First broadcast on March 30, 1964, Jeopardy! at 50 is as popular as ever. Since host Alex Trebek began his reign in 1984 — the year the show went into daily syndication — Jeopardy! has won a record 30 Daytime Emmys, cementing its status as one of America’s best-loved quiz shows.
The show’s enduring appeal may seem puzzling given its formulaic design, but superfan and former contestant Jeanie Kenkel thinks she knows why the show resonates. Kenkel, who edits The Jeopardy! Fan blog, suggests it comes down to Jeopardy!’s consistency: “[Fans] rely on it to be there for us.”
Jeopardy! has created a vast community that stretches from Alex Trebek to the 25 million fans who watch every week and dream of becoming contestants themselves. Kenkel explains that the show “compels us to believe that dreams do come true. It amazes us, what some people can do. Like a good book, it makes us need to know what will happen next.” Within this community, the top players of the last 50 years are legends, and the show’s most controversial decisions are evergreen topics for debate.
To mark the show’s golden anniversary, OZY looks at a few of its most surprising, inspiring and provocative players.
Clue: He was a one-day winner on Jeopardy! in 1965, but this Arizona senator had less success at the polls on November 4, 2008.
Who is John McCain?
The senator, a self-professed trivia nerd, is the best-known politician to have been featured on Jeopardy! But after winning on his first appearance, he failed to identify the hero of Wuthering Heights on day two (Heathcliff, for the curious). It seems that the failure continues to haunt him; losing the White House was no doubt more painful, but McCain still remembers the exact wording of the clue that took him out.
Clue: In 2011, its victory over Jeopardy!’s biggest-ever winners demonstrated the limits of the “puny human brain.”
What is Watson?
Watson was a computer developed by IBM for the specific purpose of competing on Jeopardy! In 2011, Watson competed against the show’s biggest winners ever, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. While Jennings and Rutter remain heroes among viewers, Watson and its four terabytes of data stormed to victory. The win was controversial, according to Kenkel, because “a computer can’t inspire” and doesn’t fit into the Jeopardy! community. But the defeated Ken Jennings had a different take. Watson, he argued, has a lot in common with human players. “It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone and has never known the touch of a woman,” he joked.
Watson has moved on to its next challenge: brain cancer. The New York Genome Center uses Watson to sort through patients’ genomes and pick the best possible drug-treatment programs.
Clue: His success on Jeopardy! was an inspiration to many of the show’s fans, particularly those with disabilities.
Who is Eddie Timanus?
In 1999, Eddie Timanus became Jeopardy!’s first blind contestant; he also smashed the competition, chalking up $70,000 in five days (at a time when participants could play a maximum of five games). Timanus returned this month for the Battle of the Decades and was happy to find “the game has remained pretty much unchanged over the years.”
Blinded since age 3 by retinal tumors, Timanus is widely considered one of Jeopardy!’s most-inspiring winners, epitomizing the capacity of the show to cross boundaries in its celebration of intellectual ability. He is a great competitor, disability aside, and has been gracious in both victory and defeat, openly admiring successful players and supporting the less popular ones. He upholds his own claim that the members of the winners club are “a pretty friendly lot” who share “a great deal of mutual respect.”
Clue: This show may just reach its 100th birthday.
What is “Jeopardy!”?
In recent weeks, the tempestuous reign of Arthur Chu has been a reminder of just how invested America is in this 50-year-old game show. Earning nearly $300,000 in 11 games, Chu attracted the ire of the JBoard community and the interest of the media for his unusual play in which he hopped around the categories rather than polishing them off one by one. Before his winning spree ended, this aggressive strategist and social media buff was hailed as “Jeopardy!’s evil genius.”
Yet Chu’s inevitable defeat reminds us that there is no foolproof strategy. Everyone, including Ken Jennings and his 74-game run, eventually leaves the set.
That is, everyone except the iconic Alex Trebek. Having appeared show in and show out for 30 years (more than 6,500 episodes), the Jeopardy! host is the only person who’s never lost. So how does he explain its staying power?
“Americans are very competitive, and they like to be challenged,” Trebek says. “They especially like to be challenged intellectually, and Jeopardy! does that.… I like to think we’re a class act.”
In an impressive show of humility, he says, “The viewers may eventually tire of us,” but as millions of Americans settle down to watch tonight’s episode to try to best the ruling champion, odds are that won’t happen anytime soon.
Why you should care
Because there’s no question Jeopardy! has serious staying power — and it goes beyond the show’s iconic theme song.