As far as television game shows go, Jeopardy holds a special place in the hearts of many Americans. So it’s no surprise that Jeopardy contestant and Edmonds native Ken Jennings has earned celebrity status for his achievements on the show, including records for the longest winning streak and the highest average correct responses per game.
Jennings brought his star power to a virtual Edmonds Center for the Arts fundraiser March 25, entertaining the two dozen attendees with his life story, his passion for quizzes and trivia, and his deep admiration for the late Jeopardy host Alex Trebek.
Emcee for the evening was David Brewster, president of the Edmonds Public Facilities District board that oversees ECA operations.
Jennings said he has “pretty deep Edmonds ties,” noting that his grandparents lived in Edmonds and both of his parents attended Meadowdale High School in the 1960s. His parents purchased their first home at 9th and Spruce, and Jennings said he has fond memories of going to the Edmonds Library and walking to the ferry.
Then, at age 7, Jennings moved with his family to Korea. “My dad was working for a Seattle law firm,” Jennings recalled. “He had served a Mormon mission in Korea in the ‘70s and was excited to go back to work for a Korean firm.”
With the exception of summer visits to Edmonds, Jennings and his family lived in Korea and Singapore. He returned to the U.S., attending the University of Washington and then Brigham Young University, where he double majored in English and computer science, graduating in 2000. He and his family – wife Mindy and children Dylan and Caitlin — now live in Seattle.
Brewster then asked Jennings how he got into trivia. “My parents were always kind of lively, curious people,” Jennings recalled. “It’s a very intimidating environment at my parents’ house bringing home dates or future in-laws or whatever. It’s always people talking over each other, talking super-fast, changing the subject super-fast.
Jennings then shared that he wrote Brainiac, a book “about trivia people,” in 2006, “to figure out what makes that particular mind tick, and I really do believe it’s got to be innate in some way, because you see it very young,” he said. “The type of child who will just carry around a Guinness Book of World Records with her or is always just annoying mom and dad with facts about the world’s longest oil tanker or what color a polar bear’s tongue is or whatever – this is a very specific kind of child and it almost just seems like they come out of the box like that. I know I did.”
He told the ECA group that he has “memories of just loving game shows as far back as I can remember, of being broken-hearted on my first day of kindergarten because I realized that I was going to miss Hollywood Squares and Match Game. I loved my game shows.”
He also recalled a time when he wanted to check out one of the world atlases at the Edmonds Library “and the librarian telling me you couldn’t check it out and I was just so angry. Why are people checking out novels and Hardy Boys books? This is the real pleasure reading right here,” he said. “I’ve always been that kind of a kid.”
And for Jennings, from the time he was a child, Jeopardy was “always the pinnacle of achievement” in trivia.
“We only had one TV channel in Korea. We were at the mercy of whatever the Pentagon would put on Army TV,” he recalled. “So I’d run home from school every day to watch Jeopardy.”
“It was just eye opening to see people be celebrated for what they knew,” Jennings said, adding that the three contestants “seemed like super heroes. No matter what question Alex asks, They know about hockey and they know about particle physics and they know about country music. How do they do it?”
“It became aspirational for me,” he added. “Even at 10 years old, I thought I would like to be that person.”
While at BYU, Jennings captained the school’s quiz bowl team, eventually writing and editing questions for the national quiz bowl tournaments. He was working as a software engineer in Salt Lake City in 2004, when he successfully auditioned for Jeopardy.
Brewster then asked Jennings if he had any stories to share about his sixth months appearing Jeopardy, when he won 74 games and earned $2.52 million, both American game show records.
“Jeopardy is just so different to play than it is to watch,” said Jennings, describing it a “high- stress crucible” for the three competitors. Viewers may see the show as “very chill and very polite,” but they don’t understand the pace and the pressure involved. Having to field 61 clues in a half an hour “is a lot of knowledge,” Jennings explained, and it’s particularly stressful for the contestants who are appearing for the first time. “Imagine if we were watching a version of the Olympics and all the athletes were just trying their sport for the first time,” he said. “They just picked up a fencing saber or a pole vault pole or whatever. And that’s basically Jeopardy.”
To prepare for his audition, he would stand behind a recliner, using a child’s Fischer Price ring-stacking toy — minus the rings — as his fake buzzer while practicing. “Having done that, I had a little muscle memory,” he said. Then, after learning he was selected for the show, he spent a month making flash cards and studying a range of Jeopardy topics.
