Sports

Ken Jennings Tells Us About Life Behind The Scenes At ‘Jeopardy!’ And Making The Best Of 2020

“It doesn’t seem right to be doing trivia in a world without Alex Trebek,” Ken Jennings said in his weekly Kennections newsletter on Tuesday. “And yet here we are.”

Two days after Trebek died of pancreatic cancer at age 80, tributes to the late Jeopardy! host continue to pour in. The show he hosted for decades aired a cold open in his honor, and the man who many feel should replace him as the show’s host offered his own brief but powerful tribute to the man who gave him a million dollars in prize money in the show’s Greatest Of All Time Tournament back in January.

“I’m guessing he was a formative force for knowledge and good in a lot of your lives, as he was in mine,” Jennings said in his newsletter. “I miss him already.”

I talked to the Jeopardy! GOAT earlier in the month, well before the news of Trebek’s death would turn the speculation about his replacement into the most important unanswered question in television. And so this interview won’t contain another quote about whether he wants to be the next host of Jeopardy! He’s been asked that question several times over, and always politely demurred about the possibility of stepping into Trebek’s shoes.

What we did talk about by phone, though, was making the best of a terrible year and what makes Jeopardy! stand out among game shows and pop culture at large. Since the last time I interviewed Jennings, he has started working on Jeopardy! as an advisor and spoke about the love and dedication to the show he’s gotten to see behind the scenes while deftly slipping in an ad read along the way. There were no real secrets to uncover, but his answers gave me confidence that the show, no matter who hosts it next, is in good hands in the years to come.

Uproxx: You’ve had a very busy year. I know the GOAT Tournament taped in December, but in 2020 you released Half Truth, now you’re working for Jeopardy! and doing some other endorsement projects with Tracfone. Is is just kind of nice to stay busy with things during all of this?

It really is. Candidly, after the Jeopardy! GOAT Tournament, I had booked a bunch of public speaking gigs at universities and corporate events and I thought, “Well I’ll have a busy year doing that, that should pay the bills.” And then that all went away in one week, and I didn’t know what I was going to be doing in 2020. Trying to make sure my kids do their virtual homework, I guess.

But then Jeopardy! called, it was actually the same day the tournament aired. And asked me if I wanted to come aboard for a front office job, which was very flattering. I would have missed Jeopardy! And then Tracfone called a couple of months ago and since they’re the plain smart choice in wireless and smartphone providers, they had an ad idea where I get to be a professional Tracfone smarty pants. And I thought it was pretty funny because I get to wear a smoking jacket and tweed. That’s what I’m into.

You’ve been through the media cycles with Jeopardy! before when you won 74 straight games, but the GOAT Tournament seemed to be a bit different. What are some ways it was different this time around celebrating your win in the public eye?

Well, I don’t know. You can definitely see kind of the niche-ization of media where to promote, for example, a trivia board game like Half Truth it’s no problem to find a dozen outlets. YouTubers, bloggers, and specialized websites that just traffic in this specific kind of thing. And that’s pretty cool.

I remember being a kid and definitely feeling kind of lonely if I was obsessed with game shows and none of my friends seemed to want to talk about Super Password as much as I did. Or being obsessed with road atlases and thinking that was a weird, shameful thing to like maps that much. Now that’s all gone. No matter what kind of weirdo you are you can find hundreds of thousands of people who love your weird hobby and also have the same kind of collections as you. That is very cool.

Yeah, there’s a bit of a connectedness to it all. Maybe in a year like this it’s rough to find in real life, but people have been able to play your game over Zoom, or really get into something and find a community online. It’s a comforting thing.

It’s an option that we never would have had in any other epidemic time in human history. And so, even if it’s not safe to see your grandma, you can check in with her every single night on video. And it’s not the same thing — my kids are remote learning and I don’t know if they’re actually learning or not. But it does feel like you’re not in this thing alone and just staring at the walls of your apartment.

You maybe have it a bit better off because you won a million dollars to kick off your 2020. But do you have any advice for the rest of us to get through this without maybe a nice payday and endorsements and that kind of thing?

Oh, absolutely. I have the ultimate kind of pandemic privilege because I arranged to win a big check on a game show right before the pandemic. And I feel like it’s a little too late to recommend that to others. But yeah, my family has been pretty lucky, honestly.

But I think the general principles, what’s really kept us going and the thing that’s surprised me the most, even tough I have two teenagers they were kind of very sweet about the whole thing. Especially when we got them away from their goony friends, it was kind of fun to have some family time and do some old-timey stuff like do a jigsaw puzzle or pop some popcorn and play a board game. It’s like we turned into some Little House On The Prairie family almost overnight, and I see a lot of people doing that kind of throwback thing. Taking up crocheting or whatever.

And it is kinda a chance, like, for the last four years, modernity has been pretty awful. And this is a chance to say, well, let’s just turn our backs on modernity and have weird old timey hobbies and relationships again. I’m a big fan.

We talked about board games the last time we spoke. And obviously you can’t play Half Truth with your family because you wrote all the questions, but are there others that have become favorites in recent months? Any you’d recommend to others with a long winter ahead?

I did referee a game of Half Truth the other night. My wife’s parents visited us, we quarantined for like two weeks so my wife’s parents could stay with us and we had a really good time.

What else have we been playing a lot of? I can’t remember what I told you last time we spoke. I really like Codenames, everyone likes that, that’s a great family party game. My collaborator on Half Truth, Richard Garfield, has a great party game called Hive Mind, where it’s a beehive-themed game where your collective thinking keeps you in the beehive and your independent thinking moves you out. And we’ve been playing that a lot.

