In the cafeteria wing of NBC Washington’s Nebraska Avenue studio, three different strategies are afoot.
The boys from Quince Orchard are cramming. What is the term for a change in the base sequence of DNA? Who was Charles the Bold? The name of the street on which the first traffic light appeared was —
“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.
“We lost the game on Gresham’s Law,” says Joshua Foer. “Which is about bad money driving out good money.” Foer is the youngest of the three Foer brothers — the elders being former New Republic editor Franklin and novelist Jonathan Safran — a fraternal dynasty of Washington smartness. He captained Georgetown Day’s team in the mid-1990s. “There was a kid named Dan, who would whisper answers in my ear. He was our LeBron James.”
He remembers the after-school practice sessions, during which their coach would read them supplemental lectures on economic theory or the Plantagenet dynasty.
He remembers the taping. “Mac McGarry!” he says. “Is Mac McGarry still around?”
He is. The 84-year-old host is still there, with crepe-fine skin and the reassuring demeanor of someone who genuinely wants his contestants to get it right.
“One day I walked into the studio and [NBC Washington reporter] Pat Collins said to me, ‘Hey, Mac, whaddaya know?’ ” remembers McGarry. “I said, ‘I’m the quizmaster. I know everything.’ ”
A few days before the season-finale taping, Susan Lechner and Susan Altman sit in a Caribou coffee shop and look back on the show’s 50 years.
“Television is such an odd thing, such a fluid medium,” says Altman, the show’s producer. “One year you’re in, then the next year . . .”
In 1961 Altman’s mother, Sophie, was a Washington producer who had found some success in the youth demographic. She’d done “Report Card for Parents” and “Teen Talk,” a rap session in which local students debated things like whether it was okay to kiss on the first date. She thought there might be a market for a quiz show aimed at teens. The first year, she wrote the questions herself. After that, she recruited stay-at-home moms. She found Lechner, now the show’s senior editor, through the Wellesley placement office. She found McGarry, who was working as an announcer for NBC. The show spread to California, Cincinnati, New York, Chicago. Sophie Altman died in 2008, working on the show until the end.
“Kids know more about Africa these days,” Susan Altman says. “They know more international things.” Every season, “we ask ourselves, do the kids still know this? Has the emphasis shifted?”
“The romantic poets are gone,” says Lechner.
“Poe is gone,” says Altman.
People come up to Altman and Lechner and tell them about how and where they watch the show. It’s a nice pajama-day show, a nice show to pair with Cheerios and rain and fuzzy slippers.
“It’s always on at health clubs,” says Lechner.
“We get a lot of, ‘I watched your show on the treadmill,’ ” says Altman.
They are fine with this. For all of its longevity, the show has never been what one might consider must-see television. It has continued, year after year, because of the dedication of its tiny staff and because it is a beacon of constancy in a sea of change.
And also, maybe, because of something more pure?
“You know what it’s like?” Altman says. “It’s like water dripping on a rock,” a subtle impact, a dogged persistence. “It’s saying that hard work and education mean something.”
To believe in “It’s Academic” is to believe in good things, in solid things like right answers, certainty, sportsmanship and loyalty.
Upon hearing that a hard-to-find cookie can be purchased at Harris Teeter, Lechner’s expression falls and her brow furrows in an expression of disappointment:
“Oh, we would never shop at Harris Teeter,” Lechner says.
“Oh, no,” adds Altman.
“No, we only shop at Giant. We would not be on the air without Giant. It sponsors the show.”
How much information has changed since then.
Information has never been more prevalent, accessing it has never been easier, memorization has never seemed so old-fashioned. In an age of Google, one might question the value of being able to rattle off, as the “It’s Academic” finale’s contestants can, the location of the Crimean Peninsula, or the name of the author who wrote “Lord of the Flies,” or the fact that hippos and whales share similar ear structures.
Today, value is placed on the ability to “think critically,” to use that preponderance of information to create original thought.
The recent bestseller “Moonwalking With Einstein” notes that in previous eras, “Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric. . . . In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct.”
The author of this book? Joshua Foer, the man whose “It’s Academic” dreams were jettisoned by his inability to correctly quote Gresham’s Law.
The students at the Washington championship taping — it will air on June 25, along with the “Super Bowl” special that pits the Washington champ against those from Baltimore and central Virginia — are anachronisms of their time.
They have learned to retain massive amounts of trivia that will last them through college before disappearing into the storage locker of things they once knew. Indeed, they have learned to anticipate answers to questions before they’ve even been asked, cutting McGarry off mid-sentence to provide the name of Herbert Hoover’s pet dog (King Tut).
Toward end of the taping, there is a brief scoring dispute. One of the teams believes that it was not awarded points for a question it answered correctly.
But finally, it is resolved. The coach of the winning team — which shall not be revealed here — sprints to the podium with tears in his eyes, delivering high-fives and loud, tremendous whoops of joy.