If Ken Jennings' kids ever get into an "my dad is better than your dad" argument, they'll be hard to beat. Jennings won 74 Jeopardy! games, holding the record for the longest winning streak, and earning $3,022,700. He then went on to write Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, a book about American trivia, and his life-long obsession with it. Then he went on to talk to talk with us about the real Alex Trebek, what it's like to hang out with Grover, and why his five-year-old cried when Jennings told him they couldn't vacation in Argentina. ("But Argentina was home to Giganotosaurus, the largest predator of the Cretaceous period!")
So what is Alex Trebek like?
Very Canadian, with the clean, bracing scent of musk and the Great North Woods. He's just as polite and affable in person as he seems on the show, though he's surprisingly loose and funny when the cameras are off, always making jokes and breaking into accents or even bits of song and dance.
What's it like to be on the show? Is it super stressful?
I went skydiving once in college, on a dare. I barely remember the jump because there was just so much input, my brain just shut down. My first game on Jeopardy! was actually the same way -- I barely remember it. I was in some kind of trance state, completely on autopilot. Of course, by the time game 75 rolled around, I was a lot more relaxed. So there's my advice for game show contestants: if possible, arrange to be on the show 75 times.
Do the contestants generally get along, or do they usually try to sabotage each other?
Because of ultra-tight game show security these days, the contestants spend all together, sequestered like a jury. Oddly, this tends to build in a real atmosphere of bonhommie and camaraderie--everyone momentarily forgets they're trying to destroy each other and pretends we're all In This Thing Together.
What would make Jeopardy! Better?
I think contestants should be able to shop for their own prizes before each commercial break, like on mid-'80s Wheel of Fortune. Do you want the buffet, the trip to Mexico, the porcelain Dalmatian, or the Cake of the Month Club membership?
I read that since your winning streak, people seem to have an extra-hard trivia question on hand in case they run into you. What are some of the questions you get?
A couple months ago in St. Louis, the doorman of my hotel wouldn't let me back into the lobby unless I named for him all nine U.S. vice presidents who acceded to the presidency mid-term. I forgot Gerald Ford, which seemed to cheer him up.