Sherlock Holmes wouldn't have cared much for the TV game show Jeopardy! Holmes was never one for stuffing his deerstalker full of trivia. In an early Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson was aghast that the great detective seemed almost totally ignorant of philosophy, politics or contemporary literature. Most shocking of all, Holmes was unaware that the earth traveled around the sun.
"Now that I do know it," said Holmes. "I shall do my best to forget it."
Holmes's theory was that the brain is like an empty attic, best furnished judiciously. "It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent," he said. "There comes a time when for every addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
Jeopardy!' is a crowded attic in which contestants rummage around trying to locate bits and pieces of buried information. Jeopardy!'s gimmick is that it reverses the standard quiz show format; the game board provides the answers, and contestants must supply the questions. (This leads to the constant Jeopardy! refrain: "Frame your answer in the form of a question, please.") A game consists of three increasingly difficult rounds—Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy—during which contestants supply questions to answers in categories as diverse as chemical warfare and famous pigs. Like the balance in a bankbook, the score on Jeopardy!' is kept in dollars, but only the winner actually gets to keep the cash he has accumulated during the course of the show. At the end of the TV season, the top 15 money winners return for Jeopardy! 's Tournament of Champions, the NCAAs of the game-show world. "They're equally divided among the smoothest and the loneliest-looking people on Jeopardy!" says Clare Quinn, herself a 34-year-old Jeopardy! junkie from Chester Springs. Pa. "Half of them look like Norm on Cheers." The rest bear an uncomfortable resemblance to people you'd see in a supermarket carefully pricing Campbell's Soup-For-One. All of them, however, have one thing in common: They have committed to memory an Everest of information—facts without judgment or ambiguity. A Jeopardy! question does not force you to wrestle with a proposition but simply requires you to be able to recall a morsel of data—the who, the what, the where, but never the why. The show is both a cause and a symptom of the Information Age's lust for naked data.
Jeopardy! has been around since 1964, so in a sense it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, though it was off the air from 1975 to 1978 and again from 1979 to 1984. In its current incarnation, the show is slicker, faster, more high-tech. The mechanical marvel of the original game board, with its pivoting question slats, has been replaced by an electronic marvel that would make H.G. Wells envious. Gone too is the robust, if somewhat unctuous, original host of the show. Art Fleming, who has been supplanted by the natty, clipped and aloof Alex Trebek.
Obviously, the times are right for Jeopardy/Trivial Pursuit only whetted the Baby Boomers' appetite for the data diet. Today Jeopardy! is the second-highest rated show in syndicated television history, just behind Wheel of Fortune. In New York City, where it airs weekday nights from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., Jeopardy! so swamped the CBS Evening News that Dan Rather's broadcast had to be moved up by half an hour.
Each night 11.9 million infomaniacs tune in to see contestants unload arsenals of minutiae. "Without the show, there would be a vacuum in my life," says Quinn, who has a degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. "I'd have absolutely no use for my liberal arts education."
TALK SHOW HOSTS FOR $200: Sometime between the release of his hit record, I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts, in 1949, and the day he introduced Nancy Reagan to her astrologer, Merv Griffin created Jeopardy! As Griffin recalls, he and his former wife, Julann, were on a plane talking about the quiz show scandals of the '50s. "Why don't you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?" Julann joked.
"Sure, and I'll end up in the slammer." said Merv.
"Suppose I said, 'Five thousand two hundred eighty feet.' "