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Answers in the Form of Questions
A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!
Foreword by Ken Jennings
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This is the chronicle of how the show became a cross-generational touchstone and where it’s going next. ANSWERS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS dives deep behind the scenes, with longtime host Alex Trebek talking about his life and legacy and the show’s producers and writers explaining how they put together the nightly game. Readers will travel to bar trivia showdowns with the show’s biggest winners and training sessions with trivia whizzes prepping for their shot onstage. And they’ll discover new tales of the show’s most notable moments-like the time the Clue Crew almost slid off a glacier-and learn how celebrity cameos and Saturday Night Live spoofs built a television mainstay.
ANSWERS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS looks to the past — and the future — to explain what Jeopardy! really is: a tradition unlike any other.
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by Ken Jennings
Jeopardy! is a magic trick.
It’s been performed over eight thousand times, every weeknight for the last three and a half decades. But the trick goes off so smoothly every time that you never see the strings. You’re probably not even aware that you’re watching magic.
The show appears simple, effortless—even mundane, at this point. Its vast audience loves it for its straightforwardness, its utter lack of surprise. They get exactly what they expect every night: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions.
But at home, you’re seeing only a tiny part of the trick. It takes months of complicated preparation and a small army of people to produce a single half hour of Jeopardy! A lot of hard work goes into making television look this easy.
Let me warn you right now: In this book, you’re about to see how the trick is done. Claire McNear is going to show you the strings. You’ll time-travel back to the 1960s to be present at the show’s creation. You’ll be in the room with Alex Trebek at the crack of dawn as he spends hours poring over the day’s games and clues. You’ll follow the months of exhaustive nationwide searching that finds each set of three contestants. You’ll marvel at the bizarre training regimens to which the contestants may have subjected themselves, and learn what a surreal pressure cooker Jeopardy! gameplay is from the other side of the TV screen. (I still have flashbacks.)
If Jeopardy! is a sausage—and friends, I firmly believe that it is not!—you are about to find out how the sausage is made.
But here’s the thing: The backstage Jeopardy! in this book is fascinating, but it isn’t the real Jeopardy! I’ve noticed that the Jeopardy! diehards online sometimes forget that. They talk about the show as if it exists mostly to service superfans like themselves who know all the insider secrets—and who may very well be contestants themselves, either past or prospective. It’s sometimes easy for me to forget as well, having not exactly been a Jeopardy! civilian myself for over fifteen years now.
But for the most part, all the behind-the-scenes trivia is beside the point. The real Jeopardy! is not the machine. It’s the show, the thirty minutes of pleasant syndicated reassurance that the machine produces five times a week. Jeopardy! isn’t in a chilly California soundstage; it’s in your home, as you yell answers at the TV screen or furrow your brow during a tense Daily Double. Nine million people will enjoy it tonight, even if they have no idea that the show tapes five shows in a single afternoon, or what the Jeopardy! theme music is called, or what a “Coryat score” is. All that is gilding the lily. The real Jeopardy! is the illusion of simplicity: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions.
The real Jeopardy! is the magic trick.
In January 2020, the five most important figures in the history of modern Jeopardy! took the stage in a ballroom of the sprawling Langham Huntington resort in Pasadena.
The complex, with acres of manicured gardens, has served as a historic getaway for the entertainment industry’s elite, and it drips with Hollywood history. The pilot episode of Remington Steele was filmed on the grounds, the building’s exterior served as a playground for Lindsay Lohan’s mischievous twins in 1998’s The Parent Trap, and HBO’s Westworld converted the hotel’s lawn into a British Raj–styled theme park.
But few ever to visit the hotel can rival the iconic status of the group who made their way to a tightly packed row of gray director’s chairs that winter afternoon.
On one end of the stage, James Holzhauer—who had just thrilled the nation with a thirty-two-game winning streak that saw him shatter record after record en route to becoming the fastest player in the history of the show to win $1 million—sported one of his signature V-neck sweaters and tight smiles. To his left sat Ken Jennings, with the ease and confidence that come with owning the all-time record for Jeopardy! victories thanks to a dominant seventy-four-game winning streak in 2004. They were joined by Brad Rutter—wearing a checked plaid suit purchased earlier after an ABC wardrobe consultant insisted on an emergency Nordstrom run for all three—a former record-store clerk who now holds the record for the highest overall Jeopardy! winnings.
The trio had gathered in the room of television critics to promote their prime-time showdown—billed as the Greatest of All Time tournament—under the eye of the other two men on the stage, longtime host Alex Trebek and executive producer Harry Friedman. Having had some practice with the unusually high seats, both casually crossed their legs while the younger men dangled their feet awkwardly.
