Since David Rees has written an entire book on how to sharpen a pencil, he seems the perfect choice to host a new National Geographic Channel series that elevates mundane activities into subjects of in-depth investigation.
Through the rest of July and August, "Going Deep With David Rees," which premiered July 14, will tell viewers more than they ever thought they could possibly know about: digging a hole, tying a shoe, making ice cubes, shaking hands and throwing a paper airplane.
The series (10 p.m. Mondays) follows "Brain Games." It's part of what has become a new National Geographic programming genre designed to explain how the world works.
"Brain Games" (9 p.m. Mondays) started it all. So far, host Jason Silva has guided viewers through experiments intended to show how the brain perceives things such as motion, space and time. The new season gets more abstract, with tests devised to measure compassion, anger, addiction and intuition.
A three-hour "Brain Games" special in 2011 did so well that the network quickly ordered a series, which became National Geographic's most popular program, says Courteney Monroe, the network's chief executive.
"It remains unique on the television landscape," she adds. "That was what kind of ignited it for us. As we watched the performance continue to grow, we said, 'What else can we get in this space?' "
Other shows were launched to appeal to the same taste. In "None of the Above" (11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Sundays) host Tim Shaw conducts experiments and asks people to predict the outcome. "The Numbers Game" (no new episodes currently scheduled) uses statistics, role play and experiments to answer questions like "are you a risk taker?" or "can you be a hero?"
One series soon to come, "Mind Over Masses," was inspired by YouTube clips. It explores ways to make people change behavior, like painting stairs to look like a piano so people use them more than an elevator. The upcoming "You Can't Lick Your Elbow" examines the human body. "Mapology," due next year, uses data analysis to uncover some of the world's unexpected realities.
The network has also given the go-ahead to a miniseries about inventors, "American Genius," produced by the same company that made "The Men Who Built America."
It's enough to make the brain hurt.
Monroe hopes to balance the interest in viewers unleashed by "Brain Games" without oversaturating the market, keeping in mind that competing networks will surely develop copycats. "We're always worried about that," she says.
Within the genre, "Going Deep" is a little risky, Monroe says. Rees is a former political cartoonist and a comedian who -- honest! -- maintains a side business sharpening pencils for money. He and the show have an edgy New York wit.
"He's quirky," Monroe says. "The show is quirky. The sensibility is quirky. I don't know if it's going to work. I love that we're trying it."
As the title suggests, "Going Deep" uses each show's question to take intriguing side trips. An episode on how to strike a match delves into the science of fire, which Rees finds not as haphazard as he thought. He finds a scientist with striking new designs for real airplanes to talk to on his show about paper airplanes, and is shown glacial ice hundreds of thousands of years old in his ice cube program. Producers flew in an expert on knots from Australia for the shoelace episode.
"I think that was our entire travel budget," he says.
Rees predicts his show has found the right home in the geeky corner of National Geographic Channel. "We had three networks saying, 'We're out there looking for a new 'Duck Dynasty,' " he says. "I said, 'This is not your next 'Duck Dynasty.' "