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5 Jeopardy! Questions That Stumped (Fictional) Geniuses

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Arthur Chu captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means.

Silly as it might be, winning on Jeopardy! has become a shorthand in our cultural lexicon for proving oneself as an intelligent and knowledgeable citizen.

I am now, for instance, allowed to claim that I am smarter than anyone else in the world besides Ken Jennings, David Madden and maybe Brad Rutter because I’ve won more Jeopardy! episodes than they have. I take immense pleasure in this. Other people in my life take immense pleasure in pointing out Jeopardy! questions they knew the answer to that I didn’t, like the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy last year or anything about sports.

Thus, in Hollywood, pitting a stuck-up brainy hero—a much-loved character type—against that nightmare scenario, a Jeopardy! answer whose question just won’t come to mind, is a favorite way to take a nerd down a peg.

Here’s a list of five fictional characters and the Jeopardy! clues that stumped them, and why studying some of those clues might be a good idea if you ever get on Jeopardy! in real life.

1. Cliff Clavin, “Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz and Lucille LaSueur” (Cheers, “What Is… Cliff Clavin?”)

The most famous fictional contestant to flub Jeopardy! is Cliff Clavin, Cheers’ resident know-it-all. In 1990, Cliff threw away his commanding lead with an all-in wager on the category “Movies” and ended up losing it all with his question of “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?” (The expected question was “What were the birth names of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and Joan Crawford?”)

This one is required knowledge for Jeopardy! aficionados, and has even been immortalized by Jeopardy! strategists as “Clavin’s Rule." The lesser shame of not betting enough money on a clue you do know the correct response to is greatly outweighed by the shame of betting too much money on a clue that ends up costing you the game.

2. Dorothy Zbornak, “American hero buried in Grant’s Tomb” (The Golden Girls, “Questions and Answers”)

Dorothy Zbornak of The Golden Girls was another famous know-it-all with big Jeopardy! dreams, which she got a chance to realize in the 1992 episode “Questions and Answers."

Dorothy’s quest to get on Jeopardy!, alienating her friends and family in the process—a quixotic, nay, Melvillean obsession with which I am personally familiar—eventually leads to her having a paranoid fantasy in a dream sequence where she’s put up against lovable-dimwit characters Rose and Charley Dietz (Rose’s male lothario counterpart from Golden Girls spinoff Empty Nest).

Despite her obvious intellectual superiority to the unbearably simpering fools who pervade her daily existence—another problem I am personally familiar with—Dorothy is nonetheless cheated of victory at the last minute when in response to the old saw about “Grant’s tomb” Dorothy gives the obvious, correct answer of “Ulysses S. Grant” but is ruled wrong and Rose’s answer of “Cary Grant” is ruled right.

Merv Griffin himself bursts onto the set and says that if he wants to say that Cary Grant is buried in Grant’s tomb no one can stop him, validating once and for all every unpopular smart kid’s deep-seated belief that the world is run by a conspiracy of popular dumb people formed to deliberately frustrate and infuriate us.

Meanwhile in "real life" we find out that Dorothy’s audition for Jeopardy! has in fact been rejected because despite her intelligence she’s just too unlikable to be on national TV.

This episode sticks out in my mind because apparently a lot of people remembered it when people started saying I was too unlikable to be on Jeopardy!.

This offends me because I will never in a million years be as awesomely, acerbically, lovably unlikable as Dorothy Zbornak. Also because once my mom told me I was named after Bea Arthur and I was brought to tears by the revelation that she was just kidding.

3. The Brain, “This classic TV character was known for saying ‘Bang! Zoom! Right in the kisser!” (Animaniacs, “Win Big”)

This is from the first-ever Pinky and the Brain cartoon aired on TV, and if you, like me, watched it when it first ran on the WB on Season 1, Episode 2 of Animaniacs on September 14, 1993, go ahead and give yourself a cookie. 

Our introduction to the title pair in the segment “Win Big” establishes several key elements of a Pinky and the Brain cartoon from the get-go, including the unlikely and convoluted world-takeover plot (Brain needs to acquire exactly $99,000 to purchase a “superconductive magnetic infindibulator,” which will function by amplifying the Earth’s magnetic field to such a degree that everyone with metal coins in their pocket will be stuck to the ground), Pinky’s habit of interrupting said world-takeover plot with irrelevant pop culture quotes, and Brain’s hilariously mis-proportioned and massive “human suit.”

Of course the most important element of the Pinky and the Brain cartoons established by this short is the creators’ deep love for the Golden Age of TV and cinema (culminating in the most inside-baseball of all possible cartoon shorts, “Yes, Always.")

The $99,000 figure alludes to an episode of The Honeymooners called “The $99,000 Answer," where Ralph Kramden once again fails to achieve his dream as a result of his own hubris and impatience and the crappy way he treats his best friend.

Despite Ed going gamely along with Ralph’s demands that he help him practice for a music-themed trivia game by playing endless reams of sheet music on the piano, Ralph can’t help losing his patience over Ed’s repeated, compulsive playing of the first bars of “Swanee River” before being able to play any other songs. Of course, Ralph gets his comeuppance when “Swanee River” ends up being the very first composition he’s asked about on the show.

“Win Big” stands up perfectly on its own for an audience that probably hadn't heard of The Honeymooners, while still being a note-for-note homage to the Honeymooners episode—and pointing its young audience to its source material by having the TV quote that Pinky incessantly repeats while Brain is trying to study be Ralph Kramden’s own “Bang! Zoom! Right in the kisser!”

4. Julie Smith, unknown question about animals (“Little Expressionless Animals,” Girl With the Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace)

This is the most literary reference on this list—not from TV but from a short story written by David Foster Wallace, originally published in The Paris Review.

Sadly we don’t learn anything about the question that eventually stumps the protagonist of that story, but we can assume it has to do with animals, which are her Achilles’ heel the way sports are mine or the word “Achilles” is for Julian Batts on Wheel of Fortune.

All Jeopardy! geeks should read this story posthaste. It’s about a Jeopardy! contestant who wins game after game after game, who becomes a cultural icon because, as the fictional version of Merv Griffin puts it, “This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestantorial head, heart, gut, buzzer-finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is mystery.”

In other words when David Foster Wallace wrote this story in 1988 he basically predicted the Ken Jennings phenomenon… if Ken Jennings were a hauntingly beautiful lesbian with a mysterious past. (If only.)

5. Adam West, “This was the first spacecraft to land on the surface of Mars.” (Family Guy, “I Take Thee Quagmire”)

OK, Adam West isn't technically fictional. But on Family Guy, he nobly sacrifices his hopes of winning money on Jeopardy! in order to rid our world of an interdimensional prankster. Read more Superman comics if you don’t get it.

This is notable for being one of the few pop culture references other than “What Is… Cliff Clavin?” and the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches with Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery to actually be referenced on Jeopardy! (It didn’t go over so well.) And yes, Alex has also heard more than enough people say “Suck It, Trebek” by now and I’m guessing if you try it on the show they’ll just edit it out.

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Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling
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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.

 

Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!
Funko

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
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While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
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You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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