Friedman—just the third executive producer in modern Jeopardy!’s history—single-handedly dragged the show into the twenty-first century, pioneering a slew of major innovations, from doubling the prize money in 2001 to lifting the five-day cap for returning champions, which fundamentally changed the way the game was played. And with his long-planned exit from Jeopardy! just months away, the GOAT tournament would serve as a crowning achievement for a showrunner whose more than two decades on the job had been a persistent fight to broaden its pop-culture appeal while nurturing the bookish DNA that endeared the show to generations of nerds.
But the center of gravity—as it has been for the thirty-six years since he began hosting the show—was Trebek.
People might not have originally expected a smooth-talking, lightly sardonic Canadian to capture the hearts of American television audiences, but Trebek did just that with decades of knowing winks and gentle—okay, sometimes less than gentle—corrections of mispronunciations. For the show, Trebek has been a constant unlike any other—a sometimes mustachioed, sometimes prickly, always steady presence, the keeper of a finite blue-purple world where the passage of time could be counted both in operatic ephemera and, maybe, the number of different living rooms where you found yourself watching over the years.
The assembled crowd engaged in a cursory discussion of the contest, asking how Jennings, who had won the previous night’s opening round, and Rutter, who in twenty years of Jeopardy! competition had never lost to a human opponent, intended to counter the newcomer Holzhauer, who had scandalized some viewers of the show with an aggressive playing style and betting strategy. The veteran contestants—who in reality had taped the competition a month earlier—talked about the ways they might tweak their strategies, noting that selecting from the middle of a category, rather than the top, improves your chance of hitting a Daily Double.
But the concern looming over the showcase—in fact, the reason it probably existed in the first place—was evident from a mere glance at the group.
Attached to the lapels of Holzhauer, Jennings, and Rutter was a purple ribbon—intended to promote pancreatic cancer research and a gesture of solidarity after Trebek’s announcement a year earlier that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 of the disease.
Trebek, then seventy-nine, was asked about the outpouring of support he had experienced in the wake of his announcement, and responded with trademark self-deprecation. He wrote off tributes to his decades of hosting as the type of recognition that anyone who had, like him, spent “more than half my life” hosting a program would receive. And he waved off accolades as a reaction to his illness.
“The pity factor is out there,” Trebek said. “I’m not unaware of that.”
His eye-rolling continued as critics asked the contestants to reflect on his role as host.
“Brad, James, and Ken,” one reporter began. “The answer is: ‘The thing you admire most about Alex.’” They would have to answer in the form of a question.
“Oh dear,” quipped Trebek.
The panel concluded with more laughter, with Holzhauer commending the longtime host on navigating decades in Hollywood without embroiling himself in scandal.
“There’s still time,” Trebek responded.
But those gathered in the Pasadena ballroom—and millions of faithful Jeopardy! viewers across the nation—have been asking themselves how much more time there might be before a show known as a beacon of television stability changes forever. As much as this was a moment of celebration for the show, it was also, perhaps, the end of an era.
Jeopardy! has achieved a rare omnipresence in American culture—befitting for the show that holds the trademark for “America’s Favorite Quiz Show.”
It’s not merely its frequent appearances through cameos and spoofs on other television programs, though there have been many: from the Celebrity Jeopardy! and Black Jeopardy! sketches on Saturday Night Live, to Golden Girls, Baywatch, The X-Files, and The Simpsons, to the 2014 finale of The Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert rode off in a farewell sleigh alongside the foremost arbiters of American public life—Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus, and Trebek.
With more than eight thousand episodes under its belt, the show has become a byword for brainy gumption: When 2020 presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar blanked on the name of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, she later defended herself in a debate by saying, “This isn’t like a game of Jeopardy!”
Indeed, no less than former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger once sent Jeopardy! a letter requesting that the show spotlight the Bill of Rights in a category in the upcoming season in honor of the document’s 1991 bicentennial. Burger concluded his handwritten letter, “P.S. Jeopardy! is the only quiz show allowed in our home. It is truly a fine educational piece. Long ago Mrs. Burger and I were teachers.” (The writers obliged the judge.)
Nearly four decades into its present incarnation, Jeopardy! has gained the patina of an immovable cultural artifact. At the 2015 Emmys, the comedian John Oliver joked, as he introduced an award for limited series, “Every show on television will go off the air eventually, with the sole exception of Jeopardy!”
