Cheap but satisfying thrills in Madison

While you’re thinking deep thoughts, the rest of us are chattering about the little things that astound, arouse and annoy us. We linger at the local diner and babble around the bubbler, sharing obscure details about life as we know it.

Four years before “Seinfeld” showed us how a TV show can succeed by making something out of nothing, Wisconsin Public Radio began broadcasting “Whad’Ya Know?” from Madison. That was 23 years ago, and now the weekly show airs on 285 stations nationwide.

Host Michael Feldman’s listeners engage in trivial pursuits, share the “Seinfeld” moments of their own lives and twitter over the observations offered by others.

Attending a two-hour taping of the show on a Saturday morning in Madison is one of Wisconsin’s best cheap tickets. Your $5 includes coffee and fresh bakery. OK, so the doughnuts are sliced in half. If the economy worsens, Michael jokes that they’ll be served quartered.

“It’s either that or let Jim go, and I couldn’t bear that.” He is referring to his sidekick, announcer Jim Packard, whose distinguished tenure at WPR has involved many hats.

“Whad’Ya Know?” unfolds on a stage that seems like an eccentric uncle’s attic. Think pink flamingos, Uncle Sam, a plastic chicken, vinyl couch, old-time radio. We see Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” as a blow-up doll. A U.S. map has been cut up and rearranged.

The host’s opening monologue (“Google is cutting back … to Goo”) morphs into light banter about “The Invention of Air.” “Before this, it was very hard to breathe,” Michael quips, before connecting by phone with the book’s author, Steven Johnson, for an interview that blends gentle comedy with thoughtful inquiry.

“General knowledge” quizzes and excerpts from odd office memos make the time fly.
Musicians John Thulin and Jeff Hamann provide jazz, blues and occasional wisecracks while Michael reviews written questions from the audience, then widens the spotlight through audio.

“What’s the deal with my hair,” asks Vicky Jones of Madison, on paper. “It’s a bad hair decade,” she laments verbally, when pressed. “Parts are straight, parts are scary.” A baby cries, an aisle or two away. … “See what I mean?” she insists.

You wouldn’t think this bit would work on radio, but Michael knows where to take it.

“Did it just explode, or is this an ongoing problem,” he asks, later deadpanning, “This isn’t a makeover type of show” and “It’s a healthy head of hair … Stick things in it – sparkly things” and life will be good again.

The audience chuckles. It’s like overhearing a conversation at the next table in a restaurant.

We’re still eavesdropping a half-hour later, as Michael calls the owner of Feldman’s Wrong Way Diner in Canyon, Texas. “There is no Feldman here,” he is told. Never was.

The name refers to a barnstormer who appeared on “Gilligan’s Island,” the 1960s sitcom. On the diner’s Wall of Feldmans is a photo of the “Whad’Ya Know?” host, the real and wry deal.

“What’s your special,” Michael asks. “Chicken fried steak” is the reply, and the caller doesn’t miss a beat.

“You might want to add steak fried chicken,” he suggests, and fulfill the “wrong way” expectation.

For more: www.notmuch.com, 800-942-5669. Unable or unwilling to travel? Head to www.wpr.org or call 800-747-7444 to learn when the show can be heard in your area.

Taping of the “Whad’Ya Know?” radio show typically occurs during its live broadcast from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Check online to see where the show is being taped each week. When in Madison, the broadcast usually occurs at Monona Terrace Convention Center, 1 John Nolen Dr.

It’s smart to purchase tickets in advance; call 608-262-2201 or order online.

The road show schedule includes a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on Feb. 7 (tickets are $25, but $5 for UW-SP students); order online or call 715-346-4100 or 800-838-3378. Featured musical guest is L.J. Booth, a roots/folk musician who is from the area.

Five other delightfully inexpensive thrills in Madison:

Monday Burger Night at The Old Fashioned, 23 N. Pinckney St.: Buy one, get one free, but don’t expect fast-food prices. It’s $5.95 for the two. The menu at this busy but laid-back Capital Square restaurant celebrates the most distinctive Wisconsin-produced beverages, foods and culinary quirks: 7-ounce Seymour Bottling Co. sodas, Miesfeld’s Meat Market brats/salami, Green Bay Chili (served over spaghetti) and Lazy Susan appetizer assortments (pickled beets to braunschweiger). Even the ring bologna and macaroni/cheese arrive with a from-scratch flourish. www.theoldfashioned.com, 608-310-4545.

Henry Vilas Zoo, 702 S. Randall Ave.: New to the menagerie this month is Cyber, a sleek amur tiger (also called Siberian tiger), who weighs 450 pounds and is an endangered species. How rare? Try 450 (300 in the wild, 150 at zoos) worldwide. Also new to the zoo family: two wide-eyed meerkats. Zoo admission is free; donations are appreciated. www.vilaszoo.org, 608-266-4732.

UW Arboretum, 1207 Seminole Hwy.: Free nature walks, lectures, exhibits and volunteer work projects are ongoing on the 1,260 acres, which includes the world’s oldest restored prairie. Worth a drive, jog or hike. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing possible on about 20 miles of trails. www.uwarboretum.org, 608-263-7888.

State Capitol, 2 E. Main St.: Lessons in history and architecture await visitors to the state’s elegant hub of government, built in the early 1900s for $7.25 million. Free tours daily; reservations accepted for groups of 10 or more. www.wisconsin.gov (click “Visiting”), 608-266-0382.

Mad Rollin’ Dolls Roller Derby League: Home turf for eight all-woman, flat-track roller derby teams is the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way. The rough-and-tumble action, by scantily clad skaters (whose nicknames include Sour Kraut, Kit Shickers and Dolly Pardon Me), isn’t easily duplicated elsewhere in Wisconsin. Next bouts begin at 1 p.m. Feb. 1. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. www.madrollindolls.com, 608-271-6222.

For more about the area: www.visitmadison.com, 608-263-2400. An information center is at 21 N. Park St.