Quotomat: Thompson Is Pop Culture Answer Man

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson can make studying Paris Hilton sound downright scholarly.

Mr. Thompson, founder of the university's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, is the journalist's go-to guy for a ready quote on the entertainment media's madness du jour.

He is the Norman Ornstein or Marshall Wittman, if you will, of the pop culture beat.

Don't believe us? Try Googling the good professor - just make sure to stretch in between readings. It's going to take a while.

The 46-year-old can extemporize with ease on everything from "Everwood" to "The Apprentice" and sound as if he's been studying each for years.

In fact, he has.

Mr. Thompson began his academic career as an art history major but found the amount of literature dedicated to the subject daunting.

"I thought I could study the history of television as an art form ... there were three books [on the subject]," he says. "In one weekend you could get yourself completely up to speed."

Not everyone agreed "art" and "television" belonged in the same sentence.

"In the academic field at large there was a lot of resistance," he says. "I was besmirching their ivory-covered walls."

He eventually found a welcoming home at Syracuse University.

The center, which dates back to 1997, involves courses, seminars, conferences and books dealing with mass media. It also collects a wealth of television goodies, from oral histories from the medium's early giants (Steve Allen, Milton Berle) to scripts and other primary source materials.

Mr. Thompson, a former Ferris wheel operator, says it's the center's mission to put popular culture in context.

It's easy to wring our hands over how a singing disaster like "American Idol's" William Hung can snare a record contract, but it really isn't all that different from vaudeville's novelty singers known for badly belting out a tune, he says.

The vaudeville reference isn't accidental.

"To understand TV you had to understand the radio before it," he says. "To understand radio, you've got to understand vaudeville. …