Oliver continued, “And I’ll tell you what: The sun could burn out, humanity could flee to another galaxy, time as we know it could cease to exist, but Alex Trebek will still be there scolding librarians from Ames, Iowa, to answer in the form of a question and passive-aggressively insulting their hobbies.”
If it’s felt like Jeopardy! has always been there, that’s partly by design. “We came on the air very quietly, without any great fanfare,” Trebek said in 2004. “There were no fireworks, no bright lights, no wild and crazy music. We were just an easy show to get used to, an easygoing rhythm.”
But change is coming all the same.
Friedman, the EP, departed at the end of 2019–2020’s Season 36 after a quarter century at the helm of Jeopardy! and fellow Merv Griffin creation Wheel of Fortune. Maggie Speak, the longtime head of Jeopardy!’s contestant department, also retired in 2020. A singular presence in the history of the show, Speak—who handpicked the contestants who appeared on each episode—did as much as anyone to shape the show millions of Americans watch every night.
At the time of writing, Trebek and his offscreen counterpart, announcer Johnny Gilbert, were well on their way to completing their fourth decade with Jeopardy!
But Trebek has been vocal about his grueling rounds of chemotherapy even as he continued to host. And in July, as the show wrapped its season, Gilbert turned ninety-six. It’s reasonable to think that someday, perhaps even someday soon, the pair will hang up their signature blazer and bomber jacket.
A lot of change, in short, is due for a show Trebek himself once equated to “this nice warm bath.”
“It is not known as a wild up and down show,” Trebek has said of the program. “There aren't these great highs and great lows. We just cruise along smoothly.”
One thing, at least, is unlikely to change: the contestants.
Many fans are surprised to learn just how sportlike Jeopardy! can be. It has many of the hallmarks that we associate with sports: a prospect pipeline, rigorous physical (and, yes, mental) preparation, a hall of fame, and strategic innovators revered decades later for their additions to the game, who sometimes go on to assume the role of coaches.
The show’s viewers, too, can take on a dedication rarely seen outside the confines of sporting fandoms. That’s the way it is in the home of actor Michael McKean, where he and his family gather every night at 7:00 to watch the night’s episode and play along, culminating in a nightly Final Jeopardy! showdown.
“There’s only one rule—you don’t talk about Jeopardy! club,” he jokes.
No—it’s something far more serious. Everyone stays silent through the first chorus of music during Final Jeopardy!, before counting down from three during the latter half and shouting their answers at once. (He insists that no one keeps track of their scores after the fact.)
McKean is admittedly no normal Jeopardy! fan: He’s won Celebrity Jeopardy! on three occasions, and is, thanks to nabbing the grand prize in the 2010 Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational, one of just four Jeopardy! contestants ever to win a million-dollar tournament prize. (The others: Rutter, Jennings, and Watson, the IBM supercomputer.)
The premise of Jeopardy! is simple enough: two grids of thirty questions, a preliminary Single Jeopardy! round with a single hidden Daily Double betting opportunity and then the trickier Double Jeopardy! with two Daily Doubles, with difficulty and dollar value increasing downward. This is followed by one last question—Final Jeopardy!—on which players have the option to wager everything they have.
By the time a contestant makes it to the Jeopardy! stage, the odds are good that he or she has long been training in some form to compete on the show. Many players spend years working their way up through a series of nontelevised (and mostly nonpaying) circuits, a kind of Triple-A league for Jeopardy! hopefuls. Even casual viewers might be aware of the rise of advanced statistics on Jeopardy!, whose complex lessons about defensive gameplay, Daily Double and Final Jeopardy! wagering, buzzer advantage, and other metrics and tactics have fueled the rise of recent champions like Holzhauer.
A great Jeopardy! player is likely concerned with far more than just presidents, state birds, and the corresponding flash cards. That player may also have immersed himself or herself in everything from game theory to thumb reflex and grip strength training and even, in some cases, scouting of other players ahead of time. On TV, you see a scant twenty-two minutes of action; for the contestants, those minutes may have been months or years in the making.
Before we get into it, some disclaimers. Most of this book will be concerned with the era that began with the show’s revival in 1984 with Trebek and Gilbert. But today’s Jeopardy! would not exist without the show’s original incarnation on NBC, with actor Art Fleming as host and Don Pardo—later the legendary voice of Saturday Night Live—as announcer.
The original version premiered in 1964 and lasted (counting a one-year revival in 1978) twelve years. Unlike the modern edition, it aired during the middle of the day, making it and its lead-in Hollywood Squares a favorite of college students and workers on their lunch breaks.
