Ken Jennings


October 20, 2006

(Ken Jennings is currently appearing on the first episodes of NBC’s new game show, 1 vs. 100. recently caught up with Ken to ask him about his 1 vs. 100 experience.)

Ken: So let me start by asking why you agreed to appear on 1 vs. 100.

Ken: It seemed like a good idea at the time they first contacted me, for a few reasons. First, it initially sounded like they’d arrange for my travel and make the whole thing very painless. (This turned out to be impossible for Standards & Practices reasons.) Well, maybe I’d win enough on the show to at least cover my travel. (This was before the original format was finalized, making it clear that the Mob would rarely, if ever, earn much cash.) Well, I thought, it might be fun to hang out with some of the other game show success stories the show wanted to bring back. (The Millionaire elite were eventually scheduled for a different taping day, so I never got to meet any of them.) At least, I figured, the appearance would be good for Brainiac, which would be released the same week 1 vs. 100 was set to debut. (Then the TV premiere was pushed back a month and, anyway, I was told that I’d be violating NBC policy if I dared mention the book.)

K: It sounds like you regret showing up.

K: Not entirely. I’m just saying most of the reasons I let myself be cajoled into doing the show turned out to be pretty non-compelling.

K: What was the tape day like?

K: I was–naively, in hindsight–envisioning a Jeopardy! or Millionaire tape day: a smooth, well-oiled machine. I put in an hour or two and go back to my hotel, right? Well, when I showed up for the taping, I sat around for an hour or so in a room decorated with giant, terrifying posters of Howie Mandel. Finally someone pulled me aside and told me to return to my hotel. There was a problem with the lighting; no shows would be taped that day, and the hundreds of massed contestants were all being sent home.

So I changed up my travel arrangements. My intended “hour or two” had turned into a long weekend in L.A. The next day, behind schedule, the producers had to tape two shows rather than one, and it was clear that this was going to be a slow, agonizing process. The first ten minutes of the premiere episode took, literally, hours to complete, both for technical reasons (lighting, camera, and blocking glitches) and human ones. Bob Saget’s a quick study, but he’d only been on board for a week or two, and the gameplay wasn’t quite second nature to him yet. What’s more, the producers kept stopping tape to fine-tune his delivery, even giving him word-for-word “line readings” when Bob misphrased something they were hoping to turn into a “final answer”-style catchphrase.

K: Was the taping fun at all?

K: Oh, sure. The set is amazing–probably the rare TV set that looks even more impressive in person than it does at home. Considering all the pressure on his onetime-Olsen-twin-toting shoulders, Bob Saget was loose and funny, which was a real relief for everyone who had to sit through the antics of the aggressively unfunny warm-up guy. Producer Michael Binkow was great as well: he was clearly a smart guy not in the mood to suffer fools that day, and it was a joy to behold. The actual gameplay, when tape actually rolled long enough to get to it, was exciting and even tense, when I wasn’t 100% sure of my answers.

But it was just too long a day. I was at Culver Studios for over fourteen hours, and many contestants (not to mention Saget and the crew) were there even longer. The little Imperial Senate pods in which the Mob stands don’t come with anyplace to sit down, just a little board you can sort of semi-lean on. Towards the end of that tape day, I was praying for a question I wouldn’t know the answer to.

K: What do you mean? The questions were all hopelessly easy, weren’t they?

K: Yeah, they could probably ramp up the difficulty quicker. But remember, we haven’t seen anybody get all that far up the “money tree.” Judging by the range of the practice questions we were given, there is some harder material in the stack. Sure, the early questions are generally easy in that most of the audience will know most of the answers, unlike Jeopardy!, but I don’t think they’re all total gimmes. I had to make educated guesses several times.

But I don’t think the easy questions are the show’s big problem right now. The Mob seems to be whittled down in about the right proportion and at about the right speed. You can’t have an all-genius Mob every time, so harder questions would just eliminate more of the Mob even sooner, which might be trouble.

K: Trouble?

K: The format badly needs some tweaking, either of rules or of prize amounts. Right now, there’s no incentive for the One to put his or her winnings at risk, ever. It’s too easy right now to build up a nice six-figure prize and then just walk. That’s bad TV. It’s also bad news for contestant handlers trying to find 200+ Mob candidates per episode. Who will show up and trap themselves in a plywood booth for hours and hours (because this show will never run as smoohly as other game shows, because of the contestant logistics involved) with almost no chance of winning any money? There was plenty of Mob grumbling about this the day I was there. Many not-yet-eliminated Mob players just wandered off and refused to come back. I felt even worse for the players not in the initial Mob, who had to sit in uncomfortable chairs on an empty soundstage for an entire day, with no entertainment and lousy (and insufficient) food. Some never even got to play.

And, as I said, I’m not convinced that harder questions would fix that, since harder questions will be just as hard on the Mob–maybe harder, since it’s easier to get smarter Ones than smarter Mobs. I think the dollar amounts need to stay lower for longer, so that, by the time the contestants are finally working up a serious wad of cash, the questions are getting tougher. (I know that upcoming episodes use a slightly altered money tree, possibly because the producers are trying this very tweak.) Either that or borrow a page from Millionaire‘s book and don’t let them walk away scott-free at every question.

K: Wow, you’re being pretty hard on the show.

K: Actually, I think it has a lot of potential. Saget’s obviously in his element with almost no warmup; he has the makings of a great host. The Mob elimination gimmick is clever and addictive, especially if the show is edited to pick up the pace a bit. And I can’t say enough about the set (except for its lack of an armchair and/or a urinal in every booth). But the show will only be viable if the rules are tweaked to level the playing field between the One and the Mob. Big winner after big winner is fine at first, but the novelty’s going to wear off, and they’ll need to have sweaty contestants actually risking big chunks of change, or looking like wimps when they don’t, to keep viewers interested and the Mob seats filled.

K: Did Bob “work blue” when the cameras were off?

K: I wonder if he knows that his “Surprise! I’m actually way dirtier than Danny Tanner!” schtick is going to fall flat now that the surprise is starting to wear off. He’s probably as famous now for being the secretly-dirty guy than he ever was for being the Full House guy. Now is the time for him to reveal that he was secretly Mr. Clean all along and the whole Aristocrats thing was just another layer to his inscrutable Andy Kaufmanesque comic onion. If Bob wants to make the switch back to a G rating and wants any literature on Mormonism, well, he knows where to find me. Slumped at the bottom of Mob pod 13, trying to scrape my manacles through with a nail file.

Posted by Ken at 5:50 pm