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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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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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13 Smart Facts About The Big Bang Theory
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The Big Bang Theory, which has held the title of television's most popular comedy for several years now, and will return for its 11th season on Monday, September 25th. In the meantime, geek out with these facts about the long-running cerebral comedy on the 10th anniversary of its premiere.

1. THE SHOW WASN’T PITCHED IN A TRADITIONAL WAY.

Instead of writing up a premise—which includes outlines of the characters and the long-term vision for the show—and pitching it to CBS, co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady revealed at PaleyFest in 2009 that for their pitch, they wrote a complete script, hired actors, and, as Lorre explained, “put on a show” for CBS president Les Moonves. Lorre found the experience to be “crazy,” but it obviously worked.

2. IT TOOK TWO PILOTS FOR THE SHOW TO GET PICKED UP TO SERIES.

The show filmed two different pilots, because CBS didn't like the first one but felt the show had potential. The first pilot began with a different theme song and featured Sheldon, Leonard, and two female characters, including a different actress playing what would become the Penny role. Chuck Lorre thought the initial pilot “sucked” but is open to having the unaired pilot included as part of a DVD.

3. JIM PARSONS THOUGHT HE WAS AUDITIONING FOR A GAME SHOW.

Amy and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.
CBS Entertainment

When Jim Parsons’s agent called and said Chuck Lorre wanted him to audition for a pilot, Parsons misunderstood. “I did not know Chuck Lorre at the time,” Parsons told David Letterman in 2014. “I thought he was talking about Chuck Woolery. I thought, why are they so excited about it? We should see what the man has to offer before we’re like, ‘It’s a new Chuck Woolery pilot!'"

4. ED ROBERTSON OF THE BARENAKED LADIES HESITATED TO WRITE THE THEME SONG.

As the story goes, Lorre and Prady went to a Barenaked Ladies concert and were impressed that lead singer Ed Robertson sang a song on cosmological theory, so they tapped him to write the series' theme song, called “The History of Everything." In 2013, Robertson told CBS News that he’d previously written some songs for TV and films only to have his work rejected, so he was initially reluctant to take on the project.

“I was like, look, how many other people have you asked to write this? I’m at my cottage, I got a couple of weeks off right now and if you’ve asked Counting Crows and Jack Johnson and all these other people to write it, then I kinda don’t want to waste my time on it,” Robertson told them. Lorre and Prady told Robertson he was their only choice, so Robertson agreed to come on board. The first version was 32 seconds long but Robertson had to trim it down to 15 seconds. The original version was also acoustic, which Lorre loved, but Robertson insisted that his bandmates be on the track, and Lorre loved that one even more.

5. SHELDON PROBABLY DOESN’T HAVE ASPERGER’S.

Because of Sheldon’s anti-social nature, viewers have often assumed that Sheldon has Asperger's syndrome. But Prady has stated that, "We write the character as the character. A lot of people see various things in him and make the connections. Our feeling is that Sheldon's mother never got a diagnosis, so we don't have one.”

Parsons himself isn’t totally sure, though. “Asperger’s came up as a question within the first few episodes. I got asked about it by a reporter, and I had heard of it, but I didn’t know what it was, specifically,” he told Adweek in 2014. “So I asked the writers—I said, ‘They’re asking me if Sheldon has Asperger’s’ and they were like, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And I went back and I said, ‘No.’ And then I read some about it and I went, OK, well, if the writers say he doesn’t, then he doesn’t, but he certainly shares some qualities with those who do. I like the way it’s handled ... This is who this person is; he’s just another human.”

6. KUNAL NAYYAR GOT HIRED BECAUSE HE WAS “CHARMING."

CBS Entertainment

In reminiscing about the early days, Prady explained to Buzzy Mag how Raj came to be: “When we were casting for that part, we were casting for an international member of the ensemble, [because] if you go into the science department at a university, it’s not [just] Americans,” Prady said. “It’s one of the most international kinds of communities. So we saw foreign-born people. And so we saw people who were Korean and Korean-American and Latino. And then Kunal came in and it was like Jim [Parsons]—it was just Person Number Eight on a day of Twenty-Seven people, and he was charming.”

7. AMY FARRAH FOWLER WAS MADE A NEUROSCIENTIST ON PURPOSE.

Mayim Bialik, who in real life has a PhD in neuroscience, told Variety how Amy Farrah Fowler’s profession came to be. “They didn’t have a profession for my character when I came on in the finale of season three,” she says. “In season four, Bill Prady said they’d make her what I am so I could fix things (in the script) if they were wrong. It’s neat to know what things mean. But most of the time, I don’t have to use it.”

