Carlo Panno met his wife when both were Jeopardy! contestants, and joined the writing staff shortly after the Alex Trebek version of the show appeared on the airwaves in 1984. I met him at a book signing over a year ago in Glendale, and he agreed to an e-mail interview, though technical screwups of one kind or another have delayed the piece until now. The Jeopardy! writers’ room is one of the last true black boxes in show business–as secretive as the PriceWaterhouse Oscar tabulators, as mysterious as a crate full of Lost showrunners–so I was excited to hear a rare insider’s point of view on the process. Though Carlo hasn’t worked at Jeopardy! in well over a decade, he was there for the show’s most formative years. He was practically there when it started.
You said you wrote material for Jeopardy! for, I believe, five years, officially as a “researcher” the whole time. Why did Jeopardy call all its writers “researchers” back then? To avoid paying Guild minimums?
That was it. I used to joke that game shows were traditionally non-union ever since Mark Goodson said “I’m not going to pay that kind of money!” When Merv sold out to Columbia Pictures we flew under the radar for a while, but eventually Jeopardy! went union.
What was the work environment in the Jeopardy! “writers’ room” like?
It was more fun than anything I’ve ever done, before or since. Jeopardy! was an environment where I didn’t have to explain anything, ever, and neither did anybody else. The repartée was incredibly intelligent and erudite. Once I noticed that an early U.S. Vice President was named “George Clinton.” I said it out loud, and one of the other researchers said “Of the Parliament-Funkadelic party, I believe?”
Staff people would throw ideas around all the time, honing and perfecting clues. We were always testing things against each other.
I had a Rolodex that could get me information from all over the country, from what I used to call my “Friends in Low Places” before people thought I stole that line from Garth Brooks. My sources included corporate historians and secretaries of famous people. (My wife looked at my Rolodex and said “You have Malcolm Forbes in there?!??”) And people would fall all over themselves to help us. Washington DC was a particularly fertile ground. They eat up Jeopardy! there. When I was researching something involving a state, I would go straight to the Governor’s press secretary. The press secretary wouldn’t know, but they would know who I should ask. Near the end of the year, I would write a “Thanks, Guys” category acknowledging the help I had gotten from these sources.
Walk us through the process of how a Jeopardy! category is prepared for the show, from the first germ of the idea to the moment when the clue appears on the gameboard monitor.
Bare-bones, and remember this is from the mostly-pre-computer era:
1. The clue is typed on a 3×5 card. Category in the upper left hand corner, clue in caps in the middle, complete response (“Who was Millard Fillmore?”) below in upper and lower, citation underneath, initials of the writer lower right.
2. The clue is gathered with five others (yes, six, every category had an “extra” just in case we needed it) and presented to the Editorial Associate Producer. Color-coded by category: “Academic,” blue; “Lifestyles” [Academic as used in real life], green; “Wordplay,” yellow; “Trivia” [Entertainment, mostly], pink; “People” [Celebrities, mostly], orange. If the Editorial Associate Producer approves all six, they are sent to research. Better bring eight or nine, just to be safe.
3. The Researchers (and, to be honest, this was my primary function) verified the first source and found a second one. Sometimes this was easy: Steven Dorfman wrote the best stuff, and had no ego whatsoever when you needed to make a change. Other people were more touchy. It was at my insistence that we established a “tangible source” rule after I had to verify one too many clues that said “I heard it on the radio.”
Sometimes the original source was a primary source and only one verification was needed: IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, SO-AND-SO CALLED THIS OPPONENT “A COMPLETE NIMROD” would only need one source.
4. Once the category is researched, it goes back to the Editorial Associate Producer with suggested changes. The Editorial Associate Producer would make the final decisions on changes and order, and it would go to the computer operator.
5. The computer operator would type the categories into the computer and print them on long strips of paper, which were returned to the Editorial Associate Producer to be put into games.
6. The Editorial Associate Producer would assemble games (the Jeopardy! round, the Double Jeopardy! round, and the Final) with an idea to balancing hard and soft, serious and frivolous, all the colors. That was tough, and he would usually assemble them two games at a time, on a large conference table.
7. Games would then be “Round-Tabled,” where five or six members of the Editorial Staff would hear the clues and give responses. If nobody got a clue, it would be considered “too tough” and have to be replaced. Sometimes conflicts would be discovered (“Didn’t we just have a Millard Fillmore question in the J round?” “Didn’t we do this clue a couple of weeks ago?”) and clues would have to be replaced. This was where the real polishing would happen, as new people got involved.
