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Claire McNear discusses new book “Answers in the Form of Questions”

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There is perhaps no game show in the history of the medium as universally beloved as “Jeopardy!” For nearly 40 years, we have been welcoming the show into our homes to give us the answers to which we must provide the questions.

Claire McNear, writer for sports/pop culture website The Ringer and many other outlets, has penned a book about the iconic game show. Titled “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!”, the book delves into the inner workings of the show. After months interviewing former contestants, producers, staff and Alex Trebek himself, the book has arrived to question all of your answers about “Jeopardy!”

In a freewheeling Zoom conversation, McNear shares her thoughts on the show, on writing the book and reveals some of the surprises that awaited her on her “Jeopardy!” deep dive.

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Alex Trebek’s passing. Our full review of "Answers in the Form of Questions can be found here.)

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The Maine Edge: First of all, loved the book. You know, it's funny – there have been a couple of efforts, I think, to sort of capture what it's like to be a contestant. I think you did a particularly good job of that. And I imagine that comes from a fair amount of contestant conversations, research and whatnot - how long did that all take? What was the process as far as putting this book together? 

Claire McNear: I have been lucky enough to be on the “Jeopardy!” beat for three or so years now. So I’ve been doing occasional stories – important stories – for that long. The actual book, again, started maybe a year and a half ago, with a really intensive period from November through March basically where I was just on the phone every day with anybody I could talk to.

TME: You talk about it some in the book, but could you maybe talk a little bit about your relationship to the show? 

CM: Yeah. So I'm awful at trivia; kind of my dirty little secret. I've come clean about it, but I love it and I have always been a “Jeopardy!” fan. When my fiance and I moved to Indiana nearly five years ago. And it's got CABLE, right? I had a cable subscription for the first time as an adult and I realized “You know what? We can DVR ‘Jeopardy!’” It just seemed like this like impossibly grown-up thing that you could do, just watch “Jeopardy!” every night and shout out the answers. That got me back into it. But it was something I had watched as a kid, especially with my mom (who was a LOT better at it than me). But yeah, so it just became a thing where I started writing about “Jeopardy!” and started interviewing contestants and interviewing producers and so on. The more you learn about it, the more curious you are to learn more about it. It just kind of spiraled from there and now it's a whole book. 

TME: You talk about talking to all these people – do you have a ballpark number as far as the number of former contestants you chatted with? 

CM: I actually was just trying to figure that out. It’s probably right around 100 that I talked to for the book in some capacity. Not all of them are actually named in the book, which I feel bad about, but at a certain point, you've only got so much room. Otherwise, it’s 8,000 pages long and need a volume two. But yeah, it was a TON of people. And it was important to me to not just talk to like the really famous celebrated champions like Ken Jennings or James Holzhauer or Brad Rutter, but also to talk to people who won a few games 20 years ago or who didn't win at all. Those are all interesting stories. “Jeopardy!” is such a unique beast where people kind of stay in this alumni community – once a “Jeopardy!” contestant, always a “Jeopardy!” contestant. Like Heather Chapman, who I interviewed, just lost terribly. She was the second-biggest loser ever on “Jeopardy!” And she's so active in the “Jeopardy!” community and it's such a big part of her life and and you get it – it's a lovely group of people.

I went to the Trivia Nationals and met all these talented trivia minds. They were collegiate champions of quiz bowl or they won $100,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” And they've got all kinds of real-life professional accolades. Even for those people, “Jeopardy!” is the peak. I found it so interesting because it isn't the hardest trivia, it's not even the hardest game show. There’s more money on other shows. There's more competitive trivia. It's not really the superlative anything – except that everybody wants their shot at it. And that was a really interesting element of it for me because going into it I figured, okay, sure, there are people who love “Jeopardy!”, but it's just one of many things, right? But no. In a trivia community, it really is “Jeopardy!” … and then everything else.

