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Friday, March 29, 2024

March 29, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: Jeopardy!

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On two ways the legendary game show echoes topics from earlier in the week, and one way it stands out.

Maybe it’s an apocryphal story (TV game shows are a mixture of reality and fiction, people and performance, as this whole week’s series has hopefully reflected), but in any case as the story goes Jeopardy! was created in direct response and contrast to the 1950s quiz show scandals about which I wrote on Tuesday. As creator Merv Griffin described it in a 1963 profile published while the show was still in development, “My wife Julann just came up with the idea one day when we were in a plane bringing us back to New York City from Duluth. I was mulling over game show ideas, when she noted that there had not been a successful ‘question and answer’ game on the air since the quiz show scandals. Why not do a switch, and give the answers to the contestant and let them come up with the question?” Sounds likely enough, and I love the thought that the longest-running and most successful quiz show in TV history was inspired to flip the traditional question-and-answer format (the innovation that made it stand out) by a cultural need to flip narratives of fixed quiz shows.

Across that long-running history, Jeopardy! has likewise connected to both the daytime and primetime varieties of game show about which I wrote in yesterday’s post. The original 1964 iteration, hosted by Art Fleming and running until January 1975, was a daytime show that aired weekly; the 1984 reboot, initially hosted by Alex Trebek and still on the air today despite Trebek’s 2021 passing, was and remains a primetime show that airs daily. As those hyperlinked clips indicate, the two versions were in gameplay and many ways identical to each other, but I would argue that (just as I argued about Deal or No Deal in yesterday’s post) the primetime version of Jeopardy! did nonetheless feel distinct, both in heightened production values and in higher stakes (relatively speaking—Jeopardy! has never had the million-dollar payouts of some other quiz and game shows). Most of the other long-running game shows have stayed on one side or the other of this duality, so it’s particularly interesting to see how a single show has evolved from daytime to primetime.

While Jeopardy! is thus very much in conversation with TV game show trends and topics from throughout the genre’s nearly 100 years of history, I would say that it has achieved a level of cultural presence and influence beyond any other such show (it’s not a coincidence that both Rosie Perez’s character in the film White Men Can’t Jump and Ann Dowd’s [SPOILERS in that clip] in the TV show The Leftovers have dreams of appearing on Jeopardy!, for example; nor that Weird Al wrote a song about it!). The question of why is of course an open-ended one, but if I were to boil it down I would emphasize two factors related to my two prior paragraphs in this post: the flipped “answer and question” format that we apparently owe to Merv Griffin’s wife; and the host who took over for the show’s primetime reboot and became very much a celebrity in his own right (with the Saturday Night Live parody to prove it). As someone who tried out for Jeopardy! multiple times (and who was in fact invited to be on the show but was frustratingly unable to do so, which is a story you’d have to draw out of me with an AmericanStudies beer or two), I can say that I fully understand the show’s unique appeal, and am happy to celebrate it here on its 60th birthday!

March Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

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