“Euclid,” says Chris Manners. Then, knowingly, “There’s always a Euclid Street.”
The boys from W.T. Woodson are playing cards. It relaxes them. Perhaps it makes them forget about things, like the time they botched the name of Don Quixote’s sidekick. “It really set us back,” Tim Planert and Charles Clouse agree.
The team members from Richard Montgomery are goofing off, as they can afford to do: Their captain, Raynell Cooper, is the reigning teen tournament champion of “Jeopardy!”
It’s the day of the taping of the 50th anniversary finale of “It’s Academic,” the longest-running quiz show in history.
The show is a relic of a time when local studios had local programming, and television shows were different in different parts of the country. It’s also a relic of a time when memorization ranked as highly as deductive reasoning or critical thinking. “It’s Academic” exists in the land that Wikipedia forgot, a dimension where nobody has smartphones or has ever heard of Google.
Down the hall from the cafeteria, on the set, the packed bleachers are lined with cheerleaders waving pompoms. A floor manager is leading everyone in waves of frenzied applause. This part is not a relic. The adoration of brainiacs at levels usually reserved for athletes is what has drawn contestants for half a century.
To understand “It’s Academic” is to understand the hierarchies of high school, and the way that “It’s Academic” upsets them. Long before geek chic became a thing and Bill Gates became a religion, “It’s Academic” made heroes out of the socially awkward, the pale boys with the shy smiles and the girls who looked smashing in glasses.
Against all odds, its ratings are comparatively huge. Last Saturday, for example, the show averaged 23,000 viewers during its 10:30 a.m. time slot, which, in local parlance, is big. The fact that the show is a low-budget enterprise, with only four full-time staff members, makes it easy to keep it on air. “It’s Academic” has a comforting and familiar rhythm. On YouTube, clips from 1983 look exactly the same as clips from 2009, except for the graininess of the footage and the wideness of the ties.
“I think we came in a close second,” says George Stephanopoulos, who was on a Cleveland offshoot of the show in the 1970s. “I was kind of the history/social studies/civics guy. It wasn’t like starting high school basketball, but it did have its own dorky sort of cachet.”
It seems like everyone has been on “It’s Academic” or the show’s spinoffs around the country. The list of former contestants reads like its own “It’s Academic” trivia question, maybe something that would appear in the Grab Bag round.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was on it, and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York (he won by knowing that white paint receives its pigment from titanium dioxide), and Laura Lippman, the Baltimore-based mystery writer. As a high school cheerleader, Sandra Bullock cheered for her school’s team; as secretary of state, Colin Powell acted as a guest quizmaster.