Quiz master

December 02, 2004

ONE OF TELEVISION'S greats departed this week, and we bemoan the nation's collective loss. We speak not of NBC's Tom Brokaw - although he handled the overrated task of reading information from a teleprompter as well as anyone - or the highly caffeinated Dan Rather, who adds that folksy sense of dread to the news. (When does the tightly wound anchorman finally leap into the camera like a prairie dog with sunstroke? Watch the CBS Evening News.) But the man we'll miss most is none other than Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy! wunderkind, the Mormon Einstein, the answering (or is it questioning?) machine.

Name not set off a buzzer? You must spend your evenings in more productive pursuits than watching game shows. For the rest of us, Mr. Jennings was rock-star big, not John Lennon big but maybe George Harrison. Jeopardy! is watched by 12 million Americans each day. Mr. Brokaw's show attracts 10 million. You do the math.

Mr. Jennings had been Jeopardy! champion for a record 75 shows, accumulating more than $2.5 million in prize money and devastating his competition. He was stupendous, often leading by so much as to render the Final Jeopardy! question moot. How many teetotaling 30-year-old engineers from Utah also know mixology? That the great-grandfather of Louis XV was Louis XIV? That the only New York Times headlines from 1969 and 1974 set in 96-point type announced men landing on the moon and Richard Nixon's resignation?

When America's game-show Godzilla finally fell during a show broadcast Tuesday, it wasn't an answer about quantum mechanics or Dutch royalty, but the mundane: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." Mr. Jenning's response: "What is Fed Ex?" The correct one: "What is H & R Block?" In the end, 'twas not Beatrix that killed the beast, 'twas the taxman. The fledgling millionaire, it turns out, does his own returns.

Mr. Jennings' personality wasn't particularly memorable by TV standards. He was neither the ideal Hollywood hero nor villain. He was just that clean-cut, level-headed and rather chipper young man who knew most everything - and knew it first. It was fun to see him in action, and to see so many people take notice. (OK, OK, the quick recollection of esoteric trivia isn't exactly art, but at least it's not Wheel of Fortune.) It's comforting to know that we live in a country where an ordinary guy can become a rich celebrity by remembering all that stuff we were force-fed back in high school. Maybe we can't all grow up to be the next Tom or Dan or Peter, but who needs a job like theirs? We'd rather be like Ken.

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