Richard Sher, 66; created and hosted radio quiz show
A decade into hosting the radio quiz show “Says You!” that he created, Richard Sher reached the point where he figured he could start making the questions more difficult, and that’s saying something.
Mr. Sher, who died Monday at 66, turned the lightning wit of living room repartee among sharp-minded friends into a weekly show that has aired on more than 100 stations across the country. A sort of Trivial Pursuit on intellectual steroids, the show features categories such as “cryptic puns” and “odd man out” and word play that could swiftly send a hand from head-scratching to thigh-slapping.
“People used to say, ‘Gee the show is hard.’ But it’s not important to know the answers,” he told the Globe in 2006. “You just have to like the answers.”
Dedicated fans across the country liked Mr. Sher, too. An affable host, he presided over a seeming anarchy of zingers and one-liners. He assembled a panel of six Boston media figures more than 18 years ago, and though there have been guests and substitutes, the original panelists have remained since the first shows were taped on WGBH-FM in early 1997, a rare longevity in any broadcast endeavor.
Mr. Sher, who lived in Weston, recorded his final shows as host at the beginning of January. Since July he had been responding to treatment for advanced colon cancer but was diagnosed with leptomeningitis in his final weeks. He died in Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
His creativity and humor were “matched by his intelligence and spirit,” Jonathan Abbott, WGBH’s chief executive, said in an e-mail.
Mr. Sher, Abbott said, “shaped the program with his talent for words and puzzles and understood that audiences would be engaged by out-loud problem solving. He made ‘Says You!’ a distinctive, inviting, and enduring celebration of curiosity.”
Preparing most of the questions, sometimes working late into the night before shows were taped before live audiences in Boston or in venues across the country, Mr. Sher crafted specific questions for each panelist.
“There was something about him that always reminded me of a Catskills comedian,” said panelist Arnie Reisman, a TV writer and producer. “He was a great coach, and he just really understood what everybody was waiting for.”
Still, Mr. Sher counted on panelists to rise to the occasion during questions rife with wordplay or during the popular bluffing rounds, when one three-panelist team challenged the other to figure out which of three improbable stories was true. “Richard was really depending on the fact that we would never leave any pause pregnant,” Reisman said.
Listeners might get the impression that the panelists were walking Wikipedias, but that wasn’t the case, said former TV consumer reporter Paula Lyons, a panelist who is married to Reisman. On one vacation, the couple tried to play trivia at a bar and fared poorly. “That’s when we realized that Richard tailored questions to the strengths of each of us,” she said. “He was far more of a directing genius than we knew.”
Mr. Sher “really orchestrated the chemistry among all of us. It was extraordinary,” said Carolyn Faye Fox, a panelist and contributing editor to The Improper Bostonian. “He would encourage us and he really loved off-the-wall answers, too.”
When “pirates” was a category in one show, Mr. Sher “told Carolyn that her answer was wrong,” Lyons recalled, “and then Carolyn, who is a punster extraordinaire, said, ‘Oh, I don’t believe my buccaneers.’ I thought Richard was going to collapse on the stage at that moment. He laughed so long and so hard.”
Born in Easton, Pa., Mr. Sher was the only child of Albert and Jeanne Sher, who ran a toy store. “He was a Jewish boy who grew up with Christmas as the essential focus in his life,” said his wife, Laura Price Sher.
“As an only child,” she added, “Richard truly collected people. Other people collected stamps. Richard collected people.”
Mr. Sher stayed in touch with friends from all points in life, whether they were children he walked to school with in kindergarten or college fraternity brothers. He also had a remarkable memory for names and birthdays. “He’d get up and almost every morning there was a birthday call he had to make,” she said. “It was never written down. It was in that head.”
His mother, who was a contract player in bridge games, used to gather children from the neighborhood on the back steps of the family’s house and quiz them, Laura said, turning answering questions into a game and the act of learning “into a sheer pleasure.”
Mr. Sher, who graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., became a certified optician and was working in that field when he got a master’s from the Boston University College of Communication.
He worked as a producer on Boston TV shows such as “Chronicle” and “Evening Magazine,” through which he became friends with future “Says You!” panelists. Mr. Sher also was president of a marketing and development company when he began to be disillusioned in the late-1990s by the trends in television toward violence-based shows.
“I said, ‘What did you love doing before you did “Evening Magazine,” before you did segments on “Chronicle”? ’ He said, ‘I loved doing radio,’ so I said, ‘Well, do radio,’ ” his wife recalled.
They were married in 1996, the year Mr. Sher put together “Says You!” Their son, Ben, grew up as part of the show, serving occasionally as scorekeeper and doing voice-overs.
Mr. Sher was devoted to his son, driving him to school and attending every event possible. When work took him out of town, his wife said, he would pause the taping to take phone calls with results of his son’s sports contests.
With an eye toward producing shows with lasting appeal, even in repeats, Mr. Sher carefully edited out topical references. And while scheduled shows in Vermont have been postponed, Laura said “Says You!” plans to continue. “This truly is an ensemble,” said Laura, a program producer for the show. “While Richard has been the lead in that, this is an ensemble strong enough to go on.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Sher, who leaves his wife and son.
“He was just a unique genius in a very quirky way. He had a kind of very special personal relationship with all of us,” said panelist Francine Achbar, who has been a TV writer, producer, and executive.
“He was a mensch,” said Tony Kahn, former host of the radio news program “The World,” who also wrote in a tribute that Mr. Sher “believed that the best jokes were the ones you minted that moment.”
On air, Mr. Sher once asked Kahn to define the difference between lurid and tawdry. “About $25,” Kahn answered.
Other shows featured questions such as “What are you if you are blissfully or mollusktorially content?” The answer: happy as a clam.
“The whole point of the show is that it doesn’t matter how hard a question is,” Mr. Sher told the Globe in 2006. “The whole point is that you’ll slap your thigh and say, ‘Oh I could’ve gotten that!’ ”