Being a Comedy Central neighbor to the T&A-ogling sensibilities of "The Man Show" — where the most intriguing male on the set is a drooling bulldog — and well-worn reruns of "Saturday Night Live" makes being the smartest guy on the block a pretty easy task, especially for Ben Stein. But that's not to say that Stein needs a dumbed-down backdrop to showcase his first-rate geek humor. He has all the wit and character he needs to do it on his own. All Stein ever needed was a medium.
Well, now he has — and merits — two of them.
The professorial actor is giving Comedy Central a double dose of his straight-edged, pleasingly dry persona. Already a hit with the carefully paced game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money," Stein debuted "Turn Ben Stein On" at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 2. His first guests were comedian and filmmaker Carl Reiner (father of Rob Reiner) and Catie Wagner (Robert Wagner's daughter), who joined Stein to offer insights and anecdotes about the experiences of raising and being raised by famous names in Hollywood.
Granted, these guests weren't the hottest stars pushing their next box office smashes or pop stars being peddled to the talk-show circuit by some publicist with 600 deadlines and high blood pressure. But, as the title of the show indicates, the point of turning Ben Stein on is entering his sphere of interest, a world filtered through his vision and insights, and overshadowed by his personal style. Perhaps for that very reason, "Turn Ben Stein On" is a world away from any other talk show experience on television.
True to the promise on the show's Web page, Stein was fair, interesting, direct and only kissed ass when it was "completely necessary." Representing a true departure from the "Late Show" interview templates (e.g. "So tell us about your new movie"), Stein indulged in pleasant rambling, general conversation and off-beat humor tucked neatly in the context of the evening's assigned topic: "Growing Up in Hollywood."
In all the polite discourse, an unassuming yet unabashed Stein tackled tough topics in his own circumspect style. He asked Reiner about nepotism and Wagner about philandering and divorce. But the sparks he created weren't meant to ignite tempers, only to illuminate. His approach was diplomatic and countless notches above the meaningless goading and shock-value provocation spewed by Geraldo Rivera or Howard Stern.
"Turn Ben Stein On" says this effortlessly gregarious and knowledgeable all-around TV guy has a lot more to offer than the cash for questions given away on his game show. From its dignified studylike set to the canine joy of Puppy Wuppy Stein, the German shorthair near and dear to the host's heart, "Turn Ben Stein On" promises to catch on subtly. Hopefully, it will be able to hang with the fellow breastfests and droll reruns that run on the Comedy Channel.
With the successes of Comedy Central shows that register on the vapid end of the entertainment scale as indicators of public taste, one does wonder whether or not viewers are ready for paneled walls, library furniture or real, purposeful discussion, let alone Stein's signature irony reflected in everything he does, right up to the name of the new talk show. Irony? Nuances? It all sounds like something for Canadian television or PBS, not the cable station famous for "South Park."
Stein is no "South Park." His shows move at their own pace, stay true to one sensibility and maintain branded values that assume we are all thoughtful, intelligent human beings out here in viewerland. While Stein's own survival and success on Comedy Central is an enigma wrapped in a personalized dollar bill, we can at least speculate that the magic in his television ventures stems from a startlingly unique personality that runs against the grain of our popular culture.
Who ever dreamed anyone but "Dr. Katz" and "Bob & Margaret" could thrive on subtlety on Comedy Central?
It was Stein's classic deadpan voice that managed to make TV commercials for eyedrops unforgettable. Stein also had a cameo role as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The details might be hard to recall, but his voice repeating "Anyone, anyone?" to a class of brain-dead teens clings to our memories. Because of its irony, it lodged in our cultural consciousness as the embodiment of boredom driven to the point of being funny.
On both "Win Ben Stein's Money" and "Turn Ben Stein On," the ironic thrust has been carried over. Stein is a quirky host who polishes his eggheadedness to a charming finish. Whether he is quizzing contestants on history and politics or interviewing peripheral Hollywood figures, Stein manages to stand above the fluctuating standards of most of funny TV.
The bulk of Comedy Central fare — and the rest of TV game and talk shows, for that matter — is tired and overworked, making Stein's individual shtick seem all the more appealing. The charmingly monotone voice, cool personality and quirky concepts make turning Ben Stein on even more fulfilling than taking money out of his pocket.