Ken Jennings Talks Buzzer Strategy, Marvel Movies, and Alex Trebek

Published February 10, 2020

Photo courtesy Ken Jennings. Art by Jack Vhay.

On January 14th, longtime Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings was crowned “The Greatest of All Time,” defeating two other longtime accomplished contestants, Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer. Jennings, who also holds the longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history with 74 consecutive wins, took home $1,000,000 for his efforts. Jennings is also a published author (many times over), a former magazine columnist, and current podcast host. He has his own board game. But, perhaps more than anything, he is the modern face of knowledge. We caught up with the trivia GOAT to ask him about his early days watching the show, his thirst for competition, and his relationship with Alex Trebek.

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JACOB UITTI: You were born in Washington but you grew up watching Jeopardy! in South Korea and Singapore. Did watching the show feel like a piece of home?

KEN JENNINGS: As a kid growing up in South Korea, I really just clung to any scrap of American pop culture. If somebody got a VHS tape from home of Michael Jackson videos or even Taco Bell commercials, we would just wear it out because we didn’t have it. I almost think my love of trivia—low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow—starts there, just being starved for content. I also think growing up overseas and getting exposed to broader geographies and broader histories turned me into a more curious person.

UITTI: You’re now on top of the mountain of Jeopardy! and a piece of pop culture. That must feel poetic, no?

JENNINGS: It’s really just been the most delightful part of the whole thing—and has been from the beginning—just that it was always legitimately my favorite show. Just to win once was good enough, you know? I felt like, “Now I’m good. No matter what else happens, I died a Jeopardy! champion.” So, the fact that it went on from there so improbably, and then I’m now a piece of the show’s history … it’s like I’ve become a trivia answer!

UITTI: Do you have a photographic memory?

JENNINGS: No, and I’m not sure that exists. I feel like children have the ability to retain an after-image of something once they see it visually, but no, I’m just like anybody else. If I’m interested in something, it sticks in my head. I think the thing about trivia kids is that they’re just interested in everything. They don’t discriminate. They don’t say, “Oh, jazz, I don’t like this.” Or, “Oh, European history, I’m not interested in this!” They’re open-minded. They think anything might be interesting. And I think when you’re like that, stuff just tends to stick.

UITTI: Were you ever bullied for being too smart?

JENNINGS: No, I don’t think so. I’m self-aware enough that I realized it wasn’t cool to know everything or to appear to know everything or to be pedantic. It’s really a personality trait that I find unappealing in others. So, I really try to dial it down. I kind of spent my whole life in the closet, as far as not feeling comfortable being a trivia person because it seems a little bit embarrassing. If nothing else, winning that first time on Jeopardy! kind of busted me out of that closet, and I’m most famous for being a trivia geek no matter what else I do now.

UITTI: You’ve participated in a lot of competitions. What do you like about competing?

JENNINGS: The competitive thing is very important to me, honestly. Sitting at home, memorizing lists of state birds, or whatever—that doesn’t seem fun at all. Really, there is something about finding the smartest people you can and let’s see how I stack up? That’s always been the appeal of Jeopardy! for me because it’s always the best they can find and the game moves so fast. How do I stack up? And especially as I’m getting older, do I still have it now? I’ve always been pretty competitive by nature, and you dial it down socially, but it is nice to have a place where you can cut loose and, for me, the Jeopardy! set is a place like that.

UITTI: How long did it take you to perfect your buzzer strategy, and do you have one at home?

JENNINGS: I do now. A fellow Jeopardy! champ sent me a replica he made. Back in the day, I didn’t. I just used a ballpoint pen or a Fisher Price toy of my toddler son’s. To me, it’s really all about watching the show. If you watch it for decades like I had, you internalize the rhythms of Alex [Trebek]’s voice and then the whole cycle because you see it 60 times an evening. Alex reads a clue, there’s a beat, somebody buzzes in, gets called on—you hear that staccato of it in your head, almost like a pulse. So, I found, without even thinking about it, I can get into that rhythm and find the exact right fraction of a second for that buzz. If I think about it, I can’t do it. It’s very much a zen thing. At this point, it’s just part of how I’m wired.

UITTI: Who is the most surprising person you’ve heard from after winning the show, and what did they say? Did Jay-Z or Barack Obama text you?

JENNINGS: Yeah, both! But you expect that…

UITTI: Really!?

