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)