participants). We had fun, got some cool McSweeney’s books to take home, and Dave & I even met a kind reader named Craig who recognized us in the audience. Hello, Craig!

Addendum: In preparing this post, I did an online search for photos of the event, and found that apparently people love this Dianna Agron. A million entertainment and gossip blogs reported on the spelling bee, and made much hay of Ms. Agron’s second-place win as an excuses to post picture after nearly-identical picture of her. This account in particular struck me as a bit funny:

Taking a break from work duties for a good cause, Dianna Agron partook in the “A Spelling Bee For Cheaters” benefit in Santa Monica, California on Saturday (August 14).

The “Glee” gal looked to be having a marvelous time as she greeted the kids at Lincoln Middle School while raising cash for the 826LA tutoring center.

Joining Dianna at the annual event were “The Office” actor John Krasinski, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers.

As for the fundraising, all money went to support 826LA’s free writing and tutoring programs for Los Angeles students.

In truth, there weren’t really any kids at the event, nor was John Krasinski there (he’d planned to be, but didn’t show up). Someone wrote an article from a press release!

Thanks again for your kind support of the cause, and if you’re interested in getting involved with 826′s tutoring programs, there are chapters in San Francisco, NYC, Chicago, LA, Boston, Michigan and Seattle. Update: And DC! I’m planning on volunteering this fall myself! I am also planning on building a snowmobile from old tin cans and motorcycle parts. Sometimes life involves a lot of varied, fundamentally incompatible plans. That is how progress is made.


  • Rachel

    Also D.C.! Thanks for the recap – it sounds like a good time was had by all.

  • Michael M. Butler

    The notion that there is a single correct spelling using Roman characters of any Yiddish word is, I think, narrischkeit.

  • Kristen

    I feel you need to know about this, if you don’t already:
    http://www.whisperingbeard.com/ (It’s about a folk festival, not a porn site, I swear.)