Canadians all across the country are putting their wits back to the test with the third season of CBC’s Canada’s Smartest Person. For those not already familiar with the concept, the reality competition series tests its contestants based on the multiple intelligence theory, which poses that there are several modes of intelligence, including visual, verbal and logical. The individual able to master all the intelligences through each challenge gets their shot at the title of Canada’s Smartest Person and more than a few bragging rights.
This year Canada’s Smartest Person is introducing a speed round, where contestants will have to think on their feet and answer questions as quickly as possible to avoid early elimination. As in previous seasons, the winners of each week’s episode will return in the finale to earn the ultimate title.
The TV Junkies had a chance to speak with host Jessi Cruickshank on how the series has affected her perspective on intelligence, the rigours of hosting a fast-paced reality show and look back on her days chatting about The Hills.
The TV Junkies: Canada’s Smartest Person has so many diverse contestants, especially in terms of age and occupation. In the premiere alone there’s a female gamer as well as an engineer. Have you been surprised by the contestants you’ve seen over the show’s three seasons?
Jessi Cruickshank: That’s the best part of this job and this show. I’m constantly surprised. It’s not just the diversity of the people on the show with what they do or where they come from, male or female. We have thousands of people applying and I’m constantly blown away by how different every single person is. We’ve had hip hop artists do incredibly well, last year we had a truck driver in the season finale. In this season, like you mentioned, we have a female gamer who plays video games [professionally] and is so impressive. People that you might underestimate who really prove that they’re so strong across the board when it comes to these facets of multiple intelligence.
TTVJ: Has the show’s demonstration of the multiple intelligence theory changed or maybe challenged your personal ideas of intelligence since you began hosting?
JC: 100 percent! And I hope it’s changed that perception for the viewers too, because there is this real sense of intelligence [as seen in] Jeopardy. The smartest people are the ones who know their facts and figures, who memorize trivia or score well on an IQ test, and the theory of multiple intelligence really throws all of that out, and celebrates real world intelligence. Are you physically intelligent? Are you coordinated? For you, you have to be linguistically intelligent to write. Are you visually intelligent? We have a makeup artist this year who uses visual intelligence every day in what she does, and you might underestimate someone like that.
As much as sometimes the show makes me feel dumb, since I’m surrounded by brilliant people, it also sort of builds me up and I hope builds our viewers up to say, ‘no, the fact that you can do a puzzle or calculate a bill at a restaurant means you do have logical intelligence, or you are strong in your own different ways.’
TTVJ: I definitely agree with you. At least watching the premiere, especially during the new speed round, I found myself able to answer some of those questions, and it did boost that feeling of intelligence.
JC: I’m so happy you feel that way! Were you good at math in school?
TTVJ: God no.
JC: Right! Me neither. As a kid you’re taught that you’re either good at math or not good at math, and that idea follows you into adulthood. At least it did for me. Then I do these challenges on the show and it actually makes me realize that I am logically intelligent, but it was beat out of me through my schooling. I think this is a way to celebrate intelligence that doesn’t have to do with a pop quiz or a math test.
TTVJ: There are so many different elements to the show. As a host how difficult is it to keep up with the challenges while keeping the audience, both live and at home, engaged and entertained?
JC: It is really hard. I think the most unique aspect of this show is that these are real people. They’re not the Donald Trumps of the world. They’re not wanting to be celebrities looking to be on a reality show. These are real world, smart, humble people who want to prove something to themselves. We have moms wanting to prove something to their kids. So it’s my job to make them feel comfortable on this elaborate stage with these lights and sets and cameras, and that’s a really unique thing. Ultimately 75 percent of it is how intelligent they are and then there’s the other 25 percent that relies on how well they can perform under pressure. None of them have been on television before. Really, I befriend them. By the time the show ends we’re very close. We stay in touch—I still talk to most of the competitors from previous seasons. That’s the biggest rule for me—the show is about them, not about me, so just making sure they’re comfortable enough to do well and to keep their energy up as the show goes on.
TTVJ: I was a big fan of The Hills: The After Show with yourself and Dan Levy back on MTV Canada. Now there’s shows like Talking Dead and After the Black, but how does it feel to be a pioneer of that popular TV trend?
JC: We will take full credit for that. I believe that our show was definitely the first. Now, like you said, they’re everywhere. I’d be surprised if the news doesn’t have its own after show—it’s getting a bit ridiculous. I’ll wear that proudly that we were the first.
The reason we were the first was that, one, we had to have Canadian content. We were MTV Canada, so in order to broadcast American shows like Laguna Beach or The Hills we had to balance it out with a certain amount of Canadian programming. Part of the reason was just to fill the Canadian content mandate, and the other reason was that we had a talk license at MTV Canada, we didn’t have a music license. We had to create talk content around all of our shows to survive at the network under the licensing agreement. I cannot take credit for the brilliant idea for the show, it was strictly created out of necessity. The fact that we were able to make something that actually resonated with people and that they started to watch and became this hit show is pretty incredible because we made it because we had to.
TTVJ: Why do you think it is that people connect to the commentary around the shows they watch?
JC: We followed the sports model when we started the show, that’s why we had a telestrator that we drew on the people. We literally were just following sports talk, which is when you watch a great game, you want to sit around and hear people talk about it. We applied that to our show and then people started to realize that when you watch a great show that you love and are passionate about, you don’t want that experience to end. You want to keep engaging, you want to keep talking, you want to hear other people’s thoughts on it.
I think, ironically, what happened with The Hills is we forced people to think of The Hills as a watercooler-type show. We were the ones having the watercooler conversation after the show, so we elevated it to a place where people felt they should be talking about it. And, let’s be honest, there were seasons and certainly episodes where there was literally nothing to talk about, nothing happened. And yet, when you have a vehicle that exists solely to talk about the previous show, it creates this attitude that there’s got to be something to talk about. That, I think, was an interesting facet as to why Laguna Beach and The Hills was so popular, especially in Canada, because people felt like it was something they had to be watching since everybody was talking about it, when really only Dan and I were talking about it to begin with, and it sparked the conversation from there.
TTVJ: What do you think audiences will enjoy the most about the upcoming season of Canada’s Smartest Person?
JC: There are many things. It’s very competitive. We’ve introduced a speed round this year—we start with six, we cut it down to four, then cut it down to three, so throughout the show half of my job as a host is to send people that we, as a nation, have fallen in love with, home. It’s not very Canadian, to be honest, for a show called Canada’s Smartest Person. It’s pretty cutthroat. But also, there’s some really heartwarming stories this season. I’m so happy that it’s almost Christmas time and we have this warm, fuzzy feeling as we cuddle in front of the TV because there are people who have overcome really incredible things. We have someone who had a terrible accident and had a brain injury and is triumphing here on our show, proving he’s still intelligent. We just have these really heartwarming characters on our show and I think people will fall in love with them and find a competitor every episode to root for.
Are you a believer in the multiple intelligence theory? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Canada’s Smartest Person premieres Sunday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC.
Associate Editor Kelly Townsend always had strong opinions on TV growing up, so it was only natural to evolve from couch musings to online journalism. She can't ever choose a favorite series, so please don't ask. Her writing has also appeared on IndieWire and Tribute.ca. You can find her on Twitter at @kellybtownsend.