In a dark armpit of TV Land–13 minutes or so when we were done watching something we’d recorded and were waiting for our “news” fix–Kate and I happened upon “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” Kate then went back and recorded a full show, which we just watched. Wow.
Not that the show is unsophisticated. The kids who serve as the “classroom” for the dim-bulb adult contestants are quick, winning and photogenic as heck. The host, Jeff Foxworthy, probably doesn’t grow tiresome until the third or fourth viewing. And the contestants–the grown-ups who struggle with questions like “Which state is farthest west: Alaska, California, or Nevada?”–are clearly carefully chosen: they’re attractive, witty, emotive, willing to play along and show no shame that they can’t name the ocean that covers the North Pole and have to lean on their 11-year-old playing partners to keep going in the game. Also, we saw a total of three contestants, and they’re all Gen Xers or later. The show’s looking for a young audience, and it’s drawing players from the target age group; a balding slack-gutted Boomer know-it-all would be the last thing that would fly on this show, not that I’m thinking of trying to get on.
But even allowing for the careful sifting of players to find the perfect combination of empty-headedness, glibness and charming good looks, it’s still surprising to me how little the people we saw knew or were confident of knowing. The one who made the strongest impression not only blew the questions above, he was stumped by the true/false proposition, “The Earth is more than 50 million miles from the sun” and flummoxed when asked to take a 12-inch-by-12-inch square and come up with half its area in square inches (his answer: 24; he’s supposedly a building contractor). But since the fifth-graders helping the guy were actually pretty bright, he still walked away with $50,000.
You wonder whether something going on here–the comic spectacle of the good-natured dunce guffawing at his mistakes without embarrassment, the portrayal of ignorance as harmless and fun–explains something bigger happening in the country. Watch Letterman every night, and you get to see Bush mocked for his latest idiotic utterance. Bush and his guys have watched that mockery for years and cried their way all the way to the Oval Office. They figured out ages ago that most people will laugh along with you if you don’t pretend you’re a smart guy with all the answers; they’ll keep laughing long after the joke’s not funny anymore; they’ll give you a break when you screw up because after all, who could’ve known?