Interview: Ken Jennings
Tomorrow, game show legend Ken Jennings takes on his next televised trivia challenge: facing the 14 questions Terry Crews presents on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Ken took time to sit down with me today to talk about Millionaire, Jeopardy! and cookies.
Hey Ken! How are you?
That’s fantastic! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us here at Buzzer.
Happy to do it.
Excellent. For those of our listeners… readers… viewers—I don’t know what they are anymore—for those of them who have lived under a rock, you are That Guy Who Won A Bunch of Episodes of Jeopardy!. Are you sick and tired of people calling you that?
Oh, that doesn’t really happen in social situations.
I’m pretty used to that idea that no matter what I do for the rest of my life, my tombstone’s going to say, “This guy won a million times on Jeopardy! before he was 30,” So really, it’s all downhill from here.
[Laughs] So, you are going to appear on WWTBAM tomorrow—part of their Guinness World Records week. You used to be the record holder for the most appearances on a game show?
My guess is that I’m probably still the Most Appearances record holder? I don’t know. [Millionaire] called me and said, “We doing this Guinness week and we’re casting a pretty wide net. Do you wanna be on?” Sure! [chuckles] And then, two weeks later, [Millionaire] contacted me and said, “Are you actually in the Guinness Book of World Records?” It turned out I was, like, in the 2010 book, for The Largest Cash Prize Won on a TV Game Show.
I know that pending success on WWTBAM, you will have set the record for the only person to win a million dollars on two different game shows, I believe.
[Laughs] I guess “pending” is a very charitable way to put that. But yeah, I was certainly in a position to do that.
Let’s talk about the differences between your prior success on Jeopardy! and what you experienced on Millionaire. Clearly, they’re two different shows, they’re two different paces. What were the challenges for you in preparing for WWTBAM?
The crucial obvious difference is, on Jeopardy!, you don’t have to answer every question, you know? If you answer every other question, you’re going to be a pretty dominating player. You can also keep your mouth shut. You don’t have to know them all. On Millionaire, really, the emphasis is on not making a single mistake. So, that’s a lot of pressure.
Also, it’s not the kind of show you can study much for. There’s sort of a Jeopardy! canon, I think, of things that everyone expects to hear on Jeopardy!: presidents, Shakespeare and world capitals. Millionaire, there’s a lot more general knowledge—the kind of stuff you can’t really study for. The living-your-life kind of stuff about what’s in the zeitgeist right now. It’s tricky to prepare for.
I think we have, somewhere on record, you said that success on Jeopardy! is on the buzzer. Since there’s no buzzer on Millionaire, what do you think is the key to success to winning a million dollars on Millionaire?
I don’t want to make it sound like anybody who has a fast thumb can go on Jeopardy!, because it also helps to know the answer. On any given night, since all three of the Jeopardy! people passed a very hard audition to be there, often the deciding factor is going to be the timing. There really is no timing angle on Millionaire, but there is keeping a cool head. There’s a lot more pressure—all eyes are on you. You’re not behind one of three identical podiums, you’re really sort of in the spotlight. Everyone’s sort of analyzing your thinking, and the host is trying to prod you to analyze your thinking. So it’s really about keeping a cool head and making it between you and the question—”Can I figure this out? Can I get to the bottom of why this question exists and why it was written like this and why it was phrased that way?”—despite all the distractions around you.
You touched a bit on the host. What do you think of Terry as a host—Terry Crews, of Brooklyn Nine Nine?
I was pretty excited to meet him, you know? I really like him on Brooklyn Nine Nine—what is this guy really like? The answer is: he’s really like he is on Brooklyn Nine Nine, actually. He’s really like—that sort of very genuine enthusiasm, this excitement for everything going around him, especially in terms of Millionaire, where he’s around people playing the game and winning money. He’s very genuinely on their side and he wants to see them do well more than anyone, you know? I almost think I have not seen a game show host like that before who’s so clearly a stand-in for the audience and the player’s family. You don’t get that with Trebek. He’s not gonna jump up and down like a Price is Right contestant if you get a hard Daily Double.
You might see a corner of his mouth go up a tiny bit, or a slightly cocked eyebrow. With Terry Crews, there’s, like, hugs and stuff.
Did Terry Crews give you a hug, and if so, how much did it hurt?
Did Terry Crews give me a hug?
Yes. Very urgent question.
He’s actually, surprisingly a gentle hugger, you know? You can tell he really cares about the wants and needs of the person that he’s in that hug with. I thought he was a very considerate hugger. 10 out of 10, definitely would hug again.
Good to know. That’ll be the pull quote. This season, WWTBAM bought in a brand new lifeline called Plus One. For those who don’t watch regularly, It’s kind of like Phone-a-Friend, except we save on collect calls by having them in studio with you. What was the challenge in picking the right person for that for you?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve been asked by people to be their Plus One before. I think people have this idea, “Oh, this guy’s was on Jeopardy!, he must know everything!” Furthest thing from true. But I think I’m a lot of people’s idea of who they would get to be their Plus One. Who watches the Watchmen? Who’s the Plus One’s Plus One? I thought about a lot of people. I didn’t want to fly somebody across the country. It really had to be somebody who wants to hang out in Stamford, CT on a Saturday afternoon, probably someone from the area, someone who’s into game shows. I had a lot of interesting people in mind, but I really wanted someone who was not just really good at game shows—you know, I feel like I’m pretty solid at game shows, not to toot my own horn—I don’t want someone who can just answer a bunch of Jeopardy! questions. I’m good at that. I really need someone who’s strong in the stuff that I don’t know, you know? I’ll try to find the opposite of me. If I’m not great at celebrity pregnancies or something, who knows all the celebrity baby names or whatever it is? So it was sort of this weird sort of psychological operation trying to find somebody who could be good at Millionaire, but like totally different in from the way I hoped I would be good.
