Secrets of ‘Jeopardy!’ That Only Superfans Know
Go behind the scenes of your favorite trivia game show.
Jeopardy!, its current form, has been on the air for a whopping 35 years, hosted by the beloved Alex Trebek and his ever-evolving facial hair.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past three decades and haven’t seen the show (What is impossible, Alex?!), here’s what you need to know. Jeopardy! is a game show that challenges three contestants to a test of general trivia. But the twist is huge: Host Trebek reads the answer as a clue, and contestants hit a buzzer for a chance to respond with a question. Over the course of each show, contestants battle it out over three rounds, 13 topics, and 61 questions spread across the show’s iconic grid of 36 blue TV screens.
Another cool thing about Jeopardy!: Each correct answer (or, OK, fine, question) is worth a certain dollar amount — from $200 to $2,000 — but only there’s only one winner per Jeopardy! episode. If you come in second place, it doesn’t matter if you’ve amassed tens of thousands of dollars during the taping. You’re going home with bupkis.
What Is A Quiz-Show Pickle?
Knowledge, quick reflexes and ballsy bidding strategies have sent some contestants home with crazy winnings. For instance, on April 9, 2019, 32-time Jeopardy! champion and professional sports gambler James Holzhauer wagered $25,000 on a single question. Just how did he do it? We'll get into that later.
Meanwhile, the show itself has also turned out to be a kind of winner, for the rest of us. Different versions of the series air all around the world. There have been plenty of spinoffs, shout-outs and parodies. Even Weird Al Yankovich made a song about the show. Needless to say, Jeopardy!'s impact has been monumental. But how did we get here? And how, after all this time, has Jeopardy! maintained its fanbase and popularity without selling out the original vision of its creator?
No one question can answer all that. But let's dig into all the details and inner-workings that continue to make Jeopardy! so addictive.
Believe it or not, in the 1950s, a lot of Americans didn't like game shows. Didn't trust 'em. To many of us, it looked to much like a certain illegal sin known as gambling. Once the Supreme Court decided this type of programming was legal, America's obsession with quiz shows was born. Two competition shows became immediate hits: The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One.
The $64,000 Question had one contestant compete against a panel of experts. Meanwhile, two opponents would appear on Twenty-One. They'd wear headphones and sit in isolation booths, where their knowledge was put to the test. These shows were seriously popular. The contestants even became celebrities in their own right (see: Dr. Joyce Brothers).
And, oh, one other thing: Those Americans who never trusted game shows to begin with? They were right. At least some of these early game-show episodes were 100 percent rigged. It turns out, players like Columbia professor Charles Van Doren were given the answers and coached before the cameras rolled. Robert Redford directed a movie about the scandal in 1994.
By 1960, dogged by revelations of fakery, the quiz show-craze was dead in the water. Rigging competition programs was now against the law. But at least one guy wasn't willing to give up on this addictive TV format. Three years later, an actor named Merv Griffin, and his very clever partner, would cook up an idea that would change the game-show world forever.
Who Is A Very, Very Smart Wife?
Jeopardy! was officially created by Griffin, the game show icon who also spun up Wheel of Fortune. As the story goes, though, it was Griffin’s wife, Julann, who came up with the show’s famous questions-as-answers format.
The couple was on a plane brainstorming ideas for a new show. Griffin was complaining about the networks' sour opinion of trivia-based programs. That's when Julann came up with a simple solution: "Why don't you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?" she joked.
"Sure, and I'll end up in the slammer," said Merv.
"Suppose I said, 'Five thousand two hundred eighty feet.'," Julann replied.
"How many feet in a mile?" Merv answered.
"Seventy-nine Wistful Vista," Julann continued.
"Wow! What was Fibber McGee and Molly's address?"
Giving contestants the answers first and have them respond with the questions? This simple flipping of the script was what became the game show we know and love today. “We kept going and I kept throwing him answers and he kept coming up with questions," Julann Griffin said. "By the time we landed, we had an idea for a show."
So, in a way, the very first round of Jeopardy! happened on a plane.