TME: Why do you think that is? Do you think it's just longevity? The fact that so many of us have those kinds of “watching it with our parents” kind of connection to it”

CM: I think that that is definitely a big part of it. I think that there's so much nostalgia. This is in the 37th year of the current version. And everybody, I mean EVERYBODY, knows “Jeopardy!” Everybody has like a “Jeopardy!” memory. Maybe you watched it with your grandparents, maybe you watched it after school with your friends, maybe you watched it in college – people just have such a visceral connection to it. And I think part of it also is that I think related to that is that it just has universal name recognition; everybody knows what “Jeopardy!” is. Whenever you say that you are a contestant, even if you're not like Ken Jennings, right? Like it's not like, oh, I won millions of dollars. You say you're a Jeopardy contestant. People know what that means, right? It's like, oh, this person is smart; it just has this like instant translation that something like going to X college or having Y job doesn't necessarily convey instantly.

There's SO MUCH interest in it. For me, the wake-up call where I started to think about it as maybe a bigger idea that could eventually become a book was when James Holzhauer was on the show in the middle of his run.  I did a feature about the buzzer, just how the buzzer works and how he was really good at it and how that was helping him. And I was like “This is the nerdiest, most niche thing in the world.” It was like 3,000 words – way too long. But I got to talk to Ken Jennings. I talked to a producer or like I talked to actual James Holzhauer. And it blew up. People are just so interested in “Jeopardy!” and the behind-the-scenes stuff; there's this nationwide obsession. 

TME: I’m glad you mentioned the buzzer. There’s a great line in the book – I forget who you attributed it to – but it referred to the show as a reaction-time contest with a trivia element or something along those lines. I thought that was a really apt description of what the show actually is. 

CM: I think that was Fritz Holznagel, who wrote “Secrets of the Buzzer,” the legendary buzzer text. But yeah, I mean, “Jeopardy!” is really testing two things at once. You can be the sharpest trivia mind in the world, but if you can't get the other timing right … and you don't know. You don't know until you're out there on the stage; you get the practice round and that's it. After the race starts – good luck. 

TME: Yeah. It's when the lights come up and it starts. It's like, am I going to be able to do this? 

CM: It's such a remarkable thing for me, having talked to a lot of contestants, I am just progressively more impressed by the more I learn about what it takes and how stressful it is and the kind of fugue state I think a lot of people enter. They're out there for that 22 minutes, but they don’t really remember.

TME: It was really interesting to sit there and watch it and realize, I don't remember ANYTHING. Like you said – and I'm sure I'm not alone – there's just a big blank. There are a couple of moments here and there where it's like, “Oh, I remember this.” But you're watching and it’s like “Wow, I got I got that question. I don't remember hearing that question.”

What was it like to delve into some of the wonkier aspects of the show? Whether it's the contestants or the fandom or stuff like, for instance, I had never heard of a Coryat score before, or the game theory aspects of it. Watching the show with a pen in my hand to click – that was the extent of my prep. 

CM: I think that we're at a really interesting moment with “Jeopardy!” I've heard it compared to “Moneyball” – specifically, right around when Michael Lewis wrote the book. It's like these advanced statistics (and they are advanced statistics) are out there. These tried-and-true, weird wonky techniques are out there and they work a lot of the time. And it's just now becoming common knowledge that this is happening. 

In the old days, like even like five or 10 years ago, I think that most contestants probably did something like what you did.. Maybe you have a pen in your hand when you watch, maybe you like flip through an old compilation of clues. You're just like, “Okay, yeah, I studied for ‘Jeopardy!’ and I’m ready to go.” But now some people devote part of their lives to it, even before they've gotten the call to go on “Jeopardy!” And I think that's becoming more and more the norm. So it is really just an interesting moment for the show where the contestants are kind of semi-professionalizing on their own. 

TME: One of the things that you mentioned, and I hadn't really thought about it, but I think it's a really salient point. Once the show did away with the five-win limit, it opened the door for a cast of characters. You have these figures who travel along with the show as opposed to just, you know, they get their five games, they do a Tournament of Champions, and then they're gone. How do you think that has impacted the show?

CM: I think it was a really savvy move on their part. But even they didn't realize how well it would work. I don't think they ever imagined there would be a Ken Jennings or a James Holzhauer. But I think they were aware of the fact that the audience, you're invested when you're sitting on your couch, you care about who wins this game between the rocket scientist, the teacher and the janitor. And I think that there's a lot of fun in rooting for people and there's a lot of fun in seeing people come back year after year. 

And I think also especially in the last few years with players like Buzzy Cohen or Austin Rogers, there has been this sort of trend of quirky, fun contestants. That’s not to say that previous players were dull, but it's really hard to show personality on “Jeopardy!” because there's just no room. Maybe you make a silly face at the camera at the beginning of the episode. And that's kind of it; otherwise, you're just playing. I think the show realized how much fun it was to have these people who were really good at trivia, but who are also just sort of like having some fun with it. I think they are trying to embrace that. Not at the cost of focusing on that over the actual game play, but I think that's definitely something they look for in contestants now. Are you going to be fun on TV? Like are you going to be somebody our audiences will be excited about? Obviously, a lot of it is still “Do you know your stuff?” But also, you know, if you if you wear crazy suits every day or you can spar a little with Alex, people like it. 

TME: Right. It's a TV show. You have to sort of begin that element of entertainment. And you've got to strike a balance. I feel like the show, especially with the special events, the GOAT tournament, even when the whole Watson thing went down – they seem really open to the idea of focusing on the margins. Like the basic game isn't changing, but the willingness to zhuzh the edges a little bit, I think is admirable, especially for a show that's been on the air for almost 40 years. 

CM: You're right in that the fundamental DNA of “Jeopardy!” is never going to change. There’s going to be 61 questions with escalating values and Daily Doubles; that's not going anywhere ever. But there is this kind of room to just slightly, slightly tweak it and see what happens. 

TME: You obviously spent some time talking to Alex Trebek. You talk about it some in the book and I was just wondering if you would speak to it a little bit here: How important do you think he is to the fact that the show has been so successful for so long?

CM: I think he's absolutely a huge part of it. I mean, if we’re just talking about the fundamental game is such a good game that I think “Jeopardy!” probably succeeds regardless, but yeah, I think that he's just SO GOOD at what he does. He is really good at playing the scholar. And I think that's in large part because he's not playing – he really does know so much of the ridiculous obscure history and other stuff. He thinks that these things are important, which you kind of need on a show like “Jeopardy!” 

But he also has some fun with it, and rightly so. He knows that he to some degree is playing a character and that people like it when he looks sideways at a contestant with a weird hobby or, you know, when he’s disappointed that you don't know this obscure fact about Greece, and he's just so good at balancing those two things. And it really is a difficult act, though he makes it look easy. Without him, I don't that the show is what it is today – or if it even exists today.

(Note: So many in the “Jeopardy!” family are mourning the recent passing of Alex Trebek. I reached out to Claire McNear to ask if she had any thoughts she would like to add following this sad turn of events. Here’s what she had to say:)

“Losing Alex Trebek is an incalculable loss for ‘Jeopardy!’ — both for the show and for the greater ‘Jeopardy!’ community. He was always the first to say that the show would continue long after him, because the game is simply too good to hinge on any single person. To some degree, I think that's true — ‘Jeopardy!’ will certainly go on — but it's so hard to imagine ‘Jeopardy!’ without Trebek. One of the things I was trying to do in the book is look at a show that has proudly not changed much in all its years on the air, but which seemed to have some major change looming in the future. That change has now come far sooner than any of us hoped it would. The show undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of it — the same great writers, producers and crew and the same diehard contestants. But the question is how do you replace the irreplaceable? Which, of course, you can't."

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 November 2020 13:20

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