America’s Hardest-Working Know-It-All
Ken Jennings will admit that during his record-setting Jeopardy run of 74 straight wins in 2004, he lied to Alex Trebek. It was about airline food. The host was interviewing him after the show’s first commercial break, and by that point — Ken Jennings can’t remember exactly when it was, at what point in the 1,800 minutes or so of airtime he occupied — but by that point, Ken Jennings had, through the necessity of the show’s format, affably surrendered just about all of the harmless personal factoids he had to offer. So Ken Jennings told Alex Trebek that he liked airline food.
Ken Jennings told Alex Trebek that he liked airline food, even though he doesn’t, or more accurately, even though he doesn’t have an opinion on it one way or another, because Ken Jennings understood the rhythm of the Jeopardy dance: Liking airline food is peculiar; liking airline food would be fodder for that signature Alex Trebek brand of humor, half eye-rolling dismissal and half knowing nod to the audience — like, of course he likes airline food, folks, this is a Jeopardy contestant. And sure enough, Alex Trebek raised his eyebrows at Ken Jennings, Ken Jennings further sculpted his role as the goofy savant who’d become Alex Trebek’s foil, and the most memorable stint in the history of American game shows rolled on, unabated, possibly unstoppable.
On Jeopardy, knowledge begets money, but the money is beside the point, just a unit of scorekeeping. The contestants themselves are usually beside the point too, those personal anecdotes taking up no more than 10% of the show’s airtime, the rest reserved for a game of the mind — unusual in an America gleefully painted by itself and the rest of the world as a greedy, anti-intellectual society. It isn’t reality TV, no personalities or rivalries, just a few good strivers engaging in brain competition, and you at home playing along with them. Jeopardy is both elitist and all-inclusive. Alex Trebek is its nominal star, but the real star is the idea that being smart alone is worth something, even if you’re the kind of social oddball who likes airline food.
Ken Jennings transcended the show by being the epitome of the show. Jennings — Ken Jennings to America, that type of name you can’t help but pronounce in full, to the extent that even his then 2-year-old son would call him Ken Jennings during his six-month run — became a celebrity in a celebrity-free zone. If Trebek is the show’s Virgil, Jennings is Dante, the one guy who made it out alive. Even if you’re the kind of person who knows that the Tournament of Champions, the show’s annual best-of-the-best showdown, started yesterday, we bet you that you can’t name another Jeopardy contestant. (OK — except for Leonard, the daring and daringly Afroed Teen Tournament champ who became a star Tuesday night.)
But you know Ken Jennings — and Jennings, the onetime programmer of health-care software, is taking advantage of your familiarity to this day, publishing nonfiction books, writing a weekly news quiz for Slate, writing a weekly column about obscure world destinations for Condé Nast Traveler, debunking myths for Woot.com, creating a trivia puzzle for Parade magazine and one-offs for sites like ESPN’s Grantland, tweeting a handful of times a day, and doing whatever else he can to keep rolling in his career as a professional smart person. In 2013, merely knowing a bunch of arcane stuff isn’t enough to impress anyone outside of a pub quiz — that’s what our phones are for. But parlaying both intelligence and effortless charisma into not just celebrity but also a seemingly permanent spot in the pop-culture landscape is a pretty specific hustle. Don’t let the clean-cut Mormon good looks or aw-shucks demeanor fool you: Ken Jennings is on the grind.
I meet Jennings in a coffee shop near Union Square in New York City, a continent away from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Mindy, and two children. He is here to work, promoting his new book, Because I Said So, the fourth he’s written since his $2,522,700 in winnings — plus the promise of future income via speaking, writing, and special Jeopardy stints — allowed him to quit his job as a software engineer in Salt Lake City. His current job description is emblematic of the social media age: Being himself, for fun and profit. Which means being more than a little self-aware.
“I sort of peaked before I was 30,” he says, laughing. His laugh is kind of a literal ha-ha, rolling tonally upward in a way that fits his peppy character. “It’s already guaranteed that it’ll say Jeopardy on my tombstone.”
In a dark suit and a pale blue dress shirt, wheat-colored hair pushed sideways, Jennings is technically 38, yet seems an ageless carbon-copy of the figure he cut for six months on television — he could’ve just walked off the 2004 Jeopardy set. He does nothing to dispel the sense of his character as it appeared on TV: both polished and shticky without being overly guarded. As we talk, he uncoils from being well-postured, even rigid, to more languid and casually at ease.
