Ken Jennings, whose Jeopardy! winnings broke the record at 2.52 million, signs his second book, Ken Jennings’ Trivia Almanac, at 7 p.m. on Jan. 31 at King’s English Bookstore.
How do you feel about the epithet ‘nerd,’ and how do you feel your notoriety has affected the image of nerddom worldwide?
I don’t mind “nerd,” and never really understood why others would. To my ear, it has a charming, inoffensive, almost cuddly ring—much better than “geek.” And “geek” and “nerd,” like so many other slurs, both seem to have been reclaimed lately as a badge of pride by the very oppressed minority that was meant to shudder under their cruel onslaught. This has nothing to do with me being on Jeopardy!—it’s a broader trend, part generational, part Internet-fueled. Everyone’s a nerd now about their own pet subject, whether that’s a band or a TV show or a fantasy football team. The pop-culture megahits of our time are all about boy wizard and superheroes and hobbits—the very same nerd-ery that would have gotten you wedgies when I was in junior high. Sorry, jocks—the nerds have won. Geek is chic.
Now that your fame has gone beyond the proverbial “15 minutes,” how would you say the experience of becoming a celebrity has changed you?
Luckily, I have the easy kind of fame (I think the technical term is “Z List”): no paparazzi stalking me when I pick up my son from preschool, but I still get to do fun, semi-glamorous stuff occasionally—appear alongside Grover on Sesame Street, for example, or throw out the first pitch at a major-league ballgame. The fame changed my life careerwise (I’m now a freelance writer full time, and not a sucky computer programmer, anymore). But, really, the only change for me personally is that I’m much more content with my trivia nerdhood now. I always felt vaguely embarrassed by it as a teenager, but once you’ve been outed on national TV, you’re out of the trivia closet for good.
Does it disturb you that a mania for trivia has, for many, taken the place of a well-rounded education? Is there still a place for encyclopedic knowledge in the computer age, when the breadth of human experience and knowledge is much wider than ever before?
I’m not sure I agree with the distinction. Trivia can be trivial, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. Watch Jeopardy! or play trivia at a local bar—the questions are going to cover history, sports, science, geography, art, music … these aren’t useless fripperies, they’re good old-fashioned cultural literacy. To be an informed citizen of the world, you’re going to need a mastery of facts—even in the Google age, it’s better to have knowledge handy than to have to look it up on your BlackBerry—and trivia, at heart, is just a body of facts from a common cultural canon. Even better, trivia tends to be the fun, sexy edge of knowledge, the kind that might actually persuade people that it’s cool to learn stuff, which is an increasingly uphill battle. And it encourages us to be generalists, which I think is important in an age of overspecialization when people of different professions don’t even speak the same language anymore.
In writing your two books on trivia, Brianiac and Ken Jennings’ Trivia Almanac, what differences did you find between a really great factoid that trivia buffs can masticate like a stick of Juicy Fruit gum and information that is factually correct but doesn’t elicit a response from trivia lovers’ glands, salivary or otherwise?
It’s like pornography: You know it when you see it. Not every fact from the encyclopedia makes for good trivia, as you say. There has to be something surprising or unique or funny about it—something that lets the listener relate to it personally, and, if possible, marvel at the vast strangeness of the universe. “Koalas are no longer endangered in South Australia”—big deal. That’s not going to liven up a cocktail-party conversation. But “Koala fingerprints are identical to human ones”? Something about the strangeness of that just makes you happy, even if you’re not a koala master criminal (or, alternately, a human master criminal looking to frame koalas for your crimes).
What’s happening with the development of your own game show? If it comes to pass, how would your hosting persona compare to that of the “Trebekbot?”
Comedy Central eventually passed on the game show I was developing for them a couple years back, but with the writers’ strike, who knows? America is hungry for cheap, crappy, unscripted TV, and I would be honored to fill that void. Alex Trebek is actually my model of what a game-show host should be: dapper, unflappable, careful never to overshadow the gameplay with his own personality, and Canadian.
If a movie were made about your life, who would you want to play the lead?
I would require at least seven different actors, to sum up my chameleonic complexity. Cate Blanchett, wearing a Ted Koppel wig and prosthetic ears, would portray me on Jeopardy! A scrappy African-American 10-year-old would represent me in my current life as a suburban dad and freelance writer. For scenes from my dream life, in which I fight international crime with the help of a futuristic black helicopter, I will be played by Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine.
As a fellow Mormon, what advice would you give Mitt Romney?
Dear Mitt, last year a reporter asked you to name your favorite book and you said L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Here’s a complete list of even worse answers to that question:
1. Mein Kampf
2. If I Did It by O.J. Simpson
3. That’s about it.
Here’s are some better answers: any other book ever written.