Last week was pretty slow in the world of pop culture news. But the media sought out Robert Thompson just the same.
The Syracuse University professor was quoted on the image of motherhood on TV. On the phenomenon of animal shows on cable. The danger of Hollywood trilogies. Rosie O’Donnell’s future. The hipness of being a nerd.
Such exposure is nothing unusual for Thompson, a font of pop culture knowledge like few others. There may well be an expert somewhere who has a more wide-ranging, obsessive knowledge of this highly amorphous subject. But if so, they’re keeping quiet about it.
And it would be hard for the amiable, 47-year-old Thompson to keep quiet at this point, even if he wanted to. Because reporters from all over the world would keep calling – to get his witty analysis of Katie Couric’s debut on CBS, of vintage furniture, of the growth of barbecue culture. He’s been called, half-jokingly, the most quoted man in America. That’s not exactly true; we do have a president. But on certain days, when the pop culture firmament is busy, well, just Google his name.
“I’ve seen Bob get 60, 70, 80 media calls in one day,” says the man who hired him at Syracuse, David Rubin, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “I’ve seen him in a hallway on his cell phone for hours. You could go so far as to say Bob is the most quoted academic in the United States.”
So often has Thompson been quoted, over 17 years at Syracuse, that some news organizations (including The Associated Press) have lately tried consciously NOT to quote him.
But nobody said we couldn’t write ABOUT him. So while Syracuse, the seat of Onondaga County, about 250 miles from New York City, would hardly seem a mecca of pop culture, it seems a worthwhile journey to meet one of the only men on the planet capable of riffing rhapsodically, on cue, about the history of the aluminum lawn chair.
The first thing you notice in Thompson’s office are the TV sets. Not because three in one office is so unusual – though this office does seem rather spacious for an academic, not to mention the view – but because of what’s playing. Not CNN or Fox News, but an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV Land.
TV is Thompson’s passion; his office shelves are lined with old VHS tapes filled with countless hours of shows. A short walk away is the lecture hall where he teaches his spring undergraduate class. On this, the last day of the semester, Thompson has three hours to wrap up the history of television.
He whips into action, starting with the early ’50s and Lucy and Desi. Before you can say “Hill Street Blues” he’s up to the ’80s – the second “Golden Age” of television – by way of “Quincy” and “Barnaby Jones.” At the turn of the century, Thompson argues, television is at its all-time best, with HBO the crown jewel. “The Larry Sanders Show.” “Oz.” “Sex and the City.” “The Sopranos.” “Rome.” And so on.
He turns to reality TV, which, in a typically sweeping yet concise Thompson-ism, he calls “the most interesting new way to tell a story since the invention of the novel.” It began in Britain, he explains, and then “the virus jumped over the Atlantic and spread.”
“Survivor” is dissected. So is “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” and “Temptation Island.” Have you ever noticed how conservative “The Bachelor” is, he muses, with all these girls waiting for a kiss? Stephanie from South Carolina has recently been rejected by bachelor Andy, he notes. Yes, he does watch all this stuff.
Now he broaches the “single biggest event in all of TV history” – coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks. He plays a good hour of CNN from that awful morning, reminding the students, most of whom were about 14 then, how it felt to watch the twin towers collapse on live TV. When he later plays segments of an MTV documentary on pop culture post-9/11, no one flinches when one of its featured commentators turns out to be Thompson. The students are used to it.
The class ends with society’s current fixation on YouTube, the wildly popular video-sharing site. And one lesson from that, he notes, is how our collective attention span has shrunk. We can’t watch a YouTube clip that’s more than a few minutes long. To prove it, he plays a tedious clip of someone’s pet cat playing the piano. “Seven minutes,” another Thompson-ism goes, “is the new ‘War and Peace.'”
Back in his office later that evening, Thompson explains the genesis of his interest in pop culture. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, where he initially planned to be an art history professor. But on Sunday nights, when the dorms didn’t serve food, he would eat takeout in front of the TV. He found that he chose “CHiPs,” with Erik Estrada, over PBS, and became fascinated with the question: “Why do smart people watch dumb TV?”