That wasn’t Julann’s only contribution. She also wrote the original main theme song to the show and even built a sample Jeopardy! set in the couple’s New York apartment when the project was still in development.
What Is A Really Odd Way To Get a Job?
Think! you know the Jeopardy! theme music? Think! again.
The show has had three main title themes over its 55-year history. But one piece of music has held strong to the show, and that’s the track we know and love today. We bet you’re already humming it right now.
In the early years of the show, "Think!" (yes, the music has a name) was only played while the contestants wrote down their responses in the final round of play. But the song became linked to Jeopardy! overall, and when the Trebek version of the show premiered in 1984, "Think!" was promoted to the main title theme.
Griffin first wrote the earworm as a lullaby for his son. Titled, "A Time for Tony," the song became the soundtrack of Merv's legacy. Variety has estimated that, at one time, the song had earned Griffin more than $70 million in royalties.
If you're wondering if the song has lyrics, the answer is yes. Griffin wrote the words — we hope — after the track moved to TV. As a lullaby, it's kind of problematic, but as a game-show song, it slaps!
We're in trouble — trouble deep!
We're imperiled and endangered.
We're in trouble, yes indeed,
We are all in Jeopardy!
Jeopardy! has been around, in one form or another, for 55 years. The show is one of the longest-running American game shows still on the airwaves today. To be fair, it came eight years after The Price Is Right, but 11 years before Merv Griffin's other big show, Wheel of Fortune. (Deal with it, Sajak!)
When Griffin was first looking for a host for what would become Jeopardy!, he used a odd recruitment style. He saw a Trans World Airlines ad starring an actor named Art Fleming. Fleming seemed "authoritative, yet warm and interesting," and invited Fleming to audition. The actor had no prior television hosting experience, but his agent advised him to "act like a game show host." It worked.
Who Is Our Favorite Canadian?
So how did Alex Trebek come along? He was a TV announcer and news reporter in Canada in the '60s. As a young man, he rose through the ranks at the Canadian Broadcasting System. Canadians are infamously pleasant, but even nice guys can have a little ambition. Eventually, he began to want more and turned his attention to the United States.
"I had been with the CBC for 12 years and kind of exhausted all of the opportunities that a staff announcer with the CBC would have," Trebek told The Daily Beast. "And I thought I’d like to expand my boundaries in terms of work, so I looked south of the border."
Everything changed for Trebek in the early '70s. Future Growing Pains star Alan Thicke was a friend of Trebek's, as well as a fellow Canadian who was also, probably, a very nice guy. Thicke asked Trebek to audition for a game show called The Wizard of Odds. Thicke was writing the music for the program. Trebek auditioned to be the show's host and got the job.
"The rest," as he explained, "is history."
What Is Not Really Hollywood?
Jeopardy! is actually not filmed in Hollywood. Well, not anymore.
When the Alex Trebek run began in 1984, Sunset Boulevard's KTTV lot was the show's home. One year later, it moved to Hollywood Center Studios, where classics like I Love Lucy and The Addams Family were shot.
All things must come to an end, though. In 1994, the production headed 30 minutes south to Culver City's Sony Pictures Studio. The move made sense, considering that Jeopardy! is produced by Sony Pictures Television. Since the move, fellow Merv Griffin creation Wheel of Fortune has filmed on the stage right next door.
Other famous productions that have been shot in Culver City include little titles like The Wizard of Oz, Grease, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
And when you put it that way, Hollywood just doesn’t sound so glamorous anymore.
What Is The Coolest Job Ever?
So how does the show actually work? It starts with some really cool jobs.
Every day, the Jeopardy! writers work to create two to three categories with five clues each. The clues go through a rigorous fact-checking and editing process. When all looks good, they’re loaded onto the grid of blue screens.
"The eight of us as a group try to improve the material as much as we can," Jeopardy! head writer Billy Wisse told Vulture. "We talk about whether we’ve done this fact too much, or talked about this person or this country too much recently, or whether this clue could be worded better.
