Conversation: Arnie Reisman and Paula Lyons

 
The couple at home in Vineyard Haven.

Now we can talk about it.

Interview by Jack Shea

Much is made of their couplehood. Arnie Reisman is a Jewish kid from Chicago (and Colorado), and Paula Lyons is from a Boston Irish Catholic tribe. They agree, 33 years after their marriage, that not one of their mutual friends at Channel Five in Boston, where they met as co-workers, would ever have put them together.

Their vitae are extensive: Paula Lyons has been a teacher, a big-city planner, a television consumer reporter in Boston and for Good Morning America in New York. She most recently has completed 10 years as an executive coach for Fortune 500 clients. She has written passionately about the state of media and its cultural effects for the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Mr. Reisman started as a print journalist, and moved into radio, TV, and film (acting, directing, and producing). He recently added playwright and poet (and Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate) to his résumé. In June the Vineyard Playhouse premiered Mr. Reisman’s new play, Not Constantinople. In July, his first book of poetry, Clara Bow Died for Our Sins, was published.

Both Reisman and Lyons have been mainstays on Says You!, a wacky national radio quiz show slated for its 20th season. Billed as “a game of bluff and bluster, words and whimsy,” the show is still in production, despite the death of Richard Sher, the show’s host and creator, in February.

On two occasions, Jack Shea sat down with the couple. Here are excerpts from those conversations.

Jack Shea: Reinvention seems to be a hallmark characteristic for both of you. How hard is it to do?

Arnie Reisman: This Island is the home of reinvention. You’re either from here or you’re reinvented.

Paula Lyons: I don’t look at anything I did as a reinvention, except for the very last step.

Arnie: That’s not true. You didn’t start out with a goal of being a journalist.

Paula: Well, true. I never imagined a career as a woman in television journalism, but in 1973 when I came back after two years in Argentina … women were everywhere. And I said [patting the table for emphasis], “I. Want. To. Do. That.” It took me five years to get in, and I had other jobs — you have to eat — but I knew with absolute certainty that I could do it. Consumer reporting was a marriage of teaching and public service; it just clicked. Working as an executive coach for 10 years with Suzanne Bates was the reinvention.

I stopped coaching last November. I am someone who has longed for retirement. I’ve joined the Island Community Chorus — singing is my first love — and we do board work with the Community Playhouse, which is a very busy operation right now. I read, go to the gym, and mess with the house. I like this. All is well.

Arnie: [grinning] Look, she’s leaning in: “What’s he gonna say today?” Brain surgeon, that’s what I am. Taking a correspondence course right now [chuckles]. But I’ve never believed life was about what you did. Life is about who you are. So I’ve reinvented myself all along …

Paula: And because you got bored easily.

Jack: Arnie, let’s review — newspapers, TV, radio, plays, film, online commentator. What are the commonalities and differences?

Paula: We think it’s all linked by words.

Arnie: Yeah, we do this dog and pony show about that connection. We go out and talk to groups together.

Paula: It’s called a “A Life in Words.”

Arnie: And essentially, that’s what it is. For my personality, I think the bottom line is Says You!, the radio show that we’ve been doing for 20 years on NPR. It allows me to be me without having to spend the time writing.

Richard [Sher, the longtime producer of the show] died in February, and it still feels devastating. We can’t believe he is gone. Paula and I had a deep, 20-year personal and professional relationship with him. He is missed. Laura [Mr. Sher’s widow, and show producer] wants to continue Says You! We have taped new shows with Barry Nolan, a panelist and TV broadcaster, as host, and virtually all of the 100-plus stations have assured Laura they want to continue to air it.

I have a head full of garbage, so the show works on a quiz-show level for me. But beyond that, I drink a lotta coffee before I go on, which tends to jazz me up.

Paula: And you have a photographic memory, which is perfect for a quiz show.

Jack: But live performances today are scripted down to the last wardrobe malfunction. How do you pull off Says Who! without scripting?

