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Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Neal Justin Column: ‘Dance’ Judge is a Real Scream

August 6, 2008

By Neal Justin, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

Aug. 7–LOS ANGELES — When a winner is crowned tonight on the season finale of “So You Think You Can Dance,” he or she may celebrate by leaping into the air, executing a triple flip with a French twist, all while peeling a banana. But even that stunt would pale in comparison to the series’ most jaw-dropping spectacle: Mary Murphy’s shriek.

I’m certain there are fans of the show who tune in every week to discover who has the fanciest footwork, but I’m equally convinced there’s a legion of us out there who watch only to see if Murphy’s voice, which sounds like Katharine Hepburn raised on Mississippi moonshine, will finally shatter the camera lenses and cause dogs nationwide to commit mass hara-kiri.

Entertainment Weekly recently hauled a decibel meter to the “Dance” set and measured Murphy’s lung power, concluding that she’s louder than the sound of a jet plane leaving the runway. Executive producer and fellow judge Nigel Lythgoe, no wallflower himself, jokes that he always seats Murphy on the side of his deaf ear.

He understands that she’s a polarizing figure — and that’s just the way he likes it.

There are “too many bland people on television,” he said, “so having somebody you really like or really hate is important.”

Murphy, a former ballroom-dance champ from Ohio, says there’s a method to her madness.

“I don’t go around screaming every single day, but for dancers, I’ve always had enthusiasm,” said Murphy, who has been with the show from the onset, but became a permanent judge last season.

“Everybody has their method of teaching,” Murphy said. That was always mine. I would be jumping up and down like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit during a lesson, even with professional dancers. It cracks them up; it gives them a second or two of relief.”

“Relief” is not the first word that comes to mind when I hear Murphy let loose. I finally know how Kramer felt on “Seinfeld” when the sound of Mary Hart’s voice sent him into convulsions. But Murphy insists that she had rabid fans worldwide, particularly in Australia, where a version of the series attracts a whopping 56 share of viewers. (Note: Aussies drink. A lot.)

“Overseas, it’s just crazy,” she said. “In Scandinavia, the kids are screaming my name and I turn around and say, ‘What are you yelling about?’ It’s new to me. In Australia, one dancer said, ‘I don’t care that I got kicked off the show. All I care is that Mary Murphy loved me.’ That really makes my day, makes my year.”

OK, OK. So maybe I’m being a little insensitive about her, um, passion. But can we all agree that her best-known catchphrase is 10 times more grating than “You’re fired” or “The tribe has spoken”?

“Hot tamale train” sounds like it should be associated with a taboo sexual act in Guadalajara. Instead, it’s become Murphy’s signal that a performer has what it takes to get to the top.

“It just flew out of my mouth one day,” she said. “It usually comes after one of the hot and fiery dances. When there’s a dance that is absolutely moving to me, it’s very difficult for me to go, ‘Oh, you’re on the hot tamale train,’ because I’m really touched and usually just about in tears, so there are a lot more performers out there who deserve to be on it.”

I’m sure a lot of people would kill to be on board that trip. Me? I’ll wait for the next connection.

njustin@startribune.com –612-673-7431

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE

When: 7 p.m. today. –Where: KMSP, Ch. 9.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

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