"Or when I ordered the category, why on Earth did I put the easiest clue for number four or the toughest one as number two? It’s constantly dialogue and comments to try to break the games down and make them as clean as possible."
Rounding out the clue-hunting team is Jeopardy!'s Clue Crew. The gang has recorded video clues in more than 300 cities in 46 countries, including in all 50 states and on all seven continents.
What Does "Pinned" Mean?
The writers aren’t the only people responsible for turning trivia into Jeopardy! clues. There's a deeply-entrenched research team involved, as well.
And what do you need at your disposal if you’re assembling 75 super fact-checked Jeopardy! clues every week? Books. (Of course, Jeopardy! had writers long before the internet was invented — back when books were the most efficient place to go spelunking for facts.)
The writer’s room is a giant library filled with volumes upon volumes of knowledge. Today, the books act both as a source of inspiration as well as a great place to fact check obscure information.
Once clues get written, the researchers step in to make sure they are correct.
Bill Wisse began as a researcher in 1990. In this interview with AV Club, he breaks down the mechanics of the position. The job really hasn't changed much over the years.
"Each clue has a number of facts in it. [...] and the writer has provided one source, at least, for every element within the clue—every name, every statement, every date—[...] is to double-source all of those."
"Secondarily, [we] check to see if the clue is pinned, which is quiz-show speak for making sure that there is only one correct answer. Or that, if there’s an alternate answer that’s also acceptable, that it’s been anticipated."
Remember that each fact needs two sources to verify it's the real deal. Take into account the roughly 14,000 clues written for each Jeopardy! season and you’ll start to get an idea of how much weight rests on the researchers' shoulders.
What Color Is Science?
In the show’s early days, clues were laid out on color-coded index cards. Software replaced the index cards, but the color-coding remains.
These colors identify four types of categories: Academic, pop culture, wordplay, and kind of lifestyles, which is pretty much everything else. Things can sometimes get a bit tricky when the categories are being built.
"You try to assemble them. And assemble them with a certain degree of balance and variety," Billy Wisse told AV Club. "If you have something old, you try to have something new. If you have a really narrow category, you try to balance that out with something that’s a little more general. It’s tricky."
What color is each category? Academic subjects are blue. Pop culture trivia is pink. Wordplay clues are yellow. And lifestyle-centric trivia — about topics like housewares or consumer goods — are green.
Where Did That Tie Go?
Jeopardy!'s filming schedule is a real doozy. The team shoots five episodes on a typical "tape day," with two tape days happening every other week. One episode of Jeopardy! takes about 45 minutes to run through.
Because of the show's 46-week production schedule, the time for a player to celebrate a victory is limited. They're given 15 minutes to head backstage to change clothes. Before they know it, contestants are jumping back behind the podium to play another game.
To put this into context, The Price is Right takes twice the time to film. They shoot two to three episodes on each day with their crew filling in the time, swapping out set pieces. Not to be outdone, Wheel of Fortune films six episodes "from 12 noon to 6pm" on their tape days, which happen four times a month.
Hey, How Tall Is Ken Jennings Anyway?
The Jeopardy! set is filled with hidden elements that make game logistics more streamlined. For example, behind each podium, there are risers to make all three contestants appear around the same height.
There are small indicator lights on the lower left corner of each podium that remind Trebek who got the last question right and thus who gets to pick the next clue.
There is a scoreboard just to the left of the game board off camera where contestants can see everyone’s current score. This makes calculating strategic bids for Final Jeopardy! quick and easy.
Ken Jennings’ height is listed as 5 feet 10 inches on imdb.com.
What Is Some Very Good Advice?
Have you ever thought about becoming a contestant? Of course you have. Here's some advice.
Contestants can’t possibly study every piece of trivia in existence before going on Jeopardy!. But there are a few things players should consider, aside from looking through the encyclopedia and the old Trivial Pursuit deck.
According to two studies that looked at the entire Trebek-era Jeopardy! archive, the most common category on the Jeopardy! grid is the wordplay collection known as "Before and After."
