Monday, March 30, 2009

New sheriff in Trebekistan

I'm several days late in getting to this, but, well, life happens.

Here's a belated yet heartfelt salute to Dan Pawson, who emerged triumphant in this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Dan pulled out a hard-fought victory over two worthy co-finalists, Larissa Kelly and Aaron Schroeder, in the 25th Anniversary ToC taped at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I had a premonition when I first wrote in this space — more than a year ago — about Dan's Jeopardy! skills that a Tournament title might be in his future. As it turned out, I was correct. That means next to nothing, however. I am notorious lousy at sizing up the field in Jeopardy! tournaments, even after having played in three of them. (For the benefit of any new arrivals, those three were the 1988 Tournament of Champions, Super Jeopardy! in 1990, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.) When you fill a room with top-level Jeopardy! players, anything can happen, and often does. In this instance, I believe that the strongest player came away with the grand prize.

Well played, Mr. Pawson. Congratulations also to Larissa and Aaron, who helped make this one of the most memorable two-game finals in ToC history.

Speaking of Jeopardy!, I just finished reading Bob Harris's excellent book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob spins a hilarious, often surprisingly heart-tugging tale about his career as a Jeopardy! champion. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob during my second-round taping in the UToC, and he's every bit as charming and funny as his book would lead you to believe.

The fact that I personally relate to many of the anecdotes Bob shares added to my personal connection with the book, but it's a fun read even if you've never been a quiz show contestant. If you dig Jeopardy!, or simply enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of television, I enthusiastically recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan.

Even though Bob neglected to mention me in it.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Five questions

If you stop by here frequently, you may have noticed that I rarely do memes. In 1,600 posts over four and a half years, I think I've done maybe three.

Let's make it four.

Adam Avitable posted his version of "Five Questions" shortly before Thanksgiving. The idea of the meme is this: Someone asks you five questions of his or her choosing. As the participant, you agree to answer the five questions on your own blog (with a link back to your interviewer). In turn, you offer to create a unique five-part questionnaire for another volunteer or group of volunteers. Adam collected more than 50 willing interview subjects, of which I am one.

So, off we go.

1. Where did the name SwanShadow come from, and did anyone suggest that it's a bit of a feminine name?

That's really two questions, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

My official SwanShadow story goes like this: As a freelance copywriter and editor, I work in anonymity. When I write ad copy or sales letters or radio spots or any of the other folderol I'm paid to create, I rarely get a byline or credit. Indeed, I often work for clients who prefer that I don't acknowledge, even on my own site, that I'm the person who does their writing, or the writing for the companies they represent. Thus, I work in the shadows. It's my job to take other people's ugly-duckling brands, concepts, and sales prose, and transform them into beautiful swans.

The truth, however, is that I created the SwanShadow handle years before I hung out my freelance shingle. Its true significance is known only to me.

But the other thing's my official story, and as far as the public is concerned, I'm sticking to it.

As for the femininity angle, I get that on rare occasion — most often from other players at online poker tables. I must confess that it never occurred to me before I started using the name.

I don't think of swans as female, particularly, if I think of them in terms of gender at all. In Greek mythology, Zeus took the form of a swan when he impregnated Leda (whether by force or by seduction depends on whose version of the myth you believe). The title character in Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling — which inspired my "official" explanation — is also male. Then again, Odette in Swan Lake is a princess.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

2. Marvel or DC? Corollary: Who's your favorite artist?

Again with the two-fer! Curse you, Avitable!

When I was a comics-reading kid growing up, it was definitely Marvel. I read just about everything DC published, of course, when my friends weren't looking. But if I had to choose up sides, I was a Marvelite to the core. I belonged to both of Marvel's official fan clubs, the Merry Marvel Marching Society and its successor, FOOM (Friends of Ol' Marvel). Marvel's heroes were the ones I identified with most closely, and that I cared the most about.

These days, my reading list is much closer to 50-50. I think of it this way: I read Marvel for its connection to my history, and DC for its present reality.

My favorite artist depends on the period:
  • Golden Age: Matt Baker (Phantom Lady), Lou Fine (The Ray), Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr.), and Lee Elias (The Black Cat).
  • Silver Age: John Buscema (Thor, Conan), John Romita Sr. (Amazing Spider-Man), and Jim Aparo (The Brave and the Bold).
  • Bronze Age: Barry Windsor-Smith (Conan) and Keith Pollard (pretty much everything at Marvel).
  • Modern Age: George Pérez (Wonder Woman), Adam Hughes (Wonder Woman, again), Mark Schultz (Xenozoic Tales, a.k.a. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), and the recently departed Dave Stevens (The Rocketeer) and Mike Wieringo (Fantastic Four).
But if I had to pick one artist from all of comics history? That's easy — Will Eisner.

3. What's your favorite writing achievement?

I'm tempted to say this blog, because so much of my heart and soul lies bare on these virtual pages.

But instead, I'm going to point to the 146 film and television reviews I wrote for DVD Verdict during my five years as a staff member there. It was mentally and creatively challenging work, and I enjoyed it thoroughly — even when reviewing Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks that were so wretched, I could feel my brain cells decaying as I watched them.

If there were unlimited hours in the day and my body never required sleep, I'd still be writing for the Verdict.

