It’s one of the most iconic game shows of all time. If you’re not a huge fan, then you’ve at least watched the show in passing. If you’re a diehard fan of Jeopardy! you probably think you know all of the ins and outs of the show.
But you might not be as in-the-know as you think. There is a lot that happens when the cameras aren’t rolling. Let’s take a quick peek behind the scenes of the most popular trivia show in the world, including learning all about some of its most amazing contestants and its legendary host.
Celebrity Fans Galore
Jeopardy! has a ton of fans worldwide. And many of them are A-list celebrities. You might be surprised by how many famous people follow Jeopardy! religiously. Many of them even make appearances on the show.
The show has had over 200 celebrity contestants. Some of the notable celebs who have competed are Anderson Cooper, Ashton Kutcher, David Duchovny, Jason Alexander, Leslie Nielsen, Kelsey Grammar, Carol Burnett, Lara Logan, Stephen King, Regis Philbin, and Nathan Lane, are just a few.
The Longest Winning Streak
Let’s go ahead and dive into the fun stuff. Even after James Holzhauer’s amazing run in 2019, Ken Jennings still holds the record for the longest winning streak on the show. He played an incredible 74 games straight in 2004 without losing.
Jennings also held the record for the highest average correct responses per game (a record that was later broken by Holzhauer). For his performance, the software engineer-turned author walked away with a set total of over $3 million dollars. In Jeopardy, The Greatest of All Time in 2020, he took home $1 million.
When you’re on the show for so long, you end up accumulating some pretty incredible insight into how the game works. Other than Alex Trebek and a handful of people who work there, Jennings has spent the most time in the studio.
He later wrote about his experience on the show and shared some secrets. For example, he told everyone that there are black tiles behind the contestant stands that lower or raise based on your height to make everyone equal.
Jennings Wins Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time Event in 2020
In January 2020, the three highest-earning Jeopardy! contestants of all time were invited to compete in a first-to-3-wins series, winner takes home $1 million. Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer all accepted the invite.
The tournament marked the first time that Jeopardy! aired during prime time in 30 years with 14 million viewers tuning in to watch. Jennings came out on top with three wins, to Holzhauer’s one and Rutter ending the tournament without a win. It was also the first time that Jennings (or any human) beat Rutter. After the event, Jennings surpassed Rutter for the most earnings on the show with $5,223,414 compared to Rutter’s $5,138,436.
The Most Cash
Ken Jennings certainly wasn’t the only contestant who made a life-changing amount of money on the show. Despite playing fewer games, record store clerk Brad Rutter is the second highest-earning American game show contestant of all time. Before Jennings won Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time in January 2020, he was ranked number one.
Rutter went 19 regular season and tournament games without losing, winning nearly $4.5 million on Jeopardy!. In The Greatest of All Time event, he placed third behind Jennings and Holzhauer, taking home $250,000.
Roger Craig Held The Highest Single Game Total
In 2010, the highest single-game total was set by a computer scientist named Roger Craig in. Craig walked away with a neat $77,000 for the day. That broke Ken Jenning’s record. At the time, Jennings had a seemingly unbeatable $75,000 game.
Craig has credited his extensive education for his success on the show: “I think the main reason both universities helped so much is that they cover just about all spheres of learning in extraordinary depth,” he said.
Who Is Alex Trebek?
Just who is Alex Trebek? For starters, we’re not sure what his real name is. Most sources say he was born George Alexander Trebek, but others (including TV Guide) claim his real name is actually Giorgi Suka-Alex Trebek.
He’s hosted Jeopardy! since 1984 and is one of the highest-paid game show hosts on the planet, raking in an astounding $10 million a season. The show’s 36th season premiered on September 10, 2019.
He Started His Career On A Music Show
Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario. He attended the University of Ottawa and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1961. With an interest in broadcast news, Trebek got his first hosting job on a Canadian music program called Music Hop in 1963.
A decade later, he moved to the United States to host the NBC game show The Wizard of Odds. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1998 and now spends most of his time south of the border.
