On Wednesday, May 1 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, Discovery is going to be unveiling what may be one of their most interesting series yet in “The Big Brain Theory.” It’s a competition show in the same vein as what you would see from “Top Chef” or “Project Runway,” but there is also a pretty distinct difference. Rather than just trying to cook the perfect meal or present a great fashion line, these contestants are competing for the opportunity to help change and innovate the world around us. Basically, this is “King of the Nerds” for innovators, engineers, and thinkers.
We’ve seen the first episode for the show, and while we will save some of our specific thoughts for when it airs, we will say that it does a magnificent job of capturing some of the personalities as any great reality competition should, but it also introduces and explains challenges that have some sort of application in the real world. At the center of this are host Kal Penn and one of the show’s judges in Mark Fuller, the founder of the innovation studio WET that is behind many water-based achievements including the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas.
We had a chance to speak with both of these men this past week in a call, and for Penn, we asked him about the remarkable place that he is in his career. He has done work at the White House, in TV, and in film, and when asked about what the future could hold for him, he responded by saying that he looks forward to continuing going off the beaten path and choosing projects that are close to his heart:
“Right now I’m incredibly blessed to have some choice there. I remember a year ago when I came back to LA and finished my Sabbatical up at the White House, I moved back and a week later was on ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ It was awesome, and in a way I felt like it was an embarrassment of riches and felt really, really blessed to come back to that.
“And thinking longer term, when we were shooting ‘Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,’ I was working on a film in London and another one in upstate New York. The schedule was nuts and I would hop in and do a day on our Discovery Channel show and then go for three days and then come back from New York. I was really fortunate to get to do all of that.
“In the next year, I have a [CBS comedy pilot that could get picked up]. I’m also developing a sitcom for CBS for the following season. I’ve got a ‘Harold & Kumar’ animated series that Adult Swim is doing, and there are a couple of movies in the pipeline that I’m hoping to do in the summer. I’d love the opportunity to do. I like making people laugh and the frivolous nature of those sorts of movies, and I also love the dorky, more serious nature of my personality where I get to explore super-cool inventions with the engineers that we spent the last eight or ten weeks with.
As for Fuller, we had a chance to ask him a question that we often wonder with these competition judges: What would be the biggest challenge for them if they were a contestant? Would it be the tasks, or the other contestants? His brief response to that gave us that insight, and he was also quick to elaborate into how this show gives many contestants an experience that it took him much longer to obtain in the real world:
“Well I have the advantage of any of them in being an older person, and I’ve been knocking around in the real world. This show gave these contestants an accelerated life experience … In my view, these ten individuals are such prime candidates for hiring whoever sweeps them up. We of course get the winner here [at WET], but I think this is worth a Master’s degree and a Ph.D compressed in what they really learn.
“One of the [key elements] here, and Discovery gets a lot of credit for really supporting this; unlike most other reality shows where once you lose, you’re like ‘goodbye, and the [person is gone],’ we needed five people on each team for every challenge because they needed to build their designs. So after feeling humiliated or let down, you had to come back, pull up your socks, and be a contributing member on somebody’s team, even someone you were against before. Now you’re with them. That’s life. If you finish a project at a company, you go to another department, you come in, and you mix it up. You don’t get to quit and throw a temper-tantrum and storm off like you do on other reality TV.
“One of the contestants said to me towards the end that ‘I’m a really smart person. I’ve never failed in my life. I had to fail over and over and over again on this show. It was the hardest thing I had to deal with, but I’m a different person coming away from it because I know that failure is one of the greatest steps to success.’ That moment, from a personal standpoint, made doing the whole show worthwhile.”
Hopefully, “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” will spark a light bulb in a viewer or two at home, and inspire them to also work to innovate rather than just exist. Let’s also hope that it draws enough viewers to stick around for years to come.