If Fox has its way, the pantheon of Great Questions — What is consciousness? How does Magic Shell work? — is about to welcome a new member: Are you smarter than a 5th grader? In the brain-teasing game show of the same name, adult contestants attempt to win a million bucks and avoid unspeakable humiliation while fielding questions last seen on elementary-school pop quizzes. (Contestants are allowed to ”cheat” by consulting with real-life fifth graders.) Are You Smarter is proving no ratings dunce; the Feb. 27 debut chalked up 26.5 million viewers, making it the network’s highest-rated series premiere ever. (Granted, it’s airing this week after American Idol.) To find out what’s so great about grade-school grillings, we tracked down host/noted redneck scholar Jeff Foxworthy on the playground at recess.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you sum up the appeal of the show?
JEFF FOXWORTHY: It ends up confirming everyone’s worst fear that we’re not, in fact, smarter than fifth graders. You’ve got the game show thing, but you’ve also got a little bit of Kids Say the Darndest Things, because not only is the contestant taking the quiz, but five fifth graders are sitting at desks taking the same quiz they are, and during the course of the show the contestant can cheat of off them. I’m like, ”You want to look at his paper? He weighs 50 pounds! He can be bribed with an ice cream sandwich!” But more often than not, the kids are right. When you start seeing people get up to 50 or 100 grand and they’re banking on 10-year-olds, you’re like, ”Oh, dude, just take the money and run! Even if you win, you’re beating 10-year-0lds!”
When you signed on as host, were there any discussions about changing the show’s title to You Might Be Dumber Than a Fifth Grader If…?
In the first few episodes, it starts outside the school with me walking down the sidewalk going, ”Tonight we’re going to find out if a 44-year-old accountant is smarter than a fifth grader…” And over shooting it a couple days, it evolved into ”If you think Thomas Jefferson is the son of George and Weezy Jefferson, you might not be smarter than a fifth grader.” I was going, ”How did this meld into redneck jokes?”
Do you see spin-off potential here?
I think we could even drop it down. That was one of my first questions. I said, ”Why did you pick fifth grade?” And they said, ”We didn’t want to be too easy and that seemed like a nice cutoff because that’s the end of grade school.” When you see people getting stumped on the first question, I’m like, ”What if we do Are You Smarter Than a Preschooler?” That’s not to say adults are dumb, but the knowledge we have now is ”Don’t let Uncle Harry into the egg nog too early into the family Christmas party,” or ”If the car’s almost out of gas, you better stop now because you’re not going to have time in the morning.”
Are you surprised by how many contestants blank on these supposedly easy questions?
I would say so. Initially I thought, on average, they would go further. What I didn’t anticipate — you can kind of joke around with them for the first two or three questions, but when it starts getting up to $50,000 and $100,000 and you’ve got regular working folks here… I’m looking at them thinking, ”There’s no shame in just looking in the camera and saying, ‘I’m not smarter than a fifth grader and [I’m] running [with the cash].”’ Don’t give a TV network the money back. Go! Go! Take their money!
This show is executive produced by Mark Burnett. Will you be introducing any Survivor-like touches in future episodes? Perhaps work in the immunity idol somehow?
No immunity from ignorance. If you don’t know it by now, we can’t learn it to ya.
Toguh question: At what grade level would you put your own knowledge?
Oh, my goodness. I would say I’m probably right about half the time on this stuff, so what does that throw me at? About midway through the third grade. So we will confirm what everybody has always thought: I am winning the war against maturity.