And the answer is…

Jeopardy! is the third-longest running game show in American television history, placing right behind The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune. That’s without reckoning its earlier daytime run under Art Fleming from 1964 to1975 and a couple goes in syndication before the current version, hosted by Alex Trebek, reached the airwaves in 1984.

The game is a quiz show with a gimmick. Instead of asking its contestants to come up with the answers to questions, it asks them to come up with questions to go with the answers. Thus, if the board turns up “to be or not to be” the contestant must answer “who is Hamlet?” to get credit for his response. The show’s title alludes to the game’s other gimmick: a contestant who rings in with an incorrect question is penalized the dollar value of the answer. The contestants’ money, therefore, is always in jeopardy.

I first became aware of the show when I was a child. It was a favorite of my mother’s, and, although as a four-year-old (however precocious) I really didn’t know any of the questions, I got caught up in her enthusiasm. I was also fascinated by the sliding cardboard signs on the board and the way the dollar scores lit up on the podiums in front of the contestants. (I was especially taken with the way minus scores were tabulated. Looking back, that could have been my introduction to negative numbers.)

Around that time, I received as a present the home version of the game, a simple affair with a booklet of answer boards that was placed behind a plastic screen that had slots for little cardboard tabs showing the dollar amounts for each answer. Daily Double tabs were provided as well, and were secreted by the player appointed emcee. On the television version, an important part of the game is the electric signals by which the contestants vie to be the first to ring in and question the answer. That was a little too sophisticated for Milton-Bradley to put in a box (these were the days of batteries not included), so the home version provided simple metal “cricket snappers” that made something of a clicking noise when pressed. Admittedly, they weren’t especially effective, but then the simplicity of those times extended to the television version of the game as well: although the board looked magic to me as a little child, the disappointing reality, as with the sliding doors on Star Trek, was that there were human hands that pulled up the dollar amount cards to reveal the answers.

As a little boy, I thought that my home Jeopardy! set would also provide me with a source of questions and answers with which I could annoy the adults in my life. Given the gimmick of the game, I assumed that you could use Jeopardy! answers and questions backwards: I thought I could take a question from the answer book, ask it, and have the adult to come up with the Jeopardy! answer from the book of game boards.

I was rather disappointed to discover that that doesn’t work.

The example I remember was when the game paired “who is Don Quixote?” with “tilted at windmills.” The problem is that the adult to whom I posed the question came up with “the hero of a novel by Cervantes,” and I couldn’t explain to her that she had the wrong answer, since the game gave “tilted at windmills”. I was a while in accepting it, but a paradox of Jeopardy! answers and questions is that they don’t really work backwards. There are a lot of ways to answer “Who was Don Quixote?”; “he tilted at windmills” is only one possibility, and not a very good one at that.

The answers-and-questions format has, since the days of Fleming, become more and more of a formality. I recall that, when Final Jeopardy came around, Fleming used to announce: “and the Final Jeopardy answer is…”. I listened closely to last night’s show, and Trebek distinctly described the answer as a “clue”, as though Jeopardy! were a crossword puzzle game rather than an answers-and-question one. That’s rather a shame: the answer-and-question format is what set Jeopardy! apart from other quiz shows . On the other hand, in today’s game show market, Jeopardy! stands alone because it’s the only quiz show still on the air.

I occasionally toy with the idea of going on the show. If someone walks by while I’m watching the program and I’m having a good day calling out the answers (which I always do in question form), they tell me I should give it a try. I do know the questions to a lot of the answers, although there are categories at which I draw a total blank. On the other hand, I was astonished recently that none of the contestants came up with “what is Giselle?” for a $2000 answer about a ballet with willis.

My experience in answering questions at home is probably that of a lot of people, and I have no doubt that it’s a lot easier in the comfort of your living room than onstage with a camera stuck in your face and opponents vying to ring in before you. I also have the humiliating cautionary tale of an alumna of my undergraduate alma mater who got onto the show and wound up owing Merv Griffin fifteen hundred bucks. It takes more than just being smart and cultured to become a Jeopardy! champion.

Thus I think I’ll stick to the safety of my living room when it comes to Jeopardy!. It’s usually a pleasant half-hour, especially when you’re on a roll questioning answers. I find it terribly frustrating to have a bad run at the game and flop at categories not covered by my usually pretty vast general knowledge: I can recognize the flag of Prince Edward Island, but don’t ask me about one-named celebrities, unless the correct question is “who is Jillana?”. That’s a big piece of the success of the show: watching it makes you a little smarter if you pay attention to the answers you don’t know the questions to, and, more to the point, it makes you feel smart when you do know the questions.

That’s not a bad bit of self-satisfaction to be drawn into following the network news these days.

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