Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Funny Professors

There's a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about eccentric professors. From the first paragraph it seems like it's going to be a lot of fun:

Ask anybody what adjective goes best with the word "professor," and the answer will almost certainly be "absent-minded," or possibly "nutty." Popular culture is full of addlebrained academics, whether they be villainous madmen like Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet or Sherlock Holmes's archenemy Professor Moriarty; crazy cranks like Professor Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, or well-meaning but harebrained eccentrics like Professor Brainard in The Absent-Minded Professor, Professor Branestawm in Norman Hunter's children's television series, Professor Pat Pending in the Hanna Barbera cartoon Wacky Races, or Professor Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame.

She forgot Flubber, and the two Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor movies.

Unfortunately, the fun doesn't last. The article is really a kind of meditation on the status of mental illness in academia, with special attention to issues like Asperger's Syndrome and the prevalence of anti-social behaviors amongst academics.

It's well worth reading and discussing of course. But I wanted to focus on the fun part this morning: the stereotype of the nutty professor. I'm really bored with the old hollywood cliché of the earnest, bearded prof (i.e., Robin Williams in that unbearable piece of faux-Indie sap, Good Will Hunting). I think we professors really ought to market our comedic powers more aggressively. I've often wondered why, on sites like "Rate Your Professor," there is no question about whether the professor is funny. Funny is important! Humor is almost as good as knowing what you're talking about (in some cases, it can even be a helpful substitute).

Hollywood (and Bollywood) can help us win this fight. One of the best funny professors ever on TV was "The Professor," from Gilligan's Island. (Incidentally, I was shocked to discover just now from IMDB that Gilligan's Island was only on the air between 1964 and 1967. Watching this show as a kid in the 1970s-80s, I suppose I thought I was watching its original run.)

The Professor on Gilligan's Island is the endless comedic foil in the show -- its laughably tweedy heart and soul. And he's the source of such comedic gems as:

Professor Roy Hinkley: Well, that glue is permanent! There's nothing on the island to dissolve it. Why do you know what it would take? It would take a polyester derivative of an organic hydroxide molecule.
Thurston Howell III: Watch your language! You're in the presence of a lady!

Ouch. Ok, maybe not that funny after all. Still, I've often wondered if I should start wearing tweed sportscoats to class, just to weird my students out (and keep them awake). I might also start carrying an old-fashioned tobacco pipe (which will remain unlit of course).

What about funny female professors? I can't think of any from TV or the movies (I know plenty in real life). For that matter, there aren't even that many women-as-professor roles back there. One recent film that comes to mind is the rather steamy crime drama In The Cut, where Meg Ryan plays an English professor. Not a great film, and definitely not funny.

The diabolical Dr. No from the old James Bond movie of the same title, and Star Trek's Dr. Spock also play "professors" in their respective contexts, though they aren't necessarily intentionally comedic. Still, Star Trek often worked Spock for laughs (think of the friction between Spock and Scotty), and Dr. No is funny because it seems so campy and absurd now (one can only watch it through the lens of Austin Powers).

Bollywood has its own professors -- IMDB turns up old films like Khiladi or, even further back, Kora Kagaz. I admit I haven't seen either of them. More recently, perhaps, one thinks of the faculty of the medical school in Munnabhai M.B.B.S..

Can anyone think of other amusing "professor" characters, from either the Bollywood or Hollywood canons? (Or, if you must, from literature)


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

If you include Bengali films then there are several. One particularly interesting one (though not strictly a professor) is the "Jadugar" character in Satyajit Ray's (well, what did you expect?) "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne". He is a scientist for hire who works in his lab, speaks a peculiar language, has enormous powers. He has no loyalties except to money and sells his abilities to the highest bidder.

Then of course there is (also Ray's) "Dr. Gupta" in "Ganashatru", which is a version of Ibsen's enemy of the people.

11:40 AM  
Kanya said...

What about Amitabh Bacchchan in "Mohabattein"? He is a royal p in the a with all his high-faultin' moralizing against which Sharukh Khan plays the equally sickly sweet rebel with a good heart etc. And the recent "Black" in which he is a teacher if not a professor. Films like Kuch Kuch hota hai have the professor sidekicks who nod knowingly if they are aiding and abetting the romance plot or glower and thunder if not. Anupam Kher plays the glowering principle+father. Wait, these are set in college right? Not high school? Of course, needless to say, none of these resemble any college that I studied in or visited during my undergrad years in India. There were no cell phones, no cars, no designer clothes in sight--only University special buses and the high academic mindset fuelled by second wave feminism!

11:42 AM  
arZan said...

Professor Brown in Mind your Language, the british comedy from the 70's !!

1:15 PM  
Jay said...

Amitabh in Chupke Chupke. Emma Thompson in Junior. David Schwimmer in Friends (the British accent!)

1:33 PM  
brimful said...

Amardeep, tsk, tsk. You forget the best professor on film of them all- one Indiana Jones. That said, he wasn't particularly funny in the few scenes we saw of him at lecture. But he was amusing.

The treatment of female professors in film or tv is an absolute shame. I think the only amusing one I've ever seen is Frances McDormand in Almost Famous. She was both funny and strong. I can't count Emma Thompson because I refused to watch Junior, but I could see her pulling it off in otherwise tripe-like film.

1:58 PM  
Scott Eric Kaufman said...

