Wonk Heaven: What Is Beltway 'Jeopardy!'?
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2004; Page C01
Things learned while observing a day's worth of taping of "Celebrity Jeopardy!" with a bunch of wonks, talkers and other media types the show labels as Washington's "power players":
Al Franken should not be allowed to climb inanimate objects.
Maria Bartiromo has trouble differentiating between a golf club and a golf tee under pressure (but okay, okay, she did know that Tiger Woods makes the most money on the PGA Tour).
Tucker Carlson is disturbingly well versed in things related to "homemaking," like dust bunnies and Brillo pads.
Bob Woodward needs faster thumbs.
And it takes $20,000 per half-hour (for charity, that is) to get these "power players" -- you know, the types who make a living telling us what we should think, or what we should know, blah blah blah -- to go on national television and risk mass mortification.
"The potential for humiliation exists whether you're famous or unemployed living in a truck," says John Podhoretz, who was a "Jeopardy!" champion after he made his name in Washington as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. "But I suppose there's more potential if you're well known for being intelligent."
But let's cut to the chase . . . we really, really, really wish we could tell you some of the truly stupid answers (or, if you want to get technical about it, questions) these folks came up with. But, alas, we are not allowed. That violates all rules of "Jeopardy!" Can't reveal the outcome. That would make us very, very bad. Can't, say, tell you which prominent journalist finished with a big fat $0, to the great amusement of his or her colleagues. Or who stank so badly -- finishing "Double Jeopardy" in the red -- that he or she had to get special "Celebrity Jeopardy!" dispensation just to participate in the final round. Or what entire panel of celebrity guests was disturbingly uninformed about Senate history.
To find out that, you'll have to tune in yourself all this week, when the five episodes -- taped at DAR Constitution Hall in early April -- air at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 7. Winners get $50,000 for a charity of their choice; losers get $20,000, regardless of how poorly they play.
Monday: Tucker Carlson of CNN's "Crossfire," Peggy Noonan, the former presidential speechwriter, and Woodward of The Post.
Tuesday: Anderson Cooper of CNN's "360 Degrees," Bartiromo from CNBC, and Kweisi Mfume, the president of the NAACP.
Wednesday: Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, Ashleigh Banfield, who used to work for NBC, and Aaron Brown of CNN's "Newsnight."
Thursday: Franken, the liberal talker, Gretchen Carlson of CBS's "Early Show" and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's "Countdown."
Friday: Tavis Smiley of NPR and PBS, Christine Todd Whitman, the former Environmental Protection Agency head, and Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press."
The competition, we can tell you, was fierce. Everybody wanted to do better than Russert (and, sorry, we can't say if that's because he did so well or soooooo poorly), whose episode was taped first. It was a return visit for the NBC commentator, who brought his teenage son Luke to the taping last time. Not again.
"Every time I got one wrong, I could hear his palm smack against his forehead," Russert said. "He was embarrassed for his dad."
This was during the pre-taping period, which was everyone's favorite time to fret and kvetch. Smiley groused that he should have been invited on "The Price Is Right" or "Family Feud" instead of what he termed "the brainiac show." Noonan fretted that her scoop-neck shirt (under a pale pink jacket) was cut too low.
"My shirt has shrunk or I have grown!" she moaned, pulling on the fabric. "We do not want to do decolletage on 'Jeopardy!' . . . Watch out! John Ashcroft is watching!"
Tucker Carlson predicted much gloom and doom.
"Oh, I lose!" he said, when asked about his competition. "My feeling was that, hosting 'Crossfire,' I could do politics. Then I find out it's Peggy Noonan and Bob Woodward. And I was hoping for the dumb people."
The "dumb people?" Hmmmm. Who, pray tell, qualified as "the dumb people" in Carlson's book?
"Um, well, it's like pornography," he answered. "I know it when I see it."
Noonan called Woodward a "killer."
"He keeps saying things like 'I'm getting a little older, so it takes me a little longer to think,' " Noonan said, scoffing.