But what do the contestants themselves suggest? Well, during a Reddit AMA, 74-time-champ Ken Jennings recommended memorizing the U.S. presidents in order. His second-most important category for study is world capitals.
Former Jeopardy! champ Brad Rutter agrees with this strategy. "There's usually one of those categories in every game," he explained to Esquire. "I don't think they've ever repeated a clue, but they do ask about the same stuff a lot."
"I also did cocktails, current cabinet and Senators, and university towns. Those all came up eventually, but you might have to be there for 74 games," Jennings added. "Brush up on your strong categories; resist the temptation to try to learn 500 things about ballet or college basketball or whatever from scratch."
What Is Hand Cramp?
Blazing-fast buzzer skills are one of the keys to winning a game of Jeopardy!. Players must wait until Alex Trebek finishes reading the question before the buzzers can become active. That beat allows for a producer, seated off-camera, to press a button that turns them on.
Two long lights will appear on either side of the game board. That signifies that the buzzers are live. Then, and only then, can contestants race to hit their button for a chance to answer the clue.
Many Jeopardy! champs like Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings have gone on the record about how important blazing-fast buzzer skills are to winning a game.
"There's actually a production assistant who literally presses a button backstage to activate the buzzer system," Rutter told Esquire. "So that guy will usually wait, like, half a second after Alex is done to open the system up, and you can kind of get into a rhythm with him too."
Ring in too fast and your buzzer will be locked for a quarter of a second. If you're too late, there's huge potential that someone else has already answered the clue correctly. Timing is key.
What's A Great Way To Lose?
According to Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest-ever winning streak, waiting for those "buzzers-ready" lights is a great strategy... if you want to lose. Contestants have to sync their buzzing with the lights, rather than waiting for the lights before hitting the button. According to Jennings, this gives a home-court advantage to the returning champion in each episode.
The contestant who buzzes at just the right moment will see a confirmation light on the podium. Contestants are advised to keep hitting the button until they see that light. With the razor-thin time margin to buzz in and answer a question, there’s always a chance that one or even all of the contestants have pressed the button too soon and are locked out for a fraction of a second.
In one of his many Reddit AMA interviews, Jennings recommended trying to read each clue ahead of Trebek, as fast as you can, to allow time to think and prepare to buzz in. "Like Jeff Bridges says in 'Tron': "On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy," he quipped.
In 2011, Jennings returned to Jeopardy! to take on an IBM computer named Watson. Watson won. According to the 74-time champ, "It just comes down to buzzer mojo. Which is why Watson won so handily… pretty hard to have better response time than a circuit board."
Is Trivia A Contact Sport?
Like many competitions, Jeopardy! has instant replay... sort of. You know the panel of judges Trebek looks to during gameplay? The people sitting at that table include producers and high-ranking writers. They are the show's second line of defense should any confusion arise after a player answers.
What if those judges need help? There’s a red phone that has the research team on speed dial. The research library is 100 yards away, where the team closely follows the game. Once they receive a call, the team is already checking the contestant’s response.
"Sometimes things come out of the blue and we just say, well, we never thought of that," Jeopardy! head writer Billy Wisse explained. "We’ve never heard of it before, or sometimes the contestant reads the clue in a way that we hadn’t thought of."
Be it an acceptable alternative or a different interpretation to the clue, the win is left up to the judges. They may be unseen, but the crew has always been an key part of the whole process.
What Is A Poh-TAH-Toe?
Occasionally, an answer's pronunciation comes into question. In 2018, Nick Spicher buzzed in to answer this wordplay clue: "A SONG BY COOLIO FROM DANGEROUS MINDS GOES BACK IN TIME TO BECOME A 1667 JOHN MILTON CLASSIC."
"What is Gangsta's Paradise Lost," would've been the correct answer.
But Spicher said, "Gangster's Paradise," instead. Because the words "gangster" and "gangsta" have two different definitions, he lost the round. His answer changed the overall meaning of the response.
What Suddenly Makes A Lot of Sense?
