1/3: Asbury Park, Where Game Shows Live

Eyes on the prize: Ball-tumbler belle Sarah Potter shows off some of the swingles-scene swag awarded during Sex Toy Bingo, the latest edition of which returns to Asbury Lanes on Thursday, January 5.

We don’t mean to alarm you, but…

Game show hosts! They walk among us.

Not that you’re in any imminent danger of an awkward Dunkin Moment with Wink Martindale — it’s just that after too long ceding the spotlight to other, more “talented” performers or “serious” artists, the aspiring quizmasters/ mistresses of the land are finally finding a forum in which to hone their sweet science of reading from index cards, accepting jellyfish kisses from stay-at-home moms, and pointing at washer/dryer combos.

It’s true that hopeful young actors have always enjoyed access to such ladder-of-success opportunities as community theater, uber-indie film and endless auditions. Musicians can ply their craft in every cafe corner that can accommodate a barstool; poets and proseurs can workshop their wares in a live slam setting, and budding stand-up comics can be every bit as substance abusing and self-loathing as their big-league counterparts at any restaurant lounge or Open Mic that’ll have ’em.

But game show hosts? It’s not like there was an established circuit of “game bars” to gig around at; no summertime busking for vowels on boardwalks and boulevards; no amateur productions of I’ve Got a Secret or Tic Tac Dough to cut one’s teeth on. Until now, that is — here in Asbury Park (a place, we have it on good authority, Where Music Lives), a small but almost subterraneously thriving scene is beginning to take root and prosper; spearheaded by a surprise weekly hit (Tuesday Night Trivia at the Brickwall Tavern) and a couple of occasionally appearing live attractions at Asbury Lanes. When we found out that one of them was called Sex Toy Bingo, upperWETside decided to investigate.

Jim Norton and DJ Values are the tag-team hosts of the occasionally appearing BACHELORS & BACHELORETTES, while Gentleman Jim does weeknight-warrior duty as host of Tuesday Night Trivia at Asbury’s Brickwall Tavern.

As it turns out, the Lanes — that tenpins taproom turned atom-age alterna-artitorium and kitschy-cool cultural cornucopia — has much to do with this scene, not the least of which is the recurring figure of Gentleman Jim Norton (not this Norton, but the funny one).

If you’ve dwelled anywhere on the fringes of the regional band/ club/ concert sleazescape at any time within the past quarter century, you stand a good chance of having encountered Jim Norton as charter member of some near-legendary underground bands (Shock Mommies and the straight-edge parodists and provocateurs Crucial Youth); as a globetrotting veteran tour crew guy for some fairly famous acts (stories, he’s got stories), and as the sourpuss Lanes soundman who prefers that the huddled masses maintain at least one pierogi-length distance from his Cold War era sound board. You may even know him as a suburban family guy and recovering insurance salesman — but if you’ve clubbed your way around the Cookman Ave corridor on an otherwise drab pre-humpnight in the offseason, you know Norton as the self-described “emcee, scorekeeper, off-the-cuff insult comic and Ombudsman” of the Brickwall’s increasingly popular Trivia trip.

Every Tuesday evening, beginning in the minutes leading up to 8pm, Norton presides over a full house of some 100 contestants — about half of which are “diehards who are here every week,” and all of which are a hell of a lot more people than most bands could guarantee — for seven rounds of questions, divided up into such categories as sports, entertainment, history and geography.

The participants are themselves broken down into teams (numbering anywhere from one to 15 people and beyond), with 10 points awarded for each correct answer, and the grand first and second prizes taking the form of $15 and $25 gift certificates to the Brickwall (precisely how to divvy up those 15 dollars 12 ways is entirely at the pleasure of the championship team). As the host suggests, however, it’s not the potential ownership of one third of one mozzarella stick that keeps ’em coming back for more.

“People are here to have a good time, eat dinner and drink beer,” says Norton, who estimates five or six members as the “ideal” size for a successful team. “The bar is here to sell beer — and I get to play God for a little bit.”

Although we’ve yet to score a gif’ certif’, we’ve taken part in several Tuesday night tourneys ourselves — sometimes solo, sometimes with a hastily assembled team (last time out, a tablemate’s surprising knowledge of basketball complemented our own mastery of the hits of 1982) — and we can attest to the fact that, despite the emcee’s occasional wisecracks and discretionary awarding of bonus points, this is a real contest, with some real hard questions.

“We try to do it a little differently than other places that have tried this sort of thing,” says Norton of the events for which participants are advised to put aside at least two and a half hours. “People seem to like it, but honestly I never set out to be some sort of live game show host — it sort of found me.”

Accordin’ ta Norton, Brickwall’s Kelly Victor, who established the Trivia promotion in September of 2010 (and who culls each week’s questions from a variety of sources), sought out his services as host on the basis of his stints as co-host of a little thing called Bachelors and Bachelorettes (formerly the Asbury Lanes Dating Game).

