Back in January, longtime “Jeopardy!” executive producer Harry Friedman did something he never had in two decades of running the show: He called a contestant on the phone.
Normally, that’s strictly against the rules — but Friedman had a good reason to break protocol. He knew that night, America would see Ken Jennings win the “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament. He also knew that Jennings, who became a franchise icon with his 74-game winning streak in 2004, had vowed that would be his last appearance as a contestant. And Friedman, who was set to retire in May, didn’t want to let Jennings just walk away from the iconic quiz show.
“He said, ‘Hey, we’ve been talking, and if you’re serious about being retired from ‘Jeopardy!,’ would you want to come aboard? Like, move to the front office?’ “ Jennings recalled in a phone interview. “That was nice, because I was kind of already missing the show.” (And no, he also can’t believe that the tournament aired before the pandemic shut everything down. “Who knew that the GOAT tournament would be the last thing in human history textbooks?” he joked.)
So that’s how Jennings officially joined the staff of “Jeopardy!” — which debuted its 37th season Monday — as a consulting producer. His new responsibilities include what he calls a “vague portfolio”: contestant outreach, consultations about clue writing, appearing in video clues (his first one airs Tuesday) and just generally being an ambassador for the show, which he has already been doing informally.
“I’ve been watching for 36, 37 years, so I have the fan’s point of view, and I have the contestant’s point of view; I’ve played more hours of ‘Jeopardy!’ than anybody on the planet,” said Jennings, 46. “So I thought: I’m probably going to be doing this type of stuff for free anyway, why not get on the payroll?”
As with most Hollywood productions, the show stopped filming in the spring because of the novel coronavirus, so fans missed out on eight weeks of new episodes — not bad, considering, but still a disappointment for viewers who watch it religiously every night. Jennings calls “Jeopardy!” the ultimate comfort food, which is something especially valuable in a time of pure chaos.
“It’s a little slice of normality every night for half an hour,” Jennings said. “Every time you see ‘Jeopardy!,’ you’re in some timeless space where you’re reminded of all the other times you saw it and how you used to watch it with Grandma, or watch it in the dorm in college, whatever it is. It’s real continuity in our culture, and there’s not much of that, especially nowadays.”
The show is back to filming in the studio — but with strict pandemic-related precautions, including only a very small crew on site, refitting the set so there’s more space between contestants and no studio audience. Host Alex Trebek’s health is also obviously a priority; he was diagnosed last year with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Jennings said he heard that no one was saddened more by the unexpected pandemic hiatus than Trebek.
“Despite battling cancer and being 80 years old, he could not wait to get back to work,” Jennings said. “ ‘Jeopardy!’ still tapes five shows in a day. That’s a long and grueling day … and Alex just thrives on it, from what I hear. He’s having good days and bad days, but he can still do the job and enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, millions of viewers will also be thrilled to have the distraction of “Jeopardy!” back, especially as everything (TV, social media, the country) starts to become more election-centric than ever. Miraculously, “Jeopardy!” may be the one bipartisan thing we have left in our culture.
“You think it would be the post office or national parks or public airwaves, but then all those things have been politicized,” Jennings said dryly. “But ‘Jeopardy!’ has been studiously apolitical, and I think not by design, but just by the strength of the format, it’s enormously popular with both Americas. Nobody has a bad thing to say about ‘Jeopardy!’
“I think that’s good,” he added, “because it does represent this half-hour every night where, actually, questions have answers, and correct answers, and facts matter. That’s important to have some universally agreed-upon outpost of that on the airwaves.”