Sherlock Holmes wouldn't have cared much for the TV game show Jeopardy! Holmes was never one for stuffing his deerstalker full of trivia. In an early Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson was aghast that the great detective seemed almost totally ignorant of philosophy, politics or contemporary literature. Most shocking of all, Holmes was unaware that the earth traveled around the sun.
"Now that I do know it," said Holmes. "I shall do my best to forget it."
Holmes's theory was that the brain is like an empty attic, best furnished judiciously. "It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent," he said. "There comes a time when for every addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
Jeopardy!' is a crowded attic in which contestants rummage around trying to locate bits and pieces of buried information. Jeopardy!'s gimmick is that it reverses the standard quiz show format; the game board provides the answers, and contestants must supply the questions. (This leads to the constant Jeopardy! refrain: "Frame your answer in the form of a question, please.") A game consists of three increasingly difficult rounds—Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy—during which contestants supply questions to answers in categories as diverse as chemical warfare and famous pigs. Like the balance in a bankbook, the score on Jeopardy!' is kept in dollars, but only the winner actually gets to keep the cash he has accumulated during the course of the show. At the end of the TV season, the top 15 money winners return for Jeopardy! 's Tournament of Champions, the NCAAs of the game-show world. "They're equally divided among the smoothest and the loneliest-looking people on Jeopardy!" says Clare Quinn, herself a 34-year-old Jeopardy! junkie from Chester Springs. Pa. "Half of them look like Norm on Cheers." The rest bear an uncomfortable resemblance to people you'd see in a supermarket carefully pricing Campbell's Soup-For-One. All of them, however, have one thing in common: They have committed to memory an Everest of information—facts without judgment or ambiguity. A Jeopardy! question does not force you to wrestle with a proposition but simply requires you to be able to recall a morsel of data—the who, the what, the where, but never the why. The show is both a cause and a symptom of the Information Age's lust for naked data.
April 30, 1989
Jeopardy! has been around since 1964, so in a sense it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, though it was off the air from 1975 to 1978 and again from 1979 to 1984. In its current incarnation, the show is slicker, faster, more high-tech. The mechanical marvel of the original game board, with its pivoting question slats, has been replaced by an electronic marvel that would make H.G. Wells envious. Gone too is the robust, if somewhat unctuous, original host of the show. Art Fleming, who has been supplanted by the natty, clipped and aloof Alex Trebek.
Obviously, the times are right for Jeopardy/Trivial Pursuit only whetted the Baby Boomers' appetite for the data diet. Today Jeopardy! is the second-highest rated show in syndicated television history, just behind Wheel of Fortune. In New York City, where it airs weekday nights from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., Jeopardy! so swamped the CBS Evening News that Dan Rather's broadcast had to be moved up by half an hour.
Each night 11.9 million infomaniacs tune in to see contestants unload arsenals of minutiae. "Without the show, there would be a vacuum in my life," says Quinn, who has a degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. "I'd have absolutely no use for my liberal arts education."
TALK SHOW HOSTS FOR $200: Sometime between the release of his hit record, I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts, in 1949, and the day he introduced Nancy Reagan to her astrologer, Merv Griffin created Jeopardy! As Griffin recalls, he and his former wife, Julann, were on a plane talking about the quiz show scandals of the '50s. "Why don't you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?" Julann joked.
"Sure, and I'll end up in the slammer." said Merv.
"Suppose I said, 'Five thousand two hundred eighty feet.' "
"How many feet in a mile?" Merv shot back.
"Seventy-nine Wistful Vista."
"Wow! What was Fibber McGee and Molly's address?"
And on that slender column of trivia. Jeopardy! was built.
In the early days, questions about the show's survival outnumbered the answers. "The only people we could get to appear were these heavy intellectuals and earth mamas we pulled out of bookstores," says Griffin. "None of them seemed too concerned with grooming. I was very nervous about it."
Griffin appreciates the value of appearance. As a radio crooner in the '50s, he was billed as "America's romantic new singing star." But 250-pound tenors don't seem nearly as romantic on TV, so directors had to devise ways to keep Merv out of camera range. "They had me sing behind 14 dancing girls and a potted plant," he says.