4. Do you think that blogging is just lazy writing?

Perish the thought. No writing is lazy writing. Lazy writers don't write.

I will admit to being frustrated with writers — bloggers and otherwise — who don't take every opportunity to write as well as they can. If you're going to write at all, even if it's "just a blog," why not give it your best effort? Use and spell words correctly. Write coherently, and mostly in complete sentences. Share original thoughts, at least to the degree that any thought is "original," rather than simply parroting what you've read elsewhere.

Life's too short to write badly.

But it's especially too short not to write at all.

5. Is Alex Trebek really as obnoxious in person as he seems on TV?

If I had an FAQ on this blog, this question would be on it. Heck, if I had an FAQ for my life, this question would be on it.

Although I've played eleven games on Jeopardy! and its associated tournaments during the past 20 years, I don't really know Alex Trebek. With a single exception I will address in a moment, all of my interaction with Alex has been on the set of Jeopardy! during the course of game play or the post-program chat that takes place while the show's credits roll. Alex has always been polite and personable toward me in those circumstances. (Though he did call me by another contestant's name when I won my quarter-final game in the 1988 Tournament of Champions. I've long since forgiven him for that faux pas. Sort of.)

When I was first on the show in '88, Alex was not only the host of Jeopardy!, but was also the show's producer. Back then, he had numerous other responsibilities on taping days besides just running the game on camera. In the years since he gave up the producer's job (which has been assayed ever since by the guy who used to be Alex's assistant, a model of level-headed efficiency named Rocky Schmidt), Alex has appeared more relaxed, and less harried and abrupt, when I've been on the set.

Or maybe he's just matured as he's aged.

The one occasion I've been around Alex off-camera was in 1997, when I participated in a special one-game Jeopardy! event called Battle of the Bay Area Brains. My wife, daughter, and I were invited to a reception following the taping. Alex took time to be both congenial and kind to my then-eight-year-old daughter, and signed several autographs for her.

I guess the short answer (if it's not already too late for that) is that Alex has always been fine with me. Mrs. Trebek may tell an entirely different tale.

Those are my five questions. If you're a regular here — or even if you're just a-passin' through — and would like me to interview you, here's the official "Five Questions" boilerplate:
Want to be part of it? Follow these instructions:
1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by e-mailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.
In the spirit of Mr. Avitable, I'll interview as many of you as volunteer. (I can make that commitment safely, knowing that I'm nowhere near as popular as Adam is.)

Thanks to Avitable for the excellent questions!

Even if there really were seven.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cry, the beloved Sony

Our living room television set — the imposing 35-inch Trinitron that my good friends at Jeopardy! included in my Battle of the Bay Area Brains prize package ten years ago — has given up the ghost.

It will be replaced for the nonce by its predecessor, a 32-inch Fisher that has seen little use in the decade since it retired to the master bedroom.

The Trinitron is survived by its loving siblings — a DVD player and surround-sound system that arrived along with it. It was preceded in death by its longtime companion, a Sony VAIO notebook computer.

Memorial services are pending.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dan's the Jeopardy! man

Congratulations to Dan Pawson, whose streak as reigning Jeopardy! champion ended tonight after nine victories.

Dan's run marks the third-longest winning skein in non-tournament Jeopardy! play, after the phenomenal Ken Jennings (74 wins) and David Madden (19 wins). (Long-time viewers will recall that until a few seasons ago, returning champions — including yours truly — were retired after their fifth victories.)

Dan's prize total of $171,601 will come in extremely handy, given that he and his wife are expecting a new baby, quite literally any day now.

Way to go, Dan!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The category is: Cardiac Arrest

I was shocked and saddened to hear the news this morning that my old pal, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, has suffered a mild heart attack.

Word is that Alex is resting comfortably in a Los Angeles hospital, and is expected to be back at his podium after the holidays. I certainly hope that's the case.

For all of the ribbing Alex takes, even from his most ardent fans — and I'd count myself in that number — you don't enjoy the success he's had for nearly 25 years on the same television program unless you're awfully good at what you do. When the annals of game show history are written, Alex's name will be right there at the top.

Get well soon, Alex. And when you're back on your feet, have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.

I'll even let you pick up the check.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Queen of Jeopardy!

Hearty congratulations to Celeste DiNucci, winner of this year's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions.

In one of the most unpredictable tournaments in Jeopardy! history, Celeste emerged triumphant, edging out a narrow victory over crafty Canadian Doug Hicton in the finals. Celeste garnered $250,000 and the adoration of millions for her stellar efforts.

Despite my nearly 20 years of association with Jeopardy!, and the fact that I've been privileged to meet — and in a few cases, compete against — some of the best players ever to pick up a signaling device, I've never been any great shakes at evaluating competitor talent, or at forecasting tournament outcomes. This year's Tournament of Champions was no different.

Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have figured any of the three finalists to make it out of the first round. That's not intended as an insult to them, in any way — I just thought there were several stronger players in the field. But Celeste and Doug, in particular, showed themselves worthy to stand among the game's elite. Celeste is an impressive and personable grand champion, and only the third woman in Jeopardy! history to win a Tournament of Champions.

