Columbo and Me…oh, and Just One More Thing!

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo on the left, me in my thrift-sourced Columbo outfit on the right.

By Alex Ng

An Elder Millennial’s Journey to Ethnic Studies & Visual Arts, Part 3

This multipart journal is where I am documenting my thoughts as I embark on the journey of revising all of my classes from decent Visual Arts curriculum with some Ethnic Studies themes and content integrated throughout, to true Ethnic Studies Visual Arts at all levels: curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom culture.

Part 3 gives up on any notion of this journal being sequential in nature and instead is hyper-focused on a single aspect of my pedagogy: my obsession with Columbo and its impact on my teaching.

A thorough look at how America’s favorite rumpled TV detective has influenced my teaching

My memory is very shaky on when I first started watching Columbo. Oh, I’m sure I caught a peek or two at some point in my childhood with reruns on some retro TV Land channel, and I may have even watched a scene on ABC during the show’s 1990’s revival and decided it wasn’t worth my time. But I didn’t actually watch Columbo until some time in the mid-2010’s. I believe it was roughly 2015 or so when I decided to give this quirky murder mystery show from America’s television past a shot, back when the entire original 1970’s run was still on Netflix. At the time, I was interested in all manner of mystery shows including the recent BBC Sherlock, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and the like. I don’t recall doing any research into Columbo; I think the show must have appeared in the “more like this” tab on Netflix. 

Little did I know then how swift and utterly complete the show’s takeover of my life would be. I was initially hooked by the novel format, something that has since been used in many other programs: we watch the murderer commit the murder first, then spend the rest of the show watching Lieutenant Columbo play a skillful game of cat and mouse until a final scene where the murderer is exposed. So, Columbo isn’t your run-of-the-mill whodunit, instead it’s a howcatchem. What’s great fun about everything that unfolds between the murder and finale is how the murderer so often underestimates the bumbling, shabbily dressed Columbo, and think they themselves are the cat, stringing along the mouse-detective only to find out at the last moment that they were the mouse all along. 

To say I am a Columbo fan would be an understatement. I own a Columbo mug, a Columbo t-shirt, and numerous Columbo books. I have watched and rewatched episodes, analyzed them, proselytized them to friends, colleagues, students, strangers on a train, and all across the world wide web (as I am doing at this very moment). I watch Columbo retrospectives on Youtube, seek out Columbo podcasts, and read every Columbo article written during the ongoing COVID pandemic. You might be surprised to learn that Columbo was a bonafide quarantine hit. The same lovable qualities of the character that captured my attention in 2015 fascinated bored binge-watchers in 2020.

My growing Columbo book collection

One such quality that sets Lieutenant Columbo apart from his TV detective peers is his unfailing politeness towards suspects and murderers. Through his unfailing politeness he gives murderers endless opportunities to dig their own graves. In the classroom, through my (mostly) unfailing politeness, I give students endless opportunities to dig their own graves. Just joking! Through my politeness, I hope to give students endless opportunities to be successful in class, to make better choices, to develop a positive relationship to learning. 

Politeness, though, doesn’t capture the full extent of Columbo’s nature. At his core, he is humble, and his humility creates opportunities for him to learn about and from suspects and murderers. Through his humility Columbo learns all about wine in the episode Any Old Port in a Storm, the sport and culture of bullfighting in A Matter of Honor, and stage magic in Now You See Him. Because of his genuine humility, Columbo is open and eager to learn from those he meets in the course of his work. Much in the same way, I believe an ethnic studies educator must approach the work of teaching with great humility and an openness and eagerness to learn from those around them, especially their students. In my classroom, I work to create a consistent feedback loop where students help me grow as an educator and bring knowledge into the classroom that I do not possess. I acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers and hope students will learn as much from each other as they do from me… if not more. As Columbo learns from the people he crosses paths with in his work, I strive to learn from my students and colleagues. 

