Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/
Today I’ll take “Great TV Shows” for $400. As you might have guessed the answer, and my next show to cover for this event, is Jeopardy!
Jeopardy! is a show so familiar it seems to hardly need any description. After all, it’s been around longer than many of its contestants, and longer than I (or many of the other columnists taking part here) have been. It’s been parodied on Saturday Night Live, sung about jokingly by Weird Al Yankovic and plays a part in the plot of Groundhog Day. Few and far between are those of us who’ve not at least seen part of an episode in passing somewhere along the line. Such an iconic part of the culture it’s become that even the opening theme with booming introduction – “this is JEOPARDY!” – is instantly identifiable by most. But that aside, let’s look at the show a little anyway.
Jeopardy! Is a long-running game show, in which three contestants play against each other trying to answer questions correctly to win. Or actually, answer “answers”…we’ll get to that. How long-running? It premiered in 1964, and has been running most of the time since, although in slightly different formats and shown on different providers. The current version has been running daily since 1984. Merv Griffin created it and also created the similarly-popular Wheel of Fortune which not coincidentally often runs right before or after Jeopardy! in many markets. Although he’s credited with creating it, and his name appears on the credits day after day, he credits his wife with being the one who had the basic idea.
Back around the end of 1963, he and his wife were sitting around, talking about his desire to create a game show for TV. She commented that quiz shows were popular and quite good, but there hadn’t been any since the 1958 “Game Show Scandal”, in which it was found certain contestants on the shows Dotto and Twenty-one had been given the answers so the producers could control who would win and come back, based on who they felt would be most popular with their viewers rather than their skill or even luck. The game idea was still good, but the concept had been tarnished. They wagered almost six years was enough time passed to give it another go. She then suggested the twist – why not give answers and have contestants guess the question. Merv recalled “she fired a couple of answers at me – ‘5280’ – and the question of course would be ‘how many feet in one mile?’” He liked it and quickly took the idea to NBC, who bought it sight unseen.
NBC ran it, filming in New York, weekdays from 1964 through ’75, and added a nighttime weekly version which they syndicated in 1974. All the time, Art Fleming was the host who introduced the contestants and asked the, err “answers.” It had finally run its course by summer ’75, but they resurrected it again for the ’78-79 season, again with Fleming at the helm in the Big Apple. That lasted just one season, but it didn’t stay gone too long. In 1984, a new version began, running daily (five days a week), still produced by Griffin’s company, but this time shot in L.A. and sold for syndication. It wasn’t exclusive to one network, but most local stations in the U.S. had an hour of free time to program what they wanted between the evening news and “primetime shows”, so in the vast majority of cities, (as well as in Canada), one station or another ran Jeopardy! The basic show was still the same, but this time there was a new host – big-haired, moustached Alex Trebek, a Canadian with limited experience as a game show host but a personality that fit.
In case you’ve not seen it, the game is broken into three parts, “Jeopardy”, “Double Jeopardy” and “Final Jeopardy.” The first two take up most of the show, and consist of contestants picking mystery questions (or “answers”) from a board, which is made up of a grid of 30 boxes. There are six categories, and five question/answers in each. Each one is worth a certain value, in the first round being $200, 400, 600, 800 and 1000 and in “double Jeopardy” , you guessed it, double that amount. (If you didn’t guess it, you might not quite be Jeopardy! material.) Players who buzzed in first and gave the correct response for each won that amount of money…but if they were wrong, the amount was subtracted from their score. So it paid to be quick on the buzzer…and sure of your knowledge of the category. “Final Jeopardy” consisted of one answer all three would be given and had to answer (with the question) in 30 seconds. They could wager any or all of the amount of money they’d accrued so far in the game, and like the earlier bits, they’d win it if they were right, but lose it if wrong. Put together a run of correct answers and a bit of moxie in “Final Jeopardy” and you can do very well – James Holzhauer won a record $131127 in a 2019 episode. The game winner went home with that money, and got invited back to play the next day, whereas the second and third place finishers got a small consolation prize – typically $1000 and $2000 , which some bitterly noted didn’t pay their costs to actually go to L.A. and pay for a hotel … the show doesn’t pay expenses.