The original Jeopardy! also was a hit, albeit of a different kind—at one point in its network-TV-heyday run, it captured a baffling 38 percent of the viewing audience—and one with some critical rule differences that we’ll dig into later on. When Trebek first took over Jeopardy!, it was years before audiences were won over, and there still exist die-hards who refuse to watch the modern edition out of lingering loyalty to Fleming.
Without the success of the Fleming-and-Pardo Jeopardy!, there would never have been a Trebek-and-Gilbert Jeopardy! The show’s endurance through the years is a testament both to Griffin’s game as well as to the team that first wooed audiences into making it a daily routine.
My focus here will also be largely on the flagship Jeopardy! show, though the number of spin-offs it has spawned—including VH1’s four seasons of Rock & Roll Jeopardy! with future Survivor host Jeff Probst, a sports-themed game hosted by former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick, and a children’s version known as Jep!—is proof of the show’s seminal place in television history. That’s true even outside the borders of North America: In 1996, 1997, and 2001, English-speaking champions from different nations’ Jeopardy! franchises faced off in an International Tournament. (The winners: Sweden, Canada, and the United States.)
Another disclaimer: I am not a Jeopardy! contestant, former or, alas, future. I grew up, as so many have, watching the show with my parents, in awe of how the players (and—ugh—my parents) knew all this stuff. When I got an apartment (and a cable subscription, a few apartments later) of my own, recording Jeopardy! and shouting out the answers each night from the couch became one of my first traditions with my now-husband.
I started writing a column about the show as a fan—one largely unaware of how much goes on just beneath its surface. In time, I’ve come to know a bit about the depths of strategy and the world of contestants, both alumni and aspiring. My hope is to share some of that with you, so that wherever you count yourself within the Jeopardy! world—alum, future champion, or nightly shouter of answers from your own couch—you’ll learn a little more about how the show works and what has made it such a unique corner of television.
As for my odds: I am a thoroughly lousy trivia player—a mediocre pub quiz participant at best. Even if I had the stomach for hand-to-hand, or brain-to-brain, buzzer battles on national TV—I emphatically do not—I know for a fact, as you will read in the coming chapters, that I won’t be competing on the Jeopardy! stage anytime soon.
One additional technicality. Jeopardy! tapes most episodes approximately two months before they appear on TV; unless otherwise noted, episodes are referred to by their air date, not their tape dates.
With that: Let’s meet today’s contestants.
Welcome to Jeopardy!
The shuttle arrives at 7:00 a.m. sharp, but on a Tuesday morning in Culver City, California, the hotel lobby begins to fill much earlier. One by one, Jeopardy! contestants start to gather around a table by the entrance. First a man in a suit. Then a woman in studiously neutral business casual. One contestant, who looks so young it’s not clear if there’s been some terrible Teen Tournament mixup, is accompanied by her father. He looks even more nervous than she does, which is saying something.
“Hi,” an older man says as he hesitantly approaches the group. “Are you guys in the show, too?”
On taping mornings, it doesn’t take much to figure out who has come for Jeopardy! Most sit beside overstuffed garment bags and backpacks containing a couple of changes of clothes—a requirement by Jeopardy!’s producers in case they make it to multiple episodes. (The producers also ask that contestants iron their spare outfits ahead of time, but for many, well, there are bigger fish to fry.)
And then, of course, there’s all the studying. Flipping flash cards. Reciting First Ladies. Turning the crumpled pages of old compilations of clues past. Scrolling through inscrutable spreadsheets on laptops. Yes, the group in the lobby is in the show, too.
“I’m just practicing—no matter what Alex says, I’ll say, ‘That’s right, Alex!’” says one.
“Just breathe,” says another.
A third says that he heard one contestant is coming back from yesterday. “Someone always comes back from yesterday,” a woman replies with dread. If the reigning champion is among them, he or she has apparently decided not to admit to it just yet.
Then, suddenly, a black van pulls up outside, and the driver walks into the lobby. A dozen pairs of eyes swivel his way, widening as they realize their ride has arrived.
“Guys,” says the woman in business casual. “We’re fine. We’re fine.”
One by one, the contestants stand, gather their bags, and head for the door. As the van rumbles away, headed for the famed Stage 10 down the road, the contestant’s father waves and turns back to the hotel, looking like he very well might cry.
