What is 'Jeopardy!' Alex?
Celebrities Isaac Mizrahi, Soledad O'Brien and Harry Shearer play for fun and charityNEW YORK CITY --
Certainly, these quizsters know the answers to the easier questions dapper host Alex Trebek asks celebrities playing for charity. Yet before the show begins in the art deco glory that is New York's Radio City Music Hall, the audience's silence is requested. And when announcer Johnny Gilbert, whose voice seems to emanate from a hidden echo chamber, asks you to do something, you really must.
When "Jeopardy!" takes its show on the road for tournaments, it requires semis and a fleet of workers. A new set is built each time, and this exquisite one complemented the ivory and silver details of the famed theater. A replica of the Statue of Liberty graces the stage.
"We want the event to be special, not just for us, but for people coming to see us," Trebek says. "It's a sign of appreciation."
More than 200,000 people in the New York area requested free tickets, and some 42,000 were accommodated. On a brisk autumn morning, people queued up around the block. Inside, all is calm, albeit busy, as show No. 5,102, slated to air Tuesday, Nov. 14, starts to take shape.
Celebrities, unlike everyone else, do not pass a test to play. "We are just so appreciative of the fact that they agree to be on the program," Trebek says, resting his hand on the podium, his command post.
Trebek seems omniscient on air, but he reviews clues before each show, and knows fewer lately because more pop culture is used, he says. Even after hosting for 23 years, Trebek loves this gig. "The game is different every time I come out," he says.
For nearly 20 of those years, "Jeopardy!" has been the No. 1 quiz show on TV, according to the A.C Nielsen Co.
Compared to Trebek in his navy pinstriped suit, designer and red-carpet troublemaker Isaac Mizrahi is a riot of color in an orange tie and orange checked shirt. Mizrahi, playing for the ASPCA, played before and won.
"It was one of the great days of my life," he says. "It really was."
Mizrahi did not study for this, not even reviewing such standard topics as presidents and first ladies. "Don't say presidents," he says. "Hopefully that won't be a category. Do not ask me about Coolidge!"
"Regular 'Jeopardy!' is harder," Mizrahi admits. "For celebrities, they are afraid we will appear to the public as dumb as we really are. They're afraid idols will be shattered."
For this show, it's an unwarranted fear. CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, a Harvard graduate, and Harry Shearer are smart and quick.
Though the game may be easier, the ethics remain just as rigid. Since the scandals that rocked quiz shows in the 1950s, quiz shows are held to stringent standards.
"Jeopardy!" takes this responsibility seriously and does not let anyone wander around backstage, even escorting visitors to the restrooms. No one is left alone at any time. Along those lines, a promise was given to not reveal the winner or clues.
As the theater fills, Mizrahi confides, "I am the most nervous thing in the world. Breathe. Breathe. Breathing is half of talking."
O'Brien, however, studied. "I did practices online and watched shows," she says. "A lot is knowing when to jump in."
It was suggested that she read The World Almanac. O'Brien, who works full time and has four children, did not. She is playing for Christ Church on Quaker Hill and for Hearts of Gold, a charity for New York homeless women and their children.
Before taping, Trebek and the contestants rehearse. Gilbert warms up the theater audience, mentioning that 12 million people watch each show. "I tell you that because if you are here with somebody's else's wife or husband, or you are wanted, you might want to get the hell out of here," he says.
In this tournament, the winner's charity receives at least $50,000. (If the winner earns more, then "Jeopardy!" pays more.) Even those who lose earn $25,000 for their charities.
During commercial breaks, Trebek fields questions from the audience. Someone asks how he got this job. "A person I knew called and said they were bringing 'Jeopardy!' back to the air in syndication and asked would you be interested in hosting? And I asked, 'Will you pay me?'"
In answering other questions, Trebek says he "got into broadcasting in 1860" and that the show has given more than 300,000 clues.
Seven writers create those clues, and head writer Gary Johnson compiles them into games. Executive producer Harry Friedman reviews the final game. "I do play along to see if I know the answers," Friedman says. "I think there's a part of the brain that knows. I know I would not do well as a contestant. It takes amazing recall."
Incidentally, for those who wonder why Nebraska turns up so often, it's an inside joke between native Nebraskans Johnson and Friedman.
The writers, who rely on a 10,000-book library, have to condense clues into few words and be clever. "There can be a 10-minute discussion on one verb or adverb," Friedman says.
Johnson comes up with many of the funny clues. Years ago, he wrote the category "Dr. Seuss Meets the Bard." Clue: "Kiss me Kate, though you're a meanie; then go fix some spaghettini. What is 'The Taming of the Shrew?'"
How can someone not love a show featuring such esoteric goofiness?
"We are always thrilled there are shows like ours where you can win money for knowing things, not eating things that people have no business eating anyway," says Maggie Speak, contestant executive.
The third contestant, Harry Shearer, playing for Tipitina's Foundation, which gives musical instruments to New Orleans schools, has been a fan since Art Fleming hosted. Says Shearer, "I like a show that makes a nerd feel good about knowing stuff."