City Paper is not for tourists
What is Jeopardy!? The answers that prompt that question vary depending on the person and the circumstance. It’s one of the longest-running game shows in American television history. It’s a pop culture icon that’s shown up everywhere from Arthur to Saturday Night Live. It’s a daily 61-question quiz that allows the viewer to test their knowledge against three contestants and the show’s team of writers.
If you are one of millions of regular Jeopardy! viewers who wants the inside scoop, or if the death of legendary host Alex Trebek has you yearning to learn more about America’s Favorite Quiz Show®, Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!, from local author Claire McNear, a staff writer for The Ringer, provides the information you desire in a dishy and digestible format. Just be prepared for things to get a little weird—and to encounter people who take a 30-minute syndicated TV program very, very seriously.
Fanatics and former contestants (like yours truly) will recognize the stories from the set—yes, it’s really cold on the soundstage, and yes, there are lights on the side of the game board that indicate when contestants can ring in to answer—but McNear digs deeper to explain how contestants make decisions in the game. Should they use auditory clues to know when to ring in or follow the lights? (Different champions offer arguments for both methods.) There’s a formula for how much to wager on Daily Doubles, it turns out, and a different one for wagering in Final Jeopardy, depending, of course, on which place the contestant is in. All of this is discussed on online message boards and websites dedicated to the show. Learning about the scheming that goes on behind the podiums is almost disappointing. It is not enough to just be a contestant—to be truly successful on Jeopardy!, you have to win the game.
In addition to cachet, some of those lucky champions earn significant money and achieve some level of fame—think Ken Jennings (who wrote the book’s foreword) or James Holzhauer. They’ve become cultural characters beyond mere game show participants. But what of the aspiring Jeopardy! contestant, the person who works an office job but dreams of trivia greatness? The best parts of the book come when McNear interacts with this group, especially at Trivia Nationals, an annual Las Vegas gathering where ex-quiz bowlers, bar trivia champs, and enthusiasts of all stripes come together for a weekend of competition. The Jeopardy! crew also attends and holds an audition for Trivia Nationals, and, as it turns out, McNear herself. While the author doesn’t enter the contestant pool, she does meet a collection of aspirants whose lives seem to revolve around getting on the show. Their desperation is slightly charming, but off-putting, too. What, you wonder, will happen if they don’t make it on? The producers are aiming to make good television, and nervous neediness doesn’t read well.
The lingering question that surrounds McNear’s book, which was reported after Trebek announced his cancer diagnosis in early 2019, is what will happen to the show period. It’s hard to imagine a Jeopardy! without Trebek, and when his last episode airs in late December, no one knows what will follow it. (Well, if anyone does know, they’re not telling as of this writing.) While McNear’s book doesn’t speculate about next steps, it does document the precipice of this moment, capturing the comfort of the show and a bit of the worry about what could happen if America’s beloved comfort watch went away.