Ken Jennings


March 31, 2008

In the final installment of this threepart interview with onetime Jeopardy! clue-writer Carlo Panno, Carlo meets his wife on the Jeopardy! set, and plays Dennis the Menace to Alex Trebek’s cranky Mr. Wilson. Big thanks to Carlo for taking the time to do this, and for digging up the year-old answers after we both discovered that they’d been lost in the e-mail ether back in 2006.

Did Jeopardy! clues ever contain writers’ in-jokes that the home viewer never even notices?

Oh yeah. We got a giggle out of using the term “spineless jellyfish” because Alex thought it was funny. We tried to put in Swiss national hero Arnold Von Winkelried in clues involving Switzerland because his name sounded funny. We liked that O’Hare Airport was named after a WWII aviator who shot down enemy planes. We liked that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was a WWII tank commander known as “Killer” Runcie. When I worked there, I was one of three members of the research staff who had gone to Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley, but we never worked that in. I hear that there are several Nebraska natives on staff now, and there are a lot of Cornhusker questions.

Steven once wrote a J-round board where every response in the top row was “Who (or What) is Napoleon?” Later, he wrote a J-round board where every response had “John” in it. The “John board” went unnoticed by everybody, including the crew, who as a rule were pretty sharp about that kind of thing.

I got the impression that writers are often called upon during show tapings to resolve answer disputes. If that was ever part of your job description, do you have any great stories of last-minute scurrying, funny alternate answers, etc.?

Ideally, that is resolved at the Round Table. Alternate answers should be discussed and dealt with then. (“What if they say Lyndon Johnson?” “They’re wrong.”) And when I was there, we got caught very few times.

Once we had a screw-up on the board and Alex read one clue and the board showed another. Four or five of us went to Alex’s dressing room to come up with an on-the-spot replacement in a “Hollywood Dogs” category. I came up with PONGO AND PERDITA AND 99 PUPPIES.

They looked at me, clueless.

“What are A Hundred And One Dalmatians?”

Alex approved it, the Associate Producer asked if I needed to check spellings (“No.”) and we dropped it into the Chyron. I liked that one, it had the elegant simplicity I liked.

Once for Rhyme Time we asked for “THE HENS OF A GREAT BRITISH AUTHOR,” looking for “What are Dickens’ chickens?”

Contestant said “What are Pepys’ cheeps?” We took it.

How did you first get involved with Jeopardy!?

In 1978, I was a contestant on what we used to call “Jeopardy! Mark II” and set a one-day record that lasted almost three weeks, $6850. I’m still the only Jeopardy! champion who got on the research staff.

When we were in the contestant pool, hurrying up and waiting, one of the contestants asked the group, “What was that song in the run-through?” The one that begins “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I loved You…’?”

A perky-eyed female contestant piped up, “It was ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?’ I’m only the second person to get it.”

I walked over and stuck out my hand. “Hi. I’m the first.”

We eyed each other warily after that.

Later that afternoon, when the returning champion was asked “How do you know so much?” he responded “Have to, sweetie, I’m a Gemini.”

Suddenly the room erupted with people saying “I’m a Gemini.” Of the 12 people there, nine were Geminis. We started trading around birthdays, and Miss Perky Eyes and I shared the same birthday.

We eyed each other really warily after that.

We never played each other – the contestant coordinator and the NBC rep saw us hitting it off and decided we shouldn’t play against each other – but after we had played we got in touch with each other and started dating.

We got married the week I started working at Jeopardy!, and we will celebrate our 23rd anniversary in April.

I got the Jeopardy! gig because I had been on one of the pilot run-throughs, and asked how I could get a writing job. They said I should write some material and send it in, and when I did, they liked it enough that I made it through the third cut based on the material. On the fourth cut, they had it down to me and Steven Dorfman, and they went with Steven, wisely, because he was better than anybody. It’s like Tommy Lasorda getting cut from the Dodgers in favor of Sandy Koufax. I’m good, but Steven was world-class.

When I was a contestant on Jeopardy!, on my second day I was dying in the Double Jeopardy! round and was lucky enough to hit a Daily Double in the category Academy Awards. I’m pretty strong in movies, so I bet everything I had, $325, on the answer and found myself face-to-face with this:


I had no clue, and stammered out the only western I could think of that might qualify: “What is Stagecoach?”

No, Art Fleming informed me, the correct question was “What is Cimarron?”

When I worked at Jeopardy!, Merv found a supply closet that was full of old Jeopardy! cards and he sent them over for us to use in contestant try-outs. Steven and two contestant coordinators spent two days going through them, pulling out the ones that were still useable.

When I came back from lunch the second day, there was a surprise on my desk. A white card, about 10″ by 14″, with a handle made of red gaffer’s tape. It read: THIS 1931 FILM IS THE ONLY WESTERN TO WIN BEST PICTURE. Steven had found it and set it aside for me.

I was touched, amused, and irritated all at the same time.

I took it home, framed it upside-down, and hung it over my toilet, where it has remained through several different domiciles.

Many Jeopardy! fans will swear up and down that the show has “dumbed down” in the years since its 1984 return. Do you still watch the show enough to have an opinion on that point?

I stopped watching for about 10 years after I left – been there, done that, and used to watch them five at a time – but I started again in about 2000. I think it has been pretty consistent since I started watching it again. Then again, I was intimately involved with Jeopardy! material for five years: I read every clue, I handled every game, and I watched them from a ringside seat. They say there are only nine different plots, and I believe there are only about 10,000 Jeopardy! clues.

Since I always get pestered with this question, I thought I’d “pay it forward”: any great Alex stories?

Once, we had an Audio Daily Double that involved the song “Take Five,” and Alex referred to the saxophonist as Gerry Mulligan. At the commercial break, I walked up to him and said “That wasn’t Gerry Mulligan, it was Paul Desmond.”

Alex responded: “Who cares?”

I looked him in the eye. “You get the letters.” Then I turned on my heel and walked back to my front-row seat.

When we came back, he said “One of my researchers – one of my former researchers – just told me that it was Paul Desmond.”

Another time, right before a Final, Alex was talking about the death of Gertrude Stein. Seems that right before Gertrude packed it in, her companion Alice B. Toklas asked her, “Gertrude, what is the answer?”

To which Gertrude responded “What was the question?” and then died.

There was no response, and Alex said, “I guess nobody cares about the death of Gertrude Stein.”

I said, from the front row, “She died too,” and just loud enough that everybody on stage except Alex could hear it.

“What was that, Carlo?”

“I said SHE DIED TOO.”

Big laughter from everybody in the studio, including Alex, who then introduced me to the audience as one of his former researchers.

Alex was one of the best bosses I ever had. Once, when we all had a briefing on a new insurance plan, Alex answered the phones and booked contestants for an hour. He was the only one not on that insurance plan, being covered by AFTRA instead. He was thoughtful and intelligent, and I liked him a lot.

Responses © 2006 Carlo Panno. Used with permission.

Posted by Ken at 11:03 am