A New Way to Appreciate Those Awkward Jeopardy! Interviews

"My Latin teacher was great" and other contestant fun facts, collected on one dedicated Twitter account


In 2007, in an attempt to take the contestants’ minds off their nerves, Alex Trebek opened a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions sans pants.

“I was informed backstage a few minutes ago that our three contestants … wanted to relieve some of the tension, and they said, ‘We must do the program without trousers,’” he informed the audience. “Now can we get a camera to make sure that they have done the same as I?”

As it turned out, the contestants were, in fact, wearing pants. Trebek wasn’t ruffled. Cool as a Canadian snowstorm, he walked offstage to go put his pants back on. Trebek is just that kind of guy. It would be neat to meet him someday.

If you’re reading this, Trebek, I really mean that last part. I take the online test as often as they give it. Once, in high school, I made it as far as an audition for the teen contest, after which I never heard from them again. I told everyone who would listen that it was probably because I had “a slow buzzer thumb.” By now, enough time has passed that I’m okay admitting: It was not about the buzzer thumb. Those questions were hard.

You know what else is hard, though? Making yourself seem interesting to a national audience in 30 seconds or less. (I would imagine. Not bitter!) The Jeopardy! contestant interviews are the layover en route to the beach vacation, the dry cookie barrier to the Double Stuf creme—the thing you do your best to forget on the way to the good part. As awkward as they are to watch, one can only imagine they’re that much worse for the contestants themselves, stammering through fun facts that aren’t actually that fun. And because the world is a merciless place that takes as often as it gives, the winning contestants have to suffer through this undignified ritual up to five times per day, the number of episodes recorded in each session.

But because the world is also a generous place that gives as often as it takes, it has blessed us with the Twitter account @CoolJepStories, which, in its own words, “simplistically yet accurately summariz[es] the insipid contestant interview.”

It is, to simplistically yet accurately summarize, delightful.

Who doesn’t love barbecuing? My personal favorite, though, is this:

There’s an interesting combination of tenses in that second one there: “My future man was a drip.” Did he ever become her present man? And, if so, does his drippiness mean he is now her past man? Or has her current partner simply improved his once-drippy ways? There’s no way of knowing, really. Unless you DVRed it or something.

Point is: Stripped of all context (and Trebek’s often-strained follow-ups), some of these nuggets actually become tiny mysteries, teasers to bigger, more interesting things. Like the first one here:

“I thought accounting was secure.” Yup, there’s definitely more story there.

Even the most mundane—the barbecue-lovers, the grilled-cheese eaters—have a certain charm to them: The anecdotes themselves are what they are, but isn’t it interesting what people find interesting about themselves? So misguided are we, in fact, that the show hires people just to help the contestants figure out which moments from their lives are boring and which are worth retelling.

“On the tape day, my biggest responsibility is getting them ready for their stories,” Robert James, then one of Jeopardy’s contestant coordinators, told NPR in 2011. Once contestants are invited to come on the show, James explained in the interview, they receive a three-page questionnaire asking about things like “brushes with greatness,” secret ambitions, and major mistakes. The coordinators work with each contestant before taping to decide on their three best anecdotes; from there, Trebek picks the one he’ll ask about during the show. (According to James, the host favors tales of romance, the military, and/or power tools.)

And sometimes, it seems, Trebek has a sharper, meaner sense of humor than his no-pants gag would let on. Look at this:

“I am also a Whovian.” Imagine the trauma of filling out pages of personal questions, finally alighting on the perfect nugget to share with the world, and then hearing it used by the person next to you right before you’re up.

Anyway. The next online test to become a contestant is this coming Tuesday. Thumb exercises first, story brainstorming later.

Related Video

Atlantic senior editor James Hamblin visits the Bon Appetit kitchen to test out how IBM's supercomputer Watson is helping people combine whatever is in their refrigerators into edible recipes.