Quizmaster Reflects On 50 Years Of 'It's Academic'

Host Mac McGarry (top left) poses with student contestants on the set of It's Academic in 1988. i i

Host Mac McGarry (top left) poses with student contestants on the set of It's Academic in 1988. Courtesy of 'It's Academic' hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of 'It's Academic'
Host Mac McGarry (top left) poses with student contestants on the set of It's Academic in 1988.

Host Mac McGarry (top left) poses with student contestants on the set of It's Academic in 1988.

Courtesy of 'It's Academic'

For 51 seasons, the Washington, D.C.-based TV quiz show It's Academic has pitted three teams of high school students against each other in a sports game atmosphere — complete with chants and cheerleaders.

The show first aired in the Washington area in 1961 and spurred similar programs in several other cities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York Senator Charles Schumer and political commentator George Stephanopoulos have all appeared as contestants on versions of the show.

Quizmaster Mac McGarry has hosted the D.C. program for five decades. He stepped down in November 2011, and officially passes the baton to the show's new host in January. McGarry talks with NPR's John Donvan about the show's evolution.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Arguably the world today is a safer place than it used to be for one category of American: the academically-motivated teenager. Thanks to brainy superstars like Mark Zuckerberg and, before him, Bill Gates, it's probably cooler now than it's ever been to be smart, to know stuff. Before them, you were taking something of a risk to be a teen who seemed to be too smart, but there was always one safe place: a TV show called "It's Academic," which started in Washington, D.C., and then was reproduced in several American cities, a show that starred smart American high school students competing against each other to show just how smart they were.

The questions were difficult. The time before the buzzer was short. And the honor of winning was large and enduring. Mac McGarry hosted the very first episode when the show launched. And having asked over the decades thousands of questions and knowing the answers in advance, just imagine what he knows now and the stories he can tell. But we want to hear your stories, too. Were you one of the thousands who made the cut and had a seat on "It's Academic" or one of other many high school quiz shows around the country? Call us and we want to know what was the answer that stumped you or how did you win.

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. But first, let's turn to the quizmaster himself. Mac McGarry joins us now from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Welcome to the program, Mac. How are you?

MAC MCGARRY: Thank you very much, John. And what a special pleasure to meet a fellow alumnus of one of America's greatest high schools, Regis, on East 84th Street in Manhattan.

DONVAN: It...

MCGARRY: I'm only a few decades ahead of you, John...

DONVAN: It's...

MCGARRY: ...but it's still a pleasure.

DONVAN: It's true. We both attended Regis High School. And where I had the advantage was that in my time there was a show called "It's Academic," and I remember going to the taping, to the New York version when Regis competed. And I was a freshman, so I wasn't eligible for the team but our - we put some seniors on the team. Tragically, they did not win for me that day, but it was a great memory.

MCGARRY: I can't believe that, John. C'est impossible.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: So...

MCGARRY: ...that Regis didn't win. Yes, I remember when New York started its version of the show, about two years after Washington. The host was the late Art James. He came down to see how it was done in Washington and brought it all back to New York. And we've been all over the country - New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland...

DONVAN: Wow.

MCGARRY: ...Pittsburgh. Now, we're still in Baltimore and Cleveland, at least last time I looked.

DONVAN: Mac, what do you think made the show so enduring?

MCGARRY: One of the things, John, is the combination of the acclaim that sports stars get with the kind of attention that serious scholars should get, but what I mean by this is that after about two years of the show, it just sort of stood there flat. And then, Susan Altman, one of the producers, said let's bring in the cheerleaders and the bands. And as soon as we did that, it really started to take off. It was a tribute to the scholarship of the young contestants that it had all the trappings of a football game. And so I think that was very important in our gradual growth over the years.

DONVAN: So it was not you would say a televisually exciting show in the beginning?

MCGARRY: Not in the beginning I don't think. People could have accused us of being geeks or nerds just sort of sitting there...

DONVAN: No. No.

MCGARRY: ...and responding as best we could.

DONVAN: No.

MCGARRY: Adding the band and the cheerleaders, let's hear it, boys. Let's go.

DONVAN: There are some lovely little facts about the show, including the fact that one of the cheerleaders at one of the shows way back when - we won't say how far back - was one Sandra Bullock, came with her high school team and was a cheerleader in the studio.

MCGARRY: Yes, that's true. She was - I don't remember her especially, but I can give you the year. It was the early '80s. I'm sure she wouldn't mind. But I always take great pleasure in seeing her movies and thinking, oh, there's one of my proteges...

DONVAN: Right. Right.

MCGARRY: ...from "It's Academic," Sandra Bullock.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Denver - let's bring in Bryan(ph) from Denver, Who - Bryan, were you a contestant on "It's Academic"?

BRYAN: Yes, I was. Hi, Mac. It's an honor to speak to you again. It's been about 12 years since I appeared on the show. And I know my younger brothers and I were all on the "It's Academic" team at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County. And it was a lot of fun even though every year until probably my youngest brother's year, we always lost. We got killed on the show. We weren't pressing the buzzer, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCGARRY: What do you do now, Bryan? What do you do now?

