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Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings would like to be the third White Stripe

<i>Jeopardy!</i>’s Ken Jennings would like to be the third White Stripe
Photo: Studio 71 Games, Graphic: Karl Gustafson
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In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

You would probably not be surprised to hear that Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings was the kind of kid who hauled around reference materials. “I was always the kid carrying around the Guinness Book Of World Records or whatever,” he remembers, “bugging Mom and Dad with amazing facts.” He also had a prolific addiction: “I remember, even before starting school, being very addicted to game shows. Like literally being sad on the first day of kindergarten because if I went to school I was going to miss Hollywood Squares or Match Game or Family Feud or whatever. So yeah, I was definitely like this out of the box. Which is kind of weird.”

Weird or prophetic? After all, Jennings grew up to be a record-holder himself: the longest winning streak ever on Jeopardy!, with 74 victories. He’s also the second-highest-earning game-show contestant of all time (behind fellow Jeopardy! contestant Brad Rutter), raking in millions of dollars for that knowledge of trivia.

A software engineer before the show, Jennings has turned his Jeopardy! fame into a career, writing the 2006 book Brainiac: Adventures In The Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World Of Trivia Buffs. His latest project is a trivia board game he co-created with Richard Garfield, “the game designer who invented Magic: The Gathering and King Of Tokyo. In the gaming world, he’s a pretty big deal. He just called me out of the blue to say, ‘Hey, I read your book about trivia. I found it very convincing. I feel like a lot of trivia games might be doing it wrong. So I have a new idea for a trivia game. Do you want to collaborate with me on this?’ It’s like Nick Fury asking if you want to join the Avengers. ‘Sure, I’ll make a trivia game with the guy who invented Magic: The Gathering. Sure.’”

The new game, Half-Truth, combines cards and board games for a new take on the classic trivia game. Jennings explains, “One of the things I think turns people off about Trivial Pursuit is that each person plays on each question, so you can often just sit around waiting for 10 minutes. But in Half Truth, everybody plays on every question, and it’s designed so it’s a little more democratic. This should be a game for everybody, whether you think of yourself as a trivia know-it-all or not.”

Creating a trivia game seems like a natural move for a master of random knowledge like Jennings, who admits that now “I’ve become a trivia answer myself. It’s unreal.” So sure, he can answer any number of common-knowledge questions. But how would Ken Jennings answer The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions? Let’s find out.

1. What’s your favorite fast food menu item?

Ken Jennings: My favorite fast food menu item is… maybe the vanilla milkshake at In-N-Out.

The A.V. Club: That’s pretty specific.

KJ: Normally I like chocolate milkshakes, but their vanilla is much better. And it’s got a Bible verse on the bottom, which always cheers me up.

AVC: Do they have In-N-Out in Seattle? Or do you have to go to California for that?

KJ: Yeah, gotta head south. I actually drove by the northernmost In-N-Out a couple weeks ago on the way to my sister’s house, which is I think Grants Pass, Oregon. That’s the northernmost edge of the In-N-Out empire.

AVC: So at least you can get it when you’re visiting family.

KJ: That’s right. But coming soon to Salem, Oregon. It’s inching northward. Maybe it’ll reach Seattle in my lifetime.

2. If you could re-live an event or moment in your own life, what would it be?

KJ: These are the ones you really want to stew over even though it will take so much longer, because you want to have a good answer. I would say, I would relive my first date with my wife, but only to resolve a controversy, not for any romantic reason.

AVC: Can you explain the controversy without getting in trouble?

KJ: [Laughs.] There’s a difference in opinion in the way it went down. In my version, she really did not want to go out with me, and tried to get her roommates to talk me out of it. And that is not how she remembers it, so I feel like if I could go back in time together, we could get to the bottom of this unsolved mystery.

AVC: How many years have you been married now?

KJ: It’s 20 next year.

AVC: So in a way, it’s been settled.

KJ: Yeah, nothing would change on the ground. It’s more bragging rights at this point.

3. Who’s your favorite fictional villain?

KJ: Let’s say… Miss Hannigan, from Annie.

