With the recent announcement that a third Shonda Rhimes show, “How To Get Away With Murder,” will be added to ABC’s roster, joining the ranks of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” one might wonder whether producer/writer/director Rhimes has any free time, and if so, what she does with it.
On May 29, the answer might surprise you.
That’s right. The queen of primetime scripted television loves to nerd out over this quirky live broadcast.
In the condensed interview below, Rhimes discusses the importance of celebrating intelligence, and the key to successful reality television.
When did you start watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee?
I’ve been watching the bee forever. Way back when it was first on ESPN, is when I first started watching. I’ve been watching FOREVER. I’m a nerd that way, but I was very into it and a bee nerd in school.
Our school didn’t participate in the Scripps Bee, but starting with the 5th, 6th grade I was very into competing.
What is the attraction for you, being so well-known and respected for scripted TV, what is it about this quirky live broadcast?
I think for me the excitement or the interest is that it feels like one of the few times on a big scale we are celebrating smart. We are making stars out of people because they are brainiacs, not athletic or pretty.
I can’t stand reality television that doesn’t have to do with a person’s ability. I think the reason American Idol is so successful is because it does deal with that.
The bee is also very particular, there’s a tyranny and an aspect of competition. In our world, everyone gets a trophy, and at the bee, only one person gets a trophy.
In speaking with spellers for this year’s bee and past participants, one thing they all have in common is that they spend a lot of free time reading, and crave that escape into new worlds.
Since you essentially create new worlds for a living, do you think you might be drawn to the bee in a kindred spirit kind of way? Do these kids remind you of a preadolescent you?
They definitely remind me of me.
I grew up in Illinois, in the suburbs of Chicago, but really I grew up everywhere. I grew up in books, I spent all my time reading.
My idea of rebellion was, when my parents, who were academics, would tell me to go outside and socialize and get some fresh air, I would tuck a book down the back of my pants, and go to the backyard and start reading again. I’m definitely one of those kids.
How many years have you been live-blogging the bee? Do you plan to live-blog the bee again this year?
I’ve been doing it at A List Of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago since I started blogging it. I was working from home as a screenwriter, and the others on the blog were at their day jobs, and I offered to blog the day sessions, and loved doing it.
It makes the bee a little bit of work for me, which makes it exciting. I get to look up the spellers, look at the rules and get to do a little research, which I enjoy.
I will be blogging the bee this year, and I will definitely be watching.
Would you ever consider writing a former spelling bee champ into one of your shows? The kids often go on to become doctors and lawyers… “Scandal” is set in Washington, D.C., the bee is in D.C.
We did an episode on “Grey’s Anatomy” about a little boy who was about to be in the national spelling bee and was having awake brain surgery. They had him spell during his surgery to make sure everything was OK.
That was my one little celebration of the bee so far.
Are any of your existing characters former national spelling bee champs, and if so, who? Maybe Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington on “Scandal”)?
It’s not impossible. It’s entirely possible and very true.
That makes complete sense in terms of who her character is. That she was awkward and nerdy before she blossomed, and would have loved the precision and method of it.
What word would you love to see asked in the bee?
I always love when they give the words that are hard to spell. I feel like the cultural words are hard to spell, for example the ones of Yiddish origin. You can always tell who’s been studying the roots and who is completely thrown by these words they might not be familiar with.
What word that you’ve created would you not like to be used as a bee word?
"Vajayjay" is the only one that’s made it into the dictionary. I definitely don’t want to see kids spelling that word on live TV.
Do you have bee-watching parties?
Sometimes. I will admit that there are some days its just me. Sometimes its me, my daughter who is 11, and my nephews. I’ve also invited friends over to watch the bee. Sometimes I blog the bee from work, if I’m on the lot.
When I’ve blogged from work, I would show up in sweatpants, T-shirt, slippers and my big mug of coffee.
It becomes this thing where people would be making fun of me at the beginning of the day, then at the end of the day my office is packed and people are watching it like it was the biggest boxing match ever.
Have you converted any friends into bee fans?
The kinds of people I’m friends with are the kind of people that would like the Bee.
When I first started watching the bee, I was connecting with my younger self and it really reminded me of that competition, and had that feeling of the bloodsport of the competition. Now, it’s so fun to watch with your kid. As we all become moms and dads, I feel the parents so much more when watching the bee now. Watching with my daughter is so lovely, she gets to hang out with a big nerd like me.
One day, I would definitely like to come to watch it all live, beginning to end. When I’m not making a bunch of TV shows.
The 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee will take place on May 27, 28 and 29 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
Preliminary rounds will air on ESPN3 at 8 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday. The semifinals will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Thursday at 10 a.m., and the championship finals will be broadcast live on ESPN on Thursday at 8 p.m.