Ironically, it was on TV that Griffin achieved his greatest fame, first as the host of a game show called Play Your Hunch, and then seated on a chat-show couch, purring, laughing obligingly and comparing life-styles and sport-jacket linings with the rich and shameless. "I ask a lot of questions, read all the local papers." coos the man who made himself master of the trivial interview. "I am a thick blotter of mostly useless information."
In 1975, he remembered the word game called Hangman that he and his sister had played as kids in the backseat of the family car. Out of that memory came Wheel of Fortune. Eleven years later he sold Merv Griffin Enterprises, which consisted mostly of Jeopardy! and Wheel, to Coca-Cola for a reported $250 million. But he still has a hand in his production company and often watches the shows it produces. He also watches the stock market. Last year he bought Donald Trump's share of Resorts International for more than $160 million (the entire Resorts deal cost Griffin $364 million). He now estimates his personal worth at $1 billion.
And what sort of guy is Merv?
"What is overweight?" deadpans Trebek.
QUIZ SHOW HOSTS FOR $100: Trebek wants to set the record straight. "Jeopardy! is not a game show," he intones. "It's a quiz show."
Trebek may not want us to confuse Jeopardy! with The Diamond Head Game, that short-lived 1975 TV quiz show set in Waikiki Beach in which contestants dived for dollar bills that spewed from a papier-m‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢chè volcano. Or with Mike Wallace's Who Pays?, a 1959 production on which contestants matched butlers, chauffeurs and maids with their celebrity employers.
Among that dim tribe of telegenic creatures known as M.C.'s, Trebek clearly considers himself the best and the brightest. A French-Canadian with a degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa, he dazzles viewers with his ability to pronounce such difficult French words as coup de grace, trompe l'oeil and buffet. "Every morning when I wake up I look at my pillow to see if any gray matter has been leached out," he says.
Trebek's precisely snipped gray-black mustache is the most distinguished on television. His hair is shot with gray. too. He's always nicely turned out in a low-button single-breasted suit or a long double-breasted one, all supplied by Mr. Guy of Beverly Hills. Trebek is, in fact, better dressed than his contestants.
At 48, he is a contemporary virtuoso of the television manner: His style is restrained and underplayed, all unthreatening surface. He has a raised-eyebrow quality that makes you think he's not taking things quite seriously. Yet he's a fastidious fellow who puts all his light clothes on white hangers, puts his dark clothes on brown ones, and arranges all his spices alphabetically. The buzz in Hollywood is that Trebek once threw a fit when someone switched the basil and the oregano.
"When I was younger, I knew everything," he confides. "Not only did I know everything, but I remembered it. Now that I'm old, I remember only things that never happened."
That last line was borrowed from Mark Twain, a mother lode of Jeopardy! nuggets. "You learn something by watching Jeopardy!" says Trebek, who says he knows about 10% of the correct responses on the show. "One of our prime purposes is to reinforce the learning ethic in this country. Educators have touted Jeopardy! as a centerpiece for literary motivation. It's the kind of show that appeals to your higher principles and your loftier intellectual aspirations."
And your sense of greed. Still, though champions typically win about $10,000 a show. Trebek insists the contestants are not in it for the money. "They're in it to show off," he says.
OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVES FOR $300: "I used to memorize trivia to impress people, to act knowledgeable." says Dave Traini, a Jeopardy! contestant in 1986. "It's a way to control your environment—if you know everything. People think I'm a genius, but I'm really not. I just know a lot of material. It's dilettantism taken to the nth degree. In our society, people mistake knowledge for intelligence. If only facts could be distilled to wisdom.
"I harbored a dream to get on Jeopardy! for 20 years. Every night I'd come home from work—I was an eighth-grade science teacher—turn on the game shows and keep score. I kept telling my wife. Betty Ann. 'Hey, I'm doing as well as these boobs.' I kept working on her, kept working on her. "If I get on, I'll buy a new car, a new dishwasher." Finally, she said. O.K.
"Well, I got on and won enough to buy the car and the dishwasher. I won so much that I qualified for the Tournament of Champions. For 14 months I crammed. I brainwashed myself to begin every sentence. What is...? When is...? Where is...? I bought seven different trivia board games. I took the cards with me everywhere and flipped through them every spare moment. I had stacks of trivia books, almanacs, media guides. I watched a couple of hundred movies; you've got be up on actors and their roles. I memorized the hundred highest mountains, the muscles of the human body, the moons of all the planets. I even carried around a copy of the Constitution. Want to know who signed?
"Reflexes are everything. The most terrifying part is knowing the answer and buzzing in and not being able to be recognized. Your buzz doesn't register until Alex has finished the last syllable of the question. You have to hone in on the rhythm of his voice while racing through every fact you know. I spent hours on my eye-to-hand reaction time. I looked all over until I found a Mickey Mouse pen with just the right clicker to simulate the buzzer. I'd stand in front of the TV just clicking and clicking. I used my forefinger, not my thumb; it's faster, you know. After a little practice it was like I'd invented a new technology, like I was on the cutting edge.
"I wanted to be ready for any possible question. What's the color on top of a stoplight? Red? Green? Have you ever stopped to look at what the eight juices are in V8 juice? I have. What about the nine muses? Is knowing the nine muses gonna pay off anywhere in life? No, except in Jeopardy! It's very important.
"In the semifinals I was asked to name the two gemstones that end in nyx. Not such a tough question. After all, I'd memorized all the gemstones the other day in my hotel room. But I froze up. Gemstones for a thousand and I'm paralyzed. I remembered onyx but not sardonyx. And the thing was, I knew it the day before. I knew it.
"I made it to the finals, where I faced my toughest opponent, a New York actor named Bob Verini. He knew the term for the upside-down e that represents a phonetically in the word about. [What is a schwa?] I didn't. Bob had his own cheering section—just two or three guys really, but very vocal ones. They didn't unnerve me, though. Final Jeopardy did. The category was 19th-century Democrats: 'He said, "I am the last president of the United States." ' It was the first time I'd been mystified by a question. I just gazed at the board for about half of the allotted 30 seconds, really panicking. It was as if I were being led to the scaffold for my execution and someone asked, "What's the capital of Venezuela?' I thought. Which Democrat's term ended near the start of the Civil War? It had to be James Buchanan. I looked at Bob, who was keeping an inscrutable poker face. For a few fleeting moments I thought he missed it. In fact he had. But he'd bet just enough so that even if he lost, he'd be a dollar ahead of me. I lost by a lousy buck. I suppose it's better to lose that way than to get wiped out completely.
"Two years have passed since my tournament appearance, and people still stop me to ask if I'm the guy from Jeopardy!" says Traini, now a 38-year-old high school administrator in Franklinville, N.J. "I keep thinking, When's the last time anybody will remember? For now, I'm still famous. And for what? It's not like I won the Nobel Prize, but people have started looking at me as a smart sort of person."
COMPULSIVE-OBSESSIVES FOR $400: "How did I prepare for the Tournament of Champions?" says Steve Rogitz, who played Jeopardy! in 1985. "I'll tell you how I prepared: I had my suit pressed. I figured either I knew the answers or I didn't."
Rogitz is a big man, bluff and burly. His hair is red and untamed, his face broad and open, his eyes quizzical. He is possessed of the ease that goes with being very good at a job you like very much.
Until four years ago, that job was delivering mail in the Los Angeles area, where he still lives and where he now drives a truck. He had never been much of a student—in fact, he had never been anything of a student. As a senior at South High in Torrance, he finished 629th in his class. Out of 641. "I knew I screwed up a lot, but I hadn't realized it was that bad," he says. "At least there were 12 people dumber than me."
He joined the Air Force, took a brief stab at college, then got a job with the Post Office. But he always had a head for trivia. "I read lots of magazines on my route," Rogitz says. "I can talk superficially on a lot of subjects but well on none."
He tried to talk his wife, Pat, into letting him try out for Jeopardy! but she wasn't listening. "Pat always thought I read too much," he says. "She'd get on me for remembering stupid stuff like the date Washington crossed the Delaware, but not remembering the important stuff like taking out the garbage. I got her to calm down, though, and come with me to the studio."
