Interview with Carlo Panno, continued

Continuing our interview with 1980s Jeopardy! researcher Carlo Panno. Today Carlo reveals some of the tricks of the clue-writing trade, and outs himself as a bit of a Disney geek. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I would guess that gauging the difficulty/”gettability” of material would be one of the hardest parts of that job. How did you determine how easy or hard clues were?

It’s from the gut, mostly. You use your instincts and your knowledge of your knowledge. One of the rules that the producer who succeeded Alex used was “You take it away on the fours, you give it back on the fives,” so sometimes the number-four clue in a category was tougher than the number-five.

I was very good at selecting Daily Doubles from the clues on a board. (Remember, the board I was looking at had all the clues and all the responses on it.) Often I would look for something that required two elements in a response (“Who are Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau?”) but when pressed I admitted that a good Daily Double is like pornography: I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

Were the writers given production quotas or specific topic assignments, or was it a looser, more creative process than that?

It was pretty loose under Alex, with everybody playing to their strengths (I wrote a François Truffaut category right after he died, and stuffed it in a drawer until we were desperate for material. Alex approved it, and then wondered where the hell it had come from when he saw it in a game. It turned out that Truffaut had died almost exactly a year before, so we had our hook.) and creativity pushed to the limit. When the new producer (and the new Associate Producer) got on board, it became more of a quota system.

What was the best, most rewarding part of life as a Jeopardy! writer? The worst/hardest part?

The best part was working on a show everybody had heard of. As a previous staffer on Card Sharks – I found myself saying “You know, the one with the big cards…? You have to guess whether the next card is higher or lower?” – it was a pleasure to say “I work on Jeopardy!” and have people know what the show is. Once I was at Disneyland wearing a Jeopardy! sweatshirt and a Disneyland band improvised the Jeopardy! theme. None of them knew how it ended, which we all found out together.

The worst/hardest part was prepping the Tournament of Champions. These were people who had beaten us before, and I lived in terror that we would be caught in a mistake. The rest of the year, we can apologize and bring ‘em back, no problem. This time, the prestige of the show and $100,000 is at stake. And all of these contestants had beaten us five times already.

Once we had a Final for the very last Championship game. Category: Presidents. HE SAID, “I AM THE LAST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES”

Response: Who is James Buchanan? Facing the Civil War, you know….

I verified the clue easily enough, but I saw a problem: What if they say Richard Nixon? The crisis those days in August 1974 was pretty heavy, and I could not prove that Nixon did NOT say “I am the last President of the United States” and if anybody said “Who is Richard Nixon?” we were in deep trouble.

The category was changed to “18th Century Democrats.” Not quite so elegant, but it was at least pinned.

I’ve heard that quiz show writers work behind a pretty impressive veil of secrecy. Was that true of Jeopardy!?

Not when I worked there. At the beginning of every season, we got a paper to sign with the language of sections 508 and 509 of the Communications Act but most people read it cursorily and didn’t pay much attention. Although we knew that letting show material out was not to be done. I once stopped a couple of visitors from looking at unplayed games by asking their host “Are they cleared to look at material?”

Once, I was looking at a list of upcoming contestants – by sheer chance, we were hanging around the reception area and the list was near my chair – and I saw a familiar name. I turned to Susanne and asked “Do you have a picture of her?”

She had a picture. I knew she had a picture. And she knew that I knew it. Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Let me see the picture.”

We went to her office. There, on cards on her wall, were that week’s upcoming contestants. She showed me the picture.

“We might have trouble.”

By now her eyes were slits. “Why?”

“This is an old girlfriend of mine.”

We went to the producer’s office. We told him the situation, he asked me a couple of indiscreet questions, I answered them, he contemplated for a moment and then said

“Lose her.”

Susanne was very mad at me. This woman had tested higher than any woman had in several years. “I finally get a good woman, and Carlo disqualified her!”

She was supposed to play on a Tuesday, and my wife and I were at a party that weekend, and a hand clapped down on my shoulder. “I’d like to kick your ass from here to Woodland Hills and back.”

“Hi, Ellen.”

If I hadn’t blown the whistle, it could have been very bad: “So Ellen, you just won on Jeopardy!, and Carlo, you work on Jeopardy! What a coincidence.” I could hear the Club Fed doors clanging shut.

What, for you, separated a bad Jeopardy clue from a good one, or a good one from a great one?

The leaner and more elegant, the better I liked them. I learned the value of action verbs and modifiers writing for Jeopardy! because you just don’t have room for verbiage. The board was demanding: No matter how good the clue was, if it didn’t fit the screen, it couldn’t be played.

Almost every clue has a hint in it, and often the hint is a lot of the fun, for the writer as well as the viewer.

