Ken Jennings

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March 11, 2014

smithsonianmarchJeopardy! turns fifty this year, and the Trebek version turns thirty. (I’ll be back on the show in a few weeks for my turn in the “Decades” tournament, observing the big event.) I was asked to write about Jeopardy!‘s birthday in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, and took the opportunity to speak with Julann Griffin, who dreamed up the game with her then-husband Merv back in 1963. She’s now eighty-four — and still inventing games. (She also bakes a mean pumpkin bread.)

Ken Jennings: Where did I reach you today, Julann?

Julann Griffin: I have a plantation in Virginia. It sounds more elegant than it is. It’s over two hundred years old. I love it. But it’s a simple plantation, with the bricks made on the property and things like that. I love it.

KJ: And you were actually pulling a pie out of the oven when I called? That seems so Southern and perfect.

JG: Well, I was actually putting it in. I’ve got to watch it.

KJ: Is it in fact a pie?

JG: No, it’s pumpkin bread.

KJ: I’m sure you’ve had people ask you about Jeopardy! over the years, but since you were there when the whole thing started, I’d love to hear about the fateful first conversation that led to Jeopardy! Do you remember that?

JG: Oh, I do. I do. Merv and I were coming back from my folks’ place in Ironwood, Michigan and we were going to our home in New York and he pulled out a paper with some clips and notes and things on it. And I said, “What is that, another game show?” and he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I’m getting so tired of these game shows with people jumping around and doing pantomimes and acting like fools. What happened to the knowledge-based games?” And he said, “You know, since The $64,000 Question, the network won’t let you do those anymore, because they suspect you of giving them the answers.” So I said, “Why don’t you give them the answers and make people come up with the questions?” And he said. “Like what?” I said, “Okay, the answer is ’5,280.’” He said, “The question is ‘How many feet in a mile?’” I say, “The answer is ’52 Wistful Vista.’” He says, “The question is, ‘Where did Fibber McGee and Molly live?’” I don’t know if you know about Fibber McGee. Of course you do, you know everything. Fiber McGee and Molly was a radio show and they lived at 52 Wistful Vista and evey time they opened the closet everything fell out for about five minutes.

I said, “Okay, the answer is ‘Kathy Fiscus’?” and he said, “What is the name of the little girl that fell in the well in the 1940s?’” It was a big event because it was on radio and people stayed up and listened to see if she was being saved. She wasn’t, incidentally. But it was one of those stories of the little girl who fell in the well. So anythow, we kept going and I kept throwing him answers and he kept coming up with questions. And by the time we landed the plane, we had an idea for a show.

KJ: All on the airplane?

JG: It was just coming back form a visit to my parents. He was very good about that. We went up to see his mother and his relatives and my parents all the time. He was very into games and I wasn’t, which is interesting, because now I have a company I just started and I do games on the Internet. Anyhow, that’s a long story. He was interested in doing games. I wasn’t, but my sisters were. They used to play games with him. And for some reason or other, because I used to do the cooking and the knitting and sitting in the background, I would see what would happen with these games, so I could see the structure better than they could, because I wasn’t trying. So everything turned into a game. Even when he was late for dinner, I would talk into the eggbeater, you know, and do a game show in the kitchen.

Anyhow, that’s how it started. Well, after that he went right down to his office, got the guys working on it, building some sets, which I helped him build, and then they had meetings at the house and I’d cook the dinner and come in and out, you know. I did all the “wifely” work. That’s the story of those days, you know. The wife was the one who stayed in the kitchen. The men were the ones who did the games.

KJ: So they were all sitting around your dining room table spitballing early Jeopardy! games?

JG: Yes. And then my sisters Sally and Maureen, they did writing when the show originally went on. A lot of the writing. Then they got some really good writers too. When we first went to NBC with the idea, they said it was too difficult, so we had to dumb it down a little so the big men at NBC could play it.

KJ: It was obviously a very smart show when it went on the air. Was that the easier version, or did it get bulked back up once the contestants weren’t network executives anymore?

JG: Once it wasn’t brand new, it got a little harder. And then people started to watch from colleges, and even Nixon in the White House used to take his lunch at that time. So they felt like it was okay to do some of the harder stuff. And it was interesting because the first, oh, what do they call it? The champion of the year? I’m 84 now, so my filing cabinet on my words doesn’t always work.

KJ: The Tournament of Champions?

JG: Yes, the first champion was a black taxi driver from Chicago who kept winning and winning, because he knew a lot of trivia. So he beat a lot of professors and everything else. It was kind of fun.

KJ: Did you say you helped build the first sets?

JG: Yes.

KJ: For the mock games you were do around the table.

JG: Yes.

KJ: So you had a little makeshift game show set in your New York apartment dining room. That’s great.

