Q: This beloved, Merv Griffin-created game show attracts 25 million viewers per week.
A: What is Jeopardy!?
Since 1984, millions of viewers have spent their weeknights having their brain cells challenged by legendary game show host Alex Trebek. But there was a time—and another time, and one other time—when questions swirled around Jeopardy!'s survival. Let's go behind the scenes of the Emmy Award-winning game show.
1. Jeopardy! contestants didn’t always have to wait until Alex Trebek was done speaking to buzz in.
During Alex Trebek's first season, contestants could buzz in to answer the question as soon as the answer was revealed, giving the advantage to fast readers. And that’s why they changed it.
2. Knowing the buzzer system is almost as important as knowing your trivia in Jeopardy!.
Possessing a vast store of knowledge is just half of the battle at Jeopardy! Contestants also need to know the nuances of buzzing in. They’re only allowed to hit the buzzer after Alex finishes reading the question, and there’s an indicator light that tells them when it’s safe. Too slow and the competition will get in first; too fast and there’s a quarter-second penalty.
3. Jeopardy! contestants stay busy during commercial breaks.
During the first break, they get to listen as Alex and announcer Johnny Gilbert run through any necessary re-recordings—clips to replace any instances where they coughed, stuttered, or mispronounced something. The production team also gives contestants a pep talk and addresses any buzzer issues, like a contestant repeatedly buzzing in too soon. On the second break, challengers get their picture taken with Alex and everyone gets a refresher on how "Double Jeopardy" works. Finally, the third break is when contestants are asked to start planning out their strategic wagers.
4. Jeopardy! contestants aren’t sure which personal story Alex is going to ask them to talk about.
To prepare for the brief chat with Alex that happens after the first commercial break, players give contestant coordinators a number of interesting anecdotes to choose from. The coordinators choose their top three favorites. After that, it’s ultimately left up to Alex to choose which one he wants to ask contestants to elaborate on.
5. When other Jeopardy! contestants appear to be ignoring the one telling a personal story, it’s not because they’re being rude.
Jeopardy! contestant Arthur Chu explained that contestants are actually advised by producers to ignore the other contestants’ personal stories and concentrate on their game instead.
6. Wagering $69 is against Jeopardy! rules—as is bidding $666.
There are five banned wagers on the show, including the obvious $69 and $666. Wagering $14, $88, and $1488 are also banned due to their white supremacist connotations.
7. Jeopardy! fans created an online database that includes almost every question ever asked.
8. Alex Trebek knows he sometimes sounds like a disappointed dad.
He intends to. "I know that 'You've disappointed daddy' is a tone I'm striking," Trebek told New York magazine. "It's also, 'How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.'"
9. Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak once switched roles.
On April 1st, 1997, Trebek and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak switched hosting gigs as part of an April Fools' Day lineup.
10. Wheel of Fortune is considered Jeopardy’s sister show.
The April Fools’ Day switcheroo the hosts pulled makes sense since the shows, both created by Merv Griffin, are “sisters.” And there have been some lucky contestants who've had the chance to compete on both.
11. Not every game of Jeopardy! ends with a winner.
Occasionally, all three contestants wager everything in Final Jeopardy and end up losing it all. In the rare case that it happens, there is no winner. Three new contestants are then chosen for the next game. The last time this happened was in 2016.
12. Jeopardy! doesn’t know what will happen if all three contestants have $0 or negative values after Double Jeopardy.
“The Jeopardy! rule book is not a gilt-edged tome bound in Moroccan leather,” the website says. “It’s a living document which states that: 'In the event all three contestants have $0 (zero) or minus amounts at the end of ‘Double Jeopardy!,' no Final Jeopardy! round would be played.” However, that leaves producers with around three minutes of empty time to fill, and they aren’t quite sure how they would do that—although the website speculates that the final question would be shared just for the viewers’ enjoyment.
13. Nearly 14,000 Jeopardy! clues are written each season.
Each season, 13,800 Jeopardy! clues are written, including the 230 Final Jeopardy! clues. This impressive feat is achieved by a staff of eight researchers and eight writers plus a head writer.
14. Moving down the game board by category may be the smartest way to play Jeopardy!
The show recommends moving methodically down the board by category. It was the method Jeopardy! GOAT (and Mental Floss quiz master) Ken Jennings employed. “It's easier to follow at home, and it also helps players acclimate to a category before getting to the really hard clues,” Jennings told Mental Floss.
15. “The Forrest Bounce” is a thing. Watson the IBM Computer used it.
Contrary to Jennings’s love of the linear method, another technique dubbed “The Forrest Bounce” has become popular. In 1985, a contestant named Chuck Forrest wildly careened around the board with no apparent rhyme or reason to the categories or dollar amounts he was choosing. But there was a method to the madness: Unpredictability. If you can throw your opponents off guard, you have an advantage. There’s clearly some truth in that theory, because Watson was programmed to do the Forrest Bounce.
16. “Daily Double Hunting” is another hot Jeopardy! strategy.
The bottom two rows of the board are the most likely to contain Daily Doubles, and whoever gets the most Daily Doubles is the most likely to win the game. “That's just statistical analysis,” Arthur Chu told us. “I figured I had no reason not to do that.” Watson was also programmed to hunt Daily Doubles.
17. The lowest score in Jeopardy! History is -$6800.
The record was attained by Stephanie Hull, who chalked up her lackluster performance to other players getting the Daily Doubles, and her own incorrect answers to $2000 questions, which she chose in an attempt to close the gap. Fellow contestant Brad also ended in the negatives, so only one person went into Final Jeopardy during Hull's game—the first time that had ever happened.