It was there Rogitz realized his predicament. "At least half the contestants were more intelligent than me," he says, "and all had more education." He needed an edge. "I was up against a guy who'd won three games in a row. A smart guy but a little tentative at buzzing in. So I decided to buzz first. I got hot, real hot, and started running categories. I felt like Minnesota Fats in The Hustler—buzzing those questions, getting the rhythm down. I don't know if any kind of intelligence was required, but, man, I was fast."
Rogitz cackles and rubs his hands, all energy, glee and fierce competition. "I had the old champ shook." he says. "I just wouldn't let him in the game. During the commercial I see he's sweating. So I ease up beside him and say. 'Gee. you weren't sweating on the other shows. What's the matter?' He looked like he couldn't guess his weight."
As the new champ, Rogitz returned the following day to defend his crown. He had breakfast in the coffee shop. "It's time to leave," said Pat.
"Hey," said Rogitz. "They can't start without me."
He had a point. "All the eager beavers had shown up an hour early." he says. "They waited in the reception room. And waited. And waited. I thought I'd let them stew a little. Finally, the door opens and a hush comes over them. If there had been a piano playing, it would have stopped. 'Hello, everybody!' I say. There's fear in their eyes. They can see I'm champ. I'm struttin' a little, and they're thinking. Wow! He's cool! The champ is cool!"
Onstage, Rogitz kept his cool. Sometimes he blurted out answers he didn't even know he knew. "Shakespeare!" he fairly shouts. "I guess I knew the basics. Like Romeo and Juliet. I'd never actually read it, but I saw the movie. And I remembered Macbeth from a junior high drama class. I think there was a witch in it."
When in doubt, he relied on Holmesian deduction. "They wanted me to name the Everly Brothers song that played when Roy Scheider died in All That Jazz. Logic told me it had to be Bye Bye Love. What else could it have been? Wake Up, Little Susie?"
In all, Rogitz won five games—the maximum allowed under Jeopardy! law—and nearly $35,000. Ten months later he placed third among 15 contestants in the Tournament of Champions and raked in another $5,100. "When I got back." he says, "somebody in the Post Office showed me a U.S.A. Today piece about the tournament. Trebek was quoted as saying, 'These are 15 of the brightest people in the country.' Hey, I said, the second-place finisher was Canadian. I guess that means I'm the second-brightest guy in America."
TRIVIALISTS FOR $500: John Pankratz. a history professor at Albright College in Reading. Pa., has a theory about Jeopardy! "In 19th-century America." he says, "the aesthetic standards of domestic portraiture painting created the appreciation of the kind of representation that photography could produce. So Jeopardy!, with its emphasis on a sort of reductionist facticity, its data base of objectified information—instantly recallable—anticipated our fascination with the computer."
Conversations with Pankratz tend to blossom into a series of small lectures that seems to trail brilliant exotic blooms like a bougainvillea vine. He watches Jeopardy! two or three times a week. "It relaxes me," he says, "and there's also a large element of nostalgia."
As a senior at DeVilbiss High in Toledo, Pankratz was a member of the quiz bowl team that won the city trivia championship. He keeps the trophy near his copy of the 1968-69 Pot O' Gold, the DeVilbiss yearbook, which devotes a half-page picture to that championship season. It's the only place in the Pot O' Gold where Pankratz is spelled correctly.
He's 37 now, a vigorous upright guy with an ironic sense of humor. With a Jeopardy! telecast as a backdrop, he expounds on Jeopardiana from a straight-backed chair in the handsome, comfortable sitting room of the early 18th-century town-house he owns on Philadelphia's Elfreth's Alley. (What is the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the U.S.?)
"If two ideas come to mind," he says, "go for the more obvious one. Read the World Book, not the Britannica. A high school encyclopedia is the level of sophistication. Any education beyond that is a handicap. Nothing you learned in college is of any help in Jeopardy!'
The first contestant chooses the category Fish Facts. The TV casts aquarium-blue shadows on the wall.
"This fish lacks a certain organ and spends most of its time on the ocean bottom," says Trebek.
