The Man Who Ate "Jeopardy!" took a breather yesterday but is still licking his chops.
Which left viewers with this $1,321,660-and-still-counting question:
After eight weeks, 38 episodes, 76 opponents and more than 1,300 questions in more than 450 categories, just how long is Ken Jennings's record winning streak going to last?
The one-man geekathon by the boyish software engineer from Salt Lake City has sent ratings for the staid quiz show skyward and created a cult following for someone who easily pinpoints the most remote rivers in the world but can't find his car in a parking garage.
Leaving the air now for summer hiatus, "Jeopardy!" will return in September.
So will Ken Jennings.
Already, viewers have watched host Alex Trebek go from delight to dismay to desperation at the sight of the same champion returning again and again.
"Tell us some deep, dark secret about yourself," Trebek implored somewhere in the seventh week, after exhausting his supply of cue cards listing Jennings's hobbies and amusing anecdotes.
"You know," Jennings deadpanned, "I killed a man down South once."
Trebek hastily returned to the board, where "Jeopardy!" poses five answers ranging in value from $200 to $1,000 in six categories, which the three players must respond to in the form of a question. The answers double in value in the second half of the 30-minute show.
A vow of secrecy on the "Jeopardy!" set (blab and you forfeit your winnings) has also made Jennings an unlikely man of mystery, his interviews limited to talk show banter, his answers so guarded that even the most banal details are devoured like so many Daily Doubles.
He has a dog named Banjo!
It's a Labrador retriever!
He didn't own enough suits for all his "Jeopardy!" appearances!
He borrowed some from his brother the lawyer!
The worst grade he ever got was a C-plus!
It was in home economics!
When Jay Leno tried to pry more out of him during a "Tonight" show appearance Thursday, Jennings shook his head. "There are 'Jeopardy!' snipers in the audience right now," he said.
He did acknowledge that his favorite category is movies and that he's so absent-minded that he may have "just won a gazillion dollars on 'Jeopardy!' " but still couldn't find his car in the studio parking garage.
As a recurring character, Jennings has proven quirky and full of contradictions. He is a Mormon and former missionary who aces the Potent Potables category thanks to flashcards his wife, Mindy, made to drill him on cocktails. (He still flubbed a clue for creme de menthe, though, believing brandy was green.) He is a literature graduate from Brigham Young University who can rattle off characters and obscure plot details from virtually any great work, yet after correctly answering "The Hidden Staircase" one time, he suddenly gushed:
" Love Nancy Drew!"
Despite his conservative religious upbringing and squeaky-clean image, Jennings boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of R-rated movies and was swift to identify a line of lingerie by Victoria's Secret.
He also told Kelly Ripa on "Live With Regis and Kelly" that he planned to "roll around naked" in his money.
The Jennings juggernaut was made possible only by a change in "Jeopardy!" rules last year. Until then, champions were forced to retire after five games; now, they can play until defeated. Jennings passed the show's last longtimer a million dollars ago.
"The bad news is, they want us to institute steroid testing," Trebek quipped after Jennings triumphed for the 36th time.
America's infatuation with someone who resembles a runaway Opie from the Mayberry Wax Museum has clearly revitalized the game that Merv Griffin created in his dining room 40 years ago. Over the course of Jennings's run, "Jeopardy!" ratings have steadily climbed from 9.6 million to 12.3 million viewers, giving even the wildly popular "Wheel of Fortune" a run for its vowels.
The season that ended last night was taped in California in March, which means that Jennings's opponents arrived on the set with no clue that they were up against someone Trebek had already dubbed the Terminator.
Down they went, two by two. Lawyers, copywriters, homemakers, retirees, a guy who once drove a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and another who used to be a telephone psychic. Like all "Jeopardy!" contestants, they had to pay their own expenses and, even with $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third, many ended up in the hole, returning home with nothing but a "Jeopardy!" travel cup, a tote bag and a bittersweet place in television history.
"We were fodder," lamented Beverly Herter, a freelance book editor from Portsmouth, R.I., who went down in flames against Jennings earlier this week. "We found out when we got there. The contestant-coordinator didn't have the heart to tell us. She made Ken tell."
By then, Herter said, Jennings had notched 28 wins.
She said she and some of the nine other contestants bulldozed in that day's taping sessions later gathered to commiserate at the one place they knew their teetotaling nemesis would never find them -- the hotel bar.
Like other veterans of "Jeopardy!," Herter maintained that victory is more a matter of reflex than intellect. "Even though he made mincemeat out of us, we all know 90 percent of the answers," she said, but Jennings is uncatchable on the buzzer, locking out his opponents.
Still, she allowed, Jennings was likable.
"It would've been easier losing to him if I could hate him."
That love-hate relationship is one that extends to Internet message boards where admirers fawn ("Ken, I think you are cooler than Fabio") and foes rant about how much they hate him ("with the passion of 1,000 sex-deprived rabbits.")
There are those charmed by his gosh-gee-willikers headshake of dismay each and every time his winnings are announced, and those who snipe back and forth about how deeply irritating they find Jennings's habit of cocking his head and blinking inquisitively with each correct answer, like a robin dangling yet another delectable worm from its beak.
His grin remained the same whether he was clearing entire categories at a time or losing $11,400 on a single tough geography question (Algeria, not Nigeria). Trebek frequently tried in vain to goad the cautious Jennings into upping his ante on the Final Jeopardy! round.
"The one-day record is $52,000. Ken has tied it twice but never gone over it," Trebek intoned before a final round earlier in the week. Jennings had racked up $42,000, with his nearest competitor at $5,200 and the other at $2,000. Neither had the correct answer when asked to name two U.S. presidents whose middle names were the last names of two other presidents. Jennings triumphantly displayed his winning answer (William Jefferson Clinton and Ronald Wilson Reagan). He then revealed his wager: $10,000.
"You're doing this just to bug me, aren't you?" Trebek complained.
On his final appearance of the season, Jennings finally shattered the record for winnings in a single game, adding $75,000 to his tally.
"Will it never end?" Trebek cried.
Jennings just smiled.
A knowing smile.
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.