AVC: That’s great: Who doesn’t love Annie?

KJ: Everybody loves Annie. Miss Hannigan runs a tight ship. She wants all the floors to shine like the top of the Chrysler Building, and she’s not afraid to use orphans to get there. But she’s sympathetic. She doesn’t want to be surrounded by little girls. It’s the depression, and life has dealt her kind of a bum hand, and she’s making the best of it. She’s quite charming, she’s very confident. She thinks she can flirt with Daddy Warbucks, one of the richest men in America. Kids admire her confidence. I think she’s great.

AVC: Now are you going with the Carol Burnett version, or the Cameron Diaz version? Or a stage person?

KJ: I’m not some Broadway nerd who can tell you who the original cast of Annie was. I got to say, I’m picturing Carol Burnett. I must admit.

AVC: No one would fault you there.

4. What’s a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary?

KJ: There’s probably too many. I would say there’s a lot of possible answers here. Just trying to get kids in the car, I’ll say, “Marines, we are leaving!” from Aliens, more often than any other line.

AVC: Are your kids familiar with Alien or do they just think you’re like a Great Santini kind of dad?

KJ: Yeah, exactly. They have no idea what I’m talking about. But that’s true regardless. Honestly, they’re probably not even listening.

5. Who would play you in the movie of your life?

KJ: I remember when I was on Jeopardy! I got told I look like Hermey the misfit elf from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, from multiple people. So if Hermey is still looking for work…

AVC: If you could have the stop-motion puppet version of your life, that would be the coolest biopic ever.

KJ: Yeah, it really would. Like claymation versions of my first dates, I would love to watch that.

AVC: Did they mention anybody else? Any actors or anything?

KJ: Somebody said Dave Foley, which is flattering. Dave Foley’s a good-looking guy.

AVC: Like, NewsRadio-era Dave Foley.

KJ: Yeah, it would have to be NewsRadio-era Dave Foley.

6. What’s a movie that you’ll always stop and watch if you’re flipping channels?

KJ: I’m trying to think of what I got sucked into recently… really, nobody flips channels anymore.

I was on a plane last week and somebody next to me was watching Ant-Man but I couldn’t hear it, because I was just watching it on a screen, but yet I spent the whole flight just watching Ant-Man with no audio. It’s pretty good. It holds up with no audio.

AVC: Is there a movie you consider a personal favorite?

KJ: I’ve probably seen 2001 upwards of 20 times. Hard Day’s Night with The Beatles, I used to watch that over and over. And that still holds up. You can watch that anytime. I don’t know if that’s on TV, but that’s definitely something where if my kids are watching it or something, I’m just stuck.

AVC: How old are your kids?

KJ: They’re old now. They’re like 16 and 12. I don’t think of them as old now, but they are.

Oh, this might be a better answer. My daughter was watching The Little Mermaid the other day, and I was walking by, and I kind of had the opinion that it was not as good as Beauty And The Beast or Aladdin, Lion King, like those movies got better over time. And when she was watching it, I was like, “This is maybe stronger than the other three. The songs are definitely better.” I was surprised by how Little Mermaid got me, and I was just there for the next hour.

7. What is a possession that you can’t get rid of?

KJ: Is this implying that I’m trying to get rid of it but it re-appears in my pocket like a Twilight Zone episode?

AVC: No, just something that you would never throw away. Concert T-Shirt, participation trophy, photograph—that thing you carry from place to place.

KJ: When I was in high school, one of my friends gave me a novelty tie that has a little Tom Sawyer-type waif, and he’s peeing into a creek, peeing into a fishing hole, and it’s an awful thing on every level. It’s cheap. But for some reason, I found it in my closet the other day, and I was getting some stuff ready for Goodwill, and I kept the tie with the little boy peeing in the creek.

AVC: Have you ever worn it in public to anything, anywhere? Halloween costume?

KJ: I think I wore it to Ugly Tie Day at I-don’t-even-remember where. High school spirit week? But yeah, I think I haven’t worn it since Bush 41 was president.

AVC: It’s nice that you still have it.