18. Players who end in the red don’t have to pay the money back.
In fact, they still win money: Second place gets $2000, while third-place receives $1000. “It paid for the trip to L.A,” Hull reported.
19. Celebrity-wise, Wolf Blitzer was the worst Jeopardy! player.
During his stint on Celebrity Jeopardy!, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer hit -$4600 during the Double Jeopardy round. Because it was all to benefit charity, Trebek—and, OK, probably the show's producers—graciously wiped out the debt and spotted Blitzer $1000 so he could participate in Final Jeopardy.
20. There's a phrase for when all three Jeopardy! contestants get a question wrong.
When all three players miss a question, they call it a triple stumper. One of the most famous examples was when a trio of contestants missed every question in a category about football. When they reached the $1000 question, Alex deadpanned, “If you guys ring in and get this one, I will die.” Luckily, he was safe: No one answered correctly.
21. Alex Trebek once opened a Tournament of Champions episode wearing no pants.
Trebek said he dropped trou to put the stressed contestants at ease, then quickly walked offstage to put his pants on after it was revealed that the contestants hadn’t followed his lead. (It was all in good fun.)
22. Alex Trebek plans to end his Jeopardy! run “on a whim.”
In 2019, Trebek was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer—but he has stated that he has no particular plans to quit his day job. When it eventually does happen, he’ll decide “on a whim, on that particular day,” he told Michael Strahan. “It would be the same as when I shaved my mustache,” he said. “I will speak to Harry [Friedman, the show’s executive producer], we'll speak to Clay [Jacobsen], our director, and tell him, ‘Give me 30 seconds at the end of the program.”
23. Jeopardy! Tournament contestants get to pick a movie to watch in the green room.
Jeopardy! Legend Arthur Chu spilled some of his more obscure show facts to us several years ago, including that Tournament of Champions participants get choose a movie to watch in the green room while they were waiting for their turn to play. This is so they can’t hear what’s going on in the studio. The DVDs are carefully vetted in advance to ensure they contain no information that’s going to be on the upcoming Jeopardy! board. Smart! But the Jeopardy! team notes that this is something they do during for tournaments only; on normal tape days, contestants aren't sequestered in the green room—they watch from the audience.
24. The answer to a missed question was once right in front of a contestant’s face.
In 2014, Sandie Baker was up against this answer from the Signs & Symbols category: "Meant to evoke a person with arms outstretched & pointed downward, it was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom." The answer was the peace sign—the symbol on the earrings she was wearing. But don’t feel too bad for Sandie: She still ended up winning the game with $26,600.
25. Showrunners don’t expect big reactions from winners.
The Price is Right, this is not. Despite the fortune and occasional fame that comes with winning Jeopardy!, contestant coordinators know that they’re dealing with “the nation’s smartest academics, tech geeks, and librarians ... generally introverts, in other words,” Jennings says. “So they lower their expectations and just ask winners for big smiles.”
26. Mental Floss helped one contestant win more than $22,000.
In 2012, contestant Erik Dresner picked up the now-extinct print version of Mental Floss magazine to read on a flight on L.A. to tape his Jeopardy! episode. When Final Jeopardy rolled around, Dresner was $5400 behind his nearest competitor. Luckily, the question about modern opera was answered in the very issue of Mental Floss he had grabbed at the airport. (You can read Dresner's story in his own words here—and see his Jeopardy!- and Mental Floss-inspired tattoo.)
27. Producers take the secrecy behind each episode seriously.
Winners have to be extremely mum about where they are, which means fibbing to family, friends and co-workers. This gets pretty tricky when you’re a repeat winner—as Jennings well knows. He recorded 48 shows before his first episode aired, so it became pretty suspicious when he was missing from work every other Tuesday and Wednesday for months on end. “My boss told my co-workers a series of increasingly implausible lies about my whereabouts every other Tuesday and Wednesday,” Jennings wrote on his website. “You think computer programmers are all geniuses? No one ever caught on.”
28. Jeopardy! has been canceled—twice.
The future of Jeopardy! has been in question on more than one occasion and the show has officially been canceled—twice! The first time was in 1975, when NBC decided they wanted to appeal to a younger female demographic. Then they brought it back for a mere six months in 1978. It wasn’t until the 1984 revival with Alex Trebek at the helm that the show finally achieved the longevity it’s known for today.
29. Jeopardy! aired at 2 a.m. in some major markets.
Some station managers weren’t convinced that Trebek’s brainy Jeopardy! was going to bring in a significant amount of viewers. Believing it would do poorly, several major markets, including New York, slotted the show into a 2 a.m. time slot where low viewership was to be expected.
30. Alex Trebek watches himself on Jeopardy! (Almost) every night.
Yes, Trebek loves watching Jeopardy! just as much as the rest of us... unless the Lakers are playing, of course.
31. Think you could be a contestant? You can now take the Jeopardy! test online whenever you want.
Until February 2020, Jeopardy! opened up the online test for potential contestants during certain times of the year. Now, in addition to those date-specific tests, wannabe Jeopardy! champs can also take the Anytime Test once a year.
32. There’s an app that lets you play Jeopardy! wherever you are.
If you don’t make the cut after taking the online test, you can still play. The Drivetime app offers a voice-based, hands-free version of Jeopardy! that’s ideal for playing in the car. The app add-on provides questions and answers from the first 35 seasons, with audio from Alex Trebek and a multiple-choice answer option. But that's not the only way to play the game on your own: Jeopardy! has mobile games, video games, books and beyond (many of which can be found here).