Hopeful Despite A Scary Diagnosis
In March of 2019, 78-year-old Alex Trebek addressed his fans in a video to give them the sad news that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He acknowledged that he’d be facing a difficult journey but remained confident that he’d get through it with the support of his fans, friends, and family.
On September 17, 2019, Trebek updated fans on his health. “I lost about 12 pounds in a week. And my numbers went sky high, much higher than they were when I was first diagnosed. So, the doctors have decided that I have to undergo chemo again and that’s what I’m doing.”
Who Alex Trebek Wants to Replace Him as Host
When asked who would be a good replacement as the host on Jeopardy! after Trebek retires, he had this to say: “It’s probably going to be a woman, somebody younger, somebody bright, somebody personable, somebody with a great sense of humor.” He then joked, “So I nominated Betty White.”
He then seriously considered his answer and mentioned Laura Coates of CNN, LA Kings Announcer Alex Faust, and Ben Mankiewicz of TCM as his top picks for who would replace him.
The Show Must Go On
Fans of Jeopardy! all agree that Alex Trebek is irreplaceable. He even holds the record for the most episodes hosted by the same presenter, with Bob Barker of The Price is Right behind him. There have only been two hosts in Jeopardy! history; Art Fleming from 1964-1975 and Alex, beginning in 1984 to present day.
Trebek doesn’t want the show to end with his legacy, saying, “it should, and will, go on after I’m done.” He continued, “I will keep doing it as long as my skills do not diminish, and they have started to diminish.”
Alex Can Speak Several Languages
Alex Trebek is a man of many talents. For example, he is fluent in five languages (including English). “I can get by in Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Swahili,” he told Parade magazine. “But don’t expect much in Hawaiian and Welsh.”
Interestingly, some fans of Jeopardy! complain that the host ‘overpronounces’ foreign words. The Huffington Post even compiled a video of this trait in action, with the caption, “Trebek loves foreign languages, as evidenced by his unwavering ability to overpronounce exotic words. He does so all the time and it’s amazing.”
He’s Won Quite A Few Awards
Not only has the show itself won a plethora of awards, but so has the host individually. Jeopardy! has won an incredible 33 Daytime Emmy Awards, and Trebek has won five individually as well as receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.
He has a star on the Walk of Fame and a Guinness World Record for “the most gameshow episodes hosted by the same presenter (same program),” surpassing the Price is Right’s Bob Barker.
Contestants Don’t See Their Winnings Immediately
This might surprise viewers: when somebody wins money on Jeopardy! they don’t get access to it for a while. This has become a game show practice at this point.
Some previous winners have said that they didn’t get paid for six months after their episode(s) aired. Also, winners have to pay income tax on their prize money. One former contestant said he won $27,100 but only ended up with $20,000 because of taxes.
That Intense Theme Song
That intense song that’s played while contestants answer the final Jeopardy! can instill anxiety in anyone who watches the game. It means that time is running out to get the correct answer down in writing.
The iconic but simple jingle was created by media mogul Merv Griffin. It only took him about 30 seconds to write, and he made almost $100 million from royalties from it. Fun fact: Griffin originally called it “A Time for Tony,” and he wrote it as a lullaby for his son.
The “Unstoppable” James Holzhauer
Current contestant James Holzhauer appeared set to smash every Jeopardy! record on the books during his 32-game streak in 2019. He seemed to break a new record nearly every night he played.
Holzhauer used a play method called the “Forrest Bounce.” This involves hopping from category to category in order to find the Daily Doubles and to throw off opponents who are used to sticking to one category at a time. The professional sports gambler has raked it in on huge daily double bets.
The Man Behind The Big Bets
The 34-year-old sports gambler who dominated the show for weeks is from Las Vegas, Nevada, although he grew up in Illinois. Jeopardy! isn’t his first time appearing on a game show — he was on The Chase (an adaptation of a British game show) in 2014.
He’s married, and his wife has also been on a game show. Melisa Holzhauer was a big winner on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in 2014, bringing home $28k. Holzhauer has said that he and his wife intend to use his Jeopardy! winnings to travel the world for at least a year.