Arnie: There’s no rehearsal; we just walk onstage. We can’t rehearse. And since we’re paid so little, we don’t want to put too much work into it. Richard wanted to recreate dinners and gatherings at his home that gave him the idea for the show.

Paula: That he had seen at his own house. You can’t rehearse it. He wanted to recreate a sense of a cocktail party. The cast is Mensa. You cannot believe the stuff that Barry Nolan knows.

Arnie: Time magazine called it “parties for smarties.” A lot of Boston people are panelists. Tony Kahn, Jimmy Tingle, and Fletcher “Flash” Wiley, a summer Vineyard guy, are panelists sometimes. Richard was hoping for chemistry. His only instructions were, “Please don’t leave any pause pregnant. Say something.” He comes up with the greatest questions, and words you want to know more about. He’s banking on the hope we’ll get half of them right. You don’t have to know the answer. You have to like the answer.

Jack: You’ve been married for 32 years in a business where marriages are measured in nanoseconds. How did that happen?

Paula: Laughter. I have laughed every day.

Arnie: Now we can talk about it. That started on date number … three? We were at the Hampshire House, and she ordered a Rusty Nail, which she’s never ordered since. A Rusty Nail is a drink, to me, when you think you haven’t had enough scotch, you have more scotch. The waitress asked me, and I said, “I’ll have a tetanus shot.” That’s when she started laughing.

Paula: Oh my God, I’ve been laughing ever since. But we came from similar families, even though he’s an only child and I’m one of nine. Our parents had the same values and got along tremendously. They modeled great love and respect for each other.

Arnie: We are able to work in the same office in the house. People come in and say, “You work in the same office?”

Paula: He’s art, I’m commerce. We’re very even-keeled with each other. When we were dating, people used to say we were too nice. He doesn’t like it that I don’t have a photographic memory (“What do you mean you don’t know where you put your keys?”). But, oh well.

Arnie: She can keep calling me “Lenny” if she wants to. [More laughter, lots more]

Jack: You are bright, fun, engaging people. But Paula, you’ve written for ethics symposia, and Arnie, you’re a vice president of ACLU. What’s that about?

Paula: We are amazed that young people are not marching in the streets with the ease of our lives contrasted with theirs. Robert Kuttner wrote a piece for American Prospects magazine. He said he didn’t understand these young people. That when he went to college, tuition was affordable. He graduated with no debt. Got his first job, and ever since he’s had full benefits, health insurance, pension, Social Security to come. He bought a house, and will retire comfortably, he said. I don’t see this happening for young kids. I was reading this guy and thinking “I agree, I agree.” There are economic issues, but this is bad politics, bad policy that we’ve allowed to happen. Gridlock, anger, extreme partisanship, compromises to weakness. You know, maybe we were raised in a postwar 25-year bubble when everything was great. So we think the state of the country is very bad, but the state of Martha’s Vineyard is lovely. It’s nice to be here.

Arnie: The Massachusetts ACLU put me on their board about 10 years ago. I run their annual fundraising dinner. And like Paula says, we’ve pretty much given up on the two-party political system. At least the ACLU is dealing with some of these issues, like immigrants or people who are gay who’ve been screwed up by the system and a whole lot of other issues that I don’t disagree with them on.

Paula: I’ve heard futurists like Mary O’Hara-Devereaux describe this as a completely understandable 25-year period of “disruptive innovation” that is unlike any period in human history since the Middle Ages.

Arnie: That doesn’t seem to include government.

Paula: Well, it does in the sense that, around the world, all the systems we’ve relied on are failing — government, education, health care, religion, social safety nets. And it’s not just in the United States but in countries all around the world. The thinking is that the millennials hold the keys to the solution, and when we come out the other side, she believes in 2025, it will all be so new, we won’t recognize what we have become.

Arnie Reisman will be part of a panel about “Writing for Laughs,” along with Fred Barron, Jenny Allen, and Nancy Slonim Aronie, at Islanders Write on Monday, August 10. For more information: mvartsandideas.com/islanderswrite.

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