Celeste came within a hairsbreadth of missing the finals altogether. In her semifinal match, she and Christian Haines — one of the pre-tournament favorites — finished the game tied at $15,401. Host Alex Trebek announced a tie-breaking category, "Child's Play," then read the final answer: "A Longfellow poem and a Lillian Hellman play about a girls' boarding school share this timely title." Celeste rang in first, and delivered the correct question: "What is The Children's Hour?"

Way to go, Celeste!

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Find a line, and picket

Although I'm not a member of the Writers Guild of America (I'm a writer, but not that kind of writer), and am not especially a big fan of unionized work stoppages, I empathize with the POV of the WGA in its latest dispute with film and television producers.

Writing is the invisible magic of media. Practically everything you see on a screen, large or small, is written by someone — more often than not, someone drastically underpaid when compared to the so-called talent on camera. The wit and wisdom of the people you see actually springs from the minds of people you don't see — people who work hard at their craft and deserve their fair share of the revenue their efforts help generate.

The problem is that writing is a deceptively simple-looking talent. Everyone thinks he or she can write — why, even a chimpanzee can sit at a keyboard and bang out strings of characters. Yet very few people can write exceptionally well, with clarity and verve and energy and imagination. Producers (and trust me, this is as true in the advertising/marketing world as it is in show business) always undervalue the contributions of writers, mostly because they think "anyone can write."

In a word: Balderdash.

The current WGA walkout reminds me of my tenuous connection to the union's last major strike in 1988. The beginning of that strike coincided with the taping of my original five-game run on Jeopardy! Although there were picket lines in front of Hollywood Center Studios, where the show was then based, on the days my shows taped, Jeopardy! itself was not directly affected because the show's writing staff weren't members of the WGA.

As the contestant coordinators explained the situation to us, game show writers were considered production assistants rather than screenwriters, and thus ineligible for WGA membership. I don't know whether that's still the case 19 years later, but all of the news accounts I've read seemed to suggest that game shows and other reality programming won't be directly affected by the strike unless other trade unions honor the WGA picket lines.

I wish there could be a less divisive method of resolving the impasse between the WGA's membership and The Powers That Be in Hollywood. But here's hoping that the writers get an honest shake before it's all through.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'll take Deceased Game Show Creators for $2000, Alex

I never had the pleasure of meeting Merv Griffin. But it's fair to say that Merv — who died this morning at the age of 82 following a battle with prostate cancer — had as direct and as profound an impact on my life as anyone else whom I never met.

He was, after all, responsible for the 15 minutes of fame that have been my calling card for nearly 20 years.

As has been widely chronicled, Merv Griffin created America's favorite quiz show, Jeopardy! in the 1960s. It's the modern version of the show, which began airing in 1984 and continues as a syndication juggernaut today, where I made my national television debut in 1988. Thanks to Merv's forward-thinking genius, an incredulous, fresh-faced kid got the chance to steal a soupçon of celebrity that has proven surprisingly difficult to escape.

Even though my Jeopardy! journey has returned me briefly to the spotlight four times since my original five-game run — the 1988 Tournament of Champions, ABC's Super Jeopardy! tournament in the summer of 1990, a special called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions two years ago — I never found myself face to face with the man who started it all. The closest my ship and Merv's ever came to passing in the night was during the Super Jeopardy! taping, when the contestants were domiciled at the Beverly Hilton, which Merv had recently purchased. The place was a cacophony of renovation at the time — hordes of construction workers surrounded me at every turn, but not the elusive Mr. Griffin.

Merv sold Jeopardy! and its lowest-common-denominator companion property, Wheel of Fortune, to the Sony Pictures empire in the mid-'90s. Still, his stamp remained on the quiz show that helped build his legend, in the form of the oft-imitated theme music, which Merv composed.

I still have the letter, on Merv Griffin Enterprises stationery emblazoned with Merv's familiar namesake mythological creature logo, which first heralded my entry into game show history. I just wish I'd had the opportunity, just once, to shake the man's hand and let him know how much I've loved being a minuscule cog in his entertainment wheel.

That, and the $103K.

So long, Merv. Thanks for all the fun. (And for all the checks.) Wherever you are, be sure you phrase your responses in the form of a question.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Quiz Kid loses his final match

Sad news today for Bay Area game show fanatics.

Daniel Barclay, a young man who dazzled viewers of the local cable program Quiz Kids a few years back, was found dead on a Cape Cod beach last Friday, the apparent victim of a rafting accident.

Quiz Kids, which airs on San Francisco's KRON-4 on Saturday afternoons, pits teams of high school brainiacs against one another in the format of the venerable G.E. College Bowl program. Although I usually hold my own as a home viewer — clinging desperately to my rapidly fading Jeopardy! cred — some of these Quiz Kids are scary smart.

Daniel Barclay may have been one of the brightest youngsters ever featured on the show. Certainly, he was among the most memorable.