Fans Were Shocked When Holzhauer Fell Short Of Jennings’ Record
While he was just $33,685 short of breaking Ken Jennings’ record, James Holzhauer was bested by a librarian named Emma Boettcher when he wagered a mere $1,399 on the Final Jeopardy question. His total winnings on Jeopardy! ended up at $2,464,216.
During his best single game before 2020, Holzhauer won a staggering $131,127 and averaged $74,673 per game during his time on the show. Of his loss, he had this to say: “My number one feeling was if I had to go out, I wanted to go out against a top player who beat me in a straight up contest and not because I made a silly mistake,” he said. “It was a true honor to go out on top having played against just an awesome player who couldn’t be stopped.” Boettcher called her victory “surreal.”
Show Creator Merv Griffin
Media mogul Merv Griffin was responsible for creating both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. He also hosted The Merv Griffin Show in the 1960s and established two TV production companies, Merv Griffin Entertainment and Merv Griffin Enterprises.
Griffin said that it was actually his wife Julann who thought of Jeopardy!. “I was mulling over game show ideas, when she noted that there had not been a successful ‘question and answer’ game on the air since the quiz show scandals,” he explained. “Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question.” It sure turned out to be a great idea!
All The Outfit Changes
There’s a reason that Alex Trebek owns over 100 different suits. He needs them. An entire week’s worth of episodes is filmed in just one day. To make it look like different days, everyone has to wear different outfits. Trebek has to change at least five times a day when they shoot.
But he doesn’t usually dress in a suit and tie on his days off. According to his stylist, Phil Wayne, “He generally comes in jeans and a T-shirt, driving a pickup. It’s my job to transform him into the elegant host you see on TV every night.”
What Does Ken Jennings Think Of James Holzhauer?
If anyone can impress the man who had an epic 74-game winning streak on Jeopardy!, it’s James Holzhauer. In an April 2019 discussion, Ken Jennings had this to say about Holzhauer. “First of all, I’m just gobsmacked by James. It’s absolutely insane what he’s doing.”
Jennings continued, “I thought I had seen everything on ‘Jeopardy!’ And this is something I would have thought was just impossible.” .. And after Holzhauer’s winning streak ended, Jennings tweeted a photo of Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War, with the caption, “Actual photo of James Holzhauer walking off stage at Jeopardy, his reign of destruction completed.”
Mastering The Buzzer
Figuring out how to use the buzzer is one of the most crucial components of doing well on Jeopardy!. Previous contestants have talked about the utmost importance of getting the timing right.
If a contestant presses the buzzer too early, it is disabled for one-quarter of a second. As the famed Ken Jennings once said, “Knowing lots of answers but being a millisecond slow on the buzzer is indeed very frustrating.”
Trebek Is A Horse Fanatic
Alex Trebek has been a lifetime fan of horses. When he’s not putting Jeopardy! contestants to the test, he enjoys spending time at the ranch. In fact, he used to own and manage a 700-acre ranch in California called Creston Farms.
He bred and trained thoroughbred racehorses there, and one of his horses, Reba’s Gold, is a son of the prize-winning thoroughbred Slew o’ Gold. Trebek sold the ranch in 2008.
The Online Test
So, how does one become a contestant? There’s an online test that you are required to take in order to get selected for an audition. The test only happens once a year and you need to register early for it.
Nearly 300,000 people take the test each year, but only 3,000 are chosen for auditions. The test consists of 50 questions to be answered in 15 minutes. Only about 0.4% of applicants make it onto the show.
A Small Team Gets It All Done
One could assume that a show that pulls in an average of 25 million viewers each week would have a big team working behind the scenes. However, that’s not the case.
It’s actually a very small team running things. In fact, there are only 14 people on the production staff. Nine of them are expert writers, while five of them are knowledgable researchers who create all the content featured on the show. Here’s Ken Jennings backstage with some of the team.
