If You Can't Be Funny, Get Smart

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Comedy Central may not have Dave Chappelle. But it has Ken Jennings.

The Viacom-owned cable channel announced yesterday that it is developing a game show for the winningest and most famous geek ever to play "Jeopardy!," which is distributed by Viacom-owned King World.

In an incredible coincidence, yesterday was also the first day Jennings was to defend his "Jeopardy!" title, facing two former champions in the $2 million, three-part "Ultimate Tournament of Champions." Also, coincidentally, this is the May sweeps, when ratings and big announcements count for something.

Reality TV impresario Michael Davies is developing the new Monday-Friday strip, which he hopes will get the old "Win Ben Stein's Money" early evening time slot. (In addition to bringing "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to ABC, which set off the broadcast networks' prime-time reality TV craze, Davies shepherded the development of Comedy Central's "Win Ben Stein's Money" in the mid-'90s.)

"What I want to explore is Ken Jennings as Peter Parker or Clark Kent, Spider-Man or Superman -- the normal man-superhero parallax, the normal, meek guy who, put in a competitive situation, becomes a killer," Davies told The TV Column. "Think 'Price Is Right' with games of skill and intelligence in a multi-game format. Explore Ken against . . . the rest of the world and in national costumes when we can get it."

He declined to discuss any more details, citing "international format theft."

Like the rest of the country, Davies learned about Jennings last year, when the Mormon software engineer won a record $2.5 million in a 74-game "Jeopardy!" streak and became the lead story on "Entertainment Tonight" and "Extra" and one of Barbara Walters's 10 Most Fascinating People of '04, right up there with Mel Gibson, Oprah Winfrey, Usher, Paris Hilton, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Karl Rove, among others.

"I was fixated by Ken," Davies said. "One reason: You can tell how nice this guy was, very nice, very normal, meek young guy. But nobody can win 74 straight games unless he's a vicious competitor. I loved that dichotomy. . . . When I met him what blew me away is that he's such an engaging, nice intelligent guy . . . who has an amazing range of knowledge. He's 30 but when you watch him on television you think he's older. . . . And this Mormon thing -- that's weird, he's a Mormon in Utah and we're all these 'cool' New Yorkers.

"And he's funny. He's disarmingly funny."

Davies says he was brought together with Jennings by his agent, Jay Sures at United Talent Agency in Los Angeles.

"Sitting with him, they wanted to do network, they wanted to do syndication," but Davies thought, "I've got to get that ['Ben Stein'] time period back on Comedy Central. It supported a game show that was intelligent and smart."

And what about Chappelle, who went AWOL during production of the third season of his Comedy Central series about four weeks ago, checking himself into a mental health facility in South Africa, according to Entertainment Weekly's account, and forcing the cable channel to scrap next week's season debut, rendering worthless the millions spent promoting it?

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