Jennings is also a best-selling author, and Brewster asked what motivated him to write. “I remember getting a lot of weird offers after doing Jeopardy,” Jennings recalled. “Do you want to do this? Do you want to be on the board of that? Do you want to be on All My Children?” Then somebody suggested Jennings should write a book.
He then explained that he started out as an English major in college, adding the double major in computer science “pretty late” to make sure he could earn a living — but wasn’t very passionate about the computer work.
“When I had the chance to write a book, I just jumped on it,” he said.
In addition to writing Brainiac, about American trivia culture, he also wrote Maphead, based on his memories “of being an atlas-loving kid,” plus other books. For children, he writes a series of Junior Genius Guides.
“It’s always a thrill spending a couple of years digging into something and seeing if there’s a book in it,” Jennings said.
Brewster also asked what Trebek, the 37-year Jeopardy host, meant to Jennings and how he shaped Jennings’ life.
“He meant so much to me for 20 years before I met him, having been the face of nightly authority and the value and certainty of knowledge in our living rooms for 20 years,” Jennings said. In addition, Jennings said he appreciated Trebek’s “candid approach to how he was battling his illness (he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer), particularly the mental health side of it.
“He just cared about the viewers. He knew he meant a lot to people,” Jennings said.
After Trebek died, Jennings served as a guest host of Jeopardy, a six-week gig that ended in late February. Since then, the show has had a series of guest hosts, including journalist and author Katie Couric and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Brewster asked Jennings if there were any plans for a more permanent host in the future.
“It’s an extremely hard job,” Jennings said. “You’re running the show in real time like a referee. You have to read a clue, you have to look up and see what they buzzed in, and as they are answering you have to adjudicate what they are saying and then move on appropriately.” Alex Trebek, he added, “did it with such grace, you didn’t really notice how hard it was. My heart goes out to anybody brave enough to try that job.”
“I do know there will be a permanent host next year,” Jennings continued. “I’m not being coy. I don’t know who that is. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are multimillion dollar properties for Sony TV. Those things just print money, and they are going to take this decision very seriously,” he said.
“I did feel like at the end, I was almost starting to get comfortable, I was starting to enjoy it a little bit,” Jennings reflected. “I think with time I am starting to figure this out. So I do hope I get another chance.”
Brewster then noted that “in this day and age, we all have computers in our pocket and are somewhat proficient with Google to gather information. What’s the effect of technology on how knowledge is gathered and sustained?” he asked.
Jennings replied that “libraries and their materials are not outmoded at all. I’ve been trying to write a book without access to the UW library because it’s been closed (due to COVID) and it’s a nightmare. If you want to get in-depth on any topic, the internet is generally not as good as a good library.
“On the flip side, the fact that we can answer all our questions now (with technology) is pretty great,” Jennings said. “The problem, as we have all seen, is that the accuracy of the information is no longer beyond reproach. One thing that’s really meant a lot to me about Jeopardy is that it’s universally loved and respected. People in blue states. Love their Jeopardy and people in red states love their Jeopardy. Facts matter, questions have answers.”
Brewster then opened the floor to questions from attendees, and the first question came from 5 1/2-year-old Stella Napolitino, who was attending the event with her Edmonds parents, Royce and Heidi Napolitino. “Were you famous when you were a kid?” Stella asked.
“I was not famous when I was a kid,” Jennings answered. “Because I was a big fan of TV, I was very aware that some people were famous. I never thought I would be famous but I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be exciting?” And for some reason it never occurred to me that you could just do it. You could just try out for a game show.’”
Jennings told Stella that “being famous is pretty good. People look at you in restaurants a lot, that’s what I’ve found. Sometimes you’re just in the restroom and people think they can chat with you because you’re famous. But sometimes in the restroom you want to have private time.”
Attendee Cheryl Foster then asked Jennings what he does in his role as a consulting producer for Jeopardy, a role he has held for almost a year.
In that job, Jennings said he consults on game material and contestant search, the latter of which he described as the “really hard part of running Jeopardy. Getting two new good players up on that stage every night for 38 years is just a Herculean task,” he said. “Very few people can do it and even if they can do it, it’s hard to know if they can do it when the cameras are on. And you want to have a contestant that looks like America and yet it’s a lot of middle-aged white guys with tech jobs. How do we get more women to try out, how do we get more people of color on the show? There’s a lot of complicated conversations that go into casting Jeopardy.”
— By Teresa Wippel