During the Round Table, we made sure every clue was “pinned,” with alternate responses weighed and dealt with. These would be noted with DNA for Do Not Accept, MS for More Specific. We would also fill in the blanks for ultra-precise responses: Who is H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells?
Once in the Round Table, I heard a clue saying “ABC WAS ORIGINALLY PART OF THIS NETWORK/What is NBC?” and I asked “Was it the Red Network, or the Blue Network?”
I explained: “NBC used to have two networks, the Red Network and the Blue Network. One was the high-class one with Toscanini and Meet the Press, the other one had the comedy shows. Which one became ABC?”
The writer ran out of the room to find out. (It was the Blue Network, by the way. The comedy one.) I had been working there about a week. It made an impression.
The Round Table was an outlet for bawdy, raunchy humor. Once one of the writers, a history major and one-time history teacher, came up with RUTHERFORD HAYES’ WIFE, WHO BANNED LIQUOR AT THE WHITE HOUSE, GOT THIS NICKNAME
“C’mon, she was famous,” he pleaded. He thought it was a good clue, and he really didn’t want to write another one.
I jumped in. “What is ‘That damn teetotalin’ bitch’?”
That is one of the few that I can relate in polite company.
(Mrs. Hayes’ sobriquet was “Lemonade Lucy.”)
8. The Round Tabled games would then go back to the Editorial Associate Producer and the Producer, who would make final changes and approve the games.
9. Each game would then be assigned a game number, a four-digit number that started with the season number. It’s probably a five-digit number now.
10. The game would go to Chyron, where it was input into the game-board computer. This was mostly mechanical, although I strongly advocated a policy that said “Anybody Can Raise Any Question At Any Time,” and I welcomed the input of anybody who handled material, and if they thought it was wrong we looked it up and checked it. We had a temp who saved our bacon on a Joni Mitchell question once.
11. The games were then gathered into eight-game “Packets” for individual tape days. Steven would arrange the packets in pairs, for two consecutive tape days, and would generate long computer print-outs of conflicts, usually involving games with clues that compelled one game playing before another. Sometimes an “extra” clue would have to be deployed if the conflict was too great.
12. On tape days, we would get The Call from the network rep at about 9 am. Steven would give her (it was always her) the numbers of all eight games, and she would pick five. Then we went to work. Game copies were pulled, copies went to Alex, the Editorial Associate Producer, the writer who was going to be line judge, me, and another researcher. I would get the cards for each game and give them a once-over, pulling the ones with comments for Alex, making sure the clues were all properly sourced, and distributing the insufficiently-sourced ones to researchers for a last-minute check. (I would hold the cards face down, fanned out like a magician saying “Pick a card” and I would take the last one.) Steven would put the games in order, using his list of conflicts.
13. There would be a final meeting, with the Editorial Associate Producer, Alex, writers and researchers, when last-minute changes were made. Improvisation was important at this point. Once, a Weights & Measures clue dropped out, and I looked at the can of Diet Coke in my hand and suggested “NUMBER OF OUNCES IN A 355ml CAN OF SODA POP” and Alex said “Type it up.” While this is going on, the monitor is showing the contestant rehearsal, with the sound turned off.
14. The games, which are on state-of-the-art 5″ floppy discs, are pulled from the file cabinet and taken to the Chyron room. The PAs have made a list of category cards, which the stagehands have taken out of the cabinet and put aside for use.
15. Once the game starts, I sit in the conference room, watching the show with the game print-out in front of me. The telephone on the table has the phone numbers of the stage, the judges’ table, and Alex’s dressing room taped on it. If anything unexpected comes up, I am the first line of defense. (I used to watch from the front row, but I got tired of running up the 40-step staircase to the office, so I started just staying up in the office, affecting a Garbo-like isolation. When I did show up on the stage after a disputed final, I heard a whispered “Carlo’s here” as I walked to Alex’s dressing room.) This also enabled me to be first in line at the dinner break: As soon as Alex signs off, I am out the door and heading downstairs for the food.
(To be continued. Tomorrow: some of Carlo’s favorite clues. All responses copyright 2006 Carlo Panno and used with permission.)