Back in his office later that evening, Thompson explains the genesis of his interest in pop culture. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, where he initially planned to be an art history professor. But on Sunday nights, when the dorms didn't serve food, he would eat takeout in front of the TV. He found that he chose "CHiPs," with Erik Estrada, over PBS, and became fascinated with the question: "Why do smart people watch dumb TV?"
He did his thesis on Dante's "Divine Comedy" but came to believe that "art could be something that came out of a TV set." That led to a broader interest in popular culture.
Thompson, who's written or edited six books of his own, gets up each day at five to read; he consumes three new books a week, not to mention uncounted hours of TV. (He also has a family that he spends time with.) He's constantly becoming enamored with new areas of pop culture.
Right now, Thompson's focusing his pop-culture lens on ancient times. "I'm interested in the celebrity culture of ancient Rome," he says. "Back then, as now, it was who you knew that got you into parties."It dovetails with a broader Thompson thesis: So many things that we think are new, really aren't. "American Idol," you say? Nothing new, he replies. Remember Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour?"
It's not just the breadth of Thompson's interests that make him so quotable. It's his accessibility he returns phone calls promptly and the un-academic way he speaks.
"Unlike many people in his position, he almost always finds an angle or perspective that I hadn't thought about," says AP television writer David Bauder.
Angela Nelson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, says Thompson is "performing a great service for the discipline. Television in particular has been seen to be trivial, and his paying attention to it and preserving it is good for the culture." Nelson is the head of her university's popular culture department the only full department in the country devoted to the subject, established in the 1970s. (Most pop culture courses are nestled in other departments like English, communications or sociology.)
Thompson has been quoted so often, at least one reporter has told him of a "moratorium" at their newspaper on quoting him. One can see why editors would notice. At The New York Times alone, an archive search shows Thompson quoted more than 40 times in the past four years, by writers in a wide range of areas. At the AP, he's been quoted close to 20 times in the past year.
Thompson says he's weary of the most-quoted-guy label, but Rubin, his dean, says: "Bob is very proud of his status. He's just got a certain modesty about him." He adds that Thompson is not at all hierarchical: If a school paper calls before a major news organization, they'll get the return call first.
As a teacher, Thompson is said to be generous with his time, though he's known as a tough grader something that can disappoint a student hoping to get an easy ride in a pop culture class. "He really has a lot of time for his students," says Carolyn Davis, a doctoral student in media studies who assisted Thompson this semester. "People will come in just to talk, and he'll order lunch."
In any case, the university loves his star status. "My job is to keep Bob happy," says Rubin.
Thompson says he learns from the give-and-take with the media. Besides, it's a teacher's job to preach what he knows and Thompson feels Americans need a basic working knowledge of their own pop culture.
"To understand the history of this nation," he says, leaving you with one last Thompson-ism, "you have to understand its presidents and its wars.
"But you also need to understand its lawn ornaments and its cheeseburgers."
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