Brainiac by Ken Jennings

7 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Here’s a bit of trivia you might not know: Ken Jennings is a very funny guy.

Like many Jeopardy! viewers, I watched Jennings’ 75-game marathon in 2004 with decidedly undecided feelings. I never really rooted for him, nor against him. To be frank, I usually don’t even care about the contestants at all. As I have for years, even long before my own appearance on the show when I routinely taped (yes, taped, on a VCR) the episodes, I time-shift my viewing not only to skip the commercials, but also to bypass the contestant introductions and chats. This enables me to view a full three episodes in an hour, and makes the show all about the trivia, and not the trappings.

Besides, the contestants are really just a never-ending series of interchangeable trivia geeks. Unless one stands out as particularly charismatic or attractive—or on the rare occasion I recognize a face, such as that of Matt Ottinger, host of WKAR-TV’s QuizBusters and one of many victims of the Ken Jennings buzz saw (game 14)—they’re all the same. Myself included.

And Ken was certainly no exception. That’s not meant as a slam on him, it’s just stating a fact that Jeopardy! is hardly an ideal venue for anyone’s personality to shine. He was just an ordinary, clean-cut, “Opie-looking guy from Utah” (his words, not mine), and the fact that he kept showing up behind Podium #1 was, from a purist’s point-of-view, a distraction from The Game. And he was so damn good at it, and yet so overtly milquetoast, that it seemed the only way to make him interesting was to believe he was some sort of replicant, or android. So while it was fun to see his streak continue on the basis of witnessing quiz-show history, both of those facts—his persona and his prowess—made it awfully hard to root for him.

With that bias firmly in place, imagine my surprise when Ken showed up last month on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview, under the pseudonym “Watson’s Bitch”—a self-deprecating reference to his recent on-air drubbing at the “hands” of a specialized IBM supercomputer—responding off-the-cuff to dozens of questions, big and small, with witty jibes and candid good humour. Some of his replies were snarfing-coffee-out-the-nose funny. And somewhere in there he mentioned his blog, which I found contains much more of the same.

And, shockingly, he’s got a taste for the occasional dirty joke. I suppose we should have figured that out from game 53, given his response to the clue “This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker”—although maybe that particular example is more of a pun. But if your idea of “what Mormons are like” comes from a certain HBO series, you might be surprised by his reprinting of a typically smutty old Spy List on his blog, or this response in his Reddit AMA:

TheCrimsonKing: You’re a little too funny, did you hire writers with your winnings?

WatsonsBitch: Bruce Vilanch is hiding under my desk right now. Unfortunately he’s not writing jokes for me, if you know what I mean.

Or this exchange with a friend while they toured Stevens Point, Wisconsin, during that city’s annual three-day trivia event:

Earl and I decide to spend the day visiting as many trivia players as possible, and so we pore over a list of all 435 registered teams. “Shall we just go by team name?” asks Earl. “I want to visit K-Y Jelly Doughnuts and Drain Bamage.”

“Some of these names are pretty dirty,” I notice. “Let’s just visit every team where the name is an oral sex reference.”

“I don’t think we have that kind of time.”

Ken Jennings’ 2006 book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, is a must-read for any trivia buff, dilettante, or even neophyte. The narrative is excellent; through the course of the book Ken takes us through his complete Jeopardy! experience, from audition to post-defeat interviews. Some of the behind-the-scenes action, while never dishing any dirt or revealing Sony’s top secrets, does give prospective contestants a good general idea of what to expect with the show.

Meanwhile, Ken takes us on a journey through trivia. He presents us with a thorough rundown of trivia’s history from (not-so) ancient times. The scandals of the 1950s, and the birth of College Quiz Bowl in the 1960s. The amazing surge of trivia popularity in the 1980s, fueled by the blockbuster sales of Trivial Pursuit. The bar-trivia NTN network, a.k.a. Buzztime, and the annual temporary insanity of Stevens Point (which, by the way, begins tomorrow evening). And much more.

It’s a terrific book for trivia junkies, not least because he slips trivia questions into each chapter (usually ten, although the chapter about the general types of trivia questions and how to compose them triples that total). Just like a good game of trivia, there are plenty of “aha!” and “I didn’t know that!” moments. Without overreaching, he explains how trivia is a pervasive and positive force in modern life, its most obvious benefit being the way in which it brings people together.

On his website, Ken Jennings is hawking copies of Brainiac, which he offers to autograph and personalize, and still sell at a steep discount off the cover price. Although this has led to a spate of “high maintenance” signing requests, I suspect it’s a good ploy to unload a case (or three) of books that he likely got for free from the publisher and might otherwise sit in his garage forever.

I ordered a copy for myself, making a (low-maintenance, I hope) request for him to “feel free to make any witty-if-disparaging remark you like about my one-day appearance on Jeopardy!” Ken’s response was absolutely typical Ken Jennings—humourous, upbeat, and not the least bit mean-spirited:

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