Actually, it was the reflexes, not the brain, that stymied Woodward on occasion. There were two answers that directly related to him: "Deep Throat" and "All the President's Men" (the movie in which Robert Redford stars as Woodward), and both times he was beaten to the buzzer. This annoyed Franken, who was watching from the greenroom and was hoping for a revelation.
"Why did Peggy buzz in?" Franken said. "She ruined it! I thought he might slip up and buzz in and say, 'Who is Alexander Haig?' I am very disappointed."
Speaking of Franken, someone get that man a leash. "Jeopardy!" production designer Naomi Slodki constructed an elaborate stage set for the tapings, which included miniaturized replicas of the Capitol and of the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial. For inexplicable reasons (he's a clown?), Franken found it necessary to climb the 16th president and pose for pictures in his lap, kissing his cheek, splaying his body across him . . . never mind the crew's anxious expressions of "No, Al, don't do it!" and "Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod!" Eventually, he did come down -- bringing Lincoln's right hand with him. But back to the competition. Each set of contestants did a practice round, which is where the neophytes tried really, really hard (witness Carlson getting all those household questions right) and where the veterans (including Franken and Olbermann, who had both been on the show before) had a little fun, giving responses like "What is orange juice? and "What is gefilte fish?" (Trust us: The answers were not about foodstuffs.)
When presented with the answer "Cider House Rules," Franken rang in and provided this question:
"What is the movie Michael Caine won an Oscar for and is about abortion and how it's good?"
Once they got to the real shows, though, there was no more fooling around. Okay, there was a little. Nobody got the categories they were really, really hoping for -- Fleischer, for instance, wanted "Tourist Spots in Crawford, Texas," and Whitman was hoping for "Show Tunes" -- but the writers did have a little fun.
As "Jeopardy!" producer and writer Gary Johnson explained, the categories are often geared toward the show's celebrity guests. (Um, yeah. Did we mention that one category on Franken's show is "SNL Presidential Players"? And on Russert's show, there's one titled "Meet the Press.")
"We have questions about government, politics, journalism," Johnson said. "We're not here to make them foolish."
Not that foolishness was not a possibility. In fact, foolishness was on everyone's mind before taping (except, perhaps, Franken, who was too busy singing the "Jeopardy!" theme song in a self-invented baby-talk language).
"Suddenly the reality hit me last night, when my crew was saying, 'Did you prepare?' " Cooper said. "They got me really scared. It's a lose-lose proposition."
But hey, isn't the premise of this whole special week that guys like Cooper are really, really smart?
"God help us all if I'm what qualifies as a 'power player,' " he said, laughing.
In the category of real "power players," Sen. John McCain made a surprise guest appearance at the end of the first taping, when he took over for Trebek to introduce the Final Jeopardy question. McCain was on the first-ever edition of "Jeopardy!" back in 1964, when he screwed up a Final Jeopardy question about Heathcliff from the novel "Wuthering Heights." (He would like us to note that he knew the answer, he just said the book name instead of the character.)
"I remember how excited I was to be on, and I also remember how angry I was at myself," McCain said. "$2,000 was a lot of money 40 years ago, for a Navy lieutenant."
McCain's cameo made one wonder: Why weren't there any current elected officials playing the game? During a break in the taping, while host Alex Trebek worked his audience, he took a question from someone wondering exactly that.
"There were a number of people who were too afraid to come," Trebek answered. "We asked President Bush. President Bush said he wouldn't give me a whole half-hour, but he'd go toe-to-toe with me for five minutes. We asked Senator Kerry. Senator Kerry said he would come. Then he said he wouldn't come."
He got his laugh. Later, he explained the real problem:
"We'd love to get people from Congress, but they're not likely to submit to this kind of interrogation," he said. "They're more nervous because this is an unfamiliar setting for them. They are not in control. I am. They have to play our game.
"And," he added, with a knowing smile, "they are not permitted to spin."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company