By Amy Helmes
Special to TelevisionWeek
He’s been chatted up by Dave Letterman, marveled over by Regis and Kelly and gushed about in news headlines. He’s Ken Jennings, the most winning “Jeopardy!” champ ever.
I’m one of the sacrificial lambs he trounced.
The cerebral smack-down, taped last April at Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif., aired Sept. 9. Among the assemblage of well-read schoolmarms and erudite gentlemen on the set, a blond, baby-faced man caught my attention. His chummy familiarity with all the security guards and “Jeopardy!” staffers led me to believe this was the returning champ. I just didn’t quite know how returning until I heard the sobering news: Wonderboy Ken had won a record 32 games so far. (Somewhere a trumpet wailed a defeated “wah, wah, wahhh.”)
Ken looked about my age and seemed about as threatening as the dentist elf from that “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas special. My hubris kicked in. I can take him! Then reality kicked in. I’m doomed! I prayed I wouldn’t have to face him, that someone else would dethrone him.
Instead I witnessed composed and confident Mensa candidates reduced to simpering deer-in-headlights with each new game. My flustered comrades and I sat in the studio audience, scrutinizing Ken’s mastery of the signaling button and awe-inspiring wealth of knowledge. While we collectively brainstormed for a way to overthrow him, one fellow contestant raised the wistful possibility that Ken might suffer a bout of food poisoning during the meal break. “Let’s hope he orders the shrimp,” he murmured, only half joking.
At lunch, I subtly interrogated the champ, hoping I’d find his Achilles’ heel-a stunning admission that he hates geography or knows bupkus about ancient Mesopotamia. He was friendly, but tight-lipped. No secrets were divulged except for the fact that he ordered a burrito for lunch every day from the Sony cantina. (His digestive system is as superhuman as his brainpower, apparently.)
As the afternoon rolled around, I continued to watch the gentle Mormon from Utah suck all the gray matter from his competitors’ skulls. It got me to thinking. Clearly, he’s become a ratings boon for producer Sony Pictures Television and distributor King World, which this season opted to change the rules, no longer limiting returning champs to only five shows. Sure, the show so far has had to empty more than $1 million from its coffers to keep up with the software engineer’s phenomenal winning streak. But that’s chump change compared with the ratings boost Ken has provided-not to mention the additional press the show has garnered since he began airing earlier this summer. All this begs the question: Now that the proverbial goose has laid the golden egghead, does “Jeopardy!” ever want to see him defeated?
I spent two days on the set with Ken and noticed no foul play, no special treatment, no subtle nods or winks from host Alex Trebek to his favorite returning champ. In fact, while a slew of techies miked me up to play David to Ken’s Goliath, I was inundated with encouragement from several of the contestant coordinators.
“You can do it, Amy!” “He is beatable!” “Don’t let up on that signaling button!” Their constant pep talks throughout the commercial breaks seemed genuine, and I’m certain they would have suffocated me with a group hug had I managed to vanquish Ken. Fortunately for Sony and King World, that didn’t happen. Beyond the opening “Jeopardy!” jingle, my 30 minutes with Ken are a blur to me now. (Call it post-traumatic stress if you will, but remember to phrase it in the form of a question.) Needless to say, Ken dominated the game and left viewers wondering if I had even earned a high school diploma. The brainy behemoth modestly shook his head in relief at the end as if to say, “Whew! That was a close one!” (Never mind the fact that there was mathematically no way he could have lost.)
A $1,000 consolation prize and a framed self-portrait with Alex (a gift from the show) did little to assuage the embarrassment of my defeat. Yet I suppose being one of Ken Jennings’ also-rans isn’t the worst way to go down in flames on “Jeopardy!” I’m part of history, after all-one of the little people who helped launch him to the top.
I’m still hoping the show will decide to create a new “Tournament of Losers” for all the unlucky contestants felled by Ken this summer. (That could be a ratings bonanza too.)
Until then, I guess I’ll have to take “Lessons in Humility for $600, Alex!”