Happy Father’s Day to dads everywhere. My father, yours, whoever actually fathered Suri Cruise…everyone. I just opened my Father’s Day presents from Mindy and Dylan, which included an edition of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children illustrated by Edward Gorey, and a DVD of William Dieterle’s 1941 film adaptation of The Devil and Daniel Webster. Like many three-year-olds, Dylan is a huge Criterion Collection fan.
Last month, I spent a weekend in the Twin Cities, because I’d agreed to host a local high school quiz bowl tournament that was going to air on public TV there. This was mostly a favor to my friend Rob Hentzel, who runs NAQT and had put a huge amount of work into getting this TV tournament off the ground. I didn’t really know what to expect, but Twin Cities Public Television did a great job with Face Off Minnesota. Taco Bell and Pizza Hut had pitched in some money, and the set had been cobbled together, I was told, from leftover setpieces from Jesse Ventura’s short-lived MSNBC show. It looked classy. The kids were smart, of course, and actually pretty funny when I pitched them nerd faux-interview questions like, “What math or science equation do you most identify with and why?” or “If you could take only one punctuation mark to a desert island with you, which one would it be?”
I learned that game shows are also a lot less stressful when you actually have all the answers on a sheet of paper in front of you! It’s fun to do the stentorian, Trebekian, slightly disappointed, “Oh no, I’m sorry. The answer is ‘Nagorno-Karabash,’ of course. Nagorno-Karabash.”
But mostly I wondered why this kind of programming is now ghettoized to public-access limbo. Many local stations run their own high school quiz shows. Brad Rutter (you may remember him from such appearances as “kicking my ass in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions”) hosts one in his Central Pennsylvania hometown. But quiz bowl-style tournaments, once a TV mainstay, haven’t aired nationally in decades.
The very first game of the Minnesota tournament was a real nail-biter. Cretin Derham Hall, down 100 points with just minutes to play, came storming back by answering each of the last four questions and upset Minnetonka High by 5 points at the buzzer by knowing the name of the former Portuguese colony that was transferred to Chinese control in 1999. I thought it was just as thrilling as any last-minute Super Bowl downfield march. (This is probably why I didn’t date much in high school.)
But trust me: this was great TV. The National Spelling Bee now airs live, in network prime time, and A&E is currently televising the Rock Paper Scissors Championship, a tournament that sounds more like an SNL parody than an actual event. Why do we think no one will watch quiz bowl?
The usual answers? Quiz bowl is too cerebral. (Who cares where Nagorno-Karabash or Macao are?) The players aren’t telegenic. The format is too hard to follow (since contestants can interrupt the host mid-question). But I’m not convinced. You don’t watch the spelling bee for play-along, because you, the home viewer, probably have no idea know how to spell “ursprache” or “weltschmerz.” (I just had to look them both up, by the way.) You watch the spelling bee, as fellow ex-quiz-bowler Greg Lindsay put it to me last weekend, “To watch little kids suffer.”
So there’s your TV pitch: “Quiz bowl: all the cruelty-to-children of the National Spelling Bee, all the pulse-pounding excitement of Jeopardy!” How can it miss?