How Contestant Stories Are Chosen on Jeopardy!
For one fleeting moment, Alex Trebek was drawn into a risqué discussion about sex.
In his 32nd year as host of the syndicated game show Jeopardy!, Trebek took his traditional time out to ask each of his three contestants a question about their personal lives. It’s been a show ritual since 1984, coming directly after the first commercial break, in the middle of the Jeopardy! round.
Quizzing Liz Miles, a doctoral candidate at Yale, Trebek looked at his cards and asked Miles about her university research on Japanese culture.
“Give me just one point about it,” Trebek prompted.
“I think there’s a lot of claims going around that Japanese men don’t have sex,” Miles said. “Am I allowed to say that?”
“Yes!” Trebek said. “I’m all ears now!”
Miles didn’t have much time to elaborate: Contestants are usually given 30 seconds to banter with Trebek before the game resumes. But the exchange left enough of an impression that some viewers were left wondering how these stories come about. Like virtually everything about Jeopardy!, the approach is both highly regimented and often unpredictable.
The quest for a compelling player anecdote begins a month out from taping, Corina Nusu, a senior contestant coordinator with the show, tells mental_floss. “We send them a huge package of documentation via email. Included is an info sheet that asks them to list five interesting facts about themselves.” Nusu also inserts a series of leading questions designed to provoke a good story. Among them:
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done or had done to you?
What’s your most treasured possession?
What’s your secret ambition?
Any brushes with greatness?
These first-date questions can number up to 32, although contestants don’t have to answer every one. From there, Nusu is able to narrow down a list of three or four stories that will be written down and given to Trebek so he can make a final decision during taping.
When show day arrives, Nusu sits down with players to go over their responses and potentially elicit other interesting facts. “People often don’t realize how interesting they are,” Nusu says. “Oh, you know how to eat fire? You should’ve told me that before!”
Nusu also wants to make sure the contestant is ready to elaborate on Trebek’s prompt. “I sit and try to pretend I’m Alex and ask them a question. ‘So, you’ve been skydiving?’ You can’t just say, ‘Yes.’ Tell me you’ve been to the Galapagos Islands and met a cute girl or something. Were you in Poland? Don’t tell me yes, and you had a nice time. Remember to tell me your train got hijacked.”
When Nusu is satisfied players can elaborate, she hands over the cards to Trebek. In addition to the three or four stories, the host can also pull from a contestant’s hometown or occupation, giving him up to six options during taping. Nusu might highlight one she thinks Trebek would like, but the final decision is up to him. “He loves to do correlations between players,” she says. “Maybe they all have the same favorite sports team. He can’t really make those connections if we just give him one story.”
Lately, the show has been getting a lot of tales about entering marathons; a few years ago, it was karaoke. While subjects come in waves, nothing aside from the gruesome is off-limits. “But you probably shouldn’t talk about breaking the law,” Nusu advises.
Trebek also has his topic preferences, but Nusu is wary of revealing them out of concern someone might try to curry favor with the host. “But if someone is in the military, he’ll almost always ask where they served and for how long.”
Returning champions who need more material are usually asked to come back for the next taping with more interesting facts; Nusu will also return to the information sheet to see what else can be discussed.
Sometimes, though not often, Trebek will break away from the cards and ask a more random question. “That’s why I tell contestants to be on their toes,” Nusu says. “We want Alex to riff with them and not have everything come across as super rehearsed.”
Most contestants stick with the story they’re familiar with. Miles, the Yale student who began a discussion of Japanese male sex habits, was technically doing just that. “The card basically said her research focuses on Japanese masculinity,” Nusu says. “Nothing more was really discussed prior. That’s the magic of a conversation with Alex.”