“My name immediately came to mind as someone who’s a ham,” Gentleman Jim observes. “It’s a personality trait that others have apparently seen in me.”

Norton, who credits Lanes den mother Juicy Jenn Hampton and Mike Lawrence for the concept of Bachelors and Bachelorettes — a property which of course bears no resemblance to a vintage TV game show created by a certain still-living legend who is also reportedly a trained CIA assassin — describes B&B as “something that was born more out of inspiration than desperation — and more of a crutch  on which to hang some smartass humor.”

“Our mandate with Bachelors is not to play matchmaker, it’s to put on a show,” the emcee says of the irregularly scheduled entertainment for which he’s joined by DJ Values. “I don’t know if we’ve ever actually had anyone go on a real date after 7 or 8 rounds of doing this, which is too bad because there are real prizes being awarded.”

Characterized as a “great equalizer,” B&B is actually more of a totally topsy turvy inversion of conventional wisdom and objective reality — a Bizarro dimension in which Lanes regular (and Tiny Tim-alike) Austin can be chosen by a comely bachelorette over a field of school jocks and strapping tradesmen. Lording over it all (and finding some extraordinary opportunities for scathing put-downs) is Norton, who offers that “the ones who look the best when we interview them beforehand turn out to be the biggest stiffs when they get on stage — and a lot of the laughs have to come at their expense.”

While there are no Bachelors events currently scheduled, there IS Bingo to be had in Asbury Park — no surprise in a town with umpteen churches and a VFW post that boasts one supercool vintage electric scoreboard. In fact, there’s such a thing as Rock and Roll Bingo, a Thursday night fixture over at Johnny Mac House of Spirits on Main Street. But if you’re in the market for the kind of cheap and nasty night out that would have curled your grandmother’s wighat, roll it over to the center Lanes on January 5, for the latest edition of an offering that could ONLY be called Sex Toy Bingo.

Brought to the Lanes by Juicy Jenn (are we sensing a pattern here? The woman’s a Buddhist bombshell Merv Griffin); and presided over by Lanes platterpuss (and Asbury Music Award winner) DJ Jack the Ripper with Improv Jamster James “Cucumber” Weir, STB boasts a couple of secret weapons — sex toys for prizes, and the always glamorous presence of Sarah Potter, ball-tumbler belle and vivacious Vanna-be of the monthly events.

“That’s an accurate description of what I do,” says the art dealer/ band booker/ unofficial greeter in reference to the Vanna White thing. “I took performance art in college, and it’s fun being on this side of the stage…plus I love any chance to wear sparkly hot pants.”

Make no mistake, this is real Bingo here; utilizing the wire-globe basket of numbered balls, and those cool cards with the see-thru red discs that flip over the called-out numbers. It’s just that instead of a dusty food basket or a carton of Chesterfields the prizes run toward molded plastic genitalia, vibrators, stimulating lotions and candybar massagers with names like BetterFinger and Crotch Bar.

The prizes, it turns out, are lovingly selected from a trusted source — East Coast News, a Hightstown-based distributor of “antiques, souvenirs and novelties” that gave the Lanes crew an exclusive tour of their warehouse.

“It’s like going to Sam’s Club,” says Sarah. “We have an awesome sales rep named Eileen, who helps us do our shopping.”

About “90 to 100” generally attend the Thursday Bingo brouhahas — again, better than a lot of bands are drawing these days — and since being introduced in spring of 2011, STB has helped provide some stability on what had been a problematic night of the week.

“We’ll be experimenting with the idea,” offer Sarah. “For instance, February’s night might be on a Sunday — and we’re definitely taking this thing on the road. We should have an official announcement very soon about our first Bingo event at a Philadelphia venue.”

“We also just upgraded our equipment,” she adds — a statement that would surely excite faithful followers of Sex Toy Bingo, even if it does refer to an all new “fancy wire cage” from which numbers are picked.

“And if anyone ever wants to donate a giant wire cage filled with plastic balls, I promise that I will personally climb into it to pick the numbers.”

Doors open at 8pm on Thursday for Sex Toy Bingo, with $10 getting you 10 cards to play. Recommended sign-in time for Tuesday Trivia at the Brickwall (be prepared to brainstorm a name for your team) is 7:50pm, with the pulse-pounding action getting underway at approximately 8:05. There’s no cover to participate, but be kind to your servers and at least sympathetic to Gentleman Jim, who muses “I haven’t yet plumbed the lowest depths of show business.”

“I remain open and available to any and all ideas — in fact, just to put it all into perspective, anytime I’ve ever driven past a guy in a Cluck U chicken costume, or a Lady Liberty outside some tax preparer’s office, I found myself thinking I could do that better.”

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