I’ve been watching Jeopardy long enough to become desensitized to the oddness of the show’s strict mannerisms. At this point, it seems completely natural for contestants to answer in the form of a question, a practice that originally began as a gimmick to separate Jeopardy! from other mid-century game shows (“It’s the game show where we give you the answers, and you give us the questions!”). It doesn’t seem unusual that the questions on the royal blue grid read like odd poems, laced with hints and puns. Of course thirty precious seconds of prime time broadcasting is spent playing the now-familiar Jeopardy song, once a lullaby its composer wrote in “less than a minute.” The simple tune has become intricately associated with the act of thinking (it has made its composer seven million in royalties and has remained unchanged since the first episode, besides a few internet parodies).
Since the original debut of Jeopardy! in 1964, its unique theatre trickled into ubiquity. As formulaic as a procedural drama, as familiar as childhood picture books, as interactive as a conversation — there’s something about it that will never get old. Jeopardy is yelling on the couch, it’s competing with your sister, your grandma or whoever else is in the room. Unlike any other show on T.V., Jeopardy puts the freak bookishness of otherwise-ordinary people under the bright lights.
I’m obsessed with it.
The show has aired nearly every weekday of my existence, and I used to spend afternoons in my preteen years watching DVR recorded episodes, challenging myself to keep up with the bespectacled librarian-types on the other side of the screen. The rapid-fire trivia is what may have hooked me, but the people of Jeopardy are what fascinate me the most. Namely, there’s Alex Trebek, the legendary host who led the show’s liturgy with grace and leaves large shoes for this season’s schedule of guest hosts to fill (Katie Couric, Dr. Oz, Aaron Rodgers and Anderson Cooper, to name a few). Trebek’s pressed suits and professorial lilt made it easy to forget that he was reading off cue cards. Rather, he appeared to personally possess the sum of all knowledge and to take wrong answers as a personal offense.
Each episode, before double Jeopardy, he descended from his lectern to listen to contestants’ magnificently ordinary get-to-know-you anecdotes. This is my favorite part of the show. Sometimes, contestants command the audience with charm and relatability. Other times, the stories are decidedly bland. “I’m in an a capella group,” “I like cooking” and “I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address” are all recent examples documented by the Twitter account @CoolJepStories. Whatever prestige these superhuman geeks built in the first round crumbles once they begin to speak; it becomes clear that they are not made for TV, but instead just made for Jeopardy.
These daily small-talk sessions display the ordinariness of the contestants and bring up questions that I’ve wondered for a decade: Who are these people? What are they like in real life? Could I ever be up there?
I always wondered if I could work the buzzer and recall facts in the spotlight. And then, I got tantalizingly close to being on the show. I took the fifty-question online test for the College Jeopardy tournament in October without any real preparation. A few weeks later, I got an email inviting me to a live call-back audition happening in December (normally, these auditions would happen in New York City, but mine occurred over Zoom). In the presence of a young casting director and fellow hopeful trivia zealots, I answered fifty questions on topics from classical music to fast food menu items to 20th-century conflicts.
I saw a few University of Michigan shirts in the Zoom call. One was worn by Engineering sophomore Jack Mukhtar, who’d heard about the original test in a College of Engineering newsletter. Another was Engineering senior Brendan Sulkowski, who’s always been a huge fan of the show. Lastly, there was Business junior Christian Kasmikha, whose friends sent him the online test after witnessing his Jeopardy prowess.
Christian told me during a video call interview afterwards for this piece that he always had an affinity for knowledge and that his strongest trivia subjects are history and geography. Though Jack, Brendan and I all ended our 2021 Jeopardy run in December, Christian got a callback to another round of auditions. This follow-up audition involved speaking to casting directors and playing a mock game with the clue board. He passed the selection criteria and was told that he’s in the contestant pool for this year’s College Tournament, but that it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be selected to be on TV. Because California’s COVID-19-related travel rules complicate casting, this year’s College Jeopardy schedule has not yet been announced.
The Jeopardy! College Championship has occurred nearly every season since 1989, save 2018 and 2020. Undergraduates from across the nation travel from their college campuses to the bright lights of Burbank Studios in Los Angeles to compete for glory and cash prizes, some as much as $100,000. U-M students are no different; of the 450 contestants in the College Tournament’s history, nine have been from the University of Michigan.
Jeopardy describes this talented group of contestants as “the country’s most studious students” who are about to take the most important test of their lives. Though contestants certainly prove themselves as bright, not all would agree they’re among the “most studious students.” Social studies teacher Craig Barker, who won the 1997 Tournament of Champions as a freshman and became the most storied College Jeopardy contestant in U-M history, didn’t immediately succeed in college-level classes. He told me over the phone that around the same time he was dominating the Jeopardy tournament, he was achieving measly grades in Econ 101. A tour de force game show performance doesn’t mean that a student doesn’t experience the classic challenges of college. Jeopardy contestants, they’re just like us!