Jennings partly credits his talent for memorizing cultural bullet points to a quirk of biography. His family lived in the Seattle area until Ken was in first grade, when Jennings’ father, a lawyer, moved them to Seoul. Originally planning to stay for two years, they stuck around for 11, with Ken eventually graduating from Seoul Foreign School, then attending the University of Washington for his freshman year and Brigham Young University until graduation, with a two-year Mormon mission mixed in. Growing up abroad, Jennings became obsessed with any artifacts of American culture that would make their way into Seoul; he and his classmates, expat children and military kids, would copy and share cassette tapes and figure out how to see Back to the Future when it showed on the Army base.
“We were starved for what was going on: If someone got some third-generation VHS tape of the long version of the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ video, that was huge, that got passed around,” Jennings says. His enthusiasm for “Thriller” begins to loosen him up. “Pop culture became an incredibly valuable commodity.”
One of the shows on the Armed Forces Network every night was Jeopardy, so the kids would watch and discuss it the day after like it was Monday Night Football, talking about contestants’ “Daily Double” strategies and particularly memorable questions. The show was an object worth studying for its connection to the country that that they hailed from but didn’t actually live in.
Jennings was also taking cues from his parents, the type of people who kept reference books around the house, smart folks who were told by their friends they would create a super race if they reproduced. On rainy days, Jennings would sit around and use the books to build a connection between himself and his home country, studying, for example, local road maps of Delaware. Since his childhood, he says, he has tended to index new facts geographically, so that his knowledge ends up clustered around locations — the first thing he’ll remember about a person is where they’re from, and the first thing he’ll remember about an event is where it took place.
Apparently, many dedicated trivia types operate according to similar schema, subconsciously relying on dates or places or subjects to collate the galaxies of information in their heads. “It’s not a mnemonic, it’s just how things fall out,” he says of his neural arrangement. “When you see someone on Jeopardy who can just produce a fact, it’s usually because they have a strong associative memory. Some people do that by chronology, but for me it always happened geographically, from traveling as a kid.”
After initially pursuing an English major at BYU, Jennings switched to computer science. He explains, as he is wont to do, with a joke:
Q: “What’s the difference between an English major and a pizza?”
A: “A pizza can feed a family of four.”
The dot-com boom made it very easy for him to work for a classmate’s start-up. By graduation in 2000, he’d already become engaged to Mindy, who majored in theater and worked as a preschool teacher after BYU.
Mindy, who spoke with me by phone from Seattle as she fended off her and Ken’s young daughter, said that her husband never tried to give off the impression of intelligence back in college. (He also — fun fact — took nine months to ask Mindy out after announcing to her roommate his intention to do so.) “He mostly wanted people to know he was funny,” she said. “He’s not the type of person who wants you to know he knows everything.”
When Jennings tried out for and made it onto Jeopardy, Mindy was the confident one; Ken played down expectations. The day before the first taping, the pair went to Disneyland with Ken’s brother and wife, and Ken participated in a crowd-based Who Wants to Be a Millionaire adaptation. He performed very well.
Jeopardy Productions actually owns the trademark for “America’s Favorite Quiz Show,” filed Nov. 23, 1999. Created by Merv Griffin and hosted by Alex Trebek, Jeopardy as it currently exists debuted in syndication in 1984; other versions, also created by Griffin but lacking the current host, had aired from 1964–1979. Since then it’s become a resounding part of the national culture, with fundamentally the same format the entire time. Jeopardy stands for knowledge in a way that few other non-academic entities do, including other game shows: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Wheel of Fortune, and their ilk prioritize drama and dollar amounts over the tasks that create them.
That last piece of game-show analysis comes via Bob Harris. Harris appeared on 13 Jeopardy episodes over 10 years, including a maxed-out five-game stint — the most you could win in a row pre-September 2003 — plus Tournament of Champions appearances. He breaks down Jeopardy like an art professor, and he wrote a book about his stint on the show called Prisoner of Trebekistan.
