Double Jeopardy! An Interview with Ken Jennings

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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.

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September 25, 2006 - 5:28am
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