I believe it is the responsibility of an ethnic studies educator to effectively disperse power and authority throughout the classroom, to let go of outdated notions of the authoritarian teacher, and to welcome into the classroom students’ personal agency while guiding them towards learning. Watching Columbo, I see how the Lieutenant effectively masks his own authority in deference to the will and personality of the murderer. While pursuing very different aims, I have consciously and unconsciously borrowed many of Columbo’s techniques to shift power dynamics and notions of authority in my classroom in a way that invites students to let their guard down and allow more of themselves to enter the classroom space.

Some of my Columbo sketches

There is great debate in the Columbo fandom about how much of the good Lieutenant’s persona is a guise, a well-honed performance to achieve his aim of catching murderers. Much in the same way, I will acknowledge that a healthy dose of my teaching is performance. I have developed routines, language, and mannerisms that are a part of my teaching, honed to achieve my aim of building positive relationships with students and making them feel seen and valued. At times, I have questioned the authenticity of my own performance just as Columbo fans question the authenticity of his. One day, while pondering Columbo’s persona (which happens most days if I’m being honest), I realized something important: although the Lieutenant is undeniably putting on a performance, the performance is absolutely an extension of his real personality. Put another way, Columbo’s Lieutenant persona is an honest reflection of his authentic self. Reflecting on my own teaching, I find the same to be true. Although years of applying my craft has resulted in a certain predictability in my routines, turns of phrase, and mannerisms, they are honest reflections of who I am as a person. In fact, I have worked hard to make sure this is true. I believe the more closely aligned my teaching and identity are, the more sustainable my career in teaching will be. Not having to put up a facade to step in front of students and teach makes doing my job much more satisfying. Although I take comfort in this realization, what I did not expect were the ways in which Columbo’s performance would influence my own.

Columbo raises his hand during a publicity shoot for the show

Take for example Columbo’s classic gesture of raising his hand above his head when he wants to ask someone a question. Columbo will raise his hand up and keep it there while he walks over to the person he wants to talk to. It’s an unusual gesture and something of a trademark for the character. I didn’t realize until earlier this school year that I use the very same gesture. With no conscious thought and no intention of mimicking Columbo, I noticed that when students raised their hands for my attention, I had a habit of raising my own hand in response and keeping it up while I walked over to their table to assist them. Realizing this, I decided to add a new component to this habit: now, when a student raises their hand for my attention, and I raise my hand in return while walking over to them, I complete the routine with a high five, pushing my raised hand into their raised hand before turning my attention to whatever the student called me over for.

Columbo approaches his work with absolute dedication to curiosity, a need to find answers to all the questions that bother him. The Lieutenant carries around a small notebook, writes down details and questions that bother him, and will pursue them until he can connect the dots and find answers. When I encounter a problem in teaching, I write them down on sticky notes, on a small notepad I keep on my desk, and in a note taking app on my phone. I will revisit my notes again and again until I can cross them off, marking each curiosity as resolved. With all of his paraphernalia, Columbo inevitably forgets where he put what: in which pocket is his pencil, his notepad, his cigar? On a daily basis I carry with me a pen, pencil, clicker, and my phone while teaching. And it’s anyone’s guess which pocket each item is in. Just as Columbo often fumbles through his pockets looking for the item he needs, I will often stand in the front of class, fumbling through my pockets to find my clicker to advance the lesson or my phone to pause the music. I become a Columbo parody without even meaning to!

Columbo’s curiosity extends well beyond the details of each individual case; he’s also deeply curious about the people he meets in the course of his investigations. He wants to see the good in people, even in the people he has to put away. Being a homicide detective brings him into contact with people from all walks of life, and he is curious about all of them. As a teacher, I adopt a similar approach. I am curious about my students. I make time to get to know them and for them to get to know each other. I try to center my own and my students’ humanity in class: to see the good in them, especially in those I struggle with.

“There’s niceness in everyone, a little bit anyhow.” – Lieutenant Columbo

These similarities are fun to muse over, but the deepest affinity I feel with Columbo is with his work ethic: Columbo is dogged. He never gives up. His bag of tricks is deep and when he exhausts those, he will come up with new ones. I admire his unending dedication to his work. And even more than that, I love that he loves what he does. Strange as it may sound for a homicide detective, Columbo loves his work.

“All my life I kept running into smart people…In school there were lots of smarter kids…but I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did…and I really love my work, sir.”

– Lieutenant Columbo

Many times I have exhausted my own bag of tricks and will sit in my classroom or on the train thinking up new approaches to the problems I face. And as exhausting and frustrating as the work can be from time to time, I never stop loving teaching. If you love what you do, then the burden you live with is the drive to always do better. When I watch Columbo contemplate the sticking points of a case while hunched over a bowl of chili, I see a reflection of myself and my relationship to teaching.

Student artwork of Columbo for my study hall pass

Just One More Thing!

In venerating the character of Lieutenant Columbo, I would be remiss to not discuss the real-life person who played him. A core belief in ethnic studies is centering humanity in teaching and learning: to recognize the people we learn from and with. Peter Falk was not the first actor to play Columbo. That honor belongs to American actor Bert Freed who debuted the character on Enough Rope: a live TV movie on an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show in 1960. Two years later, a stage adaptation of Enough Rope was performed across the country under the new title Prescription Murder with veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell in the Lieutenant Columbo role. But Peter Falk was the actor who made the character a television icon that has endured in the public consciousness to this day. Having seen Bert Freed’s performance on Youtube and watched and read many interviews with the original creators of the character and show, William Link and Richard Levinson, I can confidently say that Falk brought so much to the character that wasn’t written on the page. He improvised many of Columbo’s numerous stories of cousins and nephews (most of whom are surely invented), Mrs. Columbo’s wide variety of interests that somehow always seem to relate to the profession of the murderer (most of them surely exaggerated, if not completely invented), and his bumbling behavior (surely an act to encourage the murderer to dismiss his immense intellect). Falk breathed life into the character of Columbo, gave him his quirks, his richness, and his glass eye. What was that about a glass eye, you ask? Well, Peter Falk’s right eye was surgically removed when he was just three years old due to a rare form of cancer that grows in the retina. From then on, he used a glass eye. Once again, there has been much debate in the niche Columbo fandom about the Lieutenant’s right eye. Yes, Peter Falk has a glass eye, but does Columbo? This question has been much debated but truly keen fans would know the answer. In season 10, episode 11 (according to the Peacock designation) A Trace of Murder, Columbo says to an LAPD forensics specialist “three eyes are better than one” referring to the forensic specialist’s two eyes and Columbo’s own one good eye.

A drawing of Columbo by Peter Falk who was also a very talented visual artist.

I have learned much from Peter Falk through his portrayal of Columbo, but I would not be writing these words, would not consider myself an ethnic studies educator, would not have the courage nor desire to share my thoughts and learning with others, were it not for another teacher of mine: WAESN executive director, Tracy Castro-Gill. I would know nothing of ethnic studies were it not for Tracy. Their unyielding passion and determination to make ethnic studies a reality in Washington has impacted my life, my teaching, and my teaching life in ways I cannot begin to measure. To this day, I continue to learn from Tracy and the beautiful WAESN community they have fostered. Tracy’s teaching of ethnic studies has given me the lens I needed to reflect critically on my own teaching, to more closely wed my identity and my work, and to pursue this admittedly silly endeavor of tracing the connections between my teaching and my love of Columbo. For this and much more, I am eternally grateful.

With all this said, I suppose I should go back and correct the subhead of this journal entry. Columbo hasn’t just “influenced my teaching”, he continues to and likely forever will influence my teaching, even in ways I have not yet realized.

Columbo embroidery stitched by a parent of a former student based on a sketch I drew. Gifted to me for teacher appreciation week 2021.

1 Comment

  1. Yes I to am a Columbo fan, and God willing I will be 65 on Dec 10th 2023. I just naturally enjoy laughter and people. One thing I have learned about myself is, I ask questions of those around me. I have worked in sales most of my life. In order to understand my clients needs I had to ask questions. So needless to say, that is one of the many reasons I have enjoyed 😉 watching Columbo, and still do. Even though I have seen it many times before,
    It is still funny 😁 and it’s so very relaxing just to chill and laught…. enjoyed reading and understanding your points you made. Thank you. Cassandra a forever Fan of Columbo….

Leave a Reply