The unusual game show hosted by Atlanta native Jeff Foxworthy first aired in the U.S. on the Fox Network February 27th, 2007. The format of asking adults questions as pitted against the knowledge of children was actually pioneered by Howard Stern. As a decidely cleaner comic than Stern, Jeff Foxworthy is a good choice as host for such a G-rated show. He has sort of become the Jerry Clower of today’s generation. Foxworthy began his career in the genre of Southern redneck humor at The Punch Line comedy club in Atlanta in 1984. After polishing his cornpone act in Southeastern nightclubs for a number of years, Jeff made a national name for himself with his you might be a redneck if standup routine in 1993. The comedy CD sold over three million copies, and in 1995, he reached the standup comic’s Holy Grail with The Jeff Foxworthy Show. Although the show stayed on the air for only two seasons, changing networks in the middle, Jeff never dropped out of the limelight. With Texas comic and second banana from the short-lived show, Bill Engvall, Foxworthy added Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy to a Southern redneck roundhouse he called The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Not only has this band of deep-fried bananas been covering the airwaves and concert halls with redneck monkeybusiness, but Jeff has been turning out books like a comedy Jessica Fletcher. This boy has been busy! His newest plan is to show America that many college graduates with high GPA’s are not smarter than a fifth grader, and so far, he’s been proven correct.

Obviously the most entertaining element of the show is playing the game. First of all, it’s the first hour-long game show I can recall, although a few episodes have run for only a half-hour and a few have been two hours. My wife is a retired elementary school teacher of twenty-nine years and I’m just a crusty, old, nerdy author and book critic, and we both love 5th Grader. A whole mule team of rednecks has never been able to make me watch even five minutes of a stupid game show since the original Password went off the air in 1967, but 5th Grader has my number. I wish all the episodes were two hours! If I have a single complaint about the show, it is the time wasted with explanations of the correct answers to some of the easiest questions, while the little-known answers to some of the more difficult questions are left unexplained. I cannot help but think that some of this bull hockey in the show’s routine layout is due to the need to carefully control the runtime. Every contestant begins by trying to win the first $1000, and although no one has yet won the top $1,000,000 prize, viewers never know who will successfully climb the prize ladder up to $500,000. One of the most entertaining elements of the show is the easy, unpredictable manner in which a cocky PhD or MA can lose it all, or at least fall back to the show’s basic $25,000 booby prize. Once the contestant has reached the $25,000 point by correctly answering questions for $2000, $5000, and $10,000, he gets to keep the $25,000 even if he misses the $50,000 question. A contestant can drop out of school and take home his loot after providing the correct answer to any question, but if he misses a question, he is forced to leave the stage with the verbal equivalent of a dunce cap. He must tell the world he is not smarter than a fifth grader! If he cannot make it to the $25,000 rung, he falls embarrassingly back down the ladder to zero. There are no booby prizes for bozos on Jeff’s show!

There are three basic types of questions utilized, in order of difficulty by type: true/false, multiple choice, and direct answer. There are five levels of difficulty, covering subject matter directly from the first through fifth grades of elementary school. The subject categories fall all over the map. Although there are ten questions, two at each grade level, there are more than ten subject categories, so the audience never knows what the choices are until each contestant faces off against the five cute Fifth Graders who nearly always know more than the contestants. Of course the audience is aware that the kids only have to remember what they might have read last week, whereas the adults may be required to drag their memories back all the way from The Sixties. The kids are not competitors. They are fellow students who are allowed to help the hapless adults with the answers to the first ten questions, although each adult is allowed to cheat only three times. The final, million-dollar question is reserved for the adult to answer on his own, and it is always a direct-answer type of question. There is one variable that always seems so obvious to my wife and me as we watch the show, but the contestants seem a little befuddled by it. Some of the contestants seem to shiver at the thought of math questions, so they avoid them. The obvious truth is that very few of the math questions, by their very nature, force the contestant to pull up ancient dates or facts memorized and forgotten so long ago. The example that had me howling with laughter was when a recent contestant missed a math question asking him to divide thirty-six by four and get nine! In contrast, some of the questions involving early American Presidents, Greek mythology, or the exact placement of The Great Lakes have left me virtually hiding underneath my desk, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on me!

The true source of the appeal of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? is the array of supposedly intelligent contestants that compare and contrast with the difficulty of the questions and their own perky, humble, or arrogant personalities. The students are always charming with the steadfast common sense of cute kids that sometimes cannot spell worth a flip, even when they are so obviously certain of the answers. I love seeing a cocky wiseapple with a 4.0 GPA fall into the zippy pit over a stupidly easy question, and I really hate it when one of those same smart aleck types waltzes out with a quarter or half million with lucky guesses and cheating from the kids’ answers! There have sadly been sweet, humble contestants that have been shown the door by one of those early Greek Presidents living near The Great Lakes, too. Fortunately I have witnessed only one case in which one of the kids caused a contestant to lose a lot of money, and it eases my mind to believe that she received extensive, appropriate, self-esteem counseling after the stage lights were turned off. It wasn’t her fault the adult contestant was too stupid to know the answer, either.

The Fox Network has truly redeemed some of its legendary sleaziness with the airing of 5th Grader. The show is highly intelligent, carefully designed, rewarding to watch, and kid friendly to the max. Now if they will just give the remaining twenty-three hours of programming a makeover….

References & Links: So you want to be a contestant on 5th Grader? (Be sure to pack your humble pie!) Visit Fox Network’s 5th Grader webpage. Visit the 5th Grader Wikipedia Page. Visit Jeff Foxorthy’s Wikipedia page. Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? at the Internet Movie Database.

Floyd M. Orr is the author of Timeline of America: Sound Bytes from the Consumer Culture, The Last Horizon, Ker-Splash, and Plastic Ozone Daydream. He is also a contributor to other books, as well as a book critic and editor of POD Book Reviews & More.

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