JENNINGS: No! C’mon! Jimmy Kimmel sent me a short note saying how pleased he was. I’ve been clearing out my inbox, and there was an email from a woman whose aged father had been a huge fan of the show and who really enjoyed my run in 2004 and then passed away the morning of the day I lost. His family just stopped watching Jeopardy! because it was so sad and it reminded them of him. She said she happened to hear that I was going to be back on Jeopardy! for this tournament and she wanted to email me to say how happy she was, and that she watched it not sure if she could do it, if she would be too sad. She said she was so happy when I won, she found herself crying. She just wanted to say congratulations and, you know, that means more to me than if John Legend and Chrissy Teigen like Jeopardy! I hear that kind of thing all the time. It’s a show where families bond together. It really crosses generations in a weird way that almost no other TV property does.

UITTI: Would you ever want to host Jeopardy!?

JENNINGS: That’s very flattering. But I can’t imagine anybody but Alex. That’s the only problem I have with that. It’s a great job, but that would mean Alex isn’t hosting the show and I’m not emotionally prepared for that. To me, he’s irreplaceable.

UITTI: Have you ever had an off-camera heart-to-heart with Alex?

JENNINGS: You don’t really spend a whole lot of time with him because federal law keeps contestants away from people who know the answers because of the scandals from the ’50s. But over the years, I’ve gotten to know him. I’ve really admired what a quirky down-to-earth guy he is when the cameras aren’t on him, which people do not expect. I did stop by a taping last year when he got his diagnosis, just to talk to him and see how he was doing. He had enjoyed something I’d written about him and wanted to thank me. He was just overwhelmed with the outpouring of good will he’d received. He didn’t realize how much he meant to people. He was telling me how lucky he felt that he got to be around to that. He said, “Ken, most people don’t get to see this because it happens after they’re gone. But I get to see it.” He felt very lucky, which was inspiring to me.

UITTI: As someone who has such great mental recall, what is your relationship to Google and the abundance of information online?

JENNINGS: To me, it’s fantastic, just the breadth of answers that we all have in our pockets. I’m not the kind of person who can sit around and not know something. It’s really nice to have all the world’s knowledge in a rectangle in my pocket at all times. I do kind of wonder if, in the long-term, there are some side effects in our culture if people stop thinking, “What a fun thing to know! What a fun thing to learn about!” and instead, they think, “Oh, I’ll just ask Siri or I’ll Google it, if it ever comes up.” So, I’m a little worried about what the stuff is going to do to our commitment to lifelong learning. But for somebody is borderline compulsive about not knowing the answer to something, I think there’s never been a better time to be alive. It’s a golden age.

UITTI: Is being so smart ever a detriment?

JENNINGS: That’s an interesting question. I feel like I worry more. I notice this a lot with social media and being more plugged in to all the outrageous news of the day and every awful thing that happens. It’s not making me a happier person to know every time some state senator in Kentucky says something awful, you know? But, on the other hand, what would be gained by ignoring climate change, or whatever? But I do feel like it’s linked to being a neurotic-worrier personality.

UITTI: You are an avid comic book and movie connoisseur. Are comic book movies “cinema”?

JENNINGS: They are absolutely not cinema. It’s weird how there are now, I don’t know, four or five pretty good comic book movies every year. When I was a kid, for a long time, most of the tent-pole movies did not really deliver. A lot of them were really dumb and badly made. So, at least these are well made. But I feel like they’re just all pretty good.

UITTI: Who is your favorite superhero?

JENNINGS: I’ve always been a Superman guy, actually. I just like that he’s always flying around, getting cats out of trees and stuff. Just the fact that he’s, like, a boy scout who’s actually good at solving people’s problems, unlike most boy scouts.

UITTI: What’s the best thing about being famous for your brains?

JENNINGS: I guess that it’s uncontroversial. Nobody really has anything against me. If I was well-known for a political ideology, immediately that takes half of everybody out of the equation. If I won on a reality show, probably half of them like me and half of them hate it. But nobody has a bad word to say about Jeopardy! There’s an enormous amount of good will in the American culture for Jeopardy! just because we have so few institutions like that left. It’s a real honor to syphon off some of that good will for me. People are genuinely happy to see me, like, “Aren’t you that guy? My mom loves you! My mom always talks about you!” It’s really nice.