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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Ask the Professor

Posted by Maximum Fun on 6th December 2010

Vital stats:
Format: jokey stump-the-panel game show
Duration: 30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 163

Take Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me. Get it off the road and plop it down in Detroit. Yank out the comedians and replace them with academics. Forget about current events; ask questions about all manner of subjects. Toss that desk bell and use the campus clock tower instead. Now you’ve got a pretty fair approximation of Ask the Professor [RSS] [iTunes].

But that’s an unfair comparison for a number of reasons, one of which is that Ask the Professor came first. Like, way first. By some counts, it might well be one of the longest-running radio programs in the United States, august-to-the-extreme institutions like the Metropolitan Opera aside. It seems to have experienced, over the course of its 50 seasons, quite a variation in profile: sometimes it’s been a strictly local show, sometimes it’s been heard on radios all across the country, and now it’s got a global reach by way of the medium known as podcasting. Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me seems pretty bulletproof and all, but damn, this thing’s a survivor.

One respect in which the comparison isn’t unfair: though ostensibly game shows, both programs are concerned less with rigorous score-keeping and rule-adherence than with cracking jokes and having a high old time. You might think this would be the theater of Wait Wait’s decisive victory, since academics, to put it charitably, are not comedians, but if podcasting has revealed one thing to me, it’s the charms of nonprofessional humor. Sure, a lot of the jokes made by the rotating panel of professors fall flat. Sure, a lot of them won’t be 100 percent intelligible to listeners not employed at the University of Detroit, Mercy, from whence the show broadcasts. But there’s such a reality to all of it.

In the field of audience participation, Ask the Professor receives higher marks than Wait Wait. Even though ATP doesn’t get listeners on the phone to compete, it does draw all its questions from what I’ve come to think of as the Professor Nation. Listeners, many of whom mention that they’ve been tuning in religiously since nineteen-dickety-two, mail or e-mail in questions about Shakespeare, hockey, Egyptian geography, Star Trek, the Canadian government, the Periodic Table of the Elements, or what have you. They also send in the answers; the idea is to stump the raw tenure-power collected in the studio. I don’t know which challenge is more interesting: the professors’ often comical struggle to answer, or the question-submitting listeners’ attempt to strike just the right balance of generality and obscurity.

The facts undergirding the questions can be surprising and the quest for the answers is usually chuckleworthy, but what I find particularly fascinating about the show it how it plays with its own history. References aplenty are made to past episodes, past hosts, and past stumpings, but each program also features a clip from the archives. This past summer, the producers even re-aired decades-old episodes in their entirety. I don’t know if it’s just a psychological effect of slightly degraded audio tape, but there’s something especially rich about these back broadcasts, even those from an era as recent as the late 1980s. Are they more theatrical? More deliberate? More radio-y? A question to confound even the smartest panel, I’m certain.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]