“Jeopardy!” contestant and Sports Illustrated journalist Jack Dickey writes about the experience of doing the show — and what continues to make the game so appealing:

The show has had such staying power—the Alex Trebek version has aired continuously in syndication since 1984—because it strikes several valuable balances: It is scholarly but not snobby; rigorous but not barbaric; traditional but not fusty. Jeopardy! proclaims itself “America’s Favorite Quiz Show,” and indeed it is tailored for the living rooms of aspirational families throughout the land. (And who better to speak to American strivers than the Canadian immigrant host who clambered his way from Sudbury, Ontario, and gigs on Battlestars and The Wizard of Odds to a reported $10 million annual salary and an unquestioned place in television history?) Aside from the occasional forays into fine arts and hard sciences, which have gotten more occasional with each passing year, the Jeopardy! clue-writers cover material one need not have attended college to know. To my mind, the Phi Beta Kappa crowd doesn’t usually yield the toughest contestants, anyway—no, I went into my taping fearing the type that paid just enough attention in school before going home and gorging themselves on news and pop culture. (Every hour spent mastering number theory is an hour that can’t be spent mastering the fact that “8-6-7-5-3-0-9/Jenny” was a No. 4 Billboard hit for Tommy Tutone in 1982.) Besides, rarely are Jeopardy! clues written to summon information in a vacuum; instead, the writers try to prompt what those of us with fancy degrees might call interdisciplinary thinking.

“What is the atomic number of argon?” is the kind of question that might come up on a chemistry test. (As with most questions historically asked of me on chemistry tests, I wouldn’t know the answer.) On Jeopardy!, the question would more likely come as “You might find this atomic number of argon on the uniform of quarterbacking great Peyton Manning.” (“What is 18?”) The clues are also written to inform. From that one a Colts fan would learn something about noble gases, and Sir William Ramsay himself would learn something about the NFL. Most importantly, for contestants, the writers’ approach means that few categories are as hopeless as they seem. With a little luck, you can cover up your lacunae.

Go ahead, look up “lacunae.” Then read Jack’s full piece here.

Previously on Harris Online…