CLOSE
Original image

Double Jeopardy! An Interview with Ken Jennings

Original image

Earlier today we heard from quiz-show whiz Bob Harris -- now we've got Ken Jennings, who is famous for giving our favorite Jeopardy! answer of all time (we also think he might have won a few games). Here's what he had to say about the glory of geekiness, 4,700-year-old pine trees, and his great new book, Brainiac:

In the book you write that "trivia" isn't necessarily trivial. So how do you define "trivia," and what makes for a good piece of it?
You can always define "trivia" downward so that it's restricted to only truly "trivial" stuff: different colors of kryptonite from old Superman comics, or plot points from episodes of F Troop. But I think, intuitively, most of us don't define trivia that way. We see trivia as unusual little factoids about any subject, whether it's history or science or hip-hop or college football. And when you look at it that way, you might as well call trivia "cultural literacy" or "general knowledge." It's the stuff that we all should know, regardless of our various upbringings and career niches, and so it's often the shared knowledge that brings people together socially. It sparks airplane chitchat and first-date conversation and breaks the ice at parties.

Also, because trivia tends to be the fun, approachable tip of the knowledge iceberg, on any subject, it tends to make any subject look appealing. You may not think you're interested in botany, but it's still sort of cool to know that there's a bristlecone pine tree in California that's over 4,700 years old. Maybe you couldn't care less about opera, but it's interesting that the the legendary composer Puccini loved fast cars and was, in fact, nearly killed in one of Italy's first car crashes. Trivia can be the foot in the door that makes you want to learn more about a new and possibly forbidding subject.

You and Stephen Colbert are on the way to coining a new word: "Poindexterity." Colbert's sort of a geek himself, but he's hugely popular -- so are nerds/geeks/etc becoming the popular kids? Can "Poindexterity" be cool?
In Brainiac, I describe hiding my trivia light under a bushel sometime around puberty, when I started to see how society at large regarded trivia nerds. There's no reason to be a graceless know-it-all, but I agree that the stigma against nerds/geeks is on the way out, for a couple reasons. One is that we're all "geeks" (i.e. encyclopedic experts) about some subject, our own pet subject, nowadays. It might be James Bond or hockey or food trivia or Lost, but everyone's a trivia "geek" about something. Secondly, the decades-old jock/nerd struggle has sort of petered out lately. The young tech bazillionaires today are all nerds. All the biggest hit movies are about hobbits and boy wizards and superheroes and other nerd icons. In a way, the nerds won.

The comments you made on your blog about Jeopardy! were clearly just an affectionate jest -- but are you still getting some guff for them? I saw a TV host ask you if the Trebek version of the show had been dumbed down from the earlier incarnation "“ are you baited like that more often now?
Sometimes I get baited to trash Jeopardy! from interviewers who don't like the show -- maybe it's anti-intellectualism, more often it's just because they genuinely don't like Trebek. But I can't really muster anything bad to say about Jeopardy! It's been my favorite TV show for like 20 years, even before it made me a household name. In the wake of the misquoted blog post, I did get plenty of angry e-mail from Jeopardy! defenders, so it's clear that there are still plenty of people who love the show just as much as I do.

You've said that fans seem to keep extra-hard trivia on hand just for you. How often do you get stumped? And why do you think people have this urge to test you?
I'm genuinely stumped pretty often, mostly because it's harder to formulate good trivia than most people think. Ideally trivia questions should be both interesting and attainable, but a more common layman's approach is, "Let me ask the most obscure thing I can think of about the 1959 Detroit Tigers" or whatever their pet pastime is. I cheerfully get these questions wrong, and congratulate them on their knowledge, but I don't feel too bad about it.

I think the impulse to stump is pretty common among trivia fans. It's not enough to know something: you have to show that you know more of something than someone else. I'd like to see trivia as more collaborative enterprise -- I always love hearing new weird tidbits from other people. There's a camaraderie that comes from that kind of shared knowledge which is, to me, more rewarding than the competitive thrill of merely showing off.

One of your trademarks on Jeopardy! was moving systematically down the board. Why do it that way? And what do you think were your most important winning strategies?
Moving methodically down Jeopardy! categories isn't uncommon -- in fact, the show recommends it. It's easier to follow at home, and it also helps players acclimate to a category before getting to the really hard clues. I would say my recommended Jeopardy! strategy comes down to two things: at-home preparation, and conservative wagering. Watching the show religiously at home will help you see your strong and weak points, and what common areas of
Jeopardy! knowledge (world capitals, presidents, Shakespeare) you need to bone up on, but it also helps you try to internalize the timing of the famously tricky Jeopardy! signaling devices. And I can't say enough about not betting too much on Daily Doubles, if you're happy with your position. In fact, I lost my last game because of two too-high Daily Double wagers.

You're working on a new show, which I've seen referred to variously as 1 vs. 100 and Ken Jennings Versus the Rest of the World. I'm gonna guess the first title is the real one -- what else can you tell us about the show?
These are two different shows. I taped an appearance for the first episode of NBC's upcoming quiz show 1 vs. 100 because they were inviting past game show success stories onto their show, and I was hoping to meet some of my fellow quiz show millionaires. Ken Jennings vs. the Rest of the World is a quiz show that Who Wants to be a Millionaire? producer Michael Davies and I were developing for Comedy Central. Comedy Central liked the show, but didn't really have a timeslot for it anymore, so we've been shopping it around elsewhere. I don't know if it'll ever see air, but, as a big game show fan myself, I'd love to do my part to revive the American game show. It's sort of a struggling genre at the moment.

I know you really enjoyed writing this book and you've said you want to write another one. Where do you want to go with that?
I'm not 100% sure yet. Now that I've written a book about trivia, I'm tempted to write another book of trivia. I stored up so many great facts working on Brainiac that it would be great to get them all out of my system and stop annoying my wife with them. Also, I've been asked so often about my own freakish memory that I've started to wonder why I don't understand the phenomenon of memory better. I'd like to write a book on the mystery of human memory and how it might actually work.

Original image
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
Original image
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

Original image
© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox
arrow
entertainment
20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
Original image
© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

Getty Images

Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

Getty Images

Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

YouTube

Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

Getty Images

Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios