Ain’t That Right?

Ain’t That Right?

Gridiron takes its shot at pandemic, politics


“We decided that we would decide whether we wanted to do a video thing,” Katherine Shurlds begins of this year’s Gridiron performance. It’s a performance that almost didn’t happen and, in fact, still won’t in a way.

“It’s not really Gridiron,” insists Shurlds, a retired journalism professor and self-proclaimed “writer herder” for the production. “The essence of Gridiron is the live stage and the laughter and the contagion of the laughter, and the people who are being made fun of being in the audience.

“And the socialization. You’ve never been to play where the actors are in the lobby at the beginning of the play, at the intermission and at the end. It’s really just a big social event. This is not Gridiron; this is the best substitute we can do.”

Northwest Arkansas Gridiron fans will recognize most of the faces here. The Gridiron writers held their writing sessions over Zoom this year in preparation for a scaled-back, online Gridiron, premiering Oct. 11.
(Courtesy Photo)

A favorite tradition among journalists and comedy fans across the country, gridirons are sketch comedy shows poking satirical fun at local and national politics and culture all over the United States. The Northwest Arkansas Gridiron started in 1978, performed 13 seasons, took a 13-season hiatus, and has been back in action every year since their return in 2004. This will be the first time the show goes “virtual,” as the troupe is bringing forth a Gridiron month, releasing skits throughout October.

Six pieces spread over three weeks will see the return of many favorite characters and beloved segments. Rusty Turner, of course, makes an appearance as the “Tweeter in Chief;” Elmer and Titty have crossed into the digital world; and an abbreviated version of Timely News Update — a similar format to “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update segment — will close the 2020 Gridiron in its third week. Unfortunately, TNU’s resident health adviser Dr. Red Neck couldn’t make it this year, so he sent Dr. Red Fauci in his place.

“I hope people will have a good time with it,” says Ray Minor, an instructor with the UA School of Journalism and longtime Gridiron veteran. “We’re picking on a lot of local stuff, mostly, because that’s always one of the hallmarks of the shows. While we could easily do a show that’s three hours long just focusing on national politics, that’s not necessarily what people want to pay to go see. They want to see what’s our spin on the governor doing something, or the weirdness in Bethel Heights or wherever it is.”

Along with hopefully providing some much-needed laughs, Gridiron also serves another important function. The production is the only fundraiser for the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As the local chapter’s treasurer, Minor details that the money usually raised around the first weekend in October at the show’s debut enables the chapter to offer scholarships to UA journalism students, covers expenses in sending local members to national and regional conferences, and supports other journalism programs here and there when the Society can chip in.

“The Arkansas Soul program is a recruiting program that Niketa Read has started here at the journalism school where she reaches out to under-represented areas of Arkansas and tries to recruit minority students — mostly from eastern and southern Arkansas — to come to the University of Arkansas,” he explains. “She’s had some great success with it, and we’ve supported that.

“Also this past year, we’ve financially helped the website. We’re paying for some of the students to come in and upload data and get data to put onto that covid website.”

In Minor’s 12 years with the Northwest Arkansas Gridiron, the troupe has raised more than $15,000 for scholarships alone. While he and Shurlds both know they won’t be close to their usual revenue, with other expenses down — a virtual SPJ conference means no flight and hotel fees; a scaled down Gridiron means less money on props and costumes — Minor assures Gridiron and SPJ will still support local students.

Of course they’ll mention the pandemic! It — and the frustrations and disappointments it’s caused — are the whole theme of the 2020 Gridiron.
(Courtesy Photo)

“We know there is a huge need. There is a huge need for scholarships, especially when you’re looking at students who are returning students,” he shares. “We try to make it just a little bit easier for someone or someones if we can. And people who will support Gridiron and hit that donate button will go a long way to helping that out.

“No matter what, there will be a scholarship next year, and we will continue on, and we will figure out how to support students in the future.”


2020 Gridiron:


WHEN — Premiering Oct. 11; videos go up Oct. 11, Oct. 18 & Oct. 25

WHERE — Videos will remain online at least through the end of October

COST — Free to view; all donations support the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists


Categories: Cover Story