You’ve got—if I’m not mistaken, I know you have at least two full books under your belt. One of which, I appear in, which, thank you, now I can talk to people at parties. Do you have any more books, kind of on your hard drive, getting ready to be published?
Oh, yeah. I’m actually a children’s book author now. I write these Junior Genius Guides of amazing facts for kids, sort of channeling my inner 10-year-old reading the Guinness Book of World Records and bugging mom and dad with facts, which is what I was doing at that age. There’s one about Greek mythology, and one about space, and there’s a couple more coming out, actually. The Human Body comes out in a couple months, Ancient Egypt sometime next year, and I still have to finish up dinosaurs. That’s actually what I’m working on this afternoon. I’m trying to learn as much about dinosaurs as every 10-year-old in America, which is a pretty tall order.
When I was 10, I knew everything I could possibly know about dinosaurs, and when I turned 11, I forgot it instantly, so you have your work cut out for you.
Yeah, you know, kids usually have this, like, two-month dinosaur binge, and weirdly, I didn’t have that. So I’m really trying to play catch up.
So, you have two children, and they have seen you on TV a whole lot. Do they obsess about game shows like you did when you were a kid?
Um, they actually do, especially my son. It’s not DNA or anything; it’s just because they saw me on Jeopardy!. My 11-year-old son is convinced he’s the heir apparent to go on Jeopardy! like it’s a hereditary title. He wants to watch it every night. I’m just like, “Ah! Dylan, turn that off.” You know, I love Jeopardy! but hearing that music or hearing Trebek’s Canadian accent or whatever, it’s really just—bang, it puts me right back there, and I really tense up. I always have, like, stress flashbacks when I hear Jeopardy! music, so I always get him to change the channel, and he’s always like, “Well, when you’re out of town, Mom lets us watch Jeopardy!” There’s a war going on in my house with the remote control.
If there was one game show that you could appear on, that you haven’t been on, at any point in time, at any point in the world, what would it be?
The funny thing is, my answer would have totally been Millionaire. In 1999, I was the guy calling the phone line every day trying to get on, and I never got a call back. I loved the show so much. That was the show that made me realize, “Wait, you can try out for a game show! These are real people! Some of them I know who are going on these shows!” I would have never tried out for Jeopardy! without that Millionaire experience. It’s funny—every time I met Regis thereafter, in an interview or whatever, he would always get on my case. [in an enthusiastic but bad Regis impression] “Ken, why didn’t you come on Millionaire?! You’re on Jeopardy!, you took 66 shows to win a million dollars. On my show, you could’ve earned that in an hour!” He always gave me a hard time for not going on Millionaire. I guess now that I’ve been on my other favorite game show… for me, it’d have to be Family Feud. I never missed the Feud as a kid. I remember when my little sister was born, I was so happy because now we were a five-person family, and now we could go on the Feud. I was super excited, but it never actually happened. Maybe one of these days, they’ll have me on, hopefully if Steve Harvey’s still there.
That is the main reason I’m getting married, just so I can rope people in to get on the Feud with me.
I’m just trying to pull up some random questions that our readers have submitted, and I’m trying to get the ones that aren’t absurd, like, um, can I borrow twenty dollars—
Oh, I’ll take that one first. I would like to take that one first.
Oh, OK. Ken Jennings, can—
Ugh, dammit. Check. Let’s see, we have a little bit of time left. So, here’s a reader question we have: What is your favorite kind of cookie?
I hate my readers so much. What is your favorite kind of cookie, Ken?
That’s actually a fair question, a hard-hitting question that nobody else has asked me.
Well, there you go.
I like chocolate chip. Maybe it’s a boring answer? But, I really am picky about chocolate chip cookies, like they gotta be soft in the middle and a little bit soft on the edges. It’s gotta be dark chocolate, not milk chocolate chips. I’m very picky about chocolate chip cookies. I am more than happy to talk about chocolate chip cookies for another half an hour, but I’m sure that’d be boring.
Actually, I could talk about chocolate chip cookies for a while longer because I don’t like crispy chocolate chip cookies. I love chocolate chip cookies, but the ones that are just—they have too much bite against them, really bother me.
That’s the thing with those—they would have been perfect 45 seconds before you pulled them out of the oven. They were so close, and you screwed it up.
Do you prefer your chocolate chip cookies warmer or colder?
Um, I don’t know—I know for sure I don’t like it when they fall apart. So, I’m not really a fan of the really warm mall chocolate chip cookie. Honestly, I think room temperature is just right.
Sara from Mantua, NJ will be glad to hear that. Couple follow up questions, one from former Millionaire contestant Josh Eldridge. He wants to know if you think the American quizzing culture is getting anywhere close to what it is in the United Kingdom, and if you think that’s a good or bad thing. The UK quiz circuit is, at this point, churning out professional quiz players who are making some kind of decent supplementary income just being a quizzer. Do you think that’s now in America or in the cards for America?
I feel like we’ve never been closer. At least now, there are people who are aware of this and talking about this. “Why doesn’t the US have a better quiz culture? Why don’t we have the same hard quiz shows they do?” People are actually talking about this now, which is good, and I feel like there’s more people trying to make this happen. I went to the Trivia Championships that Paul Bailey and Tony Hightower run every summer in Las Vegas, TCONA, and it’s so much fun, there’s hundreds of like-minded people. I realized, there are so many people who would have so much fun at this if they knew about it. There hasn’t been a chance for that to happen in America until now. It’s on the map.
Ken Jennings’ run on Millionaire starts on Friday, November 14. Check your local listings.