The question: What is "Jeopardy!"?
Who thought up this quiz show that's totally on the up and up? The ex-wife of former talk show host Merv Griffin. And the rest is history. Last fall, Correspondent Ed Bradley reported on the most watched quiz show in television history.
Alex Trebek, the show's current host, wasn't there from the start in 1964. Art Fleming was the original host of the weekday, lunchtime broadcast that aired successfully on NBC for more than a decade. The show was even praised in the U.S. Senate for its educational contributions.
But Jeopardy! proved too smart for the '70s, disappearing from the airwaves in 1975, only to reemerge in 1984 in a revamped syndicated form, now distributed by King World, which is owned by the same company that owns CBS.
The only major change in the show was Trebek, its new host and producer. "There was a time in the first three years of the show when I produced it as well as hosted," he says. "They weren't paying me very much when I started on Jeopardy!"
But Trebek makes a lot more now, and the show has given away more than $50 million over the 20 years he's hosted it.
Nearly a million-and-a-half of those dollars have been pocketed by Ken Jennings, the Utah know-it-all who shattered every Jeopardy! record during his unprecedented 38-day streak. And now, Jennings will return to the airwaves on Monday.
Back in 1990, when the rules limited contestants to only five days of play, the record-holder was Frank Spangenberg, a police officer from Flushing, N.Y. "The first five days was $102,597. Which was a record that lasted up until this year, as a matter of fact," says Spangenberg, who was able to buy a house with his winnings.
But he says there was some strange publicity, including a photo of him on the front page of the New York Post: "One third of the front page was my smiling face, with a little caption, 'See page three inside.' But two-thirds of the page is an unrelated headline, so there I am, smiling away, next to 'Ivy League Crack Dealer!' More than one friend of mine called me and said, 'I was walking past the newsstand and said, 'My God, he's in trouble!' No, it's not me, I'm not the 'Ivy League crack dealer.'"
So how do you get to play on Jeopardy!?
You have to pass a timed, 50-question written test which is given in different cities across the country. And then, you have to pass muster with Maggie Speeks. Her title is contestant coordinator, but she's more like a talent scout for Jeopardy!
"You're just looking for something interesting about the way they play the game," says Speeks. "Whether they play it really seriously and are very intense about the game, whether they have their own sense of humor or sense of style that they bring to the game. It's just something that makes you want to watch them play the game."
Spangenberg says there's a three-part secret to winning at Jeopardy!: "It helps if the mind, and the mouth, and the thumb all work together. Sometimes only two of the three are functioning."
And sometimes none, as Bradley learned when Trebek invited him on the set to play Jeopardy!, which was being shot at the show's college tournament at Yale University.
"I would like to acquaint you with the signaling device that has caused so many problems for so many players," says Trebek, referring to the buzzer. "You can not ring in, your system is not armed, until the clue has been read in its entirety. If you ring in too soon, you lock yourself out."
Jeopardy! looks easy when you're watching at home, but when you're up there with that buzzer, it's a different story.
"Let's try breakfast cereals for 200," says Trebek. "This Fortunate Cereal is Magically Delicious."
"I don't have a clue. Uhh, I have to hit the button, right?" asks Bradley. "Hit the button and say, "'I don't know.'"
"Then you should not have hit the button because ... you're now at minus 200," says Trebek. "The correct response was 'What are Lucky Charms?'"
"'Lucky Charms.' Those aren't the cereals that I eat," says Bradley.
They try the "1990s."
"Pierce Brosnan played this superspy for the first time in 'Goldeneye,'" says Trebek.
"James Bond," answers Bradley.
"Ooh, sorry. You didn't phrase that in the form of a question, and so we're penalizing you. You're now at minus 400," says Trebek.
Jeopardy!'s reach is international - Denmark, Russia, Holland, even Estonia, have their own versions.
The look, and the language may be totally different, but the concept remains the same.
Parody may also be the best measure of Jeopardy!'s impact. "Saturday Night Live" did a skit portraying Sean Connery as a guest on Jeopardy!
"'Saturday Night Live' has just done such a beautiful job of portraying Sean Connery," says Trebek. "I wonder if he's ever asked, 'Would you like to appear on Jeopardy!, Mr. Connery?'"
Trebek decides to send that message to Connery on the broadcast: "Sean, you filthy bastard, come on the show."
Many stars also welcome the opportunity to play the celebrity version of the game. Everyone from Academy Award winner Jody Foster to MTV star Ashton Kutcher has played Jeopardy!
And some, like Martha Stewart, play surprisingly well. Others, like Regis Philbin and Jon Lovitz, don't.
Does Trebek know all the answers? He certainly projects an "I knew that" attitude on the show.
"Whenever I tested myself, I'd get about 60 to 70 percent of the material right. In an honest test," says Trebek, who admits that he may no longer be the perfect contestant. "My reflexes are no longer as fast as they once were and a good 30-year-old contestant would clean my clock. However, in a Seniors' Tournament, I'm your man."
The clues for Jeopardy! are dreamed up by a team of writers, led by Gary Johnson.
"I think what we have in common is what most of our contestants have in common. And that is a curiosity, a voracious reading habit, and a lot of interest in what's going on in the world," says Johnson, citing topics such as Current Governors, Machines, Composers, and Before and After.
The potential clues are typed out on colored sheets of paper. The degree of difficulty is assessed. The writers want to challenge the players, but not totally stymie them.
"Sometimes it can get you in trouble. I came up with the idea of a category called "Crimea River." About rivers in the Crimean peninsula," says Johnson. "Well, there's a problem with that category, because there aren't a heck of a lot of rivers in the Crimean peninsula. So I had to do some fudging."
The writers may joke a lot, but they do take themselves very seriously. All their paperwork is shredded at the end of every day.
And when people watch the show, they'll have no idea what went in to getting answers to their questions. And seeing if the answer was correct.
Does a game show like Jeopardy! measure real intelligence, or is it some kind of combination of a quick mind and a quick thumb?
"It's a quick mind. But I think that it does measure breadth of knowledge," says Spangenberg. "Jeopardy! really does make the attempt, the writers really make the attempt, to include everything. In the same show you will have some question about J-Lo and Ben Affleck, and you'll have some quote from a Shakespearean sonnet."
Spangenberg has been a lieutenant since October 1998. "I do not do as well on promotional tests as I do in Jeopardy!, because they don't ask the same kinds of questions," he says, admitting that he's taken the Captain's test twice and failed both times.
"The Jeopardy! mind is not necessarily the most useful mind for the real world," says Spangenberg. "I would come out with some odd little factoid, and people would say, 'Why in the world do you know that, what possible good is that?' They stopped asking me that question after I won on the show."