8. ASTROPARTICLE PHYSICIST/SCIENCE CONSULTANT DAVID SALTZBERG ONCE GOT A JOKE ON THE AIR.

The Big Bang Theory has had David Saltzberg on retainer since the beginning of the series. Every week he attends the tapings and offers up corrections and ensures the white boards used in the scenes are accurate. During episode nine of the first season, Saltzberg wrote a joke for Sheldon, who has a fight with another scientist. Penny asks Sheldon about the misunderstanding and Sheldon replies, “A little misunderstanding? Galileo and the Pope had a little misunderstanding!”

Even though Saltzberg teaches at UCLA and publishes papers, he thinks his work on The Big Bang Theory is more impactful. “This has a lot more impact than anything I will ever do,” he told NPR. “It’s hard to fathom, when you think about 20 million viewers on the first showing—and that doesn't include other countries and reruns. I’m happy if a paper I write gets read by a dozen people.”

9. WIL WHEATON GOT THE “EVIL WIL WHEATON” GIG THROUGH TWITTER.

Wil Wheaton and Jim Parsons in a scene from The Big Bang Theory.
Sonja Flemming - © 2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc

Wil Wheaton, who plays a “delightfully evil version” of himself on the show, tweeted about The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton told Larry King, “I was talking on Twitter about how much I loved the show and how I thought it was really funny.” Executive producer Steven Molaro—who will be taking on the same role in the Young Sheldon prequel, which also premieres Monday night—saw the tweet and told Wheaton to let him know if he wanted to come to a taping. A few days later Wheaton received an email from Bill Prady’s assistant about appearing on the show. “I just thought the email was a joke from one of my friends, so I just ignored it,” Wheaton said.

When Wheaton realized that the email was legit he phoned up Prady, who explained they wanted a nemesis for Sheldon. “It’s always more fun to be the villain,” Wheaton said. Even though the character has evolved into Sheldon’s ally, Wheaton said, “I still call him Evil Wil Wheaton.”

10. CHUCK LORRE THOUGHT THE SHOW AIRING AT 8 P.M. WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE END.

The show aired a handful of episodes in the fall of 2007, but a Writers Guild strike halted production until the following year. When the show returned in March, it had an earlier time slot. During a 2009 Comic-Con panel with the show’s cast and producers, the moderator asked Lorre about how CBS once again changed the time slot, this time from Mondays at 8 p.m. to Mondays at 9:30 p.m. “You guys followed us when they put us on at 8 and that is what kept us alive,” Lorre replied. "We did eight shows before the strike took us out in our first season. When the strike was over, CBS put us on at 8 p.m. and we thought that might be the end of it. You followed us and kept us alive and that was when we got the two-year pickup when we did well at 8.” The show eventually returned to the Mondays at 8 p.m. slot.

11. PARSONS ATTRIBUTES THE SHOW'S SUCCESS TO ITS LACK OF CHARACTER ARCS.

In a 2014 interview with New York Magazine, Parsons gave his theory (if you will) on why The Big Bang Theory attracts more than 20 million viewers per week—a number unheard of since the Friends-era sitcom reign. “There’s not anything to keep up with,” he said. “You don’t go, ‘I didn’t see the first three seasons, and now they’re off with prostitutes, and they no longer work in the Mafia, and I don’t understand what happened.’ People have so many choices on TV now, so no one’s asking for you to marry us. You can enjoy our show without a weekly appointment.”

12. A NEW GENUS OF JELLYFISH IS NAMED BAZINGA.

CBS Entertainment

In 2011, a photographer spotted the unnamed grape-sized rhizostome in Australia’s Brunswick River, snapped a photo of it, and sent the photo to marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin. In 2013, she named the jellyfish and published a paper on it for the Queensland Museum. In her findings she called it “a new genus and species of the rhizostome jellyfish, which cannot be placed in any known family or suborder.” She told The Huffington Post that it’s the first time in more than 100 years that a new sub-order of jellyfish had been discovered. For now, it’s the only member of the genus Bazinga, the family Bazingidae, and the sub-order Ptychophorae. Sheldon’s catchphrase also inspired the naming of a new bee species in 2013.

13. THE CAST MEMBERS ARE SOME OF THE WORLD’S HIGHEST PAID TV ACTORS.

In August 2017, Variety released a list of television's highest paid actors, and the main cast members of The Big Bang Theory—Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar—came out on top for comedy, earning an average of $900,000 per episode.

BONUS FACT: WE'RE ON THE COFFEE TABLE!

Image credit: Wil Wheaton

In 2010, Wil Wheaton shared this close-up of the coffee table in Sheldon and Leonard's apartment. "I saw a lot of things that could have been on my own coffee table," he wrote, "so I decided to grab a picture."

Here's one from 2014:

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