Dull: IT’S NEW MEXICO’S STATE NICKNAME

Better: LEAPIN’ WIZARDS! IT’S NEW MEXICO’S STATE NICKNAME

The hint sometimes makes the clue gettable.

Obscure: MILLARD FILLMORE DIED IN THIS CITY

Better: MILLARD FILLMORE “SHUFFLED OFF” THE PROVERBIAL MORTAL COIL IN THIS CITY

Do you have any clues you wrote that are still particular favorites?

My all-time favorite has to be in a South Africa category. In the middle of the boycotts and tension, I set out to write a non-controversial South Africa category, and a tourist guidebook told me that men’s restrooms were marked “HERE.” I found that amusing, and wrote the clue: OF GO IN OR GO ELSEWHERE, WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A RESTROOM MARKED “HERE”

When it played, the first contestant, a woman, said “What is go in?” Nope. Anybody else?

The second contestant, a man, grinned and said “What is go elsewhere?” The grin faded pretty fast when Alex called him wrong.

The third contestant didn’t want any part of it. There were two choices on the board, and they have both been called wrong. No thank you.

They realized what had happened when Alex called the “Restroom” business to their attention.

Movie Directors: DIRECTOR OF “WINGS” AND “HELL’S ANGELS”, HE DIED IN 1976 LEAVING AN ESTIMATED $1.6 BILLION ESTATE

I wanted the reaction “Howard Hughes directed movies?” I got it.

Sometimes we got good ones by accident. Steven wanted to get a lady friend a Minnie Mouse watch, and he asked me for the phone number for Disneyland. (I am notorious among my friends as “the Disneyland expert.”) He got connected to the Fantasyland Toy Shop, and he asked about the Minnie Mouse watch. The clerk put him on hold, and a moment later, somebody picked up the phone and said “I saw a mouse, and when you see one there are probably more and I think we need an exterminator.”

Steven latched on to it immediately: “I was asking about a Minnie Mouse watch, but do you really have a mouse problem there?”

The clerk rang off pretty quickly after that.

Steven went back to his typewriter and started working on a category he called “Vermin,” with the mice-in-Disneyland clue as the centerpiece. In order to get a verification of the clue, he called the Fantasyland Toy Shop again the next morning, right after the park opened, with me listening in. When they answered, he said “This is Steven. Did the exterminators come last night?”

“Yes, they did. I was supposed to call Patty and tell her.”

“Okay… You better call her when she comes in.”

Confirmed. It played a couple of weeks later.

Another found clue involved a clue that said HE SIGNED A 30-YEAR CONTRACT WITH NBC IN 1951. Response: “Who is Milton Berle?” In the Round Table, I asked “What if they say Bob Hope?” and was told “Find out.” I called Bob Hope’s office and was put in touch with Hope’s publicist, Ward Grant. I told him the clue, and the response, and I asked him “What if they say ‘Bob Hope’?”

He replied, “Bless your heart, Bob Hope has been under contract to NBC continuously since 1938.”

I saw a Final immediately. Category: Broadcasting. HE HAS BEEN UNDER CONTRACT TO NBC CONTINUOUSLY SINCE 1938. Unfortunately, somebody decided that it was “too tough” and it needed a hint to make it easier. It played as Category: Broadcasting. THOUGH BORN IN ENGLAND, HE HAS BEEN UNDER CONTRACT TO NBC IN THE U.S. CONTINUOUSLY SINCE 1938. I complained “That isn’t a hint, that’s a mystifier. Who remembers that Bob Hope was born in England?” but to no avail. It played, but nobody got it.

Do you remember any clues you wrote that were noteworthy in some sense on the show, in terms of deciding a well-remembered game, leading to contestant protests, etc.?

I felt pretty good about getting all three contestants to get it wrong on my NBC DIDN’T CALL IT “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” FOR TWO YEARS BECAUSE OF A 18-WEEK “SNL” ON ABC STARRING HIM but it was called to my attention that everybody getting it wrong is a bad thing.

Another time, I wrote a Double Jeopardy! Disney category, with harder-than-usual Disney clues. It was put in two different games, and only the first clue played each time. When the Editorial Associate Producer was setting up a Tournament of Champions game that would have all J-round categories start with “A” and all DJ-round categories start with “T” as a sort-of tribute to Alex Trebek, I offered to write a new top clue for what we were by then calling “Tough Disney.” Fortunately, a Disney scholar played that game (a coincidence, I assure you) and when he got ACCORDING TO THE 1953 CARTOON, THESE FOUR SOUNDS ARE “WHERE THE MUSIC COMES FROM” he replied “What is a toot and a whistle and a plunk and a boom?” not only responding correctly, but in the words of the cartoon itself!

Next time: the end of the interview, including how Jeopardy! got Carlo married. All responses copyright 2006 Carlo Panno and used with permission.