Politics & Policy

I Was Real On Jeopardy!

America's best reality TV show.

Tonight, I have a chance to unburden myself of the random facts that hum inside my head like background radiation. I’m getting not just 15, but 30 minutes of fame. (Well, counting the commercials.) I’m making my move for Alpha Nerd status.

I’m going to be on Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! (the exclamation mark is part of the name, in case it’s getting on your nerves) is one of those quiet American institutions we take for granted. There’s never a Jeopardy! craze. We don’t gather around the water cooler to discuss its contestants like we do the latest Survivor! or 24. Yet over 11 million of us watch it daily, making it the second most popular syndicated show (and more watched than any of the three network nightly newscasts). It’s the stealth hit show, a low-flying phenomenon.

The original daytime Jeopardy!, hosted by Art Fleming, ran from 1964 to 1975. It was revived with Alex Trebek in 1984. And while the dollar amounts have changed (a lot), it’s still unmistakably the same formula in 2004 as in 1964.

Like most of us, I never gave Jeopardy! much thought. I just stumbled across the show from time to time, often while home visiting the folks. Since learning that I was going to be a contestant, though, I’ve obviously paid Jeopardy! a little more attention. My conclusion: In an era without much television we can feel good about, Jeopardy! is a pretty neat little thing.

For one thing, the show celebrates the importance of facts. You remember facts, don’t you? The decline of factual knowledge helps explain why we are awash in opinions based on feelings rather than opinions based on facts. On Jeopardy!, though, facts are still king. What matters is who won the Gran Chaco War, not how you feel about the Gran Chaco War. (For the record, I don’t know who won–probably not Paraguay, also known to Jeopardy! fans as “the landlocked South American country that’s not Bolivia.” Also for the record, I’m not sure of my feelings about the Gran Chaco War, other than “glad it didn’t come up when I played.”)

And while I think it’s wrong to dismiss the answers as mere “trivia,” I won’t deny that some of the facts are pretty trivial. When I played, all three of us were stumped by what was probably an easy answer about Britney Spears, a subject on which I’m at peace with my ignorance.

But my point is that, even though it’s a game and has some silly moments, Jeopardy! deals with facts–with reality. If you still think reality is important–i.e., if you’re not heavily medicated–that should be refreshing.

Another thing to celebrate is that the show isn’t condescending. So many television programs, game shows certainly included, strenuously avoid making demands of the viewer. But Jeopardy! has remained among the few honorable exceptions for all these years. The answers (well, the questions) are just plain hard. (Some longtime viewers argue that it has been dumbed down over the years, and I don’t go back far enough to have an opinion. My point is that it’s still a far cry from The Price is Right.)

Quite a few people like it this way, clearly. What makes Jeopardy! fun to watch is not knowing all the questions; it’s being curious, interested in the world. The good news is that there are a lot of people who are intellectually curious–and they’re not all hyper-educated urbanites, either. Note the diverse occupations and hometowns of the players who make it onto the show, and you’ll get a sense of its broad appeal.

Heck, the mental image of 11 million Americans, with all the entertainment options in the world, sitting still to learn is kinda cool, don’t you think?

In fact, it’s not just Americans. Those of us dismayed at some of America’s cultural exports to the world may be cheered to learn that Jeopardy! has spun off almost 30 versions of itself to other countries. (If you’re intrigued, here’s the website of the German one, for example.)

Okay, I admit it: I’m biased. Of course I like Jeopardy! Out of countless deserving people, I was randomly picked to take a contestant exam, I passed it, and then somehow I got selected for a taping. It was a fun, terrifying, exhilarating experience. (By the way: Aside from special tournaments, you only get one shot at Jeopardy! for your whole life. No wonder we’ll look a bit tense up there tonight.)

No, I’ll never get to play baseball in the World Series (my first choice), but for a normal guy, the experience of standing at a podium as the lights come up and Johnny Gilbert intones, “This is Jeopardy!” isn’t so bad as an alternative.

What happened then? Tune in tonight. I’m the guy on the right, smiling.

Tom Walsh is a former senior policy adviser to the Senate Finance Committee under Chairman Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). He lives in Washington, D.C.

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