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Limerick Lesson by Philipp Goedicke

To work off the debts I've incurred,
I've picked up a gig that's absurd.
While interest accrues
I make limericks of news
And then I leave out the last - .

Word. Which is then up to the listener contestant to supply, in order to win the prestigious prize of Carl Kassel's voice on the outgoing message of the contestant's home answering machine.

I write the "Listener Limerick Challenge," a segment of NPR's weekly newsquiz, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! (Check local listings for times.) The Listener Limerick Challenge was invented by former Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! editor Leslie Fuller. I took over in May, 2000. So, let's see... a year and a half, fifty-two weeks in a year, once a week, give or take, round up for a leap year... Leslie owes me about 653 hours of sleep.

And no, unlike the winners on Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me, we don't have Carl's voice on our home answering machine. (We, like many parents, try to capture our baby's - sorry, toddler's - voice on the answering machine. "Try" being the operative word. "BEEP. Say hi. Madeleine. Say hi. Please. Say anything. BEEP." ... "T'phoam?")

Every Wednesday I receive three news stories by e-mail, and on Thursday I send in my limericks. The stories are "news" in a loose sense; the more newsy items are reserved for other segments of the show. I mean, I've never had to find words that rhyme with campaign finance reform. The kind of stories I'm asked to put in limerick form are ones dealing with, say, the discovery of the gene responsible for the urge to cough - or worse - during a silent formal event like a concert or a speech or a funeral. (For which I'd try to concoct a "heretic/tourettic" rhyme in the middle, end it with "cough," and perhaps have "scoff/put off" in the beginning. You get the idea.)

For each limerick that makes it on the air, I probably send in two or three. The limerick above, for example, wouldn't make it on the air, because, other than the rhyme, there is nothing in it to lead the listener to the missing "word." I might then go to the thesaurus and rewrite it like this:

I'll neologize the absurd
In terms of news-themes you'll have heard.
I could be sarcastic
And quite pleonastic;
Then list'ners can have the last - .

Because it's all about the listeners.

A caveat: When I (or the staff in general) say that the listener might not get something, we are by no means insulting your intelligence. Many people are far more nervous when they know they're on air than they had ever ventured to guess before they picked up the phone. I could write a limerick that goes:

Contestant, the last word is "word."
It's double-you, oh, are, dee: word.
It's "word." Are you ready?
Yes, "word." There, now. Steady.
That glorious word. Say it: - .

And still get the limerickus interruptus. "I'm sorry. Could I hear it again, please?"

It's just nerves. Usually the listener gets it on the next try.

So, dear listener, do you want to try one?

Here are some things to keep in mind. (Let's work with my hypothetical news story of scientists locating the gene that is responsible for irresistible urges at inopportune moments, such as coughing in moments of silence.) First, there are the formal matters to consider, the aabba rhyme scheme and the waltzy, anapestic rhythm with three stresses in lines 1, 2, and 5 and two stresses in lines 3 and 4. Considered 'em? Good.

We therefore need to find an appropriate "last word or phrase" to be missing from the limerick. The word itself should be funny, gettable, rhymeable, and suggestive of a funny situation in which to put Carl. "Cough" seems to work.

At this point I try to work out a tentative last line, like "I can't seem to hold back my (cough)."

Then we find some rhymes for our word. can be of help there. If all else fails, I make something up (which rarely works) or use a name (like Steffi Graf). (Creative hyphenation, like waff-/le, is too confusing.) Archaic words also often get rejected. "A habit that I'd like to doff," would probably not make it. "The conductor's adjusting his coif," would stay, though.

Next, we need to find some hints that lead to "cough." The scenario can be a hint, like a conductor addressing people in the audience. A scenario like that usually makes it funnier. The thesaurus helps, too. Playing with the thesaurus is my favorite part of writing the limericks, seeing what kinds of relationships the English language comes up with. It's as if the final word or phrase were a little plant that is stretching out its roots towards synonyms and its branches towards rhymes (or something like that). The thesaurus might give me "expectorate" which I might try to knead into an "expectorant silence" (which probably has too many syllables to squeeze into a limerick).

At this point I write a complete limerick. I try to put the strongest hint in the first line and the funnier or more creative hints in lines 3 and 4. Then I read over the limerick and realize that I've forgotten to let Carl speak in the first person. I forget every time. Really. So I rewrite, send it off, wait for a response, and more likely than not, rewrite again. Ready to try one on your own? Here's a story which ended up in the Listener Limerick Challenge.

(Keep in mind that they need to be clean. Not G, necessarily, but PG-13. Wait, Wait... is a family show)

Professor Claims Robin Hood Was Gay

Popular folk hero Robin Hood, who took from the rich and gave to the poor, was gay. So says Stephen Knight, professor for English literature at University of Cardiff in Wales.

• Read the story on

Read an article by Stephen Knight.

Here's what I came up with