In 1963, television host and erstwhile actor Merv Griffin was flying back to New York City with his wife Julann, after a weekend visiting her parents in Michigan. Merv was looking at notes for a new game show, and Julann asked if it was one of the knowledge-based games she liked.
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“Since ‘The $64,000 Question,’ the network won’t let you do those anymore,” replied Merv. The rigging scandals of the 1950s had killed off American quiz shows, seemingly for good. “They suspect you of giving them the answers.”
“Well, why don’t you give them the answers? And make people come up with the questions?”
Merv didn’t know what she meant.
“OK, the answer is ‘5,280.’”
He thought a moment. “The question is, ‘How many feet in a mile?’”
“The answer is ‘79 Wistful Vista.’”
“‘Where did Fibber McGee and Molly live?’”
Those two simple questions changed TV history.
“We kept going,” Julann Griffin remembers today, “and I kept throwing him answers and he kept coming up with questions. By the time we landed, we had an idea for a show.”
Julann is now 85, and I’ve tracked her down at her home, a 200-year-old plantation in Palmyra, Virginia. Charmingly, she’s a little distracted because she had just put a loaf of pumpkin bread in the oven when I called.
Over the following months, she tells me, she and Merv play-tested their new game, which they called “What’s the Question?” around their dining room table. NBC executives thought the show was too hard, but bought it anyway. It made its debut, renamed “Jeopardy!” and hosted by the congenial Art Fleming, on March 30, 1964. It quickly became the biggest hit ever in its daytime slot.
Fifty years later, remarkably, the Griffins’ simple answer-and-question game airs in syndication every single weeknight. There are a handful of other TV properties from the era that are still around, of course: “Meet the Press,” “The Tonight Show.” But “Jeopardy!” is different: Miraculously, it’s survived America’s tumultuous half-century almost entirely unchanged. Tonight’s game will be of the exact same format, practically down to the second, as an episode from 1970 or 1990. Among the categories will probably be slightly square “Jeopardy!” staples like “Opera,” “World Geography” or “Science.” The host—since the show’s 1984 revival, dapper Canadian transplant Alex Trebek—will preside in metronomic, almost military manner. This is not the convivial cocktail-hour ambiance of most game shows. This is serious business. “Let’s go to work,” Trebek sometimes says at the top of the show. Work!
In short, “Jeopardy!” is an oddity, beamed into your home every night from an eggheaded, alternate-reality America where television never dumbed down. It’s a reassuring sign, I think, that ten million people, according to Nielsen figures, watch the show every week—most of whom, I can say anecdotally, seem to plan their evenings around it. The show’s timelessness is its secret, Alex Trebek tells me. “It’s a quality program, the kind that you never have to apologize for admitting that you watch. It’s a good show, Ken. You know that.”
I do, Alex. I grew up on “Jeopardy!,” running home every day after school to test my brainpower against the sweater-wearing librarian types behind the three lecterns. These people learned stuff, the show seemed to say, and look how they’re succeeding! The things they put in their heads actually came in useful! It was exactly what I needed to hear at that age.
Of course, “Jeopardy!” changed my life again in 2004, when I passed a contestant audition and somehow ended up winning 74 games and spending six months behind the leftmost lectern. Some things, I learned, are different from the other side of the screen: The game seems to move faster, the host is looser and funnier when the cameras are off, the “signaling device” is a fickle mistress. (If you ring in before Alex is done reading the clue, you get locked out for a fraction of a second. The contestants you see flailing wildly with the buzzers are actually pressing the button too soon, not too late.) But for the most part it was exactly as I’d always imagined it, a childhood dream come true.
Last year, “Jeopardy!” was asked to donate some of its history to the Smithsonian. Trebek personally chose a few props (left), including a buzzer and a Fleming-era contestant screen that had been sitting in his garage since he was first hired in 1983. And why not? The game-play items represent a cherished American tradition. “‘Jeopardy!’ is the ultimate game show,” says National Museum of American History curator Dwight Blocker Bowers.
If “Jeopardy!” is the ultimate American game show, though, it’s because it’s an aspirational one. “Jeopardy!” shows us not as we are but as we wish we were, as we could be. Holding a buzzer, confidently pleasing Alex Trebek—the closest thing our culture now has to an infallible pope or an authoritative Cronkite—with our correct responses on the Battle of Yorktown, Troilus and Cressida, amino acids—what could be better? It’s no coincidence that when IBM wanted a sequel to its Deep Blue-Kasparov chess bout (see p. 21), the company chose “Jeopardy!” as the next arena. The show has become shorthand for “smart.”
Even Julann Griffin is still a regular viewer, after all these years. “But I feel like it’s my baby that went to school and graduated and then went overseas. It’s not even connected to me anymore.” There’s no question: “Jeopardy!” belongs to all of us now.