During the years when Daniel led the Menlo-Atherton High squad, his team was unbeatable. Menlo-Atherton won the Quiz Kids championship four years running, besting a field of 40-plus rival schools. More often than not, Daniel came on like a one-man encyclopedic wrecking crew, pouncing on question after question with catlike precision and Rutteresque knowledge. As Quiz Kids master of ceremonies Brad Friedman — "the best host on the West Coast," as he is introduced each week — told the San Francisco Chronicle:
He knew when I started a question exactly where I was going before I had the words out. It was eerie. Other kids have come to do that since, but no one has come close to doing it as well as he did.
Few things in life are more tragic than the loss of a young life that held so much promise for a brilliant future. As a father — and as a fan — my heart breaks for the Barclay family.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jeopardy! — like kissing your twin sisters

Since I always get inundated with queries after any major event occurs on Jeopardy!, I presume that some of you are wondering about my take on the show's unprecedented three-player tie game last night.

Wonder no more.

First, let's catch up the latecomers in the group. On the Jeopardy! episode that aired Friday, March 16, defending champion Scott Weiss (I'll wait a moment for the Rocky Horror fans to stop hissing) led going into the Final Jeopardy round with a score of $13,400. Each of Scott's opponents, Jamey Kirby and Anders Martinson, had exactly $8,000. Both Jamey and Anders risked their entire bankrolls on the Final Jeopardy clue, answered correctly, and doubled their scores to $16,000. After Scott's correct response was revealed, we discovered that he had wagered $2,600, upping his score to $16,000 and creating the first three-winner game in Jeopardy! history.

Now, suppose I had found myself in Scott's position. Would I have bet for the tie?

Simple answer: No. For three reasons:
  1. I always played Jeopardy! to win (even in the two games — in Super Jeopardy! and Round Two of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions — in which victory had become increasingly unlikely by the time Final Jeopardy arrived), and would again if I had another opportunity. To do otherwise makes a mockery of the game, in my opinion. (Try to imagine a Super Bowl coach playing for a tie.) Nothing frustrates me as a viewer more than seeing a front-running J! contestant lose a game or end up in a tie situation for no other reason than a failure to bet adequately — an embarrassment that occurs all too often on the show.

  2. As a defending champion, I would much rather play my next game against two first-time players than against two opponents with an entire game's worth of stage confidence and buzzer practice. That's the main reason why the Jeopardy! contestant staff always counsels players never to play for the tie. If you've earned the champion's advantage with a prior victory or two, why would you want to minimize that edge?

  3. Frankly, it would never have occurred to me. My statistical analysis skills suck. (For my money, today's players think way too much about wagering strategies. But that's just me.)
None of this is intended to be critical of Scott, who seems like a decent fellow who saw an opportunity to make a little game show history and seized it. (He explains this himself over on the Jeopardy! discussion forums.) It's just not the way I would have played it.

If either Jamey or Anders wins Monday's game, Scott may rethink his decision.

Or he may not.

(Point of order: Last night's show was not, as has been widely reported, the first three-way tie in modern Jeopardy! history. On September 11, 1984, during the first week of the Alex Trebek era, there was a game in which all three contestants finished with zero scores. Weiss-Kirby-Martinson I was the first game with a positive three-way tie, and thus three cochampions.)

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bow before my intellectual superiority!

How smart are you?

Unfortunately, I am still not as smart as Mark Lowenthal, Bob Blake, or Grace Veach.

But then, you probably aren't, either.

Unless you're Eugene Finerman. Then you probably are.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Last call for The Grab Bag

When people learn that I'm a former Jeopardy! champion, one of the first questions they often ask is, "How did you learn all that stuff?"

The man responsible for at least part of the answer died last week, at age 79.

For nearly 40 years, Louis Malcolm (L.M.) Boyd wrote a weekly newspaper column presenting arcane facts distilled for a mass audience. The column was published under various names in some 400 papers nationwide at the time Boyd retired in December 2000, but in the San Francisco Chronicle — where I first discovered it in the mid-1970s — it was known as The Grab Bag.

The Grab Bag appeared every Sunday in the Chronicle's "light reading" section, the Sunday Punch. In it, one found a veritable treasure trove of trivia, esoterica, results of various surveys, and factoids of every description, reported with conciseness (most Grab Bag items were only a sentence or two in length) and gentle humor by the redoubtable Boyd. You can browse a sampling of typically Boydian nuggets here.

Boyd started writing his trivia column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (where Boyd used the nom de plume Mike Mailway) in 1963. He and his wife Patricia began syndicating the piece nationally in 1967.

Boyd often salted his columns with wry observations on the interaction between the sexes, which he attributed to "our Love and War Man" — in reality, these tidbits came from Mrs. Boyd.

Although I can't point to a specific instance with absolute certainty, I have no doubt that, at more than one juncture in my Jeopardy! career, I came up with a correct response to a clue only because I had once encountered that very morsel of obscure information in a Grab Bag column.

Thank you, Mr. Boyd.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Today's Final Jeopardy! category is... Five More Years

Okay, so I have good news and bad news.

The good news first: Jeopardy! — America's favorite quiz show® (due in no small part to the substantial sums of cash they've slipped into my pocket over the past 19 years) — has been renewed for another five seasons by its syndicator, King World Productions, an arm of CBS Television Distribution.

Now the bad news: J!'s companion program Wheel of Fortune, one of the most inane game shows ever devised (come on, people — it's "Hangman," for crying out loud!), has also been renewed for five more seasons.

That sound you just heard was Alex, Pat, and Vanna together shouting, "Cha-CHING!"

