Back in 2008, when poets Shanny Jean Maney and Robbie Q. Telfer were spitballing about the creation of a live-lit show, they turned to an expansive source of inspiration: the encyclopedia. Starting with the topic “bears,” they assigned subtopics to writers, comedians, and musicians to build a live encyclopedia entry. After five years in Chicago, the Encyclopedia Show is down to its final two entries before the big book closes for good.
The show’s success, oddly, is one reason Maney and Telfer decided to end its run. “If people aren’t mad at each other and you still feel good about the thing you’re doing, then you should stop,” Maney says. “It could end sadly, then this thing that we spent five years of our lives pouring energy into would always be a stain in our memories instead of this wonderful time.”
“You look at Michael Jordan’s basketball career and you remember that he played for the Washington Wizards for a while,” Telfer says. “We want to go out on top.”
While aspects of the show have been tweaked throughout its run—in the early days, topic assignments were sent out as notarized snail-mail letters marked with the show’s seal—it has always balanced humor with the seriousness of academia. A fact-checker keeps track of “truths” and “untruths” during each presentation, and the two hosts must become impromptu experts on everything from mythical beasts to Alan Turing, the British mathematician.
“In general, we don’t like to pick the topics that are the cool kids,” Telfer says. “We did a show on vice presidents instead of presidents. We did a show on Mesopotamia instead of ancient Greece or Egypt. We did a show on Wyoming as opposed to the 49 other states.” The hosts recall the somber topics “hell” and “funeral” being two of the most fun shows, while “units of measurement” was unexpectedly depressing.
Over the years, producers across the country have adopted the Encyclopedia Show—by Telfer’s count four or five are still going strong—with each regional iteration following topic by topic in the footsteps of the Chicago show. That means that there have been more than 20 shows about bears, each wildly different. For a writer in Vancouver, the subtopic “pizzly bear” (a polar-grizzly hybrid) served as a jumping-off point for an essay about global warming; in Saint Paul, it inspired a piece about interracial love that became one of Telfer’s Encyclopedia Show favorites.
“It’s awesome to know that these topics are interesting,” says Telfer, “but they’re only given life through what the artist brings to it.”
For those who want to revisit each Chicago Encyclopedia Show entry, an archive lives online through WBEZ’s now defunct Chicago Amplified program, which recorded every show up until this final season. Maney and Telfer are keeping the details of the final show secret, but this week Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Lowe is the second-to-last entry.
“The only unpublished rule about the show is that we don’t want any assholes involved,” Maney says. “We stayed true to that.”