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December 1, 2020

Jeopardy!: America’s (True) Pastime

Alex Trebek delivered the same performance as always: a reserved (yet invariably witty) host who made each episode enjoyable to watch while never forgetting what made the show unique.

Alex Trebek delivered the same performance as always: a reserved (yet invariably witty) host who made each episode enjoyable to watch while never forgetting what made the show unique.

Courtesy of WFLA

After the death of beloved host Alex Trebek from pancreatic cancer in November, the long-running trivia game show Jeopardy! found itself at the center of national attention. As fans and contestants alike reflected on Trebek’s legacy and speculated on the future of the show, Claire McNear (A.B. ’11) braced for her book about the show, Answers in the Form of Questions, to hit shelves just two days after Trebek’s passing––a “bittersweet” moment, she admits. The Maroon sat down with McNear to discuss trivia subcultures, Trebek, the top contestants, and, yes, why Jeopardy! should be considered a sport.

Chicago Maroon: Could you talk about your first involvement with Jeopardy! and where that first love came from?

Claire McNear: I really grew up with [Jeopardy!]. It was always in the background and my family certainly watched it. We weren’t religious diehard “don’t call us in the 7 p.m. hour” people, as a lot of people are. But it’s such a part of pop culture that it was just always in the background. [When I went to UChicago for college] I didn’t have cable and so I fell out of watching Jeopardy! for a while until I moved in with my fiancé, Justin Sink, fellow Maroon alum and former Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon.  We got cable and I had this realization, “Oh my god, we could DVR Jeopardy! every night.” It became this thing where every night we were watching Jeopardy!, like a couple big fucking dorks. [Laughs] I write for [sports and culture website] The Ringer, and I joke that Jeopardy! is the perfect collision of those two things in a TV show that I profoundly believe is a sport. So I started covering it and somehow it led to a book.

CM: So what was that first time like when you pitched an article about Jeopardy!? What was the reaction in the room?

McNear: The great thing about working at The Ringer is that it is a place where you are encouraged to go down the rabbit hole with whatever [interests you]. The thing about Jeopardy!, too, is that 10 million people watch it every night––it is a huge show. That was one of the things I was curious about: why is this trivia game show such an enduring and major part of pop culture and this massive ratings draw?

But my early stories about Jeopardy! were not super serious or long. They weren’t even reported. I wasn’t really interviewing people for those. Slowly I started to learn more about the show and the trivia subculture that fuels it, started actually doing some reporting and got to know people in the universe, and just got deeper and deeper into it.

CM: How would you describe the trivia subculture to people who are on the outside of it and haven’t really had a ton of interaction with it?

McNear: I think most people assume [when they’re watching an episode of Jeopardy!] that, OK, these are very smart people, but, for the most part, they’re just kind of pulled in from the street. Anybody could be on. That’s the great, beautiful myth of Jeopardy! Over the last five or 10 years, there has been this steady professionalization of the Jeopardy! community, “Jeopardy! is like Everest for trivia lovers.” They work their way up to it––even really accomplished, really brilliant people who eventually do get on and kill it. Like James Holzhauer [who repeatedly set the single-game earnings record and won 32 straight games] took the online test 13 straight years before he was finally chosen to be on. It’s just this obsession for trivia lovers everywhere.

CM: What does the selection process generally look like?

McNear: This year alone, more than 100,000 people have taken the online contestant test, and of those 100,000, about 2,500 people are invited to auditions. From that pool of people, only about 400 new contestants get to play each season. I am not a math person, so I won’t try to do that in my head [laughs] but it’s a tiny fraction of the total applicants. So of course the test becomes this absolute obsession for people who want to be on the show, and they're panicking about their auditions and how to impress the coordinators.

CM: Once you get to the live auditions, what makes a contestant stand out and make them the right fit for the show?

McNear: That is one of the great mysteries of the universe [laughs]. By the point you’ve made it to an audition, you’ve had to take [the famously difficult 50 question] online contestant test. I can’t even tell you what a passing score is––it is widely thought that it is a 35 out of 50. They don’t tell you how you did or what score you need, so it becomes this neurotic thing for people, understandably so. [At the audition] you have to take a second 50 question test where a contestant coordinator reads the questions in real time. Then, you move onto the personality portion of [the audition] and that is the thing that surprises a lot of people who are trying to get on Jeopardy!. Out of this much smaller, more selective group, they want to see if you can be on television. It’s a little surprising when you watch Jeopardy!. It’s not the liveliest group of people on an average night, but Jeopardy! wants players who are fun to watch, whom you can root for, who aren’t just rattling off answers like a zombie. The producers are very aware of the fact that Jeopardy! is a television show.