In all seriousness, when I made my first J! appearances way back in 1988 (and yes, kids, we had color TV by then — indoor plumbing, too), none of us involved with the show would have dared imagine it would still be on the air — never mind the third-most successful program in syndication — after 23 seasons. Today, it's guaranteed to survive at least through its twenty-eighth campaign, by which time my close personal friend Alex Trebek will be measuring his age in geologic time.

Congratulations to all of the nice folks on the Jeopardy! production staff, who now have many more paychecks to look forward to.

Should they ever decide to pitch another one my way, I'd be a fool to say no.

Not that that's a hint, or anything.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Mr. Finerman has his say

When I first joined the ranks of Jeopardy! champions, I thought I was a rather bright individual.

Over the past 18 years, I've become ever more conscious of the veracity of that old saying: "The longer I live, the more things I know that I don't know."

Please allow me to introduce you to a man who doesn't suffer from such inadequacy.

Eugene Finerman was a participant in perhaps the most legendary Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions final in the show's august 23-year history, way back in 1987. Together with fellow stalwarts Bob Verini (the eventual winner) and Dave Traini, Eugene helped form a triumvirate brain trust that astounded viewers as much with razor wit and self-effacing charm as with sheer trivia dominance. When former J! champs get together and reminisce, the '87 ToC final always comes in for fond mention, as do its three memorable stars.

More recently, Eugene has been regaling his loyal fans on the official Jeopardy! online forum. His daily posts cram more historical ephemera into a handful of paragraphs than an Ivy League doctoral thesis. His commentaries on the political happenings of the day dazzle with brilliance even as they baffle with... ummm... rollicking good humor. (What did you think I was going to say?)

Now Eugene has his own Web site from which to disseminate the bottomless fountain of knowledge that bubbles up from between his ears. If you stop by on a regular basis, you'll learn many things you didn't even know you didn't know. While visiting, you can also subscribe to Eugene's Your RDA of Irony e-newsletter, and he'll drop these golden nuggets of satire right in your inbox as you sip your morning beverage of choice.

I have an ulterior motive here, of course. Eugene and I share a common profession. The busier he stays at writing funny and enlightening bits of business for his site, the more paying work there is to be glommed onto by us marketing/PR writer types who are simply trying to keep food on our backs and clothes in our mouths. Or concepts to that effect.

Anyway, go check out Finerman Works. You'll be glad you did. And tell Eugene I sent you.

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Just call me Number 68

In case you missed it, America's Favorite Quiz Show® wrapped its 22nd season of the Alex Trebek Era last Friday. (I realize that most of you are too young to recall the Art Fleming Era. Trust me, the show rocked then, too.)

To celebrate this milestone, one of the participants on the Jeopardy! message boards posted a list of the show's top 137 money-winners, covering the past 22 years of J! champions. Wonder of wonders, there sits yours truly, cozily ensconced at Number 68.

Hmm. If I get bumped downward one more slot, that would really...

Oh, never mind.

Lists of this nature are always deceptive, if one proposes to use them as a benchmark of the relative quality of players over time. For one thing, everyone who's played during the most recent seasons has a leg up on us old-timers, due to the doubling of answer values that occurred a few years ago. Plus, all kind of fluke factors contribute to the size of the point totals. My own position is greatly inflated by my having turned in the performance of my life in the first round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions last year. (Which makes up only slightly for my having played possibly the most forgettable game in Jeopardy! tournament history in Round Two.)

Were all 137 of us to play Last Jeopardy! Champ Standing, I have no doubt that more than one of the folks beneath me on the list would append my name at the end of the phrase, "I know I'm a better Jeopardy! player than..." Some of them would even be correct in so doing. Strictly on merit, there's no qualitative reason why I should outrank such J! legends as Babu Srinivasan, Doug Lach, or Eddie Timanus, just to pick three names at random.

Indeed, it's only a quirk of luck that I'm located just two slots south of Eugene Finerman, in my never-humble opinion one of the most supremely knowledgeable players in J! history. Eugene knows things that I not only will never know though I live a hundred lifetimes, but that I have no earthly clue how any single human being could know them all in but one.

So go figure.

But I have to admit, as I've noted in this space previously: It's kind of cool to be in the Top 70 of anything.

And when the "anything" is America's Favorite Quiz Show®, that's pretty cool indeed.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ken Jennings ate my baby

I can see the headlines in tomorrow's New York Post already.

In case you've missed the furor: Last week, Ken Jennings — you know, the guy who won 74 straight games on America's favorite quiz show — posted an "Open Letter" to Jeopardy! on his blog, in which he made a number of snide ripostes about the show and its host, Alex Trebek. (For one thing, Ken implied that Alex is a robot. Which I'm not saying is true, but would explain a few things.)

Before you could say "Brad Rutter," Michael Starr, a writer for the Post — a tabloid not exactly renowned for its thoughtful and accurate reportage — had published an article stating that Ken was bashing Jeopardy! on his blog.

The entertainment press went ballistic, as the entertainment press is wont to do. Within a day, every news outlet from the Associated Press to CNN screamed Ken's disloyalty and ingratitude to a ravening public.

Can't anyone take a joke anymore?

