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How Contestant Stories Are Chosen on Jeopardy!

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For one fleeting moment, Alex Trebek was drawn into a risqué discussion about sex.

In his 32nd year as host of the syndicated game show Jeopardy!, Trebek took his traditional time out to ask each of his three contestants a question about their personal lives. It’s been a show ritual since 1984, coming directly after the first commercial break, in the middle of the Jeopardy! round.

Quizzing Liz Miles, a doctoral candidate at Yale, Trebek looked at his cards and asked Miles about her university research on Japanese culture.

“Give me just one point about it,” Trebek prompted.

“I think there’s a lot of claims going around that Japanese men don’t have sex,” Miles said. “Am I allowed to say that?”

“Yes!” Trebek said. “I’m all ears now!”

Miles didn’t have much time to elaborate: Contestants are usually given 30 seconds to banter with Trebek before the game resumes. But the exchange left enough of an impression that some viewers were left wondering how these stories come about. Like virtually everything about Jeopardy!, the approach is both highly regimented and often unpredictable.


The quest for a compelling player anecdote begins a month out from taping, Corina Nusu, a senior contestant coordinator with the show, tells mental_floss. “We send them a huge package of documentation via email. Included is an info sheet that asks them to list five interesting facts about themselves.” Nusu also inserts a series of leading questions designed to provoke a good story. Among them:

What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done or had done to you?

What’s your most treasured possession?

What’s your secret ambition?

Any brushes with greatness?

These first-date questions can number up to 32, although contestants don’t have to answer every one. From there, Nusu is able to narrow down a list of three or four stories that will be written down and given to Trebek so he can make a final decision during taping.

When show day arrives, Nusu sits down with players to go over their responses and potentially elicit other interesting facts. “People often don’t realize how interesting they are,” Nusu says. “Oh, you know how to eat fire? You should’ve told me that before!”

Nusu also wants to make sure the contestant is ready to elaborate on Trebek’s prompt. “I sit and try to pretend I’m Alex and ask them a question. ‘So, you’ve been skydiving?’ You can’t just say, ‘Yes.’ Tell me you’ve been to the Galapagos Islands and met a cute girl or something. Were you in Poland? Don’t tell me yes, and you had a nice time. Remember to tell me your train got hijacked.”

When Nusu is satisfied players can elaborate, she hands over the cards to Trebek. In addition to the three or four stories, the host can also pull from a contestant’s hometown or occupation, giving him up to six options during taping. Nusu might highlight one she thinks Trebek would like, but the final decision is up to him. “He loves to do correlations between players,” she says. “Maybe they all have the same favorite sports team. He can’t really make those connections if we just give him one story.”


Lately, the show has been getting a lot of tales about entering marathons; a few years ago, it was karaoke. While subjects come in waves, nothing aside from the gruesome is off-limits. “But you probably shouldn’t talk about breaking the law,” Nusu advises.

Trebek also has his topic preferences, but Nusu is wary of revealing them out of concern someone might try to curry favor with the host. “But if someone is in the military, he’ll almost always ask where they served and for how long.”

Returning champions who need more material are usually asked to come back for the next taping with more interesting facts; Nusu will also return to the information sheet to see what else can be discussed.

Sometimes, though not often, Trebek will break away from the cards and ask a more random question. “That’s why I tell contestants to be on their toes,” Nusu says. “We want Alex to riff with them and not have everything come across as super rehearsed.”

Most contestants stick with the story they’re familiar with. Miles, the Yale student who began a discussion of Japanese male sex habits, was technically doing just that. “The card basically said her research focuses on Japanese masculinity,” Nusu says. “Nothing more was really discussed prior. That’s the magic of a conversation with Alex.”

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11 Terrifying Facts About The Hills Have Eyes
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Image Entertainment

In the late 1970s, Wes Craven was a struggling filmmaker known for only one thing: a little horror flick called The Last House on the Left (1972). Though he was itching to branch out and make other kinds of movies, he could only find financing for horror films, so he agreed to make a movie about a group of hill people savaging a vacationing family. Though he may not have been in a hurry to admit it, Craven found that he was really good at scaring people.

Produced on a tight budget, under sometimes grueling conditions, The Hills Have Eyes cemented Craven as one of Hollywood’s great horror masters. The film was released 40 years ago today, and it’s just as brutal as ever. So let’s look back on its unflinching terror with 11 facts about the film’s production.


According to writer/director Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes was inspired by the story of Sawney Bean, the head of wild Scottish clan who murdered and cannibalized numerous people during the Middle Ages. Craven heard the story of the Bean clan, and noted that the road near where they lived was believed to be haunted because people kept disappearing while traveling on it. He adapted the story to instead be about a group of wild people in the American West, and The Hills Have Eyes was born.