Like most Jeopardy! junkies, Pankratz gets a vicarious thrill from spitting out answers before the contestants. But this one stumps him, and he shakes his head in disgust. "Fish facts isn't my area of expertise," he alibis.
Musical instruments are, and he plays the category like a concertina. By the time the Spain category rolls along, Pankratz is looking almost cocky. "I'd be willing to bet one of the answers is Franco, another is the Alhambra, another is Barcelona and another is Toledo." He"s not even close. "Spain for $500." says Trebek. "These people occupied the peninsula that bears their name 2,000 years ago."
"Who were the Visigoths?" says Pankratz before Trebek even finishes the question.
"Who were the Iberians?" answers contestant number 2, correctly.
"I really blew it." Pankratz concedes, "but I'm sure the Visigoths were there, too."
He shrugs and throws up his hands. "I don't know," he mutters. "Maybe I was smarter when I was 17."
TRIVIALISTS FOR $100: Harry Eisenberg sits behind a big disheveled desk in front of a bookcase crammed with encyclopedias, almanacs and atlases. The walls are covered with lists of Jeopardy! categories that have already been used, the detritus of civilization—The Dick Van Dyke Show, Those Darned Etruscans, Pickles. Reams of computer printouts spill onto a couch. The room has a faintly 19th-century look. Bartleby the Scrivener would not have been uncomfortable here.
As the Jeopardy! chief of research, Eisenberg oversees the show's fact factory. "Jeopardy! may be the only show where intelligence—or at least a form of intelligence—is rewarded and looked up to." he says. He was working as a photocopier salesman in the early "80s when he heard Jeopardy! was being revived and needed a whole new staff. Citing his master's degree in history, he applied. He was told to submit a sample game board. "The question that clinched the job was in word origins." he recalls. "It was something like, 'A term for prostitutes from the Civil War general who believed they raised troops' morale.' " Fans of General Joseph Hooker know the answer.
The pursuit of the trivial is no trivial pursuit, according to Eisenberg. "We have 230 shows a year, and we prepare 73 questions per show," he says, ticking off the calculations in his head. "That's 16,790 questions a season." Hard questions, easy questions, really tough Final Jeopardy questions. Eisenberg and his staff of 12 professional trivialists toss potential questions around a conference table, fine-tuning them. "We're looking for clear, concise interesting questions." he says, "not trick or boring questions. We don't want ones only a Ph.D. or a nuclear physicist would know."
Eisenberg is the final arbiter of any dispute. During taping sessions he and his adepts monitor the answers from the back of the studio, reference books at the ready.
"What would happen if the Pope came on and we had to call him wrong?" asks writer Carol Campbell.
"That's obvious," says a fellow staffer. Kathy Easterling. "We'd be struck dead."
The constant quest for questions has skewed Eisenberg's perspective. "Everything has become a potential question." he says. In case of sudden inspiration, he always has a pad handy. Questions come to him in dreams, while shaving, on vacation in Texas. "I found one in the AAA Travel Guide," he says. "The name of the Lone Star city that was the first word uttered by a man on the moon." If you guessed Throckmorton, try again. (What is Houston?)
"In general, people know U.S. geography," says Campbell. "They do O.K. on Europe, moderate on Asia, but get scared stiff when confronted with Africa or South America. Africa's the worst because the names and borders change so often."
"Did you know Dahomey changed its name to Burkina Faso?" asks Eisenberg.
"I think you mean Upper Volta," says Easter-ling. Eisenberg consults his world almanac.
"It means 'country of honest people.' " says Easterling.
Eisenberg is having no luck.
"Check the World Book," suggests Campbell. "That's the quick-and-dirty way."
Every fact is checked and rechecked through independent sources before it is approved for use on the air. If a source proves particularly unreliable, it's consigned to a part of the library known as Trivia Hell. Will and Ariel Durant's histories reside there, as does The Encyclopedia of Women's Myths and Secrets.
When a fact can't be verified by ordinary methods. Eisenberg's trivialists go straight to the source. A major controversy erupted over Howdy Doody's freckles. Did he really have 48 freckles to match the number of states at the time he made his debut? Eisenberg's trivialists tracked down Buffalo Bob Smith in an obscure corner of Maine. "Forty-eight is correct." said Buffalo Bob. Now we can all breathe a little easier.