The game demands quick reflexes and a good, wide-ranging knowledge of…well, the more the better. While Art Fleming has criticized the “new” version (new as in the past 38 years), for being “dumbed down” by Hollywood, and it is true there are often some questions about pop culture, there are also still more about things like ancient history or American geography. Esquire tabulated many years of shows and found the most frequently-used categories were “Before and After”, “Literature”, “Science” , “Word Origins” and “American History” while the most-used ones for Final Jeopardy are “American Presidents” and “Word Origins.” Readers Digest compiled the ten that seemed to be hardest for contestants, and they included “Classical Music”,and “Canadian Cities” (sample : “Residents of this Saskatchewan city are called ‘Moose Javians’” , for question “What is Moose Jaw?”) . But it wasn’t only Canadian geography the mostly-American contestants had trouble with; so too did their own American because “States that Flow Together” also made the difficult list. That one had two states, with the last letter of one being the first of the next. Somehow no one could figure out “MissourI and Illinois” for the clue “one has St. Louis, the other has East St. Louis!” Of course, sometimes they like to have a little fun too, and at times the categories seem a little loopy – “Superb Owl” (all about owls on , yes Super Bowl week); “Songs for Your Cat,” “Hertz so Good” (about electricity)…
The show seems to hit the sweet spot between being so esoteric it requires a phD and so simple or celebrity-based anyone who watches Entertainment Tonight could run the board. Similarly, Alex Trebek hit the perfect spot as the host (for over 8000 episodes from ’84 until his death late in 2020; the final one he made aired in January ’21; until the final days of his illness he missed just one show…an April 1 edition where he traded places with Wheel of Fortune‘s Pat Sajak as an April Fool’s joke); warm and fatherly enough, with just enough self-deprecating humor to balance his occasional raised eyebrow and seeming hint of condescension when dealing with less-than-swift contestants. He won seven Emmys for it and became a household name and beloved celebrity; so much so that just who was going to replace him became headline news for months. So far, the answer appears to be Ken Jennings, who along with Big Bang Theory-alum Mayim Bialik have hosted the vast majority of post-Trebek shows. Jennings is an obvious choice, himself being the most famous, and by some accouts, most successful contestant ever on Jeopardy! Jennings won 74-straight shows in 2004, winning over $2.5 million and later won $1 million more on a “Greatest of All Time” tournament between past big winners. (From time to time, they have special tournaments, like ones for college students and “Celebrity Jeopardy!” where stars – mainly actors, but some athletes, writers, even politicians – try to win money for charity. Takeaway from those – no wonder Stephen King can cram so many details into his novels. The man seems to know everything!) Jennings turned his run on Jeopardy! Into several books, online and magazine columns and a rare level of celebrity based on…just being pretty darn smart!
The hype, for lack of a better word, surrounding Trebek’s unfortunate demise (losing a long battle to cancer) and picking his replacement has only helped Jeopardy! Its ratings have risen of late, with some of Trebek’s final episodes being watched by over 14 million at time or airing and many more later on streaming services; Entertainment Weekly reported this year that it currently is the most-watched “regular” TV show based on viewers watching it live…an amazing feat for a game show which through syndication doesn’t even necessarily play in every market. Maybe it’s Trebek and Ken Jennings, or maybe I hold out hope, it’s something different. At a time when everything seems to be being dumbed down from our news to our movies to our elected officials, maybe some of us are appreciating a show where it actually pays to be smart… to know a little about the Nile River or European history or great American literature.
Jeopardy! is a show I’ve enjoyed now and then since I was a kid and Trebek was young and had a huge Afro. As I got older and Trebek’s facial hair shrank, I actually found myself watching more, playing along. It was also one of the few shows my parents were both fond of too; my Mom sometimes would phone me up and ask in exasperation “did you see Final Jeopardy? How did they not know Dickens was the answer!!” or the like; when I spent about half a year living with my Dad as he got on in years, it became nearly a nightly routine for us to go down to the basement after dinner and watch Jeopardy!, trying to shout out the answers fastest. He never did well if it was about Lady Gaga or baseball, but he could rock the history and current events categories. Needless to say, I miss both my parents, and also Alex Trebek but I’m pretty glad I can still try to fit a bit of Jeopardy! in to the routine still and learn a little something with it. Memorable contestants, every topic under the sun, learning while playing… what is “great game show” Merv?
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