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‘Answers in the Form of Questions’ offers a ‘Jeopardy!’ deep dive

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This multi-generationally beloved game show has been on the air since 1984 in its current incarnation and is viewed by many as the current gold standard in the genre.

What is “Jeopardy!”

For millions of people, “Jeopardy!” is a staple, a shared syndicated moment of intellectual rigor and high financial stakes. A combination of encyclopedic trivia knowledge, quick reaction time and the … courage … of a gambler. For 22ish minutes a day, five days a week – “Jeopardy!” is there.

Claire McNear has been writing about “Jeopardy!” for years. However, her new book “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” (Twelve Books, $28) delves far deeper than she ever has gone before. Through a wealth of interviews – including over 100 contestants – and significant behind-the-scenes access, McNear offers up a closer examination of the beloved game show than any we’ve seen before.

And count McNear among those who love the show. There’s simply no way that a charming, thoughtful paean such as this one could be composed by someone without a deep and abiding affection for the program. It is a love letter to one of the few remaining monocultural stalwarts, a show that appeals to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.

We get the nuts and bolts stuff, of course. McNear takes us to the Sony soundstage in Culver City, giving readers a look at the logistics, introducing us to the myriad figures who make sure that the gears keep turning. We meet producers and clue writers, all while a picture is painted of what it means to be in that room.

She also takes us into the audition process, laying out the circumstances with remarkable accuracy and a healthy dose of self-deprecation – she has to be talked into kinda-sorta participating due to her perceived trivia liabilities, but winds up enjoying herself (thanks in no small part to the relentless whirlwind of positive energy known as Maggie Speak). McNear also dives deep into the community that surrounds the show – particularly the robust alumni network that has bloomed via social media platforms – and takes us along as she visits a few other trivia touchstones, visiting the National Trivia Championships and making the obligatory pilgrimage to the legendary trivia night at O’Brien’s in Los Angeles.

We’re walked through the training regimens – or lack thereof – undertaken by contestants who have gotten the call (or are simply awaiting a call they’re sure is coming). Tips and tricks from some of the greats are offered. Binging episodes, taking online quizzes on sites like Sporcle, buzzer simulators – there are lots of ways to prep. There’s also a great chapter about the math side of actual play, rife with game theory and noted strategies like the Forrest Bounce and the high-stakes attitude of recent steamroller James Holzhauer.

McNear explores the cultural impact of the show as well. Weird Al’s auspiciously-timed parody “I Lost on Jeopardy,” a tune that was released mere months before the 1984 relaunch of the show. The legendary “Cheers” episode where Cliff Clavin went on the show. The recurring SNL sketch “Celebrity Jeopardy,” featuring Will Ferrell as host Alex Trebek.

Speaking of Trebek, McNear speaks with him as well; while this chapter rings bittersweetly due to the host’s recent passing, there’s no question that McNear captures his essence. He so clearly adored his job, and that love for what he did was what made him the very best. Reading this section may well elicit both smiles and tears, but it is wonderfully indicative of who the man was and really brings to light the reasons so many feel such closeness to him.

There have been efforts in the past to capture the breadth of the “Jeopardy!” experience, but none have even approached the level of success achieved by “Answers in the Form of Questions.” McNear is a dynamite writer, which certainly helps, but the key to this book’s particular excellence is her passion for the subject. You can’t write about anything with this kind of care without loving it; there’s a joie de vivre bubbling beneath the surface of every page.

It’s worth noting that McNear does a phenomenal job of capturing the contestant experience, really giving us a soup-to-nuts examination of the process from test to audition to selection to taping. As someone who has been through that process, I can speak to its truth – a LOT of memories bubbled up as I read. And as a critic, I can speak to the quality of the writing – it engages in just the right ways. I’ve never read anyone who so thoroughly and accurately evokes the vibe of what it’s like to be on that stage, part of that scene.

And sure, there’s plenty of stuff here from the big names. Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer – you can’t tell the story of “Jeopardy!” without them. But it’s the conversations with other contestants, the folks who just won a couple of games (or none at all) or who played in the pre-internet days, that really shine. Those people have had their lives changed by the show just like those who were made millionaires – mine certainly was. Perhaps not economically, but certainly emotionally.

“Answers in the Form of Questions” is a fantastic read for anyone who loves “Jeopardy!” It is heartfelt and hilarious, a well-reported and deeply-researched plunge into the world of everybody’s favorite question-and-answer (sorry – answer-and question) show. And while the circumstances of the moment may render it somewhat bittersweet, those seeking comfort could well find some within these pages.

This new book is an informative, entertaining and generally excellent look at the best game show in the world.

What is “Answers in the Form of Questions.”

(To check out our interview with Claire McNear, click here)

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 November 2020 13:07

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