CM: James Holzhauer [nicknamed “Jeopardy James”] became a sensation in 2019. What sort of impact does he have on the larger zeitgeist and conversation around the show? What makes a player like him so exciting?

McNear: Jeopardy! is always big and this version has really been a hit ever since [it came on the air in 1984]. With James Holzhauer, he was so good. He was just shattering records left and right, making these crazy bets, but very much had the trivia goods to back it all up. It was just really fun to watch somebody who played this incredibly electric and dynamic version of the game. I think his success points to one of the more interesting recent-ish developments on Jeopardy! which is [the elimination of] the five-day limit for returning champions back in 2003. Then [in 2004] Ken Jennings won 74 games and was this incredible sensation. By doing that, the show allowed for the introduction of characters. Now when you watch Jeopardy!, anything can happen and you become a James fan or Ken fan or Brad Rutter fan, and it adds another component of the game.

CM: Who are your favorite contestants?

McNear: Oh my God, that’s like asking me to pick between my children [laughs]. I talked to about 100 contestants over the course of writing the book and have talked to many more with stories at The Ringer. They’re all wonderful, beautiful butterflies [laughs] but I feel really lucky that we got to see the Greatest of All Time tournament in January. It was one of the highest rated shows on television that season period [with over 14 million viewers]. It topped the Game of Thrones series finale and beat out playoff games like the World Series or NBA Finals. Jeopardy! matters more to Americans. Those three guys––Ken, Brad, and James––are just so good and so fun, and I am very much a fan of all three of them, which I know is a bullshit answer.

CM: What is the typical training regimen for contestants?

McNear: It used to be like you would open up an almanac and make some president flashcards and say “OK, I’m ready for Jeopardy! I watch every night. Good to go.” Now it has become this very intense physical and mental training regimen where contestants prepare in a whole bunch of different ways. For example, the buzzer is a source of obsession among Jeopardy! contestants. If you don’t get your buzzer timing exactly right, you’re just going to go home even if you know every answer. So a lot of contestants train for the buzzer specifically. People will do hundreds and thousands of reps on a makeshift Jeopardy! buzzer to shave down their reaction time by tiny increments. There are contestants who practice standing on their feet for hours at a time because, if you’re going to win a bunch of games in a day, you’re going to be standing up there on that stage for a really long time. I’ve talked to contestants who did physical training programs because they thought that being in good shape will incrementally help their performance. Of course, there’s really serious studying regimens as well and people doing all kinds of crazy things [like] poring over the data of past episodes to tell them exactly what to study. There's also a lot of math to it now where people memorize all these facts about game theory and wagering scenarios and where exactly they are likeliest to find the Daily Double [and], what exactly they should do in Final Jeopardy to maximize their chances of winning.

CM: Getting into your larger argument of Jeopardy! as a sport, can you just kind of walk me through that logic?

McNear: It is fundamentally a thing that people train for and the ways in which they do that are physical, and it is very competitive and physically demanding in a strange way. You're not like, “Oh my god, I played 22 minutes of the game, so I'm going to be so sore tomorrow.” But there is this kind of physical element where being able to finesse the specific components of the game is hugely, hugely important…Jeopardy! has taken on these hallmarks of a sport in other ways in that there is this Hall of Fame. There is a pantheon of former contestants who now really function as coaches to some degree. I absolutely believe that it is a sport. A weird one, but still a sport.

CM: So would you go so far as to call the contestants athletes?

McNear: I suppose so. [Laughs] We’re going to run into some difficult terrain here pretty quickly. What is a sport versus what is a game? I think physicality is usually what we use to separate those things. But Jeopardy! is treated with a kind of seriousness. It is something people train for and there is a physically demanding element. So, sure, let’s call them athletes [laughs].

CM: You also cover more traditional sports, like baseball, so what is it that makes Jeopardy! unique in that it has this really robust fandom across backgrounds?

McNear: That was really a lot of what I wanted to answer in the book, which is just like why is Jeopardy! the biggest hit? There's harder trivia, there's more competitive trivia on other game shows. You can win a whole lot more money on other shows. There's a little bit of the gimmick––not to jam in the title of my book––but the answer in the form of a question is such an essential part of the game, why it sticks in people's memories. It really is just a gimmick. It would be the same game if you didn't do that, but it has given it this kind of long life.