I know Emma Thompson's already been mentioned--and I know that in the fiction of the film she's not at all funny in the classroom--but her drier-than-dust performance in Wit's about as funny as slow death by cancer can be.

Having typed that, I'm almost inclined to untype it. But she's really, really funny in Wit.

4:14 PM  
Amardeep said...

Scott, I'm pretty sure I saw Wit, and yes, she was funny there.

But I haven't seen this film Junior that a couple of people have mentioned. I'll look for it!

Indiana Jones works, it seems to me. When he's not cooly gunning down oriental swordsmen (demonstrating his American pragmatism), he's often doing the "befuddled professor" thing. Perhaps we could say he's the funny professor on a colonialist field trip.

So many interesting Indian films. I haven't seen Mohabbatein, though I have seen Black. I didn't think much of Amitabh Bachchan there, but he certainly seems to be doing the professor thing. (Not funny, though)

I'm pretty sure I've seen Chupke Chupke, though I don't remember anything about it. (I might also be confusing it with Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, which I also don't remember. Huge black holes of memory when it comes to many Hindi films...)

I think the dearth of funny women professor movies needs to be rectified. I propose we concoct a proposal for a film where a coterie of funny women professors have some kind of adventure... Any takers?

The obvious age demographic is Sex and the City + 10 years. But maybe it might be more interesting if we mix up the age groups?

5:11 PM  
MD said...

Well, I was going to bring up Munnabhai MBBS which I love, except for the weird scene where they kill the Japanese? tourist. That was odd....

I read the first part of this article and thought: well, that explains a lot of faculty meetings.....

6:07 PM  
Anonymous said...

Mr. Spock.

No tension with Scotty. With Dr. McCoy.

Not actually a character I think as professiorial.

Don't really think of Dr. No that way either, though. He's really a scientist/technician: different trope.

Tim Burke

6:56 PM  
Prithi Shetty said...

What a delightful post !

Rating a Professor, say in feedback, on funny-quotient may only increase the pressure on them. And they may stop being funny ! Humor is definitely important, to stay awake in most classes.

Funny female scientist (not professor yes) reminds me Emma Thompson's character in Junior. And in Hindi Movies, there are Professor Parimal Tripathi and Prof Sukumar Sinha from Chupke Chupke. They were really funny, esp at playing with the language.

12:36 AM  
teji said...


How can you forget Prof. Higgins from My Fair Lady, what a delightful character & ofcourse sexy Sushmita Sen always droped in chiffon sarees in Main Hoon Na.


12:50 AM  
teji said...

draped sorry

12:51 AM  
RajpaL said...

Would Shammi Kapoor in the classic comedy 'Professor' count? He dresses up as an old professor to get a job. One of those old B&W (or was it colour) comedies of yesteryears!! Good wholesome family entertainment!

2:29 AM  
Amardeep said...

Teji, Of course, Professor Higgins! I forgot. He is funny, though he's also so mean to Audrey Hepburn he gives the rest of us a bad name.

Rajpal, I haven't seen "Professor," though it sounds just perfect.

And Tim, yes, I see what you mean about Spock especially. I included him because I was thinking of his character as fitting the general type: comically over-informed, completely emotionally detached, slightly eccentric looking. But maybe there should be a separate category for Commanders Spock and Data: the scientific unconscious.

7:12 AM  
Aswin said...

Rediff did a feature (slideshow really) on "teaching in the movies" (not necessarily at the college level). But here it is, and it begins with Sushmita Sen in "Main Hoon Na":

7:45 AM  
Mendi O. said...

Hmm. Some of my students have commented that I'm funny, but I'm usually shooting for 'corny'. I still remember lessons from my corny/funny teachers in high school.

Another filmic female English professor: Barbara Streisand in "The Mirror Has Two Faces"

3:31 PM  
Saheli said...

Not so funny: In the Cut, A Beautiful Mind. Not quite a professor: Infinity, about Feynman. The TV Movie Murder 101 with Pierce Brosnan was mildly amusing at times. I always thought Jimmy Stewart's character in Rope was a professor, but according to IMDB he's a schoolteacher. Haven't yet seen Mona Lisa Smile. Before Core burned a hole in my brain on the bus between Boston and NY, I noted that they showed a prof teachin in class. Does Cornel West in the Matrix count? That was kinda funny.

7:48 PM  
Mridula said...

There is this Bollywood movie, Munna Bhai MBBS where Bomman Irani is a professor of medicine and he is funny in a cliched role. Still Irani has done justice and much appriciated for his work.

7:48 AM  
Jane Sunshine said...

This is a really interesting post. The only high profile female professor type from Hollywood that I can think of is Julia Robert's in Mona Lisa Smile and that was so blearghhhh...I agree with Amardeep, some people should get together and make a movie about female professors ala sex and the city. But why +10 years? There are loads of young female professors whom I know of.

7:53 AM  
Ray Davis said...

The fourth season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" featured a formidable feminist theorist professor in the University of California system who turned out on the side to also run a paramilitary organization and be creating a Super-Frankenstein man (as a tribute to Mary Shelley, no doubt).

My favorite fictional female professor used to be Professor Burber from the extraordinary comic strip "9 Chickweed Lane". She taught chemistry and had frequent (and very realistic) battles with lazy bonehead students and sexist bonehead administrators. Sadly, she recently resigned and moved to a farm.

10:11 AM  

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