* * *
To understand Jeopardy!, you must first understand Charles Van Doren. In 1956, the Columbia University English professor appeared on the quiz show Twenty-One. Van Doren, thirty and boyishly charming, went on a tear, winning $129,000 over the course of fourteen weeks. At the time, quiz shows were huge—The $64,000 Question was the highest-rated show on television for the entire 1955–1956 season—and Van Doren was an instant sensation. Enthralled viewers followed the ever-growing heights of his streak night after night. While his episodes were on the air, Van Doren “received more than 20,000 letters (most of which he answered), was interviewed by about 500 newspaper men, [and] received several dozen proposals of marriage,” according to a 1959 story in the New York Times.
But the problem with great stories, it turns out, is that they’re not always true. Twenty-One and a handful of other popular quiz shows, including The $64,000 Question, manufactured the impressive runs of contestants like Van Doren by briefing them on the material prior to taping and occasionally by paying the episode’s loser to throw the match. In the case of Van Doren (who would be played by Ralph Fiennes in Robert Redford’s 1994 film about the controversy, Quiz Show), both methods were deployed. Van Doren claimed that Twenty-One’s producer promised him he would be the first-ever quiz show contestant to win $100,000, and he was.
The revelation of Van Doren’s duplicity was front-page news in the New York Times, and so great was the public offense that the federal government got involved. A grand jury investigation followed, and then a congressional subcommittee dragged Van Doren to Washington, DC, in 1959, where he confessed to the plot. Van Doren, who had at first professed his innocence, and nineteen other quiz-show contestants eventually faced perjury charges. President Dwight Eisenhower declared it “a terrible thing to do to the American people,” and J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men were said to have investigated the show-fixing beneficiaries for links to communism.
Congress took action, amending the Communications Act to state, among other things, that “it shall be unlawful for any person, with intent to deceive the listening or viewing public…To supply to any contestant in a purportedly bona fide contest of intellectual knowledge or intellectual skill any special and secret assistance whereby the outcome of such contest will be in whole or in part prearranged or predetermined.” In the end, Van Doren and his fellow contestants escaped jail time—the judge issued suspended sentences, noting “how deep and how acute [their] humiliation has been”—and hung on to their ill-gotten winnings. But since 1960, rigging a quiz show—a purportedly bona fide contest of intellectual knowledge—has been a federal crime.
In the years after the congressional intervention, knowledge-based game shows understandably faltered. However pure producers’ intent—now federally sanctioned—and however certain that contestants could now get by only on their genuine smarts, audiences and networks alike were spooked.
“Gee, I’d do anything to do a quiz show, but nobody will buy them because of the scandals,” game-show impresario Merv Griffin remembered lamenting in the years after the scandal to his then-wife, Julann, in a 2005 documentary on Jeopardy!
She suggested creating a show that did exactly what was now prohibited: Give the players the answers straightaway. The twist, to make it legal (not to mention interesting), was that they would then have to work out the questions.
That’s exactly what Jeopardy! did, debuting with host Art Fleming in 1964—just four years after the new regulations took effect—with players ringing in with the iconic What is…? or Who is…? setup.
- "Claire McNear does a fantastic job capturing the spirit behind the Jeopardy! production team, fandom, and contestant community. I already knew about a lot of this stuff, and I still couldn't put it down."—Brad Rutter, highest-earning Jeopardy! contestant
- "Packed with useful advice for aspiring contestants. Read this book and you can lose on Jeopardy!, just like me."—James Holzhauer, multiple-time losing contestant
- "I'd anticipated that reading a book about Jeopardy! -- a game show that has been in my life for basically all of it -- would make me feel a certain amount of nostalgia, and a certain amount of warm joy. I had not, however, anticipated how sentimental parts of it would make me feel, and how loudly other parts of it would make me laugh. Claire has built something really great here. I wish I could read this book again for the first time."—Shea Serrano, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Movies (And Other Things)
- "McNear lifts up the hood on Jeopardy! and shows us the inner workings, from quirky contestants and fans to details about the buzzer. I saw so many parallels to the Scripps National Spelling Bee too, from intensive and creative studying strategies through the decades to the balance between the live audience and the home audience. If you like Jeopardy! I highly R-E-C-O-M-M-E-N-D this book."—Dr. Jacques Bailly, official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee
- "Put this in your potpourri: Claire McNear has delivered a treasure. ANSWERS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS is a smart and sassy journey into the wide, wide world of Jeopardy! -- a must for anyone who's ever shouted out to Alex from the edge of their couch."—James Andrew Miller, #1 New York Times bestselling coauthor of Live from New York and Those Guys Have All the Fun
- "Journalist McNear debuts with a fast-paced and well-researched behind-the scenes look into one of America's most popular game shows. Game show lovers and aspiring contestants will definitely want to pick this up."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Nov 10, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages