I Guess SNL Will Need Someone To Play Mayim Bialik Soon
Celebrity Jeopardy Comes To Primetime This Fall. It Might Be Fun. It Won’t Be Pretty.
Usually when I write a column about Jeopardy it’s usually to gush about a great contestant or rave about the level of play. Unfortunately on this occasion, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the most recent news about Jeopardy.
While announcing their upcoming fall schedule, ABC announced that they would have several primetime celebrity led Jeopardy events, all to be hosted by Mayim Bialik. I’ll admit this is hardly a surprise. Ratings for Jeopardy have jumped during this coming season; like all networks trying to deal with ratings declines across the board, ABC is trying to add some major live events and ABC has a fairly successful history with other celebrity game shows in recent years: To Tell The Truth and Family Feud have had notable success, so have Supermarket Sweep and until the recent controversies surrounding Alec Baldwin, Match Game and Wheel of Fortune has had its share of celebrity showings recently.
So the fact that Jeopardy, which starting in 1992 had an annual celebrity Tournament, is now moving to join the prime time lineup seems less a surprise and more of inevitability. Why then do I view it with trepidation?
Anyone who grew up watching Saturday Night Live during the 1990s is familiar with their recurring sketches about Celebrity Jeopardy featuring Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek. Such sketches usually featured Darrell Hammond as a profane Sean Connery, Norm MacDonald as a filthy minded Burt Reynolds and a variation on the third contestant which depending who was hosting. (Personal favorites of mine include David Duchovny as Jeff Goldblum and Ben Stiller as Tom Cruise.) Ferrell, whose work I’ve never particularly admired that much, portrayed Trebek as often disdainful and insulting of the competitors, though to be fair given how badly Connery and Reynolds treated him, it’s hard to blame him. There were also two overwhelming trends: the clues were incredibly easy and the celebrities were incredibly stupid. We never saw the scores for any of the games, but as Trebek would list them, they were overwhelmingly negative. (I believe in one case going into Double Jeopardy, Connery was at -$11,200.)
To be clear, both Trebek and the show took this in good fun. After he shaved his mustache, Alex joked he’d done it so that Ferrell could impersonate him more easily. (Ferrell kept the mustache years after the fact, though.) The show also paid tribute to the sketches by featuring SNL Celebrity Jeopardy as a category and on at least two occasions, making actual categories of the satiric ones SNL used for a game board. (They include: STATES THAT END WITH –AMPSHIRE, SOUNDS CATS MAKE, and TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE WORD THAT RHYMES WITH STAR.) And while I often found the sketches funny, I might have enjoyed them for a different reason. Unlike a lot of their sketches where they lampoon things beyond belief, the Saturday Night Live parodies of Celebrity Jeopardy were a little too close to the real thing.
Granted on its celebrity shows Jeopardy never had Sean Connery or Burt Reynolds compete, but as someone who watched Celebrity Tournaments during my formative years, I frequently considered them the nadir of the Jeopardy season. (Around 2002, I finally stopped watching them altogether; they were just too painful to get any pleasure out of.) And while no one on these tournaments ever did as poorly as -$11,000, I have to say, it was rarely for lack of trying. So many of these celebrity games would end up with at least two full categories unselected in Double Jeopardy, and at least one contestant in the negative. During Celebrity games, unlike for us mere mortals, Jeopardy gave what would be considered a ‘mercy’ rule and allowed competitors who were in the hole have a $1000 so that they could compete in Final Jeopardy. Much of the time this often just led to further indignities in Final Jeopardy.
And while the clues were never as easy as they were often portrayed on SNL, I have to tell you, the lion’s share of them were the kind of clues that competitors in Teen Tournaments of that era could have managed to sweep the board with little trouble. There is usually publicity to say that celebrities are just like the rest of us. Well, they certainly weren’t like the lion’s share of contestants who end up winning one game on Jeopardy, much less winning Tournaments.
At one point, during the high point of Ken Jennings run, I actually drafted out a satiric SNL sketch where Burt Reynolds and Sean Connery were competing against Ken Jennings ‘because he is now legally obligated to play in every match.’ Connery and Reynolds were at -9000 or -$10,000 apiece, and Jennings was at $27,000 going into Double Jeopardy. (I’m not sure who I would have cast is Jennings, though at that time he might have been willing to play himself.) The sketch was on a hard drive that has long been lost, so I don’t remember any of the details. I do remember one line ‘Trebek’ said: “Never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually glad you’re here, Ken.”
(I should mention that particular line may have reflected my ambivalence towards Jennings at the time, who I thought was making the series monotonous. It was not until the Ultimate Tournament of Champions and the beginning of his fifteen year rivalry with Brad Rutter that I truly began to appreciate and admire everything Jennings has done and will do for the series.)
To be fair to Jeopardy, no movie star on the level of Connery or Reynolds ever showed up to humiliate themselves the way they were portrayed on SNL. To be fair to SNL an enormous of television stars did and more than justified the supposition that film stars wouldn’t be any smarter. And that’s before you consider all of the cable news anchors and pundits who you’d think their position would give them some insight into the world that Jeopardy inhabits. If anything, I’m kind of stunned that SNL, given its obsession with cable news, never had Tucker Carlson, Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper appear on its Celebrity Jeopardy, considering how badly they disgraced themselves on the ‘Power Players Weeks’ the show has done over the years. And yet, even they never quite humiliated themselves the way Bob Woodward did when he couldn’t answer a question about All the President’s Men. (To be fair, Jane Seymour couldn’t answer how followed Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s next wife. Sometimes you just can’t ring in fast enough.)
Now that I’ve gone through all the reasons why Celebrity Jeopardy is often humiliating for anyone who likes Jeopardy (though maybe fun for those who like watching celebrities be idiots), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there have been quite a few celebrities who have not only not disgraced themselves, but had they ever been in a position to play the actual game, might have done very well. Much like with its returning champions, Jeopardy has invited celebrities who do well in the past to compete for more money (all for charities, in case you’d forgotten) and each time, they also make the clues a bit more difficult. By the time of the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational in 2010, many of the celebrities were asking clues that would not be out of place in a Jeopardy tournament for ‘regular’ people. And some of them were ones you never expect. Many did well on one shot appearance, such as Jon Stewart, Bob Costas, and in one very memorable occasion on the first tournament Luke Perry. But for this article, I’ll focus on four who did extraordinarily well on multiple appearances:
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked that this NBA All-Star was one of the Best Jeopardy players; he is outspoken and has written quite a bit, fiction and non-fiction. But I’ll admit, the first time I saw him in 1993, I thought Larry King would clean his clock. (It was not the first time I thought someone from CNN would be able to thrash a comedian or an athlete.)
To be clear, Kareem’s height is so great that every time he buzzes in, the camera can’t fit his podium in the shot, and you sometimes forget who well he’s doing. But in his four appearances on the show, he has demonstrated a wide range of knowledge and has a tendency to showoff in a way that sometimes the best Jeopardy players do. A prime example came in Final Jeopardy in a match against sports legends Martina Navratilova and Reggie Jackson (who’d he dominated the same way his Lakers did the NBA in the 1980s)
The category was LEGENDARY PEOPLE: “He lived with his girlfriend, a fat priest and a 7-foot tall archer.” Kareem knew the correct response was Robin Hood, but he wrote down: “What is Robin of Locksley?” Robin’s official title. He had showed off and won $22,000 for his charity Athletes and Entertainers for Kids. Like the best Jeopardy players, he likes to have fun winning.
Just because SNL parodies Jeopardy doesn’t mean that it can’t provide great Jeopardy players. There have been some very good ones over the years (in fact, there’s another one on this list) Indeed, one of the very first Not Ready For Prime Time Players managed to show advanced skill under great pressure during the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational back in 2009.
Playing well against Isaac Mizrahi (himself a skilled Jeopardy player) she managed to sweep towards the first round. In a match against Harry Shearer and Pat Sajak, also skilled players, she managed to come out ahead in games that managed to clear the board. (It is rare to see that happen in a Celebrity Game, it happened in most of the ones in that Tournament.) And because she manage to play well against two of the other greatest Celebrity Jeopardy contestants (who I’m going to get below) she should well be considered one of the greatest.
Watching him over the years, I’ve thought either the stoner comedy he’s been doing for the first half of his career was an act or he was Einstein before the 1950s. Because make no mistake Cheech could play quite a few Jeopardy champions under the table. It’s been apparent since one of the very first celebrity games in 1992 when he flattened a shocked Steven Weber and Alan Rachins, and he’s kept on doing it ever since even as the questions kept getting harder. Here’s one he got correct in 1998:
“Category for which James Tobin, Gary Becker and Milton Friedman all won Nobel Prizes.” I don’t think there are a lot of people who would have known it was Economics, but Marin did.
He played two extremely tight matches to win a spot in the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational and might have very well been able to win the whole Tournament had he not misread the Game 1 clue about Moby Dick (he knew the answer, but thought the clue referred to Melville which he wrote down.) I mention that because he knew the response to the Game 2 Final, which I have to tell you, I did not.
The category was MIDDLE EAST COUNTRIES: “In 1949, this kingdom dropped the word ‘Trans’ from the beginning of its name.” Marin was the only one who knew the answer: “What is Jordan?”
Alex has often said that good things happen to Jeopardy champions, and while you think that wouldn’t necessarily be the case for celebrities, it was for Marin. As he mentioned in an interview in the 1998 appearance, he said that his doing so well led to getting him a different type of role that he’d been used to in the past. And indeed, he landed a more serious role in the series Nash Bridges not long after and managed to get decent roles in Desperado and other Robert Rodriguez films later on. Makes you wonder would happen if Tommy Chong got invited?
Here’s a scary fact: Michael McKean is now the only undefeated player in Jeopardy history. That doesn’t sound right. The man best known for being half of Lenny and Squiggy has a better track record on Jeopardy then Ken Jennings? And yet a man who had two rather undistinguished (though not due to his own work years on SNL) and has been known for playing dim bulbs on Laverne and Shirley and This is Spinal Tap belied his image to be one of the great Jeopardy players of his time.
Actually that’s not giving him enough credit, considering one of the players he routed in the Celebrity Invitational was none other than Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Then in his semi-final he played in one of the greatest games I’ve ever watched — no, I’m not limited that to only Celebrity games — against Isaac Mizrahi and Charles Shaughnessy. There was only one mistake in the Jeopardy round and one in the Double Jeopardy round — very few games have that level of competitiveness. It was exciting from start to finish and Michael managed to assure his win by taking the lead on a Daily Double on the last clue of Double Jeopardy. And he managed to show off a little in Final Jeopardy as well.
The category was OFFICIAL STATE SONGS: “In 1953, it became the only state whose official song was written for a Broadway Musical.” Michael wrote down: “What is Oklahoma!” which is both how the song and the musical it was named for were titled.
Michael managed to win, part by skill and part by luck the finals against Jane Curtin and Cheech Marin, and all the while he was completely self-effacing about what he was doing. Throughout his appearances, he kept saying: “But I know nothing!” and after the victory in the tournament when Alex mentioned: “He has never lost on Jeopardy.” McKean said: “Well, there’s always tomorrow.”
Added bonus: Michael also managed to win a game of the VH-1 spinoff Rock and Roll Jeopardy. Something else Ken Jennings never did.
In hindsight, there actually have been some pretty good celebrity players over the years. In addition to some of the ones I’ve mentioned in passing, Robin Quivers, Neil Patrick Harris and Christopher Meloni have all more than distinguished themselves over the years. (Regis Philbin, who made three appearance, didn’t really in any of them, and I’ve often wondered if that was in the part the impetus for him to host Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? when it debuted in 1999. Maybe he wanted to prove his gravitas as a game show host while giving a million dollars for knowing Richard Nixon appeared on Laugh-In.)
At the end of the day, is more Celebrity Jeopardy a bad thing or not? It will, as it is for every tournament, depend on the quality of the celebrities. Given the proliferation of movie stars to TV over the last twenty years, Jeopardy might actually be able to get some of them to appear on celebrity tournaments. And considering that over their history some of the least likely celebrities have played far better than more serious ones, some of the matches might be entertaining less for the humiliation factor than for the intellectual factors. We’ll have to wait and see. As a side note, don’t start trying to book Joey Lawrence or Jim Parsons for the best group. It would be a little too uncomfortable for the hostess.