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This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Flipper. Daniel Boone. Jonny Quest. Gomer Pyle. 1964 was a better-than-average year for television debuts, but no one could have predicted that one of the year’s crop of new shows would still be dominating the airwaves 50 years later, to the extent that huge swaths of America plan their evenings around it over 200 weeknights every year.
This — still! — is Jeopardy!
The venerable quiz show debuted in NBC’s daytime lineup on March?30, 1964. Today, Jeopardy! is such an ageless fixture of the cultural landscape that it’s hard to believe the show almost didn’t make it on the air. Quiz shows were dead as a doornail in 1964, thanks to the rigging scandals of the 1950s. (In fact, Jeopardy!’s signature grammatical switcheroo — give players the answers, just like the crooked shows used to do, but require them to provide the questions — was dreamed up by Merv Griffin and his wife, Julann, as a direct response to the scandals.)
And network executives were convinced the show was too hard for viewers. Only a young assistant named Grant Tinker — the new husband of Mary Tyler Moore and future president of NBC — stood up for the format, insisting that a brainy show could be a hit.
Tinker was right. The daytime Jeopardy! ran for 2,753 episodes, hosted by a genial former carnival barker named Art Fleming. It’s striking how little Jeopardy! has changed between the Cinerama era and the Obama era. Sure, Fleming’s game board was a low-tech grid of paper cards, not TV monitors, and correct answers were worth a pre-inflationary $10 to $100. But beyond cosmetic updates, the 1964 format is identical to what more than 9?million viewers will watch tonight. There will be 61 clues on unapologetically cerebral subjects from “Ballet” to “U.S. Geography” to “Shakespeare” and three pleasantly charmless contestant interviews. The 30-second plink-plonk of the Jeopardy! “Think!” music — which earned its composer, Merv Griffin, an astonishing $70?million in royalties over the years — will continue to worm its way into your skull.
Tonight’s clues, of course, will be read in the careful, Canadian-accented tones of Alex Trebek, who has hosted Jeopardy! since its 1984 syndicated reboot. Last month, Trebek took the stage at the wrap party for the syndicated show’s 30th?season. Along with a passel of other former contestants, I’d been invited to the celebration, held at the soundstage next to Jeopardy!‘s longtime home on the Sony lot [in L.A.]. The space had been made over to look like a 1980s disco. Well, even more like a 1980s disco than it usually does. There was an electric-blue birthday cake, and the throw pillows on the couches had question marks on them.
After reassuring those assembled that he has no plans to give up the hosting reins on Jeopardy!, Trebek praised the show as “the very best of reality TV.” He meant, of course, that Jeopardy! is one of the last venues where you can watch ordinary people win money for dignified feats: knowing isotopes of hydrogen rather than bouncing off giant rubber balls, quoting Milton rather than lasting three weeks naked in the jungle.
But Jeopardy! is reality TV in a broader sense as well: It encompasses all of reality, the entire known universe. Every night, Trebek expects contestants and viewers to be up to speed on literally everything: the Russo-Japanese War, Olympic skiing, organic chemistry, hip-hop. And it’s remained one of TV’s biggest hits without ever dumbing down. If anything, Jeopardy! is more difficult now than in Art Fleming’s day — and the contestants are, by and large, better players.
Many are superfans who were raised on the show and prepare obsessively for their appearance. Some help run J-Archive.com, an Internet repository for over a quarter of a million Jeopardy! clues. Others have built elaborate home simulators to help train for the show — especially its notoriously tricky buzzer.
The vast majority of the show’s viewers may be less fanatical, but they are no less loyal. My weird 15 minutes of fame on the show (“74 straight wins back in 2004,” he says modestly) is now a decade in the rearview mirror, but people still come up to me to talk Jeopardy! almost every day. The relationships they describe with the show are incredibly personal, the kind of thing nobody ever says about Jimmy Kimmel Live! or Meet the Press. “I play against my husband every night.” “Don’t call my dad during Jeopardy!; he won’t pick up.” “When Mom was in the hospital, Jeopardy! was the highlight of her day.” The roll call of bedridden Jeopardy! die-hards includes my wife’s grandmother, who told me midway through my run, “You winning on Jeopardy! is the only thing keeping me alive right now.” Wow, Grandma. No pressure!
I also have a weirdly personal relationship with Jeopardy!, which changed my life even before I became a contestant. My daily ritual as a kid was running home from school to watch the show, then rehashing the game the next day with my friends at recess. (I grew up in Seoul, Korea, where there was just one TV channel in English: Armed Forces Television. In the afternoons, Jeopardy! was literally the only thing on.) Watching people succeed at something just for knowing stuff was hugely inspiring to me.
But I find that I have a hard time watching the game as a home viewer now. I used to be able to sit on the couch and yell answers at the screen along with millions of other Americans, but now when I hear the Jeopardy! theme song and Alex’s even baritone, I tense up in a Pavlovian way. The adrenaline all comes flooding back, my buzzer thumb quivers — it’s game day all over again. But my young son is addicted to the show and won’t let me change the channel. I have to suffer my post-Trebek stress disorder in silence.
He says he wants to be a contestant, too, when he grows up. Look for him on the show around the time of its 75th anniversary, I guess. Nothing in TV lasts, but Jeopardy! is forever.
Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy! champion, is the author of the best-selling 2006 book Brainiac, about the subculture of trivia buffs in America. He lives outside Seattle with his wife, Mindy, his son, Dylan, and daughter, Caitlin.
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