The Joy of Jeopardy!

Last summer, I had to take a class on the Biology and Psychology of gender and sexuality. Most times at my university, it is rare to venture outside one’s own department, either academically or socially, but this was a required course, and I was the only film student in the group. This last fact was vividly demonstrated, as we were required to give presentations on subjects of our choosing related to gender and sexuality. Not only were the vast majority of presentations awkward and unprofessional (a genuine shock to someone who spends most of his day with fellow performers), but, as most of the students in the class majored in either Nursing or Criminal Justice, almost every presentation was either about sexual assault or venereal disease.

This was fascinating. Not only had the professor allowed students to cover the same subjects over and over, but the students unselfconsciously ran with it, inflicting upon their captive audience a constant loop of graphic descriptions of violence and physical degradation. Not to say that these issues aren’t important; they certainly are, and Lord knows there are a lot of people out there who need to be educated about them; but when these are the only things you hear about, over and over, day after day, you start to go batty. Towards the end of the term, a woman sitting next to me and I watched in awe as two more students loaded up their PowerPoint presentations: one was on sexual assault, one was on venereal diseases. My classmate and I instantly broke into uncontrollable laughter. We’ve been friends ever since.

Even within the film department, you’re liable to run into people whose interests and fields of knowledge are wildly at variance with your own. Just this week, one of my professors asked the class what the first animated feature film was; one student guessed Toy Story.

This is all a very roundabout way of pointing out that in America, and I would guess California in particular, most people, even college-educated professionals, tend to be very knowledgeable about one thing (typically their chosen field of work) and startlingly ignorant about everything else. In Britain, everyone from cabinet ministers to taxi drivers can tell you the latin names of their houseplants, or give detailed descriptions of the Battle of Trafalgar, but when I volunteer any historical fact about Los Angeles (after all, why would I be expected to know about the place where I work and go to school?), everyone says the same thing: “you should be on Jeopardy!

Jeopardy, for those of you abroad, is a syndicated American game show in which three contestants compete against each other, answering trivia clues in the form of a question (this is really just a formality, though; all one must do to gain points in the form of dollar values is answer a clue with “What/who is X?”) and wager carefully to end up with the most money. The current version of Jeopardy is hosted by Alex Trebek, mainstream celebrity in his own right and a god among game show hosts, and has made a few stars out of its contestants. In 2004, the show’s rules changed to allow champions to keep playing as long as they kept winning. Almost immediately, Ken Jennings came onto the scene, won 74 straight games and over $3 million, and is now widely respected as a public intellectual. This season has produced two star players of its own in Julia Collins and Arthur Chu.

The game has varying levels of difficulty. There’s the Tournament of Champions, where returning stars play against each other, and the questions are accordingly much harder than regular play. Then there are college and high school versions that are a little easier, and of course Celebrity Jeopardy! which is absurdly easy; even by those accommodating standards, a few supposedly smart people have shown themselves to be complete morons, to the delight of dedicated viewers.

Jeopardy! is an exception in this country. It’s taken seriously. It has none of the cheese of Wheel of Fortune, nor the silly dramatics of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The premise is almost preposterously straightforward, and the tone of the show is equally understated. The contestants dress up. Most interestingly, Jeopardy! not only celebrates knowledge, but well-roundedness, in a country that adores crippling overspecialization. And it’s a hit. Game shows come and go in waves, but Jeopardy’s been going strong for thirty straight years.

It survives because it’s easy to play along. And that’s the thing. Anytime I feel bad about the country I call home, I watch Jeopardy! I think about how many people have played, that it’s gone on so long that most people in America know someone who’s been on. I think about the millions of people playing along, earnestly watching to see if the contestants share some of their own knowledge. And I realize that there are a lot more Americans like me than anyone would suspect.

So why aren’t they in film school!?

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