KJ: I guess. It’s friendship. It’s a souvenir.

AVC: It’s also one of those things that you would never be able to replace.

KJ: That’s absolutely true. Because why would you want to?

8. What specific skill would you bring to a postapocalyptic society?

KJ: Ooh, I can write cursive backwards. From the right side of the word to the left.

AVC: Wow, that is a specific skill.

KJ: It’s not clear why you would want to do that, because when you get done, the word looks the same. But you start it from the right.

AVC: Are you ambidextrous?

KJ: I’m not. But I’m left-handed. Left-handed people have to do a lot of things right-handed, so there are a lot of things I do with my wrong hand, like use a mouse, throw a frisbee.

AVC: So have you ever used this skill? I don’t know when that would come in handy. If you were in space, maybe?

KJ: It doesn’t come in handy, really. I’ll do it in the steam on the shower door sometimes. I guess if you want to write “Call for help” on the inside of a window, and you want it to look fancy.

AVC: Actually, that is a very valuable skill then. Like on Lost.

KJ: “Not Penny’s boat.”

AVC: Exactly. If he had written it in cursive…

KJ: He might still be alive today.

AVC: Plus, cursive is one of those skills that’s going by the wayside anyway.

KJ: Yeah, maybe just, like, writing in cursive is good enough for the postapocalyptic society. Maybe I’ll be the only one.

9. Who is the most underrated person in your industry right now?

KJ: I’m a “trivia expert” on a GSN quiz show called Best Ever Trivia Show. The contestants seem to think I’m the big gun, but I think my friend Raj Dhuwalia, one of the other trivia experts, is usually a little bit better than me. So in my industry of game-show question-answering, don’t sleep on Raj, is what I’m saying.

10. If you could be in any band, past or present, which one would it be?

KJ: So it has to be a band that wouldn’t be concerned that I’m not musical at all. Am I allowed to be talented in this?

AVC: Yes, they would just embrace you with open arms no matter what.

KJ: I think it’d be funny if The White Stripes were a trio. I’d like to be in The White Stripes. There’s Jack and there’s Meg and there’s some kind of nerdy-looking blond guy playing bass or whatever. No, playing keyboards. Playing synth. White Stripes Plus One.

11. What would you do during the purge?

KJ: I can’t name a public figure I would assassinate. I don’t want to get on a watch list.

My neighbors have this really ugly tree that kind of blocks what would be a nice view out of one of our windows. I love trees, but this one is just kind of a weird-shaped garbage tree whose time has come. So I think as part of the circle of life, I would just cut down my neighbor’s tree.

AVC: Nice. It’s practical, but not overly destructive. It’s just like, this is the chance to get rid of this thing I hate, and I’m doing it.

KJ: It’s not that likable though. It’s eco-terrorism, but it’s the bad kind of eco-terrorism. I’m actually killing a plant.

AVC: It’s a tree. Everybody wants to do that to their neighbor’s stuff. No worries at all.

Okay, this one is from author Shea Serrano.

KJ: Oh yeah, I love his book, his NBA book [Basketball (And Other Things)].

Bonus 12th question from Shea Serrano: If you were to be dropped into any horror franchise, which one would you absolutely not want to be dropped into?

KJ: I don’t know if this is a franchise, it’s a single movie. But my greatest fear, my greatest visceral dislike in life is guests I can’t get rid of, so I would hate to be dropped into Mother!, the Aronofsky movie.

AVC: All those people just keep showing up.

KJ: They just keep showing up and breaking her stuff. It’s not really a franchise. But I hope he’ll allow it.

AVC: Okay, now you get to ask the next 11 Questions interviewee anything.

KJ: What’s your dream Jeopardy! board? Like, six categories you could just kill.

AVC: Six is a lot. Could we do one category?

KJ: Yes, that’s what I meant.

AVC: Not everybody is that Jeopardy!-powered, like some people we could mention. But everybody has just a dream random category of stuff that nobody else would have any interest in.

KJ: Mine would be ’80s pro wrestling. They hardly ever have ’80s pro wrestling.

AVC: And yet, you won anyway.