"We do a lot of hard facts." says Easterling. "For instance, which actress won the first Oscar? That's part of film history, not trivia."
"If I were a schoolteacher, I'd much rather have my students watching Jeopardy! than shoot-em-ups," says Eisenberg. "We have shows that quote important people, like Khadaffi and Stalin. Jeopardy! isn't going to change the direction in which society is moving, but it's part of the world we live in. It's part of reality."
GAME-SHOW HOSTS FOR $200: The walls of Art Fleming's Buffalo Flats Saloon & Grill in Breckenridge, Colo., are covered with the heads of various deceased animals. "What is a deer?" he asks. "What is a moose?" Though Fleming hasn't appeared on Jeopardy! in 11 years, in a sense he has never left. He hosts a Sunday trivia-style radio show out of St. Louis. He stages mock-Jeopardy! contests at business conventions. He presides over a weekly talk show called Biff America at Buffalo Flats on local TV, which includes a section that is a Jeopardy! knockoff. Winners get plastic buffalo piggy banks.
Jeopardy! purists still regard Fleming as the authentic Mr. Know-It-All, a title he doesn't exactly discourage. He can scarcely walk down the street without being petitioned.
"Mr. Fleming! Mr. Fleming! Could you help me, please? My wife and I have been arguing."
"And you need my help?"
"It's about General Custer. Was he killed in 1876 or 1878?"
"Oh," says Fleming. "June of 1876."
"I knew you'd know!"
Thirteen years on Jeopardy! provided him with a more or less inexhaustible fund of stories. "Every show was like opening night on Broadway." he says. And you believe him. Indomitably genial. Fleming is somehow friendly without being overfamiliar, chipper without being coy, articulate without being showy or pedantic. Aside from an affinity for pocket squares, he and Trebek have little in common. Under Fleming. Jeopardy! was a little slow, a trifle square, slightly dull, not unlike much of America in those days.
"When Merv and Julann first approached me with the idea, I thought the show might last three or four weeks," he says. "But I said, "Let's try it. It sounds kinky.' Well, it went for 13 years—2,858 shows."
Being a trivia meister has not been all fun and games. Fleming remembers appearing once on Hollywood Squares—occupying the secret square no less—when he was asked to pick out the woman who won Wimbledon in 1938. "I said Helen Wills Moody," he says, "but I really had no idea." The contestant believed him so implicitly that she put $11,100 on his answer.
"How do you know he's not bluffing?" asked Peter Marshall, then the Squares M.C.
"Art Fleming wouldn't lie," she replied. "He's on Jeopardy!" (And Moody it was.)
"My God!" says Fleming. "What a burden to put on a person's shoulders!"
Fleming claims to watch the new Jeopardy! infrequently, and then only for a handful of questions. "It's much too easy," he says, "And the prizes! In my day, runners-up used to get to keep their prize money. Now they get a carton of dog food or something! You finish a dollar out of first place and you win a year's supply of lip gloss!"
He hates the glitz, the polish. "It's not part of the real world." he says, "it's part of Hollywood."
In his day, the show was filmed in Manhattan. "People are more intelligent in New York," says Fleming, a native of the Bronx. "New Yorkers are alive, with-it. They know what's going on in the world. In California there's no mental stimulation. A typical conversation consists of 'I've got a new diet. How's your tennis game? Are those clothes from Gucci?' And then you look at each other."
Fleming laughs at Trebek's grandiose claims as to the show's educational value. "To me Jeopardy! has always been one big party game." Fleming says. "That's all it is. I mean, you're not doing open-heart surgery. It's an entertaining way to fill up 30 minutes of air time, but basically fluff."
The trivia boom disturbs him. "Nowadays everything's got to be condensed." he says. "No lengthy explanations. Don't bore me with the details. Just the facts, ma'am. Instant total gratification. When I was host. Jeopardy! was just a show. Now it's a state of mind."
But Fleming doesn't have time to brood. Here comes another burden to shoulder.
"Mr. Fleming! Mr. Fleming! My wife and I are having a terrible row."
"How can I help?"
"Tell me the name of the royal house to which James I of England belonged."
"What is the House of Stuart?"
"Damn it, I knew you'd know."
GAME OBSESSIVES FOR $1,000: O.K., I'll come right out and admit it. I have a Jeopardy! problem. I find the show painful to watch. It reminds me too much of my formal education.
My teachers presumed I should be filled with facts, much like a well-stuffed cabbage ready to be consumed by the cold, cruel world of experience that lay beyond my educational life. My system of note-taking was a testament to this cabbage stuffing. It was roughly based on the cuneiform writing of the ancient Sumerians. The notes were congeries of eel-like figures surrounded by mounds of interlocking ovals. I could always gauge my interest in a class by the intricacy of my drawings. If the cabbage stuffer was engaging, the accompanying artwork was generally sketchy. But if she was boring, the pages of my notebook would be filled with minutely detailed vistas. It took the Sumerians generations to develop their style. Mine took just 12 years of schooling. When I felt I couldn't decipher them, I called a Sumerian.
So it was with some apprehension that I agreed to try out for Jeopardy! last December. A line of 50 would-be contestants stretched up Sunset Boulevard. Some were riffling through a world almanac, others the Guinness Book of Essential Facts. Slung over one sailor's shoulder was a five-volume set on the British monarchs. I thought I recognized him from my 11th-grade chemistry class. He was the geek who used to raise his hand to say, "Weren't we supposed to have a quiz today?"
I sidled up beside a tall, droopy-looking guy whose sepulchral appearance reminded me of Floyd the Barber on the old Andy Griffith Show. He had a sparse mustache bristling across his upper lip, a Bob Dylan songbook under his arm and a T-shirt that said KLAATU BARADA NIKTO. "The phrase is from The Day the Earth Stood Still," he kindly explained. "It stopped the robot Gort from destroying our planet."
He asked if he could zap me with his best stuff. "Sure," I said. He reminded me to frame my answers in the form of questions.
"Geronimo's name meant this in Apache."
"What is, 'Kenneth, what's the frequency?' "
"Nope. Try, What is He Who Yawns?"
"That was my next guess."
"This Hall of Famer got his start in Hibbing, Minnesota."
"Who is Roger Maris?"
"Sorry. The answer is. Who is Bob Dylan? He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
We were shepherded into a large studio and handed blank exam forms. I sat next to Floyd. I figured something might rub off.
"This is the general knowledge test," he whispered. "Fifty questions. If you pass, they put you through a mock game of Jeopardy Hi you make that cut, there's still a charisma test."
"How much general knowledge do I have to know?" I asked.
"What's a lot?"
The questions appeared on a TV monitor as Trebek's disembodied voice read along. I felt as if I were taking a midterm in a class I'd forgotten to attend.
"What is the only female animal that has antlers?"
"Who wrote the novel on which Carmen is based?"
"What's the name of Isaac Newton's dog?"
Right about then I drifted off. I was shaken from my reverie by Floyd. "It's all over now. Baby Blue," he hissed. Dylan again. Floyd passed me his sheet. Every blank was filled in; some answers were even annotated.
I looked down at my own sheet. The doodling along the margins suggested a convention of M&M's. I didn't even bother to stick around for the results.
I began feeling a little hungry. Thinking of M&M's has that effect on me. I walked to the Mexican cantina across the street.
"What is a panucho?" I asked the waitress.
"Is that a question or an answer?" she snapped.
Just as I got up to leave, Floyd shuffled in. His head was down, his shoes scraped the floor.
"How did it go?" I inquired.
"Terrible," he drawled in a sleepy singsong, "just terrible."
"But you knew most of the answers!"
"Most of the answers? I knew all the answers. I pressed the buzzer before anyone else. But they told me I wasn't loud enough. They said I wasn't lively. It just isn't fair. I spent months preparing, and I lose on personality."
I shook my head at the injustice of it.
"It's like Dylan says," he said. "The answer is blowin' in the wind."
I waited a moment before asking, "Could you rephrase that in the form of a question?"