“The question isn’t on the bottom of the screen while you watch the players,” he points out. “It fills the screen, and if you watch Jeopardy, you have to start playing along. They put the puzzle front and center, and it stays front and center.” Normally, this means that the three contestants who play every night become mere facilitators for the show. They’re sort of like horses: You identify with one or the other aesthetically, or because of his or her name, but chances are you’ll never pull for that person again, and you will forget about them.
The relative unimportance of the Jeopardy contestant is reflected in the show-taping experience Jennings describes, a mix of jury duty and summer camp, a hyper-organized atmosphere. Thanks to the felony punishments that still apply to game-show shenanigans, the need for black-site secrecy and silence, any time one person needed to use the bathroom, everyone went. For their time on set, contestants were, for all intents and purposes, one part of a large, unwieldy brain-Voltron. Jeopardy films five shows in one day, two days at a time, so the maximum number of shows you can film in one cluster is 10. Jennings was on 75, and through that process he got to know individuals he still keeps in touch with eight years later.
“Backstage on Jeopardy, you met people who were just so happy to be in a room where people would get their Monty Python references,” Jennings says. “People had no nerd outlet, even in the internet age. Their relief was almost palpable that someone was going to get their nerdy undergraduate references.”
Jennings, who owes his capacity for knowledge, at least in part, to some degree of insularity and isolation, questions the point of an organization like Mensa. “This is probably going to get me in trouble — these are my people I’m talking about — but I’ve always found the idea of Mensa to be so repellent.” As he works up steam, his voice gets quicker and more demonstrative; it’s hard to tell whether his talking is trying to keep pace with his brain, or his brain is keeping pace with his talking. “Average people are so dumb that you have to go to a special club to determine how smart you are? First of all, that’s a terrible way to look at your fellow human beings; second of all, it seems a little bit self-congratulatory. What do they do? It’s not like they’re out building low-income housing or anything.”
It’s clear that Jennings doesn’t view himself as an intellectual in the traditional sense, and this partly explains why he’s been able to endure without the show. He’s a product of pop culture who happens to know all the roads in Delaware. (At another point in our discussion, we talk about the comedian Norm MacDonald, and as soon as I mention one of my favorite jokes of his — an elaborate bit known as “the moth joke” — Jennings doesn’t just recognize it, he starts quoting lines.) “For so long, I was always the guy in the office who you could ask the name of a TV show or guys in a band, but that’s not really valuable in the Google age,” Jennings says. “I’d always been good at that, but I turned my back on it because I didn’t really think I could make a living that way. I thought being a programmer was a safe thing to do, and by accident, I became much more successful doing what I was actually good at.”
Jennings’ post-Jeopardy years as a professional whiz have coincided with the general triumph of geek culture. He’s obviously not one to miss such a thing. “There’s this idea of the jocks vs. nerds thing. That sort of ended when the nerds won decisively. We now live in this era where your big summer tentpole movies can be hobbits and minor Marvel Comics superheroes and boy wizards. If you had told me when I was in junior high and you had told me there would be a $200 million movie about Hawkeye and Black Widow, I’d be like, ‘Hawkeye — that guy’s lame!’” Jennings says. “Those nerds started running Hollywood studios, and our captains of industry became Asperger types with acne scars.”
After the show ended, Jennings got an agent and a book deal, and once the book deal was in place, he quit his job, freed by the Jeopardy windfall to return to doing what he was “actually good at.” I was able to meet Jennings because he was heading to a reading in Long Island for his fourth book, Because I Said So. His first two books, Brainiac and Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac, were very much products of Jeopardy Champion Ken Jennings, dealing directly with facts. With his third book, Maphead, about — yes — maps, Jennings started dealing with the way we perceive and represent facts, specifically geographical ones, though in a much less academic way than I’ve just made it sound.
Because I Said So shares that interest and is a natural evolution for him: It’s a case-by-case investigation of time-honored clichés passed down by parents to their children that attempts to prove or disprove those weird half-truths of childhood (i.e., don’t look in the microwave, don’t cross your eyes, the five-second rule). He crowd-sourced some of the clichés themselves, asking for submissions on Reddit, which supplied him with a couple dozen aphorisms. (His Reddit handle — “WatsonsBitch,” a nod to his 2011 loss to IBM’s supercomputer — perfectly channels the site.) He did the legwork himself, figuring out which ideas had some basis in truth (double-dipping does spread germs) and which were verifiably false (you don’t need eight glasses of water a day).
