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Win Ben Stein's Money

That Ben Stein—what a character. Solemn, with a sepulchral voice, he’s beyond poker-faced; he’s preternaturally glum, but in a wily, mischievous-around-the-eyes way. He may be best known now as host of Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money, but it’s likely you’re familiar with his faintly malevolent monotone, deployed playing soul-dead teachers in ABC’s The Wonder Years and 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the pitchman in a series of Clear Eyes commercials.

Stein may seem to be a one-trick pony in a Brooks Brothers suit—a stone-faced square reduced to a formula: Stein =(Buster Keaton + Bob Newhart)- genius talent. But Stein—a lawyer, ex-Nixon speechwriter, magazine columnist, and author—has managed to sustain his shtick because he’s shrewd. His quiz show has a novel concept: You really do have a chance to “win Ben Stein’s money.” He ponies up his own $5,000 at the start of each show, and three contestants try to earn a piece of that sum by answering questions correctly. In a final round, the high scorer competes directly against the host: Isolated in soundproof booths (a throwback to ’50s game shows like Twenty-One), each is asked the same 10 questions; if the contestant bests Ben, he gloms his stash.

The 10-month-old show is effective for a few reasons: hardball questions (quick: The 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt ended what war?); clever categories (“19th-Century Sponge Baths” had some real stumpers about nurse Florence Nightingale); a sly, snarky announcer (Jimmy Kimmel) for Stein to play off of; and the erudite host (Stein rarely misses a history or geography question). I particularly enjoy the way he translates his conservative worldview to TV by conducting the show with a formality that is both natural and mocking. (We’ve reached the point on TV—especially on Comedy Central, home of South Park and The Daily Show—where manners are fresh and invigorating.)

“I’m sorry, madam,” Stein will say gravely to a female contestant who’s missed a question. The other day, before taking on a finalist, he clasped his hands, bowed to his opponent, and said, “I bow to salute your Buddha nature, which is what is good and enduring in you and in all people.” Let’s hear Alex Trebek come up with a line like that.

Another thing that gives Stein’s TV personality a resonance other hosts lack is that he makes it clear he has a life outside of game shows. He’s just written a book, Tommy & Me: The Making of a Dad (The Free Press), about his experiences as a middle-aged father with a 10-year-old son. Part memoir, part how-to (the tome concludes with ”Ben Stein’s Ten Commandments of Fatherhood”), Tommy & Me is pretty useless as a practical guide; among other things, Stein freely admits that he often bribes Tommy into being good by taking him to a toy store and letting him have anything he wants. But it makes for fascinating reading as a portrait of a wealthy man who considers himself blessed by his success, his marriage, and his little boy, frequently referred to as Mister Perfect.

Rather than cloying, such irony-free corniness manages to seem charming. While in real life, I probably disagree with virtually everything Stein believes in (his politics seem as expedient as his parenting), I endorse him as an entertainer and as a TV force for good: articulate, amusing, and hardworking. May people venture to win Ben Stein’s money for years to come.

Oh, by the way: The 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt ended the Franco-Prussian War. Ben knew it; the contestant blew it. B+

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