"The Jeopardy rule is, contestant pronunciation doesn't have to be correct, but it has to be a plausible pronunciation of the correct spelling. So I guess the ruling was, 'gangster' is not a plausible pronunciation of 'gangsta,' which seems right to me," Ken Jennings said.
Accuracy is important in game shows. Jenning knows this. In his Reddit AMA, he talked about the 1950s quiz-show scandal that paved the way for Jeopardy!. It still has an impact on things all these years later.
"It's still a felony in America to rig a game show, due to the 1950s scandals," Jennings said. "Getting a ruling wrong might not just be a lawsuit, it could conceivably get the FBI involved."
If the feds did show up, maybe we'd get a ruling to one very important question: Is it pronounced "sherbert" or "sherbet?" Inquiring minds want to know.
Final Jeopardy!, the last round in every taping, has some cool secrets all its own.
For example: Pronunciation may be of huge importance here, but spelling only kind of counts. (What a relief for all the bad spelerz 😉 out there.) In the show's "Final Jeopardy!" round, players get 30 seconds to jot down their response to one last clue.
The official rule for the round is as follows: "Written responses to the Final Jeopardy! clue do not have to be spelled correctly, but they must be phonetically correct and not add or subtract any extraneous sounds or syllables."
And here's something we know you've wondered about, because we have:
Have you ever noticed how silly a player's writing looks on screen? There's a huge size difference between the pens contestants are given and the screens they write on. A big pen and small writing space can make legibility a challenge. "It’s like writing with an icicle on glass," Ken Jennings told Cracked.
Where’s My Check, Alex?
Contestants don’t run straight to the bank after they win on Jeopardy!. There’s a 120-day wait from airdate to payout. The gap between taping and airdate can be anywhere from a week to a few months. So, contestants typically see their winnings a little more than six months from the time they film.
There are a few reasons why shows like Jeopardy! build in this buffer. One reason they do this is to maintain secrecy. If you saw your favorite Jeopardy! contestant cruising around in a brand new expensive car and snapped a picture for your Instagram story, it might tip off the internet that said contestant had recently come into a gigantic cash prize.
Meanwhile, contestants are sworn to secrecy while they wait for their episodes to air. They sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits them from telling anyone about the outcome of their Jeopardy! episode.
What Is A Real Cool Strategy Name?
Contestants all have their own theories about how best to use Jeopardy!’s rules to win big. James Holzhauer would jump from category to category to knock out the most valuable clues early.
The practice of jumping from category to category actually has a name: The Forrest Bounce. This unique name references the 1980s Jeopardy! champion Chuck Forrest. He used this category-switching method to throw off his opponents, earning him the nickname, "The Alexander Great of Jeopardy!"
That's not to say that his strategy was a winning one.
"He jumped all over the board in an obvious attempt to throw off his opponents," Alex Trebek told Vulture. "It worked. They never adjusted. But, you may remember, Chuck didn’t win the championship that year. So go figure."
Holzhauer also bet big — record-shattering big — whenever he got the chance. There’s a rule that sets the minimum bid for a Daily Double question at $5. That’s a far cry from the $25,000 Holzhauer wagered on two separate Daily Doubles. In the Final Jeopardy! round, contestants can, according to the rule book, wager zero.
The conventional wisdom for betting in Final Jeopardy! goes like this: If you’re in the lead, you bet to win. What would the wager be? Whatever it takes to defeat the second-place contestant by one dollar.
But what if you're a second-place contestant? Well, those folks have the most math to do in a short amount of time. Assuming the first-place contestant bets to win, the second-place player should bet exactly enough to defeat the third-place contestant by one dollar... that is, if the third-place player bets everything and have a correct answer. This gives the person in second place a chance at victory if the first-place contestant falters.
Game theory is hard, y’all. That’s why lots of Jeopardy! contestants study game theory before competing. Itcan be a complicated nut to crack. But when studied, it's possible that you, too, could go home $2.4 million richer.