JG: And then, after my divorce, I went into my own game company. I had a game company with my sister and we called ourselves JAM, because it was Julann and Maureen, and then we teamed up — this was in 1999 — we teamed up with two guys from the University of Virginia here who did the programming. And we had a company called Boxerjam and we did kind of well until — it was during the bubble — they went through all the money and all our games and we went bankrupt. The games are still up. They were bought by the bank. But I lost everything that I’d put in it. So we decided not to do that anymore. Until a couple years ago, my sister — she’s in her 80s now, and I’m 84 — we decided to go back into business. So we just started up, we’re getting some apps ready now, and I’ve got about 20 games in the pile waiting to be programmed.

KJ: Are these trivia games like Jeopardy!?

JG: They’re different kinds. Some are information games, a couple are gambling games, some are just, you know, the kind that you play over and over when you have nothing else to do. One of them is on foreign languages, and the one we’re coming out with now is called Move Your Vowels. I’m sorry. It begins with a ‘V’. SO they’re all different.

KJ: What’s your new company called?

JG: Right now we don’t have anything up on our website. It’ll probably be a couple months. But it’s Jam and Candy.

KJ: I love the idea that you say you’re not into games, but here you are fifty years later and still working on games.

JG: Isn’t that funny? I think that happens to a lot of people. What you don’t realize you’re doing on the side, you know. You’re spending so much time trying to succeed in one thing and — I don’t know, it’s just kind of strange.

KJ: The fact that Jeopardy! is still around fifty years later is amazing as well. That’s just unheard-of in TV. What do you attribute that success to?

JG: It’s a bunch of things. First of all, Bob Rubin, the original producer, was very strict, and I think they’ve done very well now too. I think the writing; they get good writers. There are just so many rivers and countries that you can put on Jeopardy!, unless we go to the Moon and get some more, so the writing is intriguing. They have to find another way around it to make it interesting. And I think they’re doing a great job.

KJ: Do you like Alex Trebek? Is he a good fit for the format?

JG: I like him very much. Very much.

KJ: I am also a big fan.

JG: Well, he’s getting up there but he’s held it together very well. And he’s strict too. That thing came up about the young kid that lost because he did something — I didn’t see the show. And I thought, you know what? These kids today are poor losers. They’re poor winners! You know? You’ve got to be strict. Otherwise it isn’t a game!

KJ: Do you ever still watch? Do you find yourself flipping to Jeopardy!?

JG: You know, I do. I watch it a lot. Unfortutately, Chris Matthews comes along at the same time right now, so I go back and forth.

KJ:How does that feel, to have been there for the creation of this American institution?

JG: It’s amazing when I think about it, but I don’t really connect it when I watch it. I watch it because I enjoy the show. And I watch Wheel of Fortune too. You know, Wheel of Fortune was Merv’s idea, and that has evolved a lot. They used to have some crummy prizes in the beginning. But if you look at the way the show is constructed, it’s very well-constructed. I used to watch that PBS show where they built houses and everything, and I guess that’s how I got interested in doing games. Because I like the structure you don’t see underneath something. You know, you walk into a house, you have an idea what somebody went through with the basement and in between walls and things like that.

KJ: I think that is part of the appeal of game shows for a lot of people. They’re very tightly structured, carefully designed. You know what they show is going to be every day. People expect it. It’s like a part of their life.

JG: And I think another pull about games, especially information games, is that you learn a lot of things through life that you never have a chance to use, and now you have a chance. Not just to use them, but to maybe even be smarter than somebody else! I’ll bet you were frustrated when it came to the IBM — what was its name again?

KJ: Watson?

JG: Yes, Watson!

KJ: That was a lot of fun, but Watson was just too fast. A human doesn’t have the same precise reflexes that a computer has.

JG: Exactly. If I were in trouble, I would call on you before I’d call on Watson.

KJ: You know what, I appreciate that. This has been a real pleasure for me. Thanks so much for taking the time.

JG: It’s been a pleasure for me as well. I’ll have to tell my sister I talked to you, because we were big fans. We thought, my God, he’s really something else. Do you have a photographic memory?

KJ: I really don’t. I guess I was just one of those irritating kids that’s a sponge for information, and curious about everything. And I would run home from school every day to watch Jeopardy! That was a huge formative thing for me, watching these smart people on Jeopardy!

JG: Well, your curiosity is great. That’s whwat keeps the world spinning around, I think. So many people just put one foot in front of the other and don’t even know what’s happening. I think it’s good to find out about how everything works.

KJ: I’m also a big believer in learning your whole life. Well, thank you for Jeopardy! It changed my life.

JG: No, thank you for Jeopardy!

Posted by Ken at 5:27 pm