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Birney Imes: Whad’ya know, Michael Feldman?


Birney Imes



One of the funniest guys you''re ever likely to meet is coming to Columbus Saturday. If you are a public radio listener who listens to Michael Feldman''s show, "Whad''Ya Know?" -- and more than a million people do each week -- you''re probably thinking you might want to stop reading this column right now and start figuring out how to get tickets. Never heard of the guy? Read on. 


Feldman may be the funniest and quickest wit on the airwaves today. A comic descendent of Groucho Marx, Feldman goes to his audience for material; and, like Groucho, he can turn a guest''s innocuous comment into something outlandish.  


Billed as a comedy quiz show, "Whad''Ya Know?" is a made-up-on-the-fly celebration of regional quirkiness. There are quizzes that team audience members with call-in guests from around the country, interviews with local characters, writers and musicians and a phone call to a randomly selected town of the week. Feldman''s self-depreciating humor is the oil that keeps this improbable contraption rolling down the track. 


Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau Director James Tsismanakis says CVB Board Vice-President David Sanders is responsible for the show coming here. "He''s a huge ''Whad''Ya Know?'' and ''Prairie Home Companion'' fan," said Tsismanakis. 


They wouldn''t talk with us for less than $40,000, Tsismanakis said of Garrison Keillor''s "A Prairie Home Companion." "Whad''Ya Know?," based in Madison, Wis., was more affordable. The show is Saturday, Dec. 12, in Rent Auditorium on the campus of Mississippi University for Women. Tickets are $25 and $40. The $40 ticket holders not only get good seats, they get an after-the-show visit with Feldman. 


"With 1.1 million listeners," says Tsismanakis, "and with all the advertising going on -- and considering the show is played twice -- this is going to be a big win for Columbus." 


On Tuesday I spoke with Feldman by phone. Here''s part of that conversation: 




So, Michael, I''ve never been to a live radio show. What am I going to see; what is the audience going to see? 


"They''ll see some fairly unattractive individuals on a stage going through the motions. In this case it''ll be me and Jim Packard, my announcer. And we have a band, not really a band; two people are not really a band, I don''t think. We will have a bunch of equipment, an applause sign, some sets." 




From listening to the show, I''m assuming you go out into the audience? 


"I have no routine. To my way of thinking, the audience brings the show. I just have to go out there and get it." 




You seem to have a knack for pulling interesting things from people and getting out of conversations that aren''t. 


"The radio thing is good because you can walk away from conversations that aren''t working, which you can''t do in real life. You can actually sift and winnow responses. That''s the show, sifting and winnowing." 




You''ve done shows in Jackson and Oxford. What impression did you get of Mississippi? 


"We did a show in Biloxi. I had a chorus girl sit on my lap and sing to me down there at the casino ... I''m not sure what the song was, maybe something from ''Funny Girl.'' That was nice. That was a good impression of Mississippi. 


"In Oxford we visited Faulkner''s digs, which was pretty nice. He had the same wallpaper my mother had. That was the most striking thing about Faulkner." 




So what are you like off stage? How would your wife and daughters describe you? 


"I''m never not in performance mode, so they don''t ever think I''m particularly funny or interesting and are surprised when someone thinks I might be. They''re way past used to it. My wife is always giving me the thumb across the throat sign, cut it off. 




Would you ever have imagined more than a million people listening to the show? 


"I still can''t imagine it, and I think it''s probably not true. You can''t think about that when you''re doing it. Having an audience makes it manageable." 




Have you ever been left speechless? 


"Yes, sure, periodically. How does that happen ... something ... Well, like now. 


"That''s the kind of thing the audience loves, any kind of discomfort. My first show I would talk about everything. A guy called in and said, ''You know, you really messed up and don''t have a grip on things. It''s great; don''t change.'' People love it. They love to see you twist." 




As they go about their lives Saturday morning, more than a million smiling Americans will be tuned in to a two-hour radio show broadcast from Columbus, Mississippi. You can join the fun by tuning in to your public radio station; better yet, go to the CVB''s Web site, order tickets and go twist with Michael Feldman.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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