Danny Devries, 2008 contestant, answered my call from Jerusalem, where he works as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. He put forward that Jeopardy doesn’t necessarily select for the most academic of students; rather, the show casts people who are abnormally interested in trivia and confident enough to perform on national TV. Contestants are intelligent, but they also must possess an insatiable curiosity in order to command such a broad range of topics. But of course, College Jeopardy contestants are not just obsessive intellectuals who spend Saturday nights memorizing musty books from the Stacks in Hatcher Graduate Library. They’re humans; they’re college students.
Devries went on to tell me about his hesitation to attend the tournament because it would require missing the Michigan-Ohio State University home football game. It was only when he got mono and saw a dreary weather forecast that he decided to go on the show, though he imagines that “if it had been 55 and sunny, going to the game would have been a no-brainer.”
He ended up winning $10,000 as a quarter-finalist, and he used the money to travel and volunteer abroad. The trip led him to his career in international relations.
“Indirectly, Jeopardy changed my career path,” he stated.
I was curious what other Jeopardy alumni who had gone to the University were up to, and I was surprised by the breadth of their career fields and the extent of their academic success. I was able to get in contact with 2007 competitor Peter Troyan, who never left academia, getting a doctorate in economics from Stanford University. He now works as assistant professor at the University of Virginia where he publishes in journals with erudite titles like “Theoretical Economics.” Other former contestants have found success in the life sciences. 2010’s second runner-up Surya Sabhapathy and 2012 semifinalist Connie Shi have both gotten medical degrees, from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, respectively. Benoy Chacko, who played in 1994, worked as a biochemist before his unexpected death.
There’s representation in the humanities too. Pat Mobley, who played in 2002, works as a civil rights lawyer. Craig Barker uses his trivia-oriented curiosity in his high school history classroom every day. In 2019, he was selected as the Michigan History Teacher of the Year.
Between all the advanced degrees and accolades, it’s clear that Jeopardy contestants’ love of learning didn’t stop after the Jeopardy studio. From diplomacy to dermatology, the same skill and passion that leads to trivia triumph contribute to other successes. There is no cookie-cutter contestant, but there is a common thread of dynamic curiosity.
University of Michigan’s thick organic chemistry coursepack opens with a 6000-word critical thinking manifesto complete with the line, “No one, except maybe Jeopardy, pays you for regurgitating known facts.” Putting aside the false dichotomy of problem-solving vs. rote memorization, the line raises an important question. In an age of instant information, of 200,000 Wikipedia articles, of all-knowing virtual home assistants, what is the fate of the fact?
According to Jeopardy alumni, knowledge has never been more important.
“To be an informed citizen, you need to know facts,” Devries said. “History and context allow you to see the world through a lens of cause and effect.”
Other contestants echoed the sentiment that trivia is about more than just useless knowledge and that an arsenal of facts in your brain is crucial to making connections between ideas. The possession of an endless sea of facts at your fingertips doesn’t mean you know everything or anything. In this sense, information, which is all around us, doesn’t equate to knowledge. Facts live on; their importance remains.
Trivia inspires a sport-like fervor over regurgitating information, the accessible and the arcane alike. In doing so, it glamorizes the acquisition of knowledge. While reciting the atomic number of Polonium (84) or the name of the Clintons’ White House cat (Socks) or the capital of Australia (Canberra) may not bring immediate benefits in day-to-day life, the spirit of learning certainly does. Jeopardy makes knowledge both cool and intrinsically valuable, rather than just the means to a test score, a degree, a job.
Despite the show’s long-standing success and beloved quirks, it is far from perfect. One major issue is its lackluster racial and cultural diversity. Its contestants are overwhelmingly white and abundantly male; its questions frequently neglect the Eastern world and African topics. SNL’s Black Jeopardy series serves as a foil to Jeopardy’s whiteness. The poor racial representation led poet Maya Angelou to boycott the show in the nineties, and Trebek himself speculated that the show’s screening test may have been written with a cultural bias toward white contestants. Following the loss of its longtime host, the show now enters a natural period of change, a moment of reckoning, its own sort of final jeopardy.
Can Jeopardy! hold onto its celebration of knowledge while improving its cultural inclusivity? Can the show continue to lift ordinary people to prime-time royalty while putting forth a more hearty invitation to potential Black contestants, Indigenous contestants and other contestants of color?
Jeopardy is tasked with maintaining its captivating selfhood — its precise patterns and garden-variety contestants — without Trebek. As the show’s thirty-seventh season continues and this year’s College Tournament approaches, we’ll watch from our couches to see how the show evolves.
In the meantime, I’ll keep acquiring facts, shouting out answers and preparing for next year’s online Jeopardy screening test.