The third story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future! In the wreckage of the 1950s Quiz Show scandals, Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein conjure a “secret history” of the real events.
Previously: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” first appeared in the August 7th 1951 issue of The Reporter. You can read it in the February 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas online here.
Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (May 1961). I read it in Science Fiction Oddities, ed. Groff Conklin (1966). You can read it online here.
I suspect most of you have seen Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994), a dramatization of the 1950s Quiz Show scandals. In the film, John Turturro, as Herbie Stempel, turns whistleblower after a three-month run on NBC’s Twenty-One where he was compelled to allow his opponent, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, to win. In the early weeks of Twenty-One, corporate sponsors of the program grew increasingly frustrated with the poor quality of the contestants. In response, the producers increasingly choreographed the rise and fall of America’s fact-regurgitating heroes.
Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” (1961) was written in the subsequent period of popular fallout, plunging network ratings, a nine-month New York grand jury, and later congressional investigation. The story conjures a humorous “secret history” of the real events that doubles as a satire of academia.
Framed as a disclosure of truth after the shock following revelations of “corruption, nepotism, and anarcho-syndicalist infiltrations” (78), “The Teeth of Despair” recounts the machinations of poor academics at Ryland University, one of many indistinguishable liberal arts colleges in America’s hinterland. Subsisting on insufficient funds, reminiscent of modern adjunct faculty, Dr. Grew, recently fired from his “part-time job as a bus boy in a chow mein restaurant” (79), discovers the ability to manipulate the speech of a contestant on Get It While You Can. Mr. Grackl, who subsists on social security, attempts to answer a question worth thirty-three hundred dollars, and somehow, despite his obvious lack of intelligence, knows “Who designed the Brooklyn Bridge” (83). Flush with his strange triumph in feeding answers across the ether, Dr. Grew forms a cabal of scheming academics from all different disciplines–and they pull Mr. Grackl into their conspiracy. But love and fame are powerful things. And Mr. Grackl might have a surprise in store…
“The Teeth of Despair” appeals only as an artifact of a fascinating moment in time where perceptions of truth were shattered on live TV. Yes, it’s an occasionally humorous satire of the sad spectacle of grasping materialism piped into suburban homes across the American expanse. And academics are always fun kicking bags for writers of the era–if only they knew of the approaching adjunctification of modern higher education… It’s silly and occasionally funny but all too slight.
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