ASHEBORO — “Jeopardy contestants are quite normal people … they’re just curious about everything.”
That was just one of the factoids given by Ken Jennings, officially the game show’s “greatest of all time.” He addressed a packed Sunset Theatre Saturday night as part of the Sunset Signature Series presented by the Friends of the Randolph Public Library, the City of Asheboro and the Heart of North Carolina Visitors Bureau.
Jennings, who holds the record for most consecutive wins on Jeopardy at 74 and most overall winnings ($4.5 million), was both informative and humorous. For instance, he said that in preparation for his first appearance as a contestant, he practiced by watching the show on TV from behind a Lazy Boy recliner as his podium and a “clicker” borrowed from his son’s toys.
But on his serious side, Jennings said what’s disturbing to him is that “people are not active at seeking out information.” He added that we all have information at our fingertips but we don’t learn it. More facts allow you to make correct decisions, he said.
Jennings said he had an unusual childhood, spending years in South Korea and Egypt, where his father had jobs. That required him to adjust to different cultures and ways of doing things.
While in Korea, Jennings said, there was only one English TV channel to watch — Armed Forces TV. Back in the 1980s, there was no live streaming, YouTube, social media or other electronic alternatives. So his TV watching was determined by the Army.
So, every afternoon he was part of a forced American audience watching Jeopardy. The next day, on the school playground, he and his friends would talk about the game from the day before. As a result, by the age of 10 or 11, Jennings became a student of the game.
“Every night I saw three people who seemed to know everything,” he said. “Who were these people? They seemed to know the answers to every category.”
That made an impression on this “nerdy library kid” who was “deep in a trivia closet.” In those days, a child who reveled in facts was known by negative connotations. For that reason, Jennings said, he was “feeling shy about it.
“Kids today let their geek flag fly,” he said. “It’s great.”
But his quest for trivial knowledge didn’t lead to a successful career. He said he was influenced by friends to go into computer science, “something I was not great at or enjoyed.”
So, in 2004, a friend talked Jennings into driving from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to try out for Jeopardy. When they arrived, they learned that tryouts would continue until the next week. For that reason, they drove back to Salt Lake, then returned to LA the next week.
In the early 2000s, Jeopardy contestants had to take written tests in person. Now it’s done online.
“The test is daunting,” Jennings said, noting that about 100,000 people try out each year. Despite the difficulty, both Jennings and his friend passed the written test and then were further tested in trial games to determine “if we could walk and chew gum at the same time.”
After the testing, Jennings was told he would be eligible for Jeopardy for a year and they would call him when his time came.
“A year later I got a call — ‘We’d like to have you on in two weeks.’”
After his extensive practice behind his Lazy Boy and flash cards shown by his wife, it was Jennings’ turn … and he begin his 74-game winning streak.
“Jeopardy is really different playing it than to watch it,” he said, calling the game a “grueling crucible in the studio. It’s 22 minutes and really goes fast. You keep an eye on the score and you’re super aware of the cameras and the bright lights and you’re wearing makeup. It’s really stressful.”
Jennings said that to this day when he hears the voice of Alex Trebek, long-time host who died this past year, he gets “post-traumatic game show stress.”
Preparation is key to success on Jeopardy, Jennings said. He called being prepared for a contest “such a good confident feeling.”
Jennings told the audience that the word “trivia” has come to mean of little worth or meaningless. But he said there are a couple of theories to dispel that notion. One is that the root word means “a meeting at a crossroads to sway stories and gossip.”
The other theory is that in medieval times trivium referred to the “first three basic classes taught at a university.”
“I don’t like the idea that we stigmatize knowledge,” Jennings said.
He then gave three good things about knowing trivia.
First of all, he said, “It makes life more fun, richer and freer.” Even facts that don’t seem to be practical “makes life more interesting.”
Second, Jennings said, “You never know when you might need this stuff.”
He gave the example of his second or third Final Jeopardy clue. The answer came to him from a fact that had stuck in his mind from the time he was 4 years old and had read it in a magazine.
Finally, Jennings said that everybody has to make decisions in life, based on the information that’s available. “We need as much information as possible.”
As with Jeopardy contestants, Jennings said we all need to be curious, to cultivate an interest in everything. The question becomes, “how to persuade yourself that you’re interested. It makes life so much better when you have that curiosity.”
Jennings quoted Samuel Parr, an English educator living between 1747-1825: “It’s always better to know a thing than not know it.”
Encouraging everyone to learn something new every day, Jennings said, “Live every day of your life in the form of a question. Always wonder what’s going on.”
Interesting facts provided by Jennings
Interesting facts provided by Ken Jennings during his visit to Sunset Theatre in Asheboro on Aug. 28:
* Jennings said his wife liked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers as guest host after the death of Trebek. He said Rodgers didn’t always know the answers but Ms. Jennings thought he looked good. Personally, Jennings said he liked Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, who had “screen authority.”
* Jennings said he kept working on his computer job while he was on the show. Then, after his streak ended, he received an offer to write a book. During the writing, Jennings said he went on hiatus from his job and “never actually quit.”
* The Jeopardy studio, he said, is much smaller that it appears on TV. He said you can read the clues and see them like the people at home. But you read them as fast as you can, decide if you have the answer, be sure you’re confident enough in your answer to buzz. All that while the host is reading the clue.
* Jeopardy tapes five games, or a week’s worth, in a single afternoon. The winner of a game changes clothes, along with the host, then returns to the studio for the “next day’s” program. By the end of five hours, a contestant is “beaten down and exhausted.”
* Jennings said you cannot activate the buzzer during a question. So part of the strategy was to wait till the light came on to indicate the buzzer was active or to try to anticipate when Alex Trebek would stop speaking. Some people buzz too soon and end up squeezing the button many times. Hitting too soon causes a slight delay until you can hit it again.
* As for who will be the permanent host to succeed Trebek, Jennings said the producers have yet to make a decision and plan to bring back guest hosts. He concedes that he’s in the equation and is “sitting by the phone,” waiting again for Jeopardy to call.