05/24/2004 12:00AM

Servis again has right answers


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - John Servis did something last Friday that took more guts than all the Kentucky Derbies in the world. He taped a segment of the National Public Radio show called "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" And he was an absolute star.

"Wait Wait . . ." is not to be confused with the usual round of sports talk fare and early morning chat to which Servis has been relentlessly subjected, ever since Smarty Jones became America's most treasured four-legged artifact. A sports nut like Servis can do shows with Jim Rome, Superfan, and Tom Arnold on "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" in his sleep. He knows the lingo. He follows his teams, and he bleeds when they lose, just like any fan. A darn shame, by the way, about those Flyers.

As a result, Servis has acquired a following that makes the tale of Smarty Jones all the more accessible to general fans. His face is already familiar on the screens of neighborhood sports bars. Now, with his mastery of NPR, he will also be fending off intellectual groupies from the highbrow world of "Car Talk" and "A Prairie Home Companion."

For those who have better things to do with their Saturday mornings, "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" is a Chicago-based current events quiz show with a celebrity panel and guests, moderated by Peter Sagal and flavored by the venerable news voice of NPR, Carl Kasell. The prize for outstanding achievement on "Wait Wait . . ." is Carl Kasell's voice on your answering machine.

Servis appeared on a segment called "Not My Job," which seems designed either to either embarrass otherwise accomplished guests from a variety of disciplines, or to prove how cute the "Wait Wait . . ." writers can be. Just to provide some context, Gene Simmons of Kiss once failed to provide a single correct answer. But at least he was a good sport about it.

During a brief Q&A before the quiz, Servis boiled down the job of a trainer and explained why Smarty Jones was different from other young horses.

"Does Smarty Jones have a personality?" wondered Sagal.

"Absolutely," Servis replied. "He's cocky. A little bit like a Muhammed Ali type of guy."

"He can rhyme?" asked an amazed Sagal.

"He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee," Servis shot back. "He'll kick you, bite you, but he'll never really hurt you. It's almost like he's letting you know, 'You were mine if I wanted you.' "

The panelists on this particular show included Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post Style section, actor Adam Felber, and author Roy Blount Jr. Roberts went "Yayyyy!" when Servis was introduced. Felber asked if the horse was getting more demanding about things in his dressing room. Blount got Servis to explain the derivation of the Derby winner's name.

Then it was on to the quiz, which had nothing to do with horse racing and everything to do with, ugh, cicadas. Servis said he was ready.

Sagal: "Must be a little odd for you to be competing yourself, as opposed to standing on the track and rooting for Smarty Jones."

Servis: "I can tell you I'm not 3-5 like he was."

Sagal: "Would it help if we had a small man stand on your back and hit you?"

Servis later confessed to making calculated guesses based on the theory that the most preposterous answer is many times also the correct answer. For example, the question about ideas for enterprising uses to which the bounty of ugly bugs could be put turned out to be, c) a restaurant in the Washington, D.C., Ritz Carlton offering pan-fried cicadas in white wine sauce.

"Cicadas with white wine?" Blount scoffed. "No, no, no."

"More like a nice merlot," Servis added.

Blount is a peerless humorist who has been compared to Mark Twain and Ring Lardner (although Roy would wonder how someone could be both peerless and compared to anyone at all). Blount was also the only guy on the show who could have held forth on horse racing without notes, although he had the class not to show off. In 1959, the year John Servis was born, Roy Blount Jr. received the Grantland Rice Scholarship for hopeful young sportswriters, sponsored by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations.

Anyway, Servis got the first question wrong, but the next two right, which meant that "Wait Wait . . ." listener Kevin Kelch, a professor of communication and rhetoric at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., won Carl Kasell's voice on his answering machine, thanks to the trainer of Smarty Jones.

"Oh, did America need that!" cried out Felder.

"Nice and clear on that answering machine now, Carl," Servis said.

It was a great 11 minutes of silly radio, all the more satisfying because Servis was treated as a respected pro with a job that mattered, rather than a refugee from some kind of arcane sideshow, which is where horse racing usually exists. For a moment, racing almost was made to seem mainstream. Even the host was apologetic about his lack of horse racing knowledge, yet anxious to learn - because of Servis and Smarty Jones.