His utilization of Reddit demonstrates Jennings’ understanding of the internet community, both on its own merits and as the world’s best PR firm. (He recently returned for a Reddit AMA, which stands for Ask Me Anything; if that sounds familiar, it might be because President Obama did one last year.) And he’s really taken to Twitter. Part of his bio reads, “Your grandma loves/hates him because he was on Jeopardy! for a long time,” and his banter is fully versed in the slightly off cadences of the medium. Jennings walks the balance beam of openness and insularity, exhibiting some techniques of quote-unquote Weird Twitter — he follows many emblematic representatives of that absurdist comedic culture, including @dril, @Arr, and @Horse_ebooks — while still making jokes about his children and Mitt Romney. (And Mitt Romney. And Mitt Romney. Jennings says he was asked to run for Senate by Democrats Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid in 2004.)
When I ask Jennings if he considers himself a comedian, he demurs — “Twitter makes you a comedian in the same way that digital cameras make you a photographer” — but it’s clear that he spends time thinking about the mechanics of comedy. He cites Spy magazine — a wit-driven New York publication that existed from 1986 through 1998 and was probably not broadly read among churchgoing Mormons of his generation — as an influence. His wife Mindy told me he’d discussed writing a book about comedy, which would seem to fit his m.o.: providing a smart but unpretentious escort through topics (maps, parenting, jokes) that everyone is familiar with. Rather than functioning as a reporter or a critic, Jennings seems to be more like the world’s greatest tour guide: He leads his readers through subjects, informing and entertaining them along the way, and then drops them off at the end feeling like they’ve accomplished something.
I ask Jennings about something I’d been wondering: Since he’d become a de facto Jeopardy cohost, when (if?) Alex Trebek eventually leaves the show, would he give any thought to trying to succeed him? (I also reached out to the producers of Jeopardy with this question, but they declined to play ball.)
“I would give it no thought, because I would do it in a heartbeat. That’s the best gig in the world,” Jennings said. (He noted that it’s only about four days of work a month.) “I don’t think I would get that call. But I wish I would.”
When asked for a comment about Jennings through Jeopardy’s publicist, Trebek sent the following: “I don’t usually make predictions, but Ken’s record of 74 wins will never be broken.”
When Jennings’ run on Jeopardy came to an end, viewers were stunned: It didn’t quite seem possible, after six months, that there would one day be a Jeopardy without Ken Jennings. His performance came around the same time as the reality boom that would dominate the first decade of the 2000s. (Laguna Beach actually premiered while Jennings was on Jeopardy.) He had a charisma and presence that very few quiz-show contestants, usually neutered by the format of their shows, ever had. Writing his name differently on the little blue podium screen every night, making cool-high-school-teacher jokes about “hos,” Jennings became the Kardashian of his genre: We had constant, exhaustive, and thorough access to his brain.
Jennings has returned to the show for various Tournaments of Champions and a slightly more symbolic test two years ago, in which he squared off against Watson, a trivia supercomputer developed by IBM. He came in second place over a two-day contest, with fellow former champion Brad Rutter coming in third, neither able to quite top the computer’s combination of speed and depth of knowledge, though both say they think they could have.
Jennings is getting worked up — to the extent that he does — about Watson when his publicist appears and forces us out onto Fourth Avenue, where we discuss the One Time Being Ken Jennings Wasn’t Enough.
“I really do think it meant something,” he says, buttoning up his dark wool overcoat. “I think it’s very meaningful that when people would talk about the Watson match, they would always make jokes about HAL or Skynet in Terminator or The Matrix, all the touchstones where the evil machines were going to replace us. IBM would be like, ‘No, no, no, it’s the helpful computer from Star Trek,’ and people would be like, ‘Whatever, it’s HAL.’”
At this point, he is basically being pulled away down the street. But the topic possesses him. “I feel like that must be a sign of something deep-rooted: We are worried about being replaced. And I felt that personally. Being the guy who got replaced, not just the competitor wanting to win, that was also, ‘Wow, the only thing I’m really good at IBM duplicated in 18 months by throwing a few million dollars at it.’”
In his dystopian future, nerds are replaced by better robot nerds — nerds without joy and humor and enthusiasm. And I suppose that maybe someday Watson will be engineered into the Perfect Nerd. But it will be tough to beat Ken Jennings.