If you read Ken's original post, it's clear — at least, to anyone who's functionally literate and possesses mental faculties unclouded by pharmaceuticals or deadline pressure — that he's writing with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Maybe the satire works, maybe it doesn't — humor is a notoriously subjective beast — but satire it is.

I've never met Mr. Jennings personally, but through my experience in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions last year, as well as via personal correspondence with others in our little fraternity, I know quite a few people who have made Ken's acquaintance. All are unanimously agreed that Ken would be an unlikely person to rip Jeopardy! in a serious manner, either publicly or privately. He doesn't appear to be the sort who'd slay the goose who's laid several golden eggs for him.

Let's face it: Ken is known to both J! fans and former contestants as a guy with a lively and quirky sense of humor, and I'm certain that the folks at Jeopardy! know that all too well, given the amount of time he spent on their set. I'd be shocked if anyone associated with the show read his screed and took it with anything except good humor. Because everything goes better with an ice cream bar, especially in L.A. in July.

Then again, Ken's new book about his J! experiences is being published by Random House in a couple of months. I'm thinking the New York Post and the rest of the news media just sold him a few thousand advance copies.

In Jeopardy! as in life, there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

The true North, strong and free

Happy Canada Day to our Canadian readers!

While we have your attention, Canada...

Thanks for Rae Dawn Chong...

And Catherine Mary Stewart...

And Cobie Smulders...

And my close personal friend Alex Trebek.

I'm not sure that entirely makes up for your sticking us with the likes of Celine Dion, Shania Twain, William Shatner, and Jim Carrey.

But it helps.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Question: Who is Michael Falk?

Congratulations to Michael Falk for winning this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. (In reality, this tournament covered the better part of two seasons' worth of contestants, due to the fact that 144 of my closest personal friends and I monopolized half of last season playing the Ultimate Tournament.)

Michael mounted an impressive charge in the second game of the two-game finals to overcome a seemingly insurmountable lead by fellow competitor Vik Vaz. Michael was also the only finalist to correctly solve the Final Jeopardy! clue. (Yes, I had that one.) For his efforts, he pocketed a cool $250,000.

Congratulations also to Vik and to Bill McDonald, Michael's co-finalists, who both played brilliantly. Mr. Falk was simply not to be denied.

This year's ToC yielded a number of significant surprises, at least for me. I would not have picked any of the three finalists out of the 15-player field. A couple of the players I expected to do quite well in the tournament didn't even advance out of the quarterfinals. So what do I know? I just played the game.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Stuff 'n' nonsense

Your Uncle Swan takes you around the pop culture world in 80 synapses, or something to that effect...
  • Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband Chris Martin named their new baby Moses. I'm predicting right now that the little tyke's first spoken words will be "Let my people go."

  • I know you'll be as heartbroken to hear this as I was, but rapper Bow Wow and singer Ciara have ended their year-long romance. According to Ciara's publicist, the breakup was not amicable. This should come as no surprise. Relationships never work out between men named after animal sounds and women named after Oldsmobiles.

  • Kiefer Sutherland signs a new contract for another three seasons of 24. There is apparently no truth to the rumor that Keifer will change the title of the series to $40 Million.

  • Speaking of stars making the long green, Teri Hatcher is about to become the most highly paid actress on television. I'm guessing she's not spending much of that money on sandwiches.

  • A woman who investigates child abuse complaints for Palm Beach County, Florida, is in hot water for stripping off — twice — as a guest on Howard Stern's radio program. Not sure what the big deal is: It's radio. Who can tell if she was really naked? If anything, fire her for having the poor taste to associate with Howard Stern.

  • Disney, which owns — in addition to half the planet — the ABC television network, is planning to make four ABC series (Desperate Housewives, Lost, Commander in Chief, and Alias) available for free download on the 'Net. Now if only there was something on ABC I actually wanted to watch.

  • According to the latest scuttlebutt on the Jeopardy! message board, the show's latest Tournament of Champions began taping today for airing in May. Best of luck to this year's participants.

  • Goodyear is sponsoring a contest to name its newest blimp. In case you were thinking about suggesting that they name it after yours truly: 'tain't funny, McGee.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Television game show newshound Steve Beverly, who operates a delightfully informative site called, recently published one of those lists that's certain to inspire conversation among game show aficionados: the 16 worst (or at least, the 16 most dreadfully miscast) hosts in game show history.

Of those on the list whose performances I saw and remember, I have to agree that Steve has them pegged exactly right. Anyone who witnessed Jon "Bowser" Bauman's disastrous run as host of Hollywood Squares (coming on the heels of his trademark stint as the bass singer in the '50s revival band Sha Na Na), or endured soap opera star Doug Davidson's stumbing and fumbling at the helm of a short-lived syndicated version of The Price Is Right knows whereof Mr. Beverly speaks.

There's one name on Steve's list, however, that conjures up some personal memories for yours truly.

In 1990, two years after my five-game undefeated run on Jeopardy!, I was one of 36 former J! champions invited to appear in a special tournament on ABC called Super Jeopardy! Although the particulars of my Super J! performance are best relegated to the mists of history (suffice it to say, I sucked harder than a Dyson Animal), I recall the experience — and the $5,000 I pocketed just for showing up — with great fondness. Any excuse to hang out with other J! legends and semi-legends (I'll rank myself near the tag end of the latter category) works for me.

