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.
In game 53 of your streak, to the clue "This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker" you replied "What's a ho(e)?" The real answer was rake, but I liked your answer more. Did you ever feel like any of the answers were unfair, or that you were ever cheated?
Yeah, I knew right as I said "What is a ho?" that it was going to be wrong, but, really, how often do you get a chance to ask Alex Trebek "What is a ho?" Well worth the money I lost. I can't think of any unfair answers on Jeopardy! while I was on. They research things pretty carefully and are scrupulously fair about inviting contestants back if they get shafted for any reason.
Did you always have a knack for trivia?
I did, but for a long time I wasn't proud of it. You reach a certain age and you realize it's not a hit with girls to know Captain Kirk's middle name, you know? So I was a deeply closeted trivia fan for many years, until being "outed" on national TV. There's no going back in the closet now!
So did you feel ostracized as a kid?
A couple of years ago I wrote a book called Brainiac, about trivia nerds and their subculture. The funniest part for me was interviewing these people and hearing all their odd childhood stories—which were all nearly identical to mine! I felt like a freak as a kid for having shelves full of pop reference books, and knowing about movies made before my parents were born, and keeping obsessive lists of nearly everything: state birds and celebrity middle names and NBA statistics and whatever else occurred to me. All the trivia people I talked to were information sponges from birth as well, and did almost exactly the same things. There must be a trivia gene switched on somewhere deep in our DNA.
Well those people who used to ostracize you can just sit back in their La-Z Boys and watch you win millions on Jeopardy! How about your kids—are they trivia nerds?
It's pretty early to tell, but our five-year-old son Dylan seems to have the trivia gene. He goes through serial obsessions and reads up on them tirelessly: dinosaurs, pirates, secret codes, etc. A couple months ago at dinner he asked if we could take a family vacation to Argentina, and started crying inconsolably when I told him no, probably not. "But Argentina was home to Giganotosaurus, the largest predator of the Cretaceous period!" he sobbed.
At least he's not begging you to take him to a Wiggles concert or something—his tastes seem more refined. Parenting is running a piece in its September issue called Is Your Child Gifted? Are yours? What are they like?
Does anyone really like to hear parents talk about how gifted their special little snowflake is? It's amazing how all children must be "gifted," to hear their parents talk. Maybe it'll sound a little less loaded if I say my kids do seem, in some ways, to be bright, curious kids. So much so, sometimes, that we have a hard time feeding that curiosity, keeping them stimulated and entertained. So it is something we think about.
What do you do to exercise your kids' brains?
My parents read to me every night before bed, which I think is a huge part of how I turned out—addicted to the process of reading, interested in virtually everything. So bedtime stories are a daily ritual at our house too. (So is a weekly stop at the library.) With our kids, it's usually just a matter of feeding the thing they're currently interested: showing Dylan how to do cryptograms when he's interested in codes, or singing Caitlin the songs she likes and moving the ones with letters and numbers to the top of the playlist. We're not really interested in being the creepy flash-card parents, like Rick Moranis in the movie Parenthood.
Are you a cool dad? What do your kids think of you? Do they realize that you're a pretty big deal?
Parenting Rule #1: if you say, or even think, you're the Cool Dad, you're not the Cool Dad. In general, the kids don't seem too impressed about the whole Jeopardy! thing. I was on Sesame Street in 2005, helping Grover extol the virtues of eating fresh fruit. I thought, now I've made it, Dylan will love seeing Dad on Sesame Street. He wasn't impressed. He wasn't even surprised. I guess he's thinking: I know Daddy. I know Grover. Why shouldn't Daddy be hanging out with Grover?
My dad never got to hang out with Grover. He did get to hang out with Roy White, who was a Switch Hitter for the New York Yankees from 1965 to 1979. But I bet you already knew that. Anyway, what's the most surprising thing about being a dad?
I think it's how abruptly parenting makes your sympathize with your own parents. You know, you always see your childhood through the selfish lens of a kid, considering your parents to be embarrassing appendages, barely necessary. You don't realize you had it backward—that you're probably the supporting character in their story, not vice versa—until you have kids of your own and you really understand all the sacrifices and compromises involved in parenthood.
If parents want to get their kids on Jeopardy! someday, what do you suggest they do to prepare? (You can never start too early, right?)
I don't really want to breed a generation of controlling Game Show Parents, living out their stunted showbiz dreams via their children, like stage moms or Little League dads. If your kid is a game show kid, you'll know it. The stuff Jeopardy! always asks about—the Shakespeare, the U.S. presidents, the world capitals—your kid is going to be trending that way anyway.