In 1999, a man named Eddie Timanus made Jeopardy! history by becoming the show's first-ever blind contestant. Timanus is a sports journalist for USA Today but he has become a bit of a celebrity in the trivia world, too. After his five-show winning streak, he was a contestant on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, and even showed up as a "lifeline" twice.
You may be wondering how a blind person can compete on Jeopardy!. Notable accommodations were made: He had a listing of the categories in braille and the show omitted video answers for the games he was in.
Trebek's announcement of his opponents' earnings during Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy! helped Timanus know what to wager. And a special audio cue replaced the lights we referenced earlier. A simple "ding" told Timanus when the buzzer was active.
He has since returned to Jeopardy! for 2002's "Million Dollar Masters," the "Ultimate Tournament of Champions" in 2005 and 2014's "Battle of the Decades."
As the success of Jeopardy! has grown, a variety of spinoffs have hit the airwaves. In 1998, Rock & Roll Jeopardy premiered to VH1 sporting the same answers-as-questions format, but with a laid back music-theme. Jeff Probst was the program's host.
"It’s kind of an unfair thing, but I basically got to watch what [Trebek] has been doing for 15 years and just copied him," Probst told the Los Angeles Times. "There are a lot of little tricks that someone can steal." The show ran for four seasons. By the time it was canceled, Probst moved on to host a little bitty CBS reality show called Survivor.
A kid-friendly version of Jeopardy! debuted in '98 as well. No, it wasn't called Jeopardy! Jr., although that sounds like something that really should exist. Jep! aired on the Game Show Network for two seasons.
Jeopardy! gets shouted out a lot in pop culture. There's Weird Al's classic musical homage to the show. Saturday Night Live's sketches about Jeopardy! always brings the laughs, especially if Will Ferrell is doing Trebek. And when the Think! music plays, sometimes you just have to do a little dance. Just ask Travis Scott.
Jeopardy! alumni actually have a trivia night in O’Brien’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica, California. Pub goers who visit O’Brien’s on a Wednesday night are often met with familiar faces like Buzzy Cohen and Pam Mueller. And this isn’t your run-of-the-mill bar trivia. Regulars from this trivia night — including many Jeopardy! folks — take turns writing and asking the questions. Everyone else competes.
But O’Brien’s trivia night wasn’t always so prestigious. In 2006, former Jeopardy! champion Jerome Vered (a former writer and researcher for the show Win Ben Stein's Money) stopped in to test his brain against the trivia night. Maybe unsurprisingly, Vered won. Other former champions heard about the weekly event and together they made it a regular hang for the biggest brains on the game show circuit.
What Is a Tre-Fecta?
Alex Trebek is more than a game show host. He's a bonafide television icon. He was even listed as one of the most trusted people in America. The man has won a total of six Emmy Awards and has been nominated a whopping 31 times.
In 2014, Trebek unlocked another mega-achievement. The Guinness Book of World Records approached him with an epic award. The Canadian-born host received a Guinness World Record for "most gameshow episodes hosted by the same presenter."
At the time of the announcement, he’d hosted a total of 6,829 episodes, which is a feat unto itself. Five years later, that number has grown to nearly 8,000.
Who Is An Irreplaceable Treasure?
After suggesting he'd retire in 2020, Alex Trebek extended his contract through 2022. This was great news for Jeopardy! fans. But a handful of months later, the longtime host revealed he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The turn of events had people worried about the host's well-being. Would he return to the Jeopardy! stage or hang up the hosting hat for good? A month earlier, Trebek spoke to USA Today about who he'd like to take over his job. He named CNN's Laura Coates, LA Kings announcer Alex Faust and TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz as potential successors.
"There are so many talented people out there that could do the job," he added.
That may be true, but there's only one Alex Trebek. In August, the Jeopardy! legend released a video update. "I've gone through a lot of chemotherapy and thankfully that is now over. I'm on the mend and that's all I can hope for right now," he said from the game show's studio.
After half a year in treatment, Alex Trebek returned to work for the show's 36th season. "We have some exciting things coming up," he added, "and I can't wait to share them with all of you."