The reason Super Jeopardy! happened at all was that Merv Griffin, creator of Jeopardy! (as well as Wheel of Fortune) and its executive producer at the time (he sold the show to what is now Sony Pictures a decade or so ago), was eager to sell ABC on another game show he'd devised, based on the popular board game Monopoly. Merv's idea was that Monopoly could run on Saturday nights during the summer, a graveyard for TV programming usually cluttered with stale reruns and failed series destined for the chopping block.

ABC executives were less than thrilled with the Monopoly idea, which the major syndicated programming distributors had already rejected. (If you're wondering how it would be possible to condense into 30 minutes — less credits and commercials — a game that in its original form plays for hours without end, you're already understanding the problem.) The original pilot, which featured former Press Your Luck host Peter Tomarken (who died in a plane crash just a few weeks ago, I was sorry to hear) and a dwarf dressed up in a top hat and tuxedo in the mode of Monopoly icon Rich Uncle Pennybags, was reported to be abysmal.

Still, Merv was convinced that the bugs could be worked out of the concept, and that the TV version of Monopoly would be a smash. Dragging their heels like football fanatics being led to the ballet, ABC agreed to book 13 weeks of the show only if Merv would couple it with a special, big-money Jeopardy! spinoff. That's where Super J!, and not coincidentally I, came in.

But I digress.

For whatever reason, Merv decided not to hire Tomarken for the network run of Monopoly. That, or perhaps the savvy Tomarken decided not to shipwreck his future marketability as a game show host by being attached to a certain bomb. Whatever the case, legend has it that Griffin planned to host the show himself, but realized as the retooled Monopoly was in development that advancing age (Merv was 65 at the time) just wasn't going to permit him to pull it off.

But a former Jeopardy! contestant who (as the story was related to me) was one of the test players brought in to participate in the Monopoly dress rehearsals struck Merv as possessing exactly the qualities of a budding game show host. After a few trial games, Merv offered the job to Mike Reilly, an unemployed actor making his living waiting tables, like so many Hollywood wannabes.

The rest, as they say, is the stuff of myth. Or bad TV. You decide.

Reilly, to put it as politely as possible, stank on ice. Now, to be fair to the man, a genetically engineered construct combining the best game show hosting qualities of Alex Trebek, Bob Barker, Bill Cullen, and Chuck Woolery couldn't have saved Monopoly. The game played like the proverbial camel — a horse designed by committee. The rules were incomprehensible, the play impossible to follow, the theme music annoying and juvenile (the lyrics consisted of repeated spelling of the word "Monopoly" as though the show were a segment of Sesame Street), the set needlessly tricked out with everything from dizzying lights to bosomy models rolling gigantic dice (fortunately, the little person in the tux and top hat didn't last beyond the botched pilot). Worst of all, the game had little to do with the real Monopoly, aside from the graphic design elements.

But Reilly only made things worse.

The rookie host looked perpetually petrified, and didn't become more relaxed or gain visible confidence as the summer progressed. Reilly often appeared completely at sea about what to do next. He was so stiff, so uncomfortable, so robotically awkward that viewers watching him felt as though they had crawled naked into a barrel filled with termites. One could only wonder what Merv saw in this guy to throw him into the shark-infested waters of network prime time without any experience, or training, or discernable personality.

Between them, Monopoly and Reilly were so embarrassingly wretched that ABC didn't even bother to air the season-ending episode. The show was simply allowed to vanish unnoticed into the annals of TV gone wrong. Reilly doubtless returned to the heady task of asking people, "Soup or salad?"

Super Jeopardy! sure was fun, though.

Back to the list for a moment. I'm surprised that Steve Beverly doesn't mention my all-time favorite inept game show host. (Yes, there was someone even more clueless than Mike Reilly.)

Ironically, this was another Merv Griffin fiasco. When Pat Sajak left the NBC daytime version of Wheel of Fortune in 1989 to launch his ill-fated late-night talk-variety show, Merv replaced him with Rolf Benirschke, the former placekicker for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. I happened to be at home ill on the day when Rolf made his debut, and he spent the half-hour looking far sicker than I felt. I have never seen a man appear more tremblingly, lamb-to-the-slaughter nervous on television. The flop sweat beaded so heavily on his brow he'd have melted the Wicked Witch of the West with a shake of his head.

Before enough weeks of terror had passed to damage Benirschke for life, he was replaced by a more experienced host, Bob Goen, who later moved on to the coanchor spot on Entertainment Tonight alongside Mary Hart.

That Alex Trebek sure does one heck of a job, though.

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Thursday, July 15, 2004

And the answer is...Jeopardy!

Ever since Ken Jennings began his million-dollar run on Jeopardy!, people who know of my history as a past champion have bombarded me with questions about the secret of Ken’s success. I hate to disillusion those who equate Jeopardy! with rocket science, but it’s no big secret: Ken obviously knows a lot more of the answers than the people he’s playing against, and he’s also faster with the signaling mechanism. End of story.