BRYAN: I'm finishing up my master's degree in engineering. And right after high school, I went to the University of Virginia and joined the Peace Corps and - but all throughout the whole time I always kept up with trivia stuff, playing Trivial Pursuit and all that with my friends. And I think...

MCGARRY: Sophie Altman - pardon me, Bryan. Sophie Altman, the founder of the show always said this, facts are not trivia...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCGARRY: ...so facts. That's good for you.

DONVAN: Thanks, Bryan, very much for your call. I'd be very interested to hear from somebody who won because I haven't met anybody yet who was actually a winner, and I know they existed. Today, I exchanged emails with my colleague George Stephanopoulos over at ABC, who was a contestant, I believe, in the New York version. And he said it was one of the greatest memories of his life.

MCGARRY: Actually, he was in...

DONVAN: Where was he?

MCGARRY: He was in Cleveland.

DONVAN: I'm sorry. And he said it was one of the greatest memories of his life, except for the fact that he didn't win, which was frustrating. Yeah. I want to bring in Hillary(ph) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Hi, Hillary. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

HILLARY: Hi. Hi. It's so great to hear Mac McGarry's voice after all these years. I was captain of Magruder High School's "It's Academic" team from 1984 and 1985, and we did win. We won in the first round, which was very exciting.

DONVAN: Aha. OK.

HILLARY: But we lost in the second round to, like, Georgetown Prep in Sidwell Friends or something like that. We were just a country bumpkin school. So getting passed the first round was a really big deal for us.

DONVAN: Hillary, what were the questions.

MCGARRY: Magruder...

DONVAN: Do you remember your - the questions that stumped you in the end?

HILLARY: The question that stumped me was - it was an art question and the answer was a la mode. And he said it was a three-word answer, but I heard three letters, so I said a la and I stopped, and my teammates said mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HILLARY: So I got it out and we did get the question right, but it was a funny moment. And my brother - I can still remember my brother staring at me from the bleachers, and it was just such a great experience. And I took the "Jeopardy!" online test the other night to be a contestant, and I thought of Mac and I thought of that experience and thought, if I could do "It's Academic," I can do "Jeopardy!"

MCGARRY: Well, certainly you can.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: Hillary, was it - were you cool, by virtue of being in "It's Academic"?

HILLARY: No, never. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HILLARY: I mean, we certainly got attention, but we were still considered the geeks, totally, but it was OK.

MCGARRY: That breaks my heart.

HILLARY: We were told...

MCGARRY: I think that time - I'm just going to say that I think that has changed because now some of the kids get jerseys with their initials on it and there are the T-shirts.

HILLARY: Yeah.

MCGARRY: It has changed since the early - they're heroes.

HILLARY: Well, that's good.

DONVAN: Thanks very much for your call, Hillary. What's interesting also, again, among the people who were involved with this show as students - Hillary Clinton, I believe, was an alternate at one time.

MCGARRY: She was.

DONVAN: Cokie Roberts worked on the show. I think it was her first job in television. She worked on the production staff, NPR's Cokie Roberts. And NPR's Sarah Handel from Annapolis, Maryland, who is the director of this show and is sitting on the other side of the glass from me. Would you say it's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people at this point, Mac, who went through your studio?

MCGARRY: Who have been through the - who have been through the studio?

DONVAN: Yeah.

MCGARRY: It would be thousands now.

DONVAN: Wow.

MCGARRY: 50 years. Can you imagine that? People keep telling me, you did the show for 50 years. I said, I don't believe it. I just got started. 1961, John F. Kennedy was president. And I can tell you that this theory of Camelot was true. All the young people in Washington thought it was great to have a young president, his beautiful, young wife and there was a great atmosphere in Washington in the years when we first started.

DONVAN: Did that interact with what was happening on the show?

MCGARRY: I think - what I remember about the early days of the show was how well-dressed each of the students was. The girls would have necklaces on and nice dresses. The guys always would have shirts - shirts, I hope - coat and tie on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: I knew what you meant.

MCGARRY: And as we went through the Vietnam era, there was a restlessness that was palpable in the audience. The unruly sections of the audience would takeover for a little while, then they'd stop. And now, even though we've been through these – and are still in some terrible wars - things fairly calm on "It's Academic"...

DONVAN: Interesting.

MCGARRY: ...among the contestants.

DONVAN: Sociology of their own...

MCGARRY: They zeroed in on winning the game.

DONVAN: Nancy(ph) in Monroe, Wisconsin, welcome. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NANCY: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: Good. Good.

NANCY: Good. My experience was with the St. Louis version of this called "Scholar Quiz" and it would have been either in the fall of '70 or the winter of - or the spring of '71.

DONVAN: Mm-hmm.

NANCY: But the question - I was the captain of our team and we were leading throughout the entire show, but we couldn't see the score. And I thought we were trailing, and so I kind of desperately answered the last - we could see the timer. I desperately answered the last question, which was, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon? And I blew it and we lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NANCY: But if I just kept my mouth shut - a lesson I still haven't really learned - if I had just kept my mouth shut, we would have won.

DONVAN: What's the answer?

NANCY: Three. What did I say? I said two.

