Our Lives in Jeopardy

In 1968, if you were off from school in Detroit on a weekday, you might start the day at 8:30 am with Rita Bell’s Prize Money Movie where she would dial for dollars during commercial breaks from black-and-white-movies. It just had to get you to 10:30. Time for Jeopardy.

James, Ken, and Brad battle to be the best on “Jeopardy” 2020. Photo at NYPost.

Last night, Jeopardy completed its “Greatest of All Time Tournament” in riveting fashion as nearly 20 million viewers watched a trio of America’s fastest trivia buffs duke it out for a million dollars. It’s strange to think that you’d spend much of your life watching a particular show, seeing the drama of life play out in questions and answers, risky wagers and eye-popping pull-out-of-your-fundament responses. The players have aged; the hosts have aged; I’ve aged. This is no longer television. This is mythology.

The Game Before Alex

It may seem like a tangent to go back to the first rendition of Jeopardy, which ran on NBC from 1964 to 1975, then again from 1978-79. But, in a way, Jeopardy saved the quiz show, bringing respect back to fact-based questions following the scandal of the 1950s, where contestants were fed correct answers in order to boost TV ratings. In the early 1960s, game shows had switched to focusing away from trivia, where contestants guessed dollar amounts (Price is Right), played simple games (Concentration), or performed silly physical challenges (Beat the Clock.) Jeopardy was the first where contestants had to demonstrate knowledge more than luck and where the answers were more interesting than the banter between barely known celebrities.

NBC Jeopardy set from 1973. Somehow I thought it would be in black and white. Photo from eyesofageneration.com.

Art Fleming, the original host of daytime Jeopardy, was pompous and smug but somehow refreshing compared with the unctuousness of a Wink Martindale or folksiness of Bob Eubanks. The questions were difficult but intriguing, and they flew at you with lightning speed. None of this eight minutes to figure out that “__EE_ _F F_RT__E” spelled the name of another long-running game show. If you didn’t know the Japanese word for Japan (Nippon), surely you would know what list Moses delivered from Mt. Sinai (Ten Commandments).

This game show creator/talk show host credits his wife Julann with inventing the “give the answer, what’s the question” format.

Who is Merv Griffin?

The original Jeopardy ran for 11 years and anchored my non-school days. I remember being terribly annoyed in 1968 when the spring break programming was disrupted by live news coverage, all four stations showing some boring sad parade, which later I discovered was Martin Luther King’s funeral. Again, on rainy summer days in 1973, Jeopardy was pre-empted for days on end by the Watergate hearings. Shortly after that, when it was cancelled in 1975, I remember feeling cheated. By the time daytime Jeopardy was cancelled, creator Merv Griffin had already pitched another show as replacement: Wheel of Fortune.

Just as I started college in 1978, hooray-hooray, Jeopardy was back on the air. Of course, I was in a different kind of school then, paddling for my intellectual life amid the rigors of accounting, calculus, and medieval literature. But in college, actual classroom seat-time is small. I found it easy to arrange my schedule so I could rush back to my dorm room for a 10:30 break right before a quick lunch and back on campus. I bought a 13-inch “portable” TV just to watch Jeopardy. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after only a season. I went back to a morning full of classes and afternoons with a part-time job.

The Wizard of Odds

Who’s the man with the money makes a dark day sunny?
Who’s the fella every day gives a bundle away?
Who’s the guy with the prizes that’ll light up your eyeses
Neverending, ever-friending, get ready to play-hey-hey-HEY!
It’s the Wizard of Odds!

The ultimate game-show theme earworm, written and sung by Alan Thicke.

In the summer of 1973, NBC also added another new show, The Wizard of Odds, selecting for its host a handsome and genial Canadian TV personality named Alex Trebek. He was quintessential 1970s, somehow making the plaid suit and sideburns seem less than ridiculous. And he was young at a time when the recycled hosts left from the Golden Age of Television seemed like holdovers from radio (e.g. Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn).

Odds was indeed an odd show and lasted only a season, but Trebek was deemed better than the show and hired to host another, High Rollers, which lasted for a good six years. (Contestants rolled a giant pair of dice up a slope.) Afterwards, while Trebek was bopping around Canada, hosting bilingual game shows, Griffin was pushing for a syndicated version of his classic Jeopardy. Originally a host himself, Griffin wanted Fleming to also host the new incarnation of Jeopardy. But Fleming thought the new clues were written to make it too easy for contestants to guess the answers, and that the show had abandoned its intellectual New York roots and gone Hollywood with its flashing lights and beep-beep-boop sound effects. He declined to host, but suggested his friend Alex Trebek. That was 36 years ago.

Say it With Punch

I lugged my little portable TV all the way to graduate school in Chicago, which paid off when Jeopardy returned to the airwaves in an afternoon rendition in 1984. Occasionally, I would go down to the student’s lounge to watch with fellow graduate students. One of the others in our MBA program, Michael Day, had gone to Harvard and competed in quiz bowls. He advised us that to get on such shows, you had to “say it with punch….my name is Michael DAY and I’m a STUDENT at the UniVERsity of Chicago, and I’m so EXCIted to be here…”

I found Michael to be a bit Ivy League imperious at times, but he knew what he was talking about, and for all his savoir faire, he was just as much a fan of the show as I was. He took the test, made it on to the show, and became one of their first 5-day champions, the limit from that first version until 2003. He was asked to return for their first ever “Tournament of Champions,” but lost to the guy who was the buzz saw at the time, Chuck Forrest.

