My Favorite TV Brainiacs

Who says nobody likes a wise guy? I certainly do, as long as they’ve got a certain element of wit or panache about them. On TV, this may be the golden age of smart characters, who amaze us with their knowledge while offering us a glimpse into the soul of a genius. These are my favorites.




As good as the writing is on “House,” there’s no denying how incredible Hugh Laurie is at making a nasty, drug-addicted wiseacre someone you want to watch every week. The most amazing thing may be how Laurie makes House’s diagnostic thought processes come alive without boring the hell out of us.

House: If her DNA was off by one percentage point she’d be a dolphin.




Lisa, created by Matt Groening and voiced by Yeardley Smith, is an animated TV treasure. She’s the voice of reason on “The Simpsons,” while also firing off hysterical material all her own.

Lisa: You made me love baseball. Not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable, passionate game, beaten in excitement only by every other sport.




Here’s how good Jim Parsons is as Sheldon, the genius among geniuses on “The Big Bang Theory.” He’s completely taken over that show without changing its essential vibe. High IQ has never been so entertaining.

Sheldon: You know, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that morality is just a fiction used by the herd of inferior human beings to hold back the few superior men … It’s worth noting that he died of syphilis.




For a time, Cavett and his TV talk show were at the nexus of national public discourse and intellectualism that regular people could fathom. He also was damned funny. Anyone who can go from trading quips with Groucho Marx to conducting a reasoned debate on the Vietnam War is a rare talent, in my book.

Cavett: There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?


“CHEERS” (1982-93)

“FRASIER” (1993-04)


Nobody does smart, sophisticated sitcom work like Kelsey Grammer. As Frasier Crane, he found the perfect outlet for his acting skills, from luxurious line readings to killer punch lines. Equally brilliant is Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier’s wife (and ex-wife) Lilith. their scenes together are terrific.

Frasier: Who is this colleague anyway?

Lilith: He’s the man who supplies me with lab rats. It’s about time we got together socially. I’ve known him for over fifty-two generations.




It would be easy to classify Brent Spiner’s android, Data, as a poor man’s Mr. Spock. But that would be wrong. This beloved sci-fi character was all-purpose: He provided comic relief, he stood in for humanity’s perennial search for meaning, and he often saved the day.

Data: I could be chasing an untamed ornithoid without cause. (A wild goose chase)


“FAMILY MATTERS” (1989-98)


Jaleel White’s sitcom juggernaut appears on the List not because of his sparkling dialogue or great acting. It’s more for his sheer outrageousness. Urkel was this irritating explosion of annoyance and weird clothing who had to be seen to be believed.

Urkel: You won’t be sorry, sir. I can assure you that we Urkels are a fine, old family with a proud name. You know that in Kenya, “Urkel” means “a benign cyst on the foreleg of a wildebeest?”


“MR. WIZARD” (1951-65)


For a lot of Baby Boomers, Mr. Wizard presided over a friendly TV outpost where scientific curiosity was celebrated, not shunned. Don Herbert was the original Science Guy.

Mr. Wizard: Fruit, cereal, milk, bread and butter, the five elements of a healthy breakfast.




The only cartoon pooch to make the List, Mr. Peabody was a wicked punster. He and his boy, Sherman, would time travel into the past and interact with Ben Franklin, say, or Nero – all for the sake of a labored one-liner. Naturally, I thought he was tops. Kudos to the great voice stylist, Bill Scott.

Mr. Peabody: Peabody, here.




By rights, this dude deserved a Nobel Prize or two. The Professor could take a couple of coconuts, a shoelace and some bamboo and construct a working generator. His one failing? He couldn’t figure out a way off that crazy island. You were still cool, though, Russell Johnson.

Professor: All right, Ginger, read my mind.

Ginger: 36, 22, 36.

Professor: Well, that’s just the atomic weight of sodium hydro-chloride.




This show has a bunch of solid characters, but it would fall flat without the appealing performance of Emily Deschanel as Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan. She’s the smartest person in the room, without being overly odd or neurotic.

Bones: People lie, but bones always tell the truth.


“MONK” (2002-09)


Monk, on the other hand, is all about the weirdness. Tony Shalhoub outfitted his skittish sleuth with a slew of neurotic tendencies, to great effect.

Monk: I have lived my whole life without feeling a drifter’s face. I’ve always been proud of that. Even on my worst days I can tell myself: At least I’ve never felt a drifter’s face.


“DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D.” (1989-93)


It’s amazing that Neil Patrick Harris was able to emerge from the shadow of this character, a genius kid who becomes a doctor. Doogie was so endearing and memorable that it gave us all hope for a generation of smart, thoughtful kids to come.

Patient: Wait a minute. You’re a kid.

Doogie: True, but I’m also a genius. If you have a problem with that, I can get you an older doctor who’s not as smart as me.




As Malcolm, the smart kid in a seriously nutty family, Frankie Muniz found the truth at the heart of an absurd role: Brains alone are no match for the overwhelming insanity of family life. Sometimes it’s just best to go with the craziness.

Malcolm: I did the math once; it turns out, every 17.4 dinners, my family actually has a pleasant meal together.




To me, William Petersen’s Grissom was the best of the various TV crime procedural folks (his show is still on the air, but he left a couple of years ago). He was passionate about his work, he didn’t miss details and he had a sense of humor. But he also had a tortured, slightly weary quality about him, too.

Grissom: People just don’t vanish, Jim. It’s a molecular impossibility.


“THE TONIGHT SHOW”, ETC. (1950-52, 54-57, 56-61, ETC.)


Steve Allen was the prototype of the brainy TV host. There would be no David Letterman, Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel without him. He had several shows over the years, including the first incarnation of “The Tonight Show,” where his ad libs and off-the-cuff remarks were pure gold. Plus, only a true egghead would dream up “Meeting of the Minds,” a 1970s show where Allen interviewed actors portraying historical figures.

Steve Allen: I used to be a heavy gambler. But now I just make mental bets. That’s how I lost my mind.


“STAR TREK” (1966-69)


Spock never seems to go out of style. A generation of nerds and misunderstood types – possibly including the President of the United States – can attest to that. From his computer-like mind to his supercool Vulcan neck pinch, Leonard Nimoy fashioned a character even lunkheads will forever recognize.

Spock: Vulcans never bluff.


“BARNEY MILLER” (1974-82)


Though never a household name, the late Steve Landesberg was a truly gifted performer. Here, he played a riotously funny cop whose razor-sharp wit and bemused smile undercut a certain vulnerability that I think is very common among highly intelligent people. His Det. Dietrich was a true outsider, all too aware of the contradictions of human behavior, yet determined to engage with the world. A Brainiac with a soul. I still laugh all these years later, remembering some of his lines.

Barney, looking at a box of confiscated sex toys: What is that thing with the feathers?

Dietrich: I don’t know, but it’s reasonably priced.

That’s my List. So who are your favorite TV smart guys?