Ken Jennings knows what people think of him: that because he won a record 74 straight games on Jeopardy! he must be a nerdy, socially awkward super genius. That’s not really true—he calls his knack for retaining trivia a “stupid human trick”—but he also knows it’s not worth trying to disabuse them of their assumptions. Instead, these days the Edmonds native focuses his fact-gathering prowess on a successful career as an author (he’s written one book on the geeky culture of map enthusiasts, and his next book, Because I Said So!, drops in December) and occasional trivia-night emcee (he’ll host one at this month’s Bumbershoot). In other words, he knows enough to know that it’s okay to not know it all.
I’m not Stephen Hawking. I’m not curing cancer or something.
I was on Glenn Beck’s show once when he was still on Headline News. So he wasn’t, like, a cult leader yet. And the whole interview was just him saying things like, “So you were on Jeopardy! a lot, right? So you’re a nerd, right? Did you get beat up a lot in school? Did you get wedgies?” And I thought, This guy still thinks we’re in some 1980s, jocks vs. nerds movie. Nobody told him the nerds won.
One of the best things to come out of being on Jeopardy! was that I got to meet Grover. I went on Sesame Street, and Grover and I discussed the benefits of nutrition. It was the one time when I sort of gamed the system: I made sure to mention on the show during one of the little contestant anecdotes that I grew up on PBS and learned to read with the Muppets. I thought, Maybe they’ll call. And they did! I got to see Big Bird without his suit on. I got to go up in Oscar’s can. It was just like I was six years old again.
I was well aware that no one would want to see the same guy on the show for six months. Nobody cheers for the Yankees.
I’m a pretty competitive person. I would be very happy as a little kid when I knew an answer that a game show contestant didn’t know. But I think, more than that, there was something magical about being rewarded for knowing stuff. That was always what I was good at. My friends who were awesome at soccer, they got pins and letters and trophies for that. But there’s really nothing equivalent for knowing lots of useless crap.
The word trivia sort of bothers me, because it makes it seem like it’s unimportant to know things. But there is a degree to which lots of trivia is…trivial. There’s a difference between knowing a lot about the Civil Rights movement and knowing what color the Brady Bunch’s carpet was.
I was on a book tour, trying to get into a hotel in St. Louis, and the doorman wouldn’t let me in until I named every U.S. vice president who had acceded to the presidency. I got some of the hard ones like Millard Fillmore but missed Gerald Ford, and that made him super happy. He was so excited that I got one wrong. I assume he doesn’t do that for everyone. But if so, that’s a very odd hotel.
But that’s the outcome people want when they quiz me. Often I will not kill myself to get it right. I will not make wild guesses. Because I know that getting it wrong is easier for me and more fun for them.
My kids expect me to know everything, too. We were on a plane this summer and someone gave my daughter a blown-up surgical glove with eyes and a beak drawn on it, so it looked like a chicken. And she was like, “Is this going to pop on the plane, Dad?” And I said, “No, it’s not going to pop.” “Then what’s going to happen?” So I thought about it and said, “It’s going to get bigger. The pressure will be a little lower in the cabin, so the balloon will get bigger.” And I felt so happy. I’d actually answered one of my kid’s questions! But then she said, “How much bigger?” What am I? A guy who tests inflated surgical gloves on airplanes?
I don’t want to make it sound like there’s some downside to winning a bunch of money on a TV game show. But when it was over I was like, Wait. At this point I can do anything—what is that? What makes me happy? And I realized I had no idea. I was busy with work. I had little kids. I never had to think, If you could do anything, what would it be? More people should think that way. I should have thought that way, instead of just selling out and taking the job that paid the mortgage.
There’s a scene in Empire Strikes Back when Yoda’s complaining about Luke: “Always has this one’s mind been on the stars. Never has he thought about where he was, what he was doing.” That’s me. I’m always the guy who’s like, What’s the next thing? What are we going to do after we get done with this? That’s a character flaw. So I try to remember to live in the now. That sounds like a total cliche, but if you say it in Yoda’s voice, it sounds really deep.