This technique, named for the first Jeopardy 5-time winner, increases the chances of a contestant finding a Daily Double early.

What is the “Forrest Bounce”?

You come to realize that there have been a parade of Chuck Forrests over the years. At the time, Forrest was considered a phenom, a freak of knowledge, an unbeatable steamroller of trivia. But the new format of Jeopardy celebrated intellect without making it seem unattainable, and it just made more people want to try. Trivial Pursuit had also recently been sweeping the country–another successful Canadian intellectual creation. People, at least some people, could celebrate being smart. Plus, the newly-designed clues, which Fleming so famously disdained, helped people guess the answer. Home viewers felt like they had a chance. The tournaments then took the game to another level.

The Lore of Jeopardy

The first few “Tournament of Champions” seemed only a variation on a theme, a way just to boost the ratings. Add some celebrities, seniors, or children to spice it up further. Yet those tournaments had the curious effect of creating legends. There was Eddie Timanus, the blind contestant, who successfully competed in multiple tournaments despite having to read clues in Braille. There was Frank Spangenberg, the New York cop with giant sideburns. There was Bob Verini, 1987 Tournament winner and Million Dollar Masters runner-up. Verini later took a job with my employer, the teaching company Kaplan, so he now provides the video examples for how to teach certain question types. I see him often, and every time can’t help but remember him doing his Alex Trebek impression… no, sorry, you forgot about British Columbia, a province from my home country of Canada which has fine fishing…

One of my favorite tournament winners was Leonard Cooper, Teen Tournament winner of 2013 who sported a massive Afro, like a throwback to the daytime show. Cooper was struggling, but when he had a chance at a daily double late in the game, he bet $18,000. In 2013 and for a 17-yearold, that was unheard of, and you could almost hear his parents gasp in the audience. But, the question about the play Twelve Angry Men doubled his money and put the tournament out of reach, allowing him to provide his now notorious Final Jeopardy bit of snark:

Leonard Cooper loses Final but wins Tournament, after betting $18,000. Photo from dailymail.co.uk.

G.O.A.T.

In order to have a Greatest of All Time, there must be a long time, say 36 years or so. You must have players with stature. Brad Rutter had beaten every human he’d ever faced, in five multi-round tournaments. Ken Jennings had won 74 consecutive games, creating a record that may could take decades to surpass (if ever), like Bob Beamon’s long jump in Mexico City. James Holzhauer had obliterated the single day winning records by employing a Las Vegas-like betting strategy in combination with a huge store of knowledge and breakneck buzzer reflexes.

Jennings and Rutter had already made game show history, losing to IBM’s Watson computer, in a series that showcased the ability of Artificial Intelligence to successfully interpret questions. There was never a question that the machine had a timing advantage.

The Greatest of All Time tournament lived up to the hype, even for me, long time fan of the format. The questions were blisteringly difficult, and Ken and James slugged it out as they dove across the board. They rarely missed a question. Holzhauer’s strategy had demonstrated how easily he could slice through opponents, as he would never hesitate to double down on $20,000. All it takes is one well-timed Daily Double response to put the game out of reach, since the value of the rest of the clues then can’t add up to enough, even with a doubled answer in Final Jeopardy. Leonard Cooper and others had already shown how to do it. Jennings knew it.

Rutter had been the tournament juggernaut in previous appearances. Jennings was more of a plodder, systematically mowing down the board with swift, correct answers, but it was less flare than mastery. I thought Holzhauer’s strategy would slice them both to ribbons. What happened was dramatic and sensational and worth finding secondhand if you didn’t see it. Jennings bet big, knowing he had to follow his opponent’s process in order to beat the gambler. He didn’t like it; you could see him chewing his lip every time. It paid off, ultimately, but not easily. As it turned out, he had a lot of help from Rutter, who found nearly all the Daily Doubles before Holzhauer could get there. The result was a great game, a good show, and probably far more than Merv Griffin or Art Fleming could ever have even imagined.

Jeopardy in its second incarnation has now been on through most of my adult life with Trebek as host. The Price is Right holds the record for being the longest continuous running game show, even without its original host; there’s plenty of precedent for shows to go on under new management. Trebek announced last year that he’s fighting stage 4 pancreatic cancer, so many of the interviews around the G.O.A.T. tournament talk about his retirement. Rumors are that his last show has already been filmed, although Trebek says that’s only speculation and has joked that he has to fulfill his contract, which runs through 2022. It’s hard to imagine who would deftly steer the show forward as succesfully as Trebek has, but that’s a little like saying who could ever be a better Super Bowl quarterback than Joe Montana or win more games than the Chicago Bulls?

Myths are defined as stories with heroes who often defeat supernatural beings or create phenomena of nature. What could be more heroic than The Plodder defeating The Gambler? Or The Plodder and the Juggernaut losing to The Computer? What could be more a part of our daily lives than that little theme song we hum, when we’re waiting for someone to answer our question, doo-dee-doo-doo…?

This long-running game show, invented by a D-list singer and talk show host, winner of a record 33 Emmies, hosted by a Canadian, reanimated the quiz format and was said by TV Guide to be habit-forming and “make its viewers feel smarter.”

What is…
Jeopardy’s 1983 pilot, lovingly sourced from the amazing J-Archive.

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