Trying to think of a new game we have that we’re super into right now. It might come to me.

I wanted to ask about Jeopardy! and maybe game shows in particular. You obviously have watched Jeopardy! your whole life and have noticed how shows change with culture. I was watching the new Supermarket Sweep with my girlfriend the other day and I remember watching the original. It’s different in some ways that shows are different these days, and it made me think about how Jeopardy! hasn’t really changed much. It looks the same, it feels very similar. What is it about Jeopardy! that is so timeless but also makes it still feel relevant and recent and, arguably, it’s more popular than ever?

I think you put your finger on it: The smart thing Jeopardy! did is it never changed a thing. And it was always a pretty good format: Jeopardy! is just a well-designed engine to do what it does well. But there’s nothing particularly innovative or ingenious about the Jeopardy! format, it’s just a really well-made quiz show. And the smart thing they did was arrange to just keep it in the public eye off and on for 50 years and never tinker. And the result of that is you can turn on Jeopardy! tonight and almost down to the second it will be like a game of Jeopardy! you watched in college in 1994. Or you watched with your nana in 1984, or that your parents watched in 1964.

There’s this continuity where it doesn’t feel like a TV property anymore. It’s just a part of America, almost like the national parks or something. It’s really an institution, and now that I work on Jeopardy! and can see behind the scenes I can say they know that. They take it very seriously. Like, the legacy of the show is something that they do not goof around with. And it’s just a fabric of all of our lives. It’s Biography now, we feel like it’s part of us.

I wonder if your perspective on the show has changed now that you’re behind the scenes. I know for me, I’ve watched most of my life and I work for a website where I’ve made covering Jeopardy! part of my job. I’ve approached the show the same way I do writing about sports, and it’s changed the show for me in some ways. I wonder if something has changed for you now that you kind of know how the sausage is made?

Maybe I said this when we talked before, but I always appreciated the way sportswriters talked about Jeopardy! because they understand the competition is central to the show, not the trappings, not the entertainment property. But really, the match between the three brains is really what’s central to the format.

I would say that now that I’m behind the scenes, the thing about seeing how the sausage is made is that Jeopardy! doesn’t really have anything scandalous or disappointing going on behind the scenes. So there’s nothing disillusioning about working for Jeopardy! One thing you do see is that it’s not a show on autopilot. You’d think that in its 37th season, and even as a contestant you get the impression that this is a well-oiled machine, and they just have to do exactly what they did five times last week, they just have to do it five times this week and everything is going to go great.

But when you actually watch the people and watch the production team make the show behind the scenes, you realize that it’s an incredible marathon to make 200 Jeopardies every year. We’re going to have to criss-cross the country on Zoom during a pandemic and find hundreds of people who can play this game. And we want them to look like America. We want equal numbers of men and women, we want people of color trying it out and making it on the show. We want the clues to not alienate older viewers who expect to see the bible and romantic poetry and opera, but we also want to kinda go viral if Alex read rap lyrics or if there’s a funny moment where a contestant doesn’t know which city the Dallas Cowboys play in, you know? We want to make sure there’s a Cardi B question so the teens don’t feel like it’s just grandma’s show.

There’s a whole lot of juggling that goes on the writing side, the casting side. It takes a lot of work to put Jeopardy! on the air and these people aren to on autopilot at all, they take it very seriously. And I liked finding that out. To find out that your favorite show is taken so seriously by 100 very dedicated people, it’s cool.

It’s funny you mention contestants struggling with sports questions. You are not one of them, I think, and obviously James Holzhauer was well-known for nailing sports categories during his run. Is there a particular category you always dreaded?

I’m not a great sports player, but Jeopardy! knows that they’re not for great sports players. The Jeopardy! clue is designed to be answered correctly, so even if it’s not your favorite category you should be able to follow your intuition to the correct response.

I’d say my biggest bugbear, and honestly it’s the thing I’ve lost on the mostly the first time: H&R Block. Business and industry. I was not super business savvy, finance world-savvy. I don’t know the stock ticker abbreviations for companies, I don’t have motivational books from CEOs on my bookshelf. So I could have thought about that H&R Block question all day and never realized that it was going to be a tax prep company, I think. And to this day it’s very easy to get me to go out on a corporate question where I don’t remember a merger or I don’t remember a car model or whatever it is. I’m a bad consumer, I guess. I’m a little too Marxist for some of these Jeopardy! categories.

Well thankfully in late-stage capitalism our only culture will be business, so maybe in a couple of years we’ll all have it down.

Yeah, [puts on announcer voice] here’s our sponsored category on Orange Julius. Thanks, Orange Julius. A delicious, green-flavored drink. [laughs]

My last question is mostly for me: Is there a clue writer that’s from Buffalo or Western New York? My friends and I have noticed questions about places like Kleinhans Music Hall and some suspect there’s someone familiar with the area working on the show. Any ideas or is this confirmation bias?

That’s a good question. There may be, I can’t think of a Buffalo-ite? Buffalovian? What’s the demonym?

Buffalonian.

Buffalonian? With an extra N? That’s terrible!

I don’t know if there’s a Buffalonian on staff. I know that in the past, like when I was a kid there was always a lot of Nebraska material on the show and it was because the head writer was from Nebraska. But I think it’s a common thing to think that someone from Jeopardy! must be from your hometown. Like, yesterday my dad emailed me and said, “Hey, I noticed a bunch of Seattle stuff on Jeopardy! Was that you?” And I was like, “No, no, I didn’t suggest any of that.” So it may be that it’s just a very nationally aware, smart group of writers and researchers who know stuff about Buffalo that you thought was Buffalonians only. I’m not sure.

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