- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

At the turn-of-the-century height of its popularity, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was considered a new low for quiz-show candlepower.

Michael Kelly noted acidly in his syndicated column that it was “a program rooted in the brilliant premise that stupidity and ignorance need be no impediment in a contest of the intellect.”

If only the late Mr. Kelly had lived to behold “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”

Hosted by comedian Jeff Foxworthy, the show draws, on an average Thursday night, a healthy 13 million viewers to the Fox network. Its hook is to match the wits of adult contestants with those of its titular 10-year-olds. A top prize of $1 million is up for grabs each week.

Needless to say, the grown-ups often prove inferior to their young counterparts on a range of subject matter that includes history, basic grammar and geography.

An infamous clip from an episode featuring former “American Idol” contestant-turned-country recording artist Kellie Pickler has been viewed on YouTube more than 4 million times since it aired last November.

Miss Pickler’s query: “Budapest is the capital of what European country?”

“This might be a stupid question,” Miss Pickler says, in an Appalachian drawl that unfortunately underscores her confusion. “I thought Europe was a country. … I know they speak French there, don’t they? Is France a country?”

The singer’s co-contestant, a boy named Nathan, cracks an incredulous smile that all but announces, “Is this lady too stupid to live, or what?”

Miss Pickler’s stint on “5th Grader” was hardly an isolated occurrence.

While acknowledging that the show’s producers probably had showbiz value uppermost in their minds, David Adesnik wrote on Oxblog, a collective of Oxford University graduate students, that, after watching “5th Grader” last spring, he couldn’t help worrying a little about the parlous state of American education.

The show “does raise the eternal question,” he wrote, “of how democracy can function if those who vote don’t possess a certain amount of basic knowledge about what they are voting for.”

Abject ignorance is the warp and woof of “5th Grader’s” comic appeal — so much so that one wonders whether Fox encourages its guests to accentuate their befuddlement in the same way that “Millionaire” directs contestants to think aloud.

Focusing on the show’s contestants misses a more interesting question, and that is: Who’s watching and why do they think it’s funny?

Elayne Rapping, a professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo (N.Y.) who writes frequently about television and pop culture, says “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” is just the latest sign of “how far this country has gone toward valorizing total idiocy.”

Ms. Rapping detects a certain amount of “boorishness” in entertainment that openly demeans its contestants.

Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, believes such shows as “5th Grader” tap into a highly satisfying emotion. “One reason that people may find these programs so enjoyable is that it gives them a chance to engage in what we call ‘downward social comparison,’ ” he says.

“Given that people have been socialized over decades to think highly of the ideas and people who appear in the national media,” Mr. Sparks continues, “it may be somewhat novel to now see people on a regular basis who seem to compare so unfavorably. And that switch may be experienced as a particularly positive jolt to one’s own sense of self.”

Seen in this light, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” is the latest in a line of entertainment programs marrying populism and schadenfreude — a lineage stretching from shows such as “Candid Camera” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” to today’s reality television: ordinary Americans, unfiltered and unflattered.

Even more recently, we’ve seen the spread of so-called viral video: discrete clips that course through the Web at unforgiving speed and often become more popular than their original sources.

Caitlin Upton, an 18-year-old contestant in last year’s Miss Teen USA pageant, became a YouTube sensation with a hopelessly addled answer to a question about — that dreaded subject again — geography (in this case, why a fifth of Americans are unable to locate the United States on a map).

Shortly after the pageant — in which, believe it or not, the South Carolinian placed a respectable fourth — Matt Lauer and Ann Curry of “The Today Show” felt so sorry for Miss Upton that they gave her a chance to redo her answer.

Clearly rehearsed and far more confident, Miss Upton declared that, by golly, she and her friends have no problem identifying the United States on a map — and “if the statistics are correct, I believe that there should be more emphasis on geography in our education.”

Bravo: There’s no public embarrassment that can’t be parlayed into broader fame.

Perhaps that means you should wipe off that self-satisfied smirk as you watch “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and its ilk. Because the joke just might be on you.

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