DONVAN: Yup. I would have made exactly the same mistake.

NANCY: Yup.

MCGARRY: I would've made the same mistake, yeah.

NANCY: I later learned that in England, two teaspoons is in a tablespoon, but I'm not sure that's correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: All right. Thanks. Heartbreaking, Nancy. Your story is heartbreaking.

NANCY: Heartbreaking.

DONVAN: Thanks very much for your call. Steve in Fayetteville, Arkansas, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

STEVE: Yes. When I was in high school, I was on Scholars Bowl in the Quad Cities of Illinois-Iowa. And the - it has been a great career training for me because since that time, I was a winner both on "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

DONVAN: Wow. The - I don't - I think that's got to be a first.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCGARRY: It's...

STEVE: And - well, both of my brothers were also on their Scholars Bowl team and also have appeared on "Jeopardy!"

DONVAN: Amazing.

MCGARRY: We're "Jeopardy!'s" prep show, I think, because...

DONVAN: Yeah.

MCGARRY: ...right now, the reigning team champion is an alumnus of our program. We've had money winners on the show. And I, myself, I've met Alex Trebek. I was his understudy for years on the national geography bee here. So he's a sensationally good host, and I enjoy "Jeopardy!" every night.

DONVAN: Steve, thanks very much for your call.

STEVE: Thank you.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR. And we're talking with Matt(ph) McGarry about - Mac McGarry about his experiences of 50-plus - just over 50 years of being the host, the original host and the longtime host of "It's Academic," the show that gave places - a safe place for kids to be smart and to make it cool, even if some of the callers have told us that it still wasn't cool to be on the show. I want to bring in Howard in Phoenix, Arizona. Howard, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

HOWARD: Good afternoon. I thank you so much. This is so many held memories that have too long been suppressed. I was on "It's Academic" in New York City, when Art James was the host back in 1966. He later became, I think, a host of many national game shows. But back then, he was in New York City. And what (unintelligible)...

DONVAN: What high school where you with?

HOWARD: It was Thomas Jefferson High School in Brownsville East New York. Ooh, that's now closed, kind of Mike Tyson's old neighborhood, not a very savory neighborhood even back in the '60s. But what I remember, two vivid memories - one is of my teammates, one who became a physicist and another who became a neurosurgeon. And the other thing was I came from a high school with many, many accomplished athletes, several of whom became really important pro athletes, and yet in our yearbook, the centerfolds, if you will, of our yearbook contained a picture of these three nerdy guys on "It's Academic," including me. It was a thrill.

DONVAN: That is a thrill. That's even thrilling to hear. Congratulations to you.

HOWARD: Thank you so much.

DONVAN: I just hope you didn't get beaten up on the way home from school the way that those...

HOWARD: I got beaten up almost every day at school.

MCGARRY: That's the best thing I've heard in quite a while: centerfold for "Its Academic" stars.

DONVAN: You showed them, Howard. All right. Thanks very much for your call. I want to bring in Brian(ph) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

BRIAN: Hello.

DONVAN: Hi, Brian. I mispronounced the name of your town, if you can correct me.

BRIAN: Oh, Murfreesboro.

DONVAN: I got it right.

BRIAN: OK. That's right.

DONVAN: Great. What's your story?

BRIAN: I was on a similar show in Atlanta, growing up in high school in the early '90s. And we were also on another show in Macon, Georgia, our team. And we came then as runner's up on the Atlanta show, which is called "High Q" out of WSB in Atlanta and then - and we actually won the show, won the season on the show in Macon, so...

DONVAN: What was your high school?

BRIAN: It was a lot of - it was Griffin High School in Griffin, Georgia.

DONVAN: And do you remember the questions that really got you?

BRIAN: We had four people on our team, and everybody kind of had a specialty that - it was almost like we would defer to each member if one of the subject areas came up. One area that I almost never pursued, but just because of the time constraints and that my brain works slowly sometimes, was any kind of math question or something that would require calculation. I would just look to one of my other teammates because I could trust them to get it, and then I would handle any of the other subjects, but general knowledge kinds of things and sports especially seemed to be my specialty.

DONVAN: Brian, thanks so much for your call. Mac, we're coming up to the end of the session here. And I just - I know that you're stepping down now after more than 50 years. What are you going to miss most?

MCGARRY: Grand delusion as I call it, John. Because every time I would look up and see the panel of students, they were always 17 years old. I would be deluded into thinking that I'm not getting any older at all. My kids are always the same age, and here I am 85. Wow.

DONVAN: Wow.

MCGARRY: Coast to coast I admit it.

DONVAN: Well, congratulations.

MCGARRY: I'll miss that.

DONVAN: Congratulations on 50 years, and it sounds like you made a lot of friends who are never going to forget two things: the question they missed on and you. Thanks so much, Mac McGarry for joining us.

MCGARRY: Thank you, John.

DONVAN: Quizmaster Mac McGarry joined us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. And he will be appearing on the show this weekend to officially pass the baton to new D.C. host Hillary Howard and have a good show this weekend. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here for a look at mindfulness meditation, a way to switch off the brain's autopilot mode. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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