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.