A No Pants Party
Alex Trebek is also known for his quick-witted humor and charisma. Anyone who’s been the host for as long as he has is clearly doing something right. Some fans might be surprised by this behind-the-scenes tidbit, but it’s true.
One episode, the host decided to show up to taping without pants on. Yes, he made it a “no pants party.” The prank was featured on the April Fools’ Day episode.
Eddie Timanus Made History On The Show
Eddie Timanus made television history when he became the first blind contestant to appear on Jeopardy! in 1999. The sportswriters used braille cards for the category headings and typed out his responses using a keyboard.
He did quite well on the show, winning $70,000 and two Chevrolet Camaros over a five day period. Here’s a sweet bonus: Timanus also met his wife because of the show! She saw him on TV and contacted him.
You Can Win With Just $1
Some may think that it’s the big bankroll that wins the games. And, while that’s true most of the time, there have been instances where tiny amounts of money have done the trick and earned a win for a lucky contestant.
For example, in 1993, Air Force Lt. Col. Darryl Scott won a game with a measly $1. A Naval officer named Manny Abell pulled off the same feat in 2017.
Jeopardy! features an annual Teen Tournament. These special tournaments for high school students have aired every season since 1987. Tournaments consist of five quarterfinal games which produce five semifinalists and four “wildcard” semifinalists, who are non-winning high scorers. Then there are three semifinals that produce three finalists who compete in the tense two-game final competition.
Fun fact: Peter Morris (1989) and Muffy Marracco Morris (1992) were the first pair of siblings to appear in the Teen Tournament.
The Clue Crew
The Jeopardy! Clue Crew has traveled to over 280 cities in 44 different foreign countries to tape content for the show, a gig most would say was pretty sweet. The Crew made their first appearance on September 24, 2001.
Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman explained the decision to bring the crew aboard. “TV is a visual medium, and the more visual we can make our clues, the more we think it will enhance the experience for the viewer.”
The Celebrity Jeopardy! Parodies Were Hilarious
Fans of Jeopardy! just can’t get enough of the hilarious parodies of the show. Saturday Night Live has done some absolutely iconic Celebrity Jeopardy! impersonations. Alex Trebek was played masterfully by Will Ferrell, and the host even made a cameo appearance on one episode!
There were a ton of other great celebrity impersonations, like Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery, Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds, Jimmy Fallon as comedian Adam Sandler, and Alec Baldwin as Tony Bennett.
Celebrity Jeopardy! Was Revived For SNL’s 40th Anniversary
Celebrity Jeopardy! was such a popular skit that SNL brought it back for their star-studded 40th-anniversary special in 2015. While some of the celebrities were new, such as Justin Bieber being played by Kate McKinnon, some of the iconic original characters were back.
Sean Connery and Burt Reynolds both made appearances during the anniversary special, which was an absolute treat for fans. The real Jeopardy! has referenced the SNL spoof several times — the two shows work well off each other.
Athletes Win At Jeopardy! Too
Many people have a misconception that athletes tend not to be as smart as the average (read: nerdy) Jeopardy! contestant. But every now and then, that theory is upended.
One of the most recent celebs to get crowned a Jeopardy! champion was Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. He can now add this accomplishment to his list of other illustrious wins like the NFL MVP Award and Super Bowl championship.
Man Is No Match For Machine
Remember Brad Rutter? He’s the guy who has won almost $5 million in winnings on the show. Well, he hasn’t lost to a human yet, but he did lose to a computer named Watson.
He faced off against the computer with former contestant Ken Jennings in the Jeopardy! IBM Challenge which featured IBM’s Watson facing off against the human contestants in a two-game match in 2011. Unfortunately for the human race, both men ended up losing.
The Viral Sensation
When a show is on the air for as long as Jeopardy! has been, it’s going to get some interesting characters. Austin Rogers is probably one of the most famous viral sensations to come out of the game show.
The charismatic former bartender had a dozen-night winning streak in which he won over the audience every time. He was quirky, quick-witted, and hilarious. He ended up walking away with $50,000 too.