Larry is a phone salesman; heï¿½s the kind of responsible American man that is ï¿½able to support [his] wife to stay at home and raise [his] children.ï¿½ Heï¿½s been dying to get his hands on the camouflage Lambourgini of his dreams. But Larryï¿½s not going to get that Lambourgini without the help of a cabal of fifth graders. Thatï¿½s because heï¿½s on Foxï¿½s Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, the gameshow that tests the knowledge of an ordinary citizen on information taken from elementary school textbooks. The good people at Fox have found a great way to give that sadist Rupert Murdoch his giggles
The showï¿½s premise is deceptively simple: an adult contestant must answer ten elementary school-level questions in the core subjects (math, social science, art, health, earth science, reading, and of course astronomy). The ten-year-olds stand at adjacent podia, answering the same questions and keeping their answers hidden. The children are called upon when questions like ï¿½How many teaspoons are there in five tablespoons?ï¿½ challenge the confidence of the adults; they seek help from their prepubescent comrades with a variety of ï¿½cheatï¿½ mechanisms that function ï¿½ la ï¿½lifelines.ï¿½ One of the contestants has the option to ï¿½copyï¿½ the fifth graderï¿½s answer. This basically means that the contestant will get the answer correct. The adults are aware of this guarantee, because never in the three-episode history of the gameshow has one of the fifth grade participants gotten an answer wrong. Ever. The other ï¿½cheatï¿½ is the option to ï¿½peekï¿½ at the choice fifth graderï¿½s response; the adult then has the option of changing her answer after having seen the response of someone that, in the words of the host, ï¿½has to raise her hand to go to the bathroom.ï¿½ She always ends up taking the kidï¿½s answer; never in the three-episode history of the show has a contestant contradicted the fifth grader. Ever. They continue, not at all shamed, oblivious to the loss of their dignity because of the $1,000 dollars won. Seriously, though, the fifth graders might as well be replaced with robots, except that robots donï¿½t pick their noses.
What happened? Why do the bigwigs at Fox think that the viewing public prefers programming that highlights its contestantsï¿½ idiocy rather than their intellect? Itï¿½s probably got something to do with the fact that the premiere of this gameshow garnered 34 million viewers; people really, really like to see contestants look like dumbasses. Really. What happened to the apple pie and baseball gameshows of yore? What happened to shows that challenged contestants to show the audience just how smart they are? We would rather skip the whole ï¿½show us your stuffï¿½ element and jump right to the dialectically sound scenario of ï¿½we already know youï¿½re stupid; now we just want to laugh at you.ï¿½
We should have seen this coming. Whereas the first trivia shows celebrated and put on display the talent and ingenuity of their contestants, shows like The Weakest Link and American Idol then moved on to captivate their audiences by beginning their contests with a period in which the dumb or untalented were weeded out to the jeers and laughter of the audience. Eventually, those shows sought to reward the intelligence or talent of their contestants, but the premiere of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? marks the next step in this progression: the focus has now entirely shifted to making a spectacle of incompetence. Assuming that producers design these trivia shows to accommodate viewer preferences, we must ask ourselves: have our underlying consumer tastes changed fundamentally? Essentially, no.
What we are instead experiencing is heightened perception on the part of producers. Theyï¿½ve realized that the viewer is concerned with neither ingenuity nor stupidity; instead, they watch these trivia programs to derive validation from both.
Jeopardy puts their contestants on a pedestal; viewers glean a sense of validation only in those instances in which they get a question right that the contestants got wrong. The producers of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? have realized that one can maximize these opportunities for validation by airing a show that uplifts its viewers with every question. The contestants are in a dilemma with each and every bit of trivia (which color do you get when you mix red and yellow?), and regardless of their elementary level, viewers derive validation simply from being better than the victim/contestant. The contestants tell themselves that itï¿½s worth it because they might win a million dollars. Itï¿½s like a group of buddies telling
the tag-along that theyï¿½ll pay him $20 to pee on himself. The contestants seem to think that theyï¿½re getting the good end of the bargain. The joke is on them.
And on top of all of this, Jeff Foxworthy is the host. Thatï¿½s right; the guy that made his comedy career by pointing out rednecks to themselves. We donï¿½t think that the Fox network could have chosen a more worthy complement to the showï¿½s ideology. At this point, the network execs are not even worried about criticism of their obvious pandering, because we are too busy laughing at Lakeisha as she gets kicked off the show for saying that Mexicoï¿½s border with the United States is longer than Canadaï¿½s (ï¿½Well, thereï¿½s been a lot of hoopla about this whole immigration thing with Mexico ,ï¿½ she says in leaving).
Are You Smarter then a Fifth Grader? is just the latest example of the decision that the exploding industry of mockery has made: theyï¿½re going to stop pretending. They are not going to waste time putting on even a single display worthy of praise. Theyï¿½re just going to show Larry walking off the program because he canï¿½t decide whether 70% or 90% of the earthï¿½s surface is covered with water. So who wins in this money versus dignity battle? As Larry makes clear, ï¿½I am not smarter than a fifth grader, but I just won a hundred grand!ï¿½