As it turned out, Sameer Mishra provided more than just comic relief at the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee. He ended up winning the title.
The 13-year-old from West Lafayette, Ind., who often had the audience laughing with his one-line commentaries was all business when he aced "guerdon" -- a word that appropriately means "something that one has earned or gained" -- to win the 81st version of the bee Friday night.
"I don't know about comedy lines, but my parents have been telling me since the beginning that I should always stay calm, cool and collected," said Sameer, who likes playing the violin and video games, and hopes one day to be a neurosurgeon.
Sameer, appearing in the bee for the fourth time and a top 20 finisher the last two years, clenched both fists and put his hands to his face after spelling the winning word. He won a tense duel over first-time participant Sidharth Chand, 12, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who finally stumbled on "prosopopoeia," a word describing a type of figure of speech.
Sameer was a crowd favorite throughout the tournament. When told one of his words in the semifinals was a dessert, he deadpanned: "That sounds good right now." He rolled his eyes and muttered "wonderful" when told that one of his words had five different language roots. He once asked "Are you sure there are no alternate pronunciations?" and later uttered "That's a relief" after initially mishearing the word "numnah" (a type of sheepskin pad).
And what did he have to say while hoisting the heavy trophy? "I'm really, really weak."
Sameer is coached by his sister, Shruti, a high school senior and three-time spelling bee competitor. The first-place finish won him $35,000 in cash and more than $5,000 in other prizes.
Third place went to Tia Thomas, 13, from Coarsegold, Calif., who was eliminated on "opificer" (a skilled or artistic worker). She started the word with an "e" instead of an "o" and received a standing ovation and a hug from her mother. Tia was one of the favorites, appearing in her fifth and final bee after an eighth-place finish a year ago.
The finals were aired live in prime time on ABC, and it appeared for a while that the broadcast could run late into the night. Twenty-four of the first 25 words were spelled correctly, with the dictionary-familiar competitors breezing through words such as "brankursine," "cryptarithm," and "empyrean" with barely a hitch.
Rose Sloan was so familiar with "alcarraza" (a type of jug) that the 13-year-old from River Forest, Ill., couldn't stop laughing in glee when pronouncer Jacques Bailly uttered it. She was later eliminated on "sheitel" (a wig worn by Jewish women).
Austin Pineda, 14, of Perris, Calif., was the only early casualty, putting an extra "l" in "tralatitious" (handed down) as he nervously twirled his bangs with his index finger.
It was somewhat surprising who didn't make the finals. There were no Canadians -- and no Matthew Evans.
Matthew, also a favorite to win in his fifth and final appearance, was stunningly eliminated during the semifinal round Friday when he misspelled "secernent," a word dealing with secretion and one that somehow eluded him as he studied his personal 30,000-word list. He ended it with "-ant."
When the 13-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., heard the bell, he slumped his shoulders, lowered his head and slowly walked offstage, a rare standing ovation echoing behind him. He stayed in the comfort room for more than a half-hour, and his eyes were still red when he emerged.
"It's disappointing," said Matthew, choking back tears. "I know a lot of people were rooting for me."
All seven representatives from Canada were vanquished in a span of about 20-minutes in the first semifinal round. No Canadian has ever won the bee, but the country always fields a strong contingent. Nate Gartke of Alberta was last year's runner-up.
"Seven up, seven down," said Pam Penny of Ancaster, Ontario, whose daughter, 10-year-old Veronica, was eliminated on the French-rooted word "DetagGere." "Very disappointing. Especially for Canadians to go down on French words."
Among the spectators was 94-year-old Frank Neuhauser, the winner of the first national bee in 1925. Asked to spell his winning word from 83 years ago, Neuhauser rattled off the letters to "gladiolus" as if he were racing through his ABCs.
"It's an easy word," said Neuhauser, who attracted a long line of teen and preteen autograph-seekers. "Nobody could miss it, but the second (-place) girl did."
Neuhauser's prize was $500 in $20 gold pieces. He also was feted with a parade through his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
"It was a lot easier back then," Neuhauser told the audience. "There were only eight competitors instead of 288. I'd never make it now."
The 288 spellers that entered this year's bee was a record. Forty-five of them made it past the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds Thursday to compete on Friday.