He did his thesis on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” but came to believe that “art could be something that came out of a TV set.” That led to a broader interest in popular culture. “I realized that to understand TV you needed to understand the network radio era. And vaudeville. And the circus. And comic strips. Every year I would binge on something.”
He did his masters and doctorate at Northwestern, and arrived in 1990 at Syracuse, where he now heads the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. Over the years, reaction from traditional academics to his chosen field has become much less hostile, he says. “Now, there isn’t a university that doesn’t have a course on the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” he notes.
Thompson, who’s written or edited six books of his own, gets up each day at five to read; he consumes three new books a week, not to mention uncounted hours of TV. (He also has a family that he spends time with.) He’s constantly becoming enamored with new areas of pop culture.
A couple years ago, for example, he realized he didn’t know enough about Shakespeare – a pop culture figure of his time, after all. He decided to watch all existing plays on VHS or DVD. In three months he watched 113 plays and read 25 books on the bard. “I was crazed,” he says contentedly.
Then there’s his interest in the webbed aluminum lawn chair. “They’re really taken for granted,” he says. He’s happy to explain how the phenomenon began with extra metal from wartime scrap drives, combined with explosive growth in America’s suburbs.
Right now, Thompson’s focusing his pop-culture lens on ancient times. “I’m interested in the celebrity culture of ancient Rome,” he says. “Back then, as now, it was who you knew that got you into parties.”
It dovetails with a broader Thompson thesis: So many things that we think are new, really aren’t. “American Idol,” you say? Nothing new, he replies. Remember Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour?”
It’s not just the breadth of Thompson’s interests that make him so quotable. It’s his accessibility – he returns phone calls promptly – and the un-academic way he speaks: in snappy sentences that are easy to digest. “I don’t speak in clauses,” he acknowledges. “I believe in periods.” Some might actually say he speaks in soundbites – the media gossip site Jossip.com has in fact drily called him “Mr. Soundbite,” and Thompson himself notes he’s been called a “quote whore.” But reporters point out that he thinks hard to come up with something different and interesting.
“Unlike many people in his position, he almost always finds an angle or perspective that I hadn’t thought about,” says AP Television Writer David Bauder.
Angela Nelson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, says Thompson is “performing a great service for the discipline. Television in particular has been seen to be trivial, and his paying attention to it and preserving it is good for the culture.” Nelson is the head of her university’s Popular Culture department – the only full department in the country devoted to the subject, established in the 1970s. (Most pop culture courses are nestled in other departments like English, communications, or sociology.)
Thompson has been quoted so often, at least one reporter has told him of a “moratorium” at their newspaper on quoting him. One can see why editors would notice. At The New York Times alone, an archive search shows Thompson quoted more than 40 times in the last four years, by writers in a wide range of areas. At the AP, he’s been quoted close to 20 times in the past year.
“These days, answers are so predictable, crafted and cliche,” says journalism teacher Roy Clark, of the Poynter Institute in Florida. “Somebody who thinks on their feet, relies on a well of knowledge and is curious about the world at large can be an invaluable resource.” Clark, who notes he’s unfamiliar with Thompson, adds: “As long as it doesn’t turn journalists into lazybones.”
Thompson says he’s weary of the most-quoted-guy label, but Rubin, his dean, says: “Bob is very proud of his status. He’s just got a certain modesty about him.” He adds that Thompson is not at all hierarchical: If a school paper calls before a major news organization, they’ll get the return call first.
As a teacher, Thompson is said to be generous with his time, though he’s known as a tough grader – something that can disappoint a student hoping to get an easy ride in a pop culture class. “He really has a lot of time for his students,” says Carolyn Davis, a doctoral student in media studies who assisted Thompson this semester. “People will come in just to talk, and he’ll order lunch.”
In any case, the university loves his star status. “My job is to keep Bob happy,” says Rubin.
Thompson says he learns from the give-and-take with the media. Besides, it’s a teacher’s job to preach what he knows – and Thompson feels Americans need a basic working knowledge of their own pop culture.
“To understand the history of this nation,” he says, leaving you with one last Thompson-ism, “you have to understand its presidents and its wars.
“But you also need to understand its lawn ornaments and its cheeseburgers.”