Ken Jennings

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September 7, 2007

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With the finale of GSN’s brainiac tournament Grand Slam airing tomorrow night (following a marathon of all seven preliminary episodes), I thought I’d take a moment to ponder my opponent, the inscrutable and improbably named Ogi Ogas.

Ogi has had some very complimentary things to say about me in various Internet fora, including this site’s message boards. (I’m too lazy-slash-modest to find and link to them now.) In fact, he’s been very active on-line, chatting about and supporting Grand Slam. You might have noticed that this amiable-cheerleader persona is at odds with the bad-boy cockiness he projected on the show. (Also: that he’s a very good writer, shooting down one stereotype about academic science-y types even while he reinforces others.)

And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably seen some visceral dislike to TV Ogi in some quarters. To some degree, he had this coming. He can protest all he wants that his interviews were unfairly edited, but what did he expect with soundbites like “Brad Rutter does math like a little girl”? That they’d leave a money quote like that on the cutting-room floor? Did he actually end that sentence with, “…if, that is, that little girl is a young Emmy Noether, the mathematician who did such groundbreaking algebraic work” or “…or a little boy, because girls can do anything boys can do today”? If so, I agree–that was an unfair edit.

On the other hand, what’s he really being pilloried for? A couple fist-pumps when he won a round and one dumb trash-talk? On any reality show on TV, that would be such unremarkable behavior that it would only be noticed by its absence. It’s only because game shows typically take place in some genteel parlor atmosphere, wot wot, that his killer instinct is being remarked upon. Surely it would be more polite if he were to pretend he was just in it for the fun of competing and didn’t care who won, like the rest of us (to some degree or other) did.

If you hate Ogi, you probably hate him for his honesty–he’s good and he cares deeply about winning and he doesn’t care if you know it. He either hasn’t mastered or doesn’t care about the aw-shucks, I-got-lucky, surely-we’re-all-winners-here convention of American game shows.

And good for him. You have to admit the show would be less interesting without him. To tell you the truth, a lot of the Grand Slam contestants shared the same reservations about Ogi that viewers do. After watching his on-stage meditations, un-chummy greenroom comas, and victory celebrations, they suspected that this persona was all a put-on, that he was playing psych-out games with their heads. One Grand Slammer who shall remain nameless instructed me to “Kick his ass!” prior to the final.

I don’t think most of them feel that way about him anymore. The more exposure you get to Ogi, the more you see that he’s just like that. He’s not putting on a little show to mess with your mind–he’s just got a very specific, determined way of doing things. Sure, he’s a bit of an oddball, but in the world of game show uber-contestants, that’s hardly a capital crime. The congenial, funny on-line Ogi is the real Ogi too, but unfortunately for him, you can’t close the barn door once the ass is gone. And Ogi explained to me that the greenroom comas had nothing to do with mind games and everything to do with circadian rhythms (or downloading new data from the mothership, or something).

It can’t have been easy for Ogi to see himself so vocally demonized by viewers just for playing the game so ruthlessly. The next time Ogi’s on a quiz show, I bet he plays it differently. I bet he’s careful and courteous and tight-lipped at every turn. I bet he waters down the Ogacity by at least 75%. And that would be a crying shame. You’ll find out too late that you didn’t want cuddly Ogi after all. You wanted reptilian Ogi after all–the half-lidded eyes, the swagger, the cool calculation.

But he’ll be gone.

Posted by Ken at 10:02 am