After Craven released The Last House on the Left in 1972, he tried his hand at making films outside of the horror genre, but according to the late director, “Nobody wanted to know about it.” In need of money and searching for a better career path, he finally answered the request of his friend, producer Peter Locke, to write a horror film. At the time, Locke’s wife Liz Torres was performing regularly in Las Vegas, and so Locke was frequently exposed to desert landscapes. He suggested that Craven set the film in the desert, and Craven began to craft the screenplay.

Budget was also a concern, so Craven structured the film to feature a relatively small cast and very few locations.


For the role of Ruby, the filmmakers needed an actress who could pull off the flighty and feral character convincingly, so, in the words of Locke: “We had sprints.” Actresses trying out for the role were asked to race each other, and Blythe’s speed won out.


Because of the film’s small budget, even Locke was drafted to join the cast. He appears as “Mercury,” the feather-covered savage who appears only twice: once in the film’s opening minutes, and then again as he’s pushed off a cliff by the Carter family’s dog, Beast.


The scene in which Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace) discovers a tarantula in the family trailer is a foreboding moment that signals the trauma to come, but it wasn’t in the script. According to Craven, they simply found the spider on the road during shooting, put it in a terrarium, and decided to add it into the film. Don’t worry, though: Wallace didn’t actually stomp the spider in the scene.


During the scene in which Doug (Martin Speer) discovers the mutilated body of the family’s other German Shepherd, Beauty, a real dog corpse was used. According to Craven, though, the dog was already dead.

“Let’s just say we bought a dead dog from the county and leave it at that,” Craven said.


Though it might seem relatively tame by modern standards, the film’s graphic violence earned it an X (what we now call NC-17) rating from the MPAA, which meant cuts had to be made. According to Locke, significant footage was removed from the scene in which Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) kills Fred (John Steadman), the scene in which Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mars (Lance Gordon) terrorize the trailer, and the final confrontation with Papa Jupiter.


Berryman, who became a horror icon thanks to this film, was apparently game for just about anything Craven and company wanted him to do, though he personally told the producers he was born with “26 birth defects.” Among those birth defects was a lack of sweat glands, which meant that the intense desert heat was particularly hazardous to his health. He soldiered on, though, even in intense action sequences.

“We always had to cover him up as soon as we finished these scenes,” Craven recalled.


Because the budget was small, production on The Hills Have Eyes often meant taking risks. Actors performed stunts themselves, sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way. For the scene in which Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston) set a trap to kill Papa Jupiter by blowing up the trailer, the crew members who set the explosion actually couldn’t tell Craven whether it was safe to have the actors in the foreground of the shot.

“We didn’t know how much of a blow-up it was gonna be,” Craven said.


According to Locke, the film’s original scripted ending involved the surviving family members reuniting at the site of the trailer, including Doug and the baby, signifying that they had survived and could finally look forward. Craven, though, opted for something more bleak, and so the film ends on a shot of Doug brutally stabbing Mars while Ruby looks on in disgust, a reversal of roles that the director liked.


The Hills Have Eyes is admired by fellow horror filmmakers, so much so that one of them—Evil Dead director Sam Raimi—chose to pay homage to it in a strange way. In the scene in which Brenda is quivering in bed after having been brutalized by Pluto and Mars, a ripped poster for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is visible above her head. Raimi saw it as a message.

“I took it to mean that Wes Craven … was saying ‘Jaws was just pop horror. What I have here is real horror.’”

As a joking response to the scene, Raimi put a ripped poster for The Hills Have Eyes in his now-classic film The Evil Dead (1981). Not to be outdone, Craven responded by including a clip from The Evil Dead in his classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Additional Sources: The Hills Have Eyes DVD commentary by Wes Craven and Peter Locke (2003)

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Pop Culture
Tiny Star Wars Fans Can Now Cruise Around in Their Very Own Landspeeders
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Radio Flyer

Some kids collect Hot Wheels, while others own model lightsabers and dream of driving Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder through a galaxy far, far away. Soon, Mashable reports, these pint-sized Jedis-in-training can pilot their very own replicas of the fictional anti-gravity craft: an officially licensed, kid-sized Star Wars Landspeeder, coming in September from American toy company Radio Flyer.

The Landspeeder has an interactive dashboard with light-up buttons, and it plays sounds from the original Star Wars film. The two-seater doesn’t hover, exactly, but it can zoom across desert sands (or suburban sidewalks) at forward speeds of up to 5 mph, and go in reverse at 2 mph.

The vehicle's rechargeable battery allows for around five hours of drive time—just enough for tiny Star Wars fans to reenact their way through both the original 1977 movie and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Sorry, grown-up sci-fi nerds: The toy ride supports only up to 130 pounds, so you’ll have to settle for pretending your car is the Death Star.)

Radio Flyer’s Landspeeder will be sold at Toys “R” Us stores. It costs $500, and is available for pre-order online now.

Watch it in action below:

[h/t Mashable]


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