CM: Why do people welcome these Jeopardy! contestants into their home lives night after night?

McNear: There’s just so much nostalgia with it. It has been such a monolith in American culture for so long that everybody has the Jeopardy! story. Everybody has a Jeopardy! memory. Maybe you watch with a grandparent or a parent or a teacher, maybe you watch in college, you play at Jimmy's, which famously likes to show Jeopardy! sometimes. There’s nobody who doesn’t like it, Jeopardy! has universal approval. It was a really nice refuge, in this 2020 year of doom and gloom, that I got to just speak with people about a show that they loved.

CM: How are they handling the pandemic?

McNear: They're currently filming their 37th season. They were able to start it on time, like the exact day that they would have been doing in non-pandemic times, and you can see a lot of the changes…The joke is that you can always tell when you run into a Jeopardy contestant online because their profile picture is always their commemorative picture with Alex Trebek. They had to settle for a socially distanced version of that this year. For me, [reporting a story for The Ringer] was such a spotlight into Alex Trebek. During the whole spring and summer when they were shut down, like most everybody else in the world at large, he was just so eager to get back in the studio as soon as possible. Like, he just loves hosting Jeopardy!. It was moving to see that he just really wanted to be there doing that.

CM: What is Alex Trebek’s wider legacy? There has certainly been a lot of discussion on social media, and his more famous clips are going viral again.

McNear: He looms so large over this show. I think that he will always kind of be an indelible part of Jeopardy!. But I asked him in one of our conversations, “Who should replace you on Jeopardy!?” He was really the first to say that Jeopardy would go on long after him and that it was too good of a game, too good of a show to be kind of dependent on any one host. There will never be another Alex Trebek and whoever it is next will inevitably be compared to him. The thing that I will take away from having watched him on the set…is just how much he really loved the game and admired his contestants. He cared about trivia. He really thought that a well-rounded individual should know about Mark Twain and should know about the president, should know about European capitals. At the end of a Jeopardy! episode, you can see Trebek walking over to the contestants, shaking the champion’s hand and chitchatting. I talked to a lot of contestants and they said, more often than not, he was talking about the Final Jeopardy question. He knew how hard it was to get on Jeopardy and he knew how much it meant for the people who make it there to be there, even if they don't win a million games or a million dollars, even if they don't win at all. And he got that.

CM: Where does Jeopardy! go from here, after the passing of Alex Trebek?

McNear: There is this fundamental anxiety about how much of Jeopardy!’s success depends on Alex Trebek, how much he was that “secret sauce.” I asked Holzhauer that exact question and he said that 85% of that magic was due to Alex Trebek. I am inclined to think that it will be a good enough game that it will go on and remain popular, although it will be very different. It’s so hard to imagine Jeopardy! without Trebek. I feel like the likeliest successor is probably Ken Jennings. He is not just synonymous with the show, but he really embodies what you want in a host and what made Trebek so great. He is brilliant, he is funny, he does care about trivia.

CM: So switching gears a little bit, just as a UChicago alum, what sort of feelings did you have when Emma Boetcher was the one to end James Holzhauer’s history run?

McNear:  It was amazing. She's so good. They have played three games head-to-head, and she's won two of them, like, she's so good. Jeopardy! films five games in a single tape day, so you don't know who the champion is when you arrive. From contestants [who lost to Holzhauer], they talked about this moment of horror when they showed up mid streak. It was like, “Here’s our reigning champion, James. James, how much have you won?” And he’s like, “$1.5 million” or whatever. So she has the experience of meeting James when he’s won 32 games and $2.5 million and was about to break the total dollar amount record. She was randomly assigned to the very first game of the day, so she hadn’t even actually seen him play. So she just had to work out, if he’s getting totals that high, this must be how he’s doing it, and the only way to beat him is to do exactly that and hopefully do it better than him. And she did it! As a UChicago graduate, it was an absolute thrill that one of our own, a Reg denizen, would be the one to topple the giant.

CM: How do you think that you would perform on Jeopardy!?

McNear: Horribly. For the book, I did actually audition––the producers tricked me into taking the test. Mercifully, I did not pass and will not be on that stage anytime soon, which is for the best.

CM: Were you told your score?

McNear: I don’t want to know. The contestant crew always say that you were a single question off of making the cut. So let’s say that!

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