The defending champion on Jeopardy! always has a tremendous advantage over his or her challengers, because that little electronic signaling button is the key to the game. In my original run as champion, I played against several people who were very knowledgeable contestants, but who lost because I’d already played with the signaling mechanism and had the timing down pat. When I returned a couple of years later to play Super Jeopardy!, a different show staffer was assigned to operate the signal unlock, and several of us returning champions struggled to adjust to the new person’s rhythm, myself included. (For those who don’t pay close attention to such esoterica, the contestants’ signaling buttons are locked until host Alex Trebek finishes reading each answer. When Alex utters the final syllable, a Jeopardy! staff person manually enables the electronics, allowing the contestants to ring in.)

The toughest player I ever faced was a master of that signaling button. In 1998, I was invited, along with two other past champions, to play a Jeopardy! exhibition game at UC Berkeley, to coincide with the show’s College Tournament being taped there. Both of the other players, Leslie Frates and Dr. Beverly Spurs, were incredibly talented players who’d been very successful in their championship runs. They also had a decided advantage over me in that they’d both been on the show fairly recently, while my championship was by then ten years in the Wayback Machine. Leslie had a genuine knack for operating that crazy little button — demon fast. I could barely get a question in edgewise for the first round and a half. I managed to pull out the game in the end, but only because Leslie misplayed a couple of Daily Doubles and cost herself on the scoreboard. She was easily the better player on stage that night, despite the end result.

The other night, one of my chorus colleagues was giving me my daily Ken Jennings grilling, during which I answered for the umpteenth time the same battery of questions I’ve been answering for years about my Jeopardy! career. Just to settle the record so I never have to answer these questions again, I’m establishing the following FAQ.

When were you on the show? The five games I won aired the first week of June 1988. (We actually taped them on a Monday and Tuesday in March of that year, just as a major screenwriters’ strike hit Hollywood. Jeopardy! was unaffected, because the show’s writers didn’t belong to the writers’ union — they were classified instead as "researchers.") I also played in the 1988 Tournament of Champions, winning my quarterfinal game and losing in the semis. In 1990, I was one of 36 former champions who played in a special tournament called Super Jeopardy! that aired on Saturday nights throughout that summer. (I played miserably in my only SuperJ! game, thank you very much.) As I mentioned earlier, I also played in a one-game special event in 1998 called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains, which only aired in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How much did you win? My five-game total was $52,098 — a pittance in the modern era in which the dollar values of the questions have been doubled from what they were when I played, and when a champion can continue to play an unlimited number of games instead of being forced into retirement after five consecutive victories. But back in the day, anything over 50 grand was considered stellar. The Jeopardy! Web site still lists all of the champions who won $50K or more, and there I am, down near the bottom of the list. (In anticipation of your next question — it was sixteen years ago, so yes, we’ve already spent all the money. Nice try.)

How did you prepare for the show? As shocking as this will sound, I didn’t. I watched the show every day for about two months and played along, but I didn’t wolf down encyclopedias and World Almanacs or anything. I figured that anything I didn’t know already, it was probably too late to learn.

What was your best category? I don’t really recall. I think the only category I ever ran from top to bottom was something obscure like "State Postal Abbreviations." Most of the subjects that would have been my theoretical areas of specialty — things like baseball, Bible, comics, and so on — never came up, and I only drew a rare movie or TV-related category. But Jeopardy! knowledge is really only half about what you know; the other half is being deft at unearthing the clues in the questions that will lead you to the correct response. I’m pretty good at solving word puzzles, so I often did well in categories that would have appeared to be outside my realm of expertise.

What was your worst category? I never did particularly well at fine arts material. I believe I had at least one "Ballet" category and one "Opera" category, and I’d be shocked if I answered one question between them.

Do you have your appearances on video? Yes, somewhere, though I couldn’t tell you for sure where in the house they are now. (Again, it’s been sixteen years.) The last time I watched any of them was before the 1998 show.

Do you keep in touch with the people you played with? You’re kidding, right? Here’s what I can tell you. The guy I unseated as champion is an actor named Jack Koenig; if you watch many TV shows that are based in New York (i.e., Sex and the City, the various iterations of Law & Order), you’ve probably seen Jack turn up in a supporting guest role now and again. The guy who won my TOC, Mark Lowenthal, later co-wrote a book about being a Jeopardy! contestant — I have a copy somewhere. Some friends of mine know another of my TOC classmates, a fellow named Ron Triguiero, and say he’s a nice guy – that corroborates my brief experience with him. That’s the extent of my Where Are They Now? for today.

What was that TV Guide article about? A few years back, Jeopardy! incurred some headlines when Dr. Maya Angelou said in an interview that she never watched Jeopardy! because they never had any people of color as contestants. When that quote hit the news wires, TV Guide — along with numerous other media outlets — pressed the show’s producers for comment. Somewhere in one of those conversations, someone on the Jeopardy! staff gave my name to TV Guide as the most successful past Jeopardy! champ who fit the "of color" designation. A very nice reporter from the magazine interviewed me by phone, and a couple of my remarks made it into print. (After the ruckus, the Jeopardy! folks bent over backwards to encourage more "people of color" — as opposed, I guess, to "people of transparency" — to apply to become contestants, taking out ads in various ethnic publications and conducting contestant searches at some of the historically black colleges in the Southeast. No, I have no idea whether Dr. Angelou watches the show now.)

Do you still watch Jeopardy!? Hey, I know who Ken Jennings is, don’t I?

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