For about three minutes I watched the latest episode of the random game show, The Million Second Quiz. For a million dollars, I could not explain the rules of this show, which may be one of the reasons you may not have heard of it. But I think there's another problem with it, as well: We like game shows because we like to see smart people being smart. When smart people are thrust into stupid situations, we don't respond so well. Interestingly, its one of the few times when "schadenfreude" the German term for deriving pleasure out of another's misfortune doesn't wildly blossom.
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There's a wonderful history of game shows that test the knowledge of contestants. The $64,000 Questionwas an early player in the bucks-for-brains space. When it was learned that the show had manipulated the results, it became a national scandal. But it demonstrated that the public wants to see people being smart. The program was very no-nonsense: You either knew the answers, or you didn't.
One of my favorites, in the 50s and 60s, was What's My Line?. On this show, it was the recurring panel of Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen that got to show how bright they were. Their job was to ask yes/no questions in determining what the guests job was. Sometimes the contestants were famous, such as Elizabeth Taylor or Salvador Dali, so the panel wore blindfolds while the guest spoke in a disguised voice. The panel was so clever, so Algonquin Round Table-ish, and we loved imagining we went to the same parties and shared witty banter.
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My sister, who is one of the smartest people I know, was a contestant on Jeopardy!, and won her first days contest. She was creamed the next day, when many of the categories she faced were religious in nature. (Actually, the next day's episode was filmed on the same day. She had received instructions to bring a change of clothing, in the event she won.) A divinity student had more than good luck on his side that day. Jeopardy! has enjoyed enduring popularity, in large part because it is so straightforward: In providing the question to the answer given, you display that you are or aren't smart. Period.
Great cooks can make the simplest ingredients sing. Great athletes make the impossible seem simple. Talented singers and dancers barely raise a sweat as they set our spirits soaring. So it goes with watching smart people. It's hard to imagine Albert Einstein spinning a wheel, racing the clock or banging a buzzer as he completes the theory of relativity. Being smart can be lots of fun. It's just not a game.
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