Your RDA of Irony

Merv and Me

I am in Merv Griffin’s debt. But for his creation “Jeopardy!”, I probably now would be some self-loathing corporate drone in public relations. (I am a self-loathing free-lancer, so I have saved a fortune in dry cleaning.) Unfortunately I never had the chance to thank my emancipator. I did see from a distance once in the studio, but at the time I was preoccupied with suffocation. Let me recount my adventure on “Super Jeopardy.!”

The Script for the Ken Burns’ Documentary

David McCullough voiceover: It was the summer of 1990. George W.Bush had finally found steady work. In the Middle East, Iran was being contained by our ally Saddam Hussein. Movie audiences were wondering what Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson saw in each other. And Merv Griffin had a big idea for a game show! Yes, he was going to produce a television version of Monopoly. As a lead-in for this obvious hit, he came-up with “Super Jeopardy.”

By inviting back past champions and the wittiest, most charismatic writers who had appeared on Jeopardy, Merv envisioned an Armaggedon of the Nerds. So 27 game show veterans and has-beens received an invitation to duel with each other for a greed-inducing $250,000. Their expenses would be covered and the show guaranteed a minimum consolation prize of $5000.

Then, there was a change in plans. Merv discovered that he had to have Frank Spangenberg. (However, we’ll ignore the rumors.) To add Frank to the tournament meant also adding eight other contestants. So, the first game in the series would now feature four players instead of the traditional trinity.

The tournament might have ended on the first day with the asphyxiation of the contestants. In an attempt to make the end more exciting for prime time, smoke props were supposed to be ignited during the Final Jeopardy. The mist was supposed to be mystic. However, during the rehearsal, it simply was smothering. The normally meek contestants protested about the horrid smell and their sensation of nausea. Merv probably considered whether contestant deaths would be good for ratings; unfortunately, the show was not scheduled for a sweeps period. In a humanitarian gesture, he allowed the contestants to breathe.

The first game pitted Frank Spangenberg against three presumed martyrs: Brian of Utah, Kate of New York and Eugene of Western Literature. Since this was the first day of taping, everything was entitled to go wrong: short circuits, jammed mechanisms and miscalculating scoreboards. The contestants endured three hours of delays. The game finally began but it was not the expected Spangenberg juggernaut.

Eugene Finerman interview: I played with embarrassing recklessness, often trying to answer questions before I had read them. My enthusiasiastic inaccuracies about Burundi, Escoffier and the state fish of Alaska left me in second place going into Final Jeopardy! There had been problems with the scoreboard; a corrected mistake increased my total after Double Jeopardy had ended. After placing his Final Jeopardy wager, Frank Spangenberg had doubts as to whether he had calculated his wager on my erroneous or correct score. He asked to see how much he had bet and, if necessary, correct the amount. The producers and the staff conferred and finally denied Frank’s request. The third place contestant Brian was a lawyer and felt that he was entitled to interfere. The producers told him-in effect-to soak his head in lime jello (the native dish of Utah).

With Frank brooding, Brian fuming and my feeling guilty (how liberal of me) with Kate consoling me (how liberal of her), we were confronted with the Final Jeopardy clue. The category was U.S. Presidents and the clue was “At the time of this president’s inauguration, there were five former presidents still alive, more than at any other time.” In 1990, there was only one correct answer: Abraham Lincoln. And I was the only one who knew it. Seeing Frank’s incorrect response, Alex sniped “So, it really didn’t matter what you bet.”

The winners of the remaining quarter-final games were a phenomenal 18 year-old Eric Newhouse and my old nemesis from 1987 TOC Bob Verini. I would play against them in the semi-final match. The game began as an exercise in frustration. Despite my earnest ringing of the buzzer, in the first third of the game I was consistently slower than my two opponents. I felt particularly galled that Eric was answering questions that I knew before he was born. Fortunately, as the game progressed, I finally acquired some coordination and made a serious comeback. The match’s outcome largely was determined by those damn daily doubles.

Bob Verini was an actor from New York, and he found a daily double in the category of Broadway musicals. He couldn’t resist the opportunity of betting everything, and he was not obliging enough to be wrong. That gave Bob a lead of 10,000 points. Eric stumbled upon the second daily double in Double Jeopardy. I knew the answer, but he didn’t use me as his phone-a-friend. His gallant wager consigned him to third place; I was in second and Lucky Bob was in the first place as we entered Final Jeopardy. The category was geography, and we were challenged to name the second largest country on the second largest continent-and they both begin with the same letter. Unfortunately, Bob resisted the temptation to answer Argentina. He responded Algeria, as did Eric and I.

Bob went on the Finals where he competed against Dave Traini (another veteran of the ’87 Tournament of Champions) and Bruce Seymour, who decisively won the tournament and $250,000.

  1. SwanShadow says:

    I never met Merv either, but I too owe him a handshake and a word of gratitude.

    I always wondered what the story was behind Alex’s throwaway comment regarding Frank’s Final Jeopardy wager. Now I know. Thanks, Eugene!

    Super J! was a kick, despite the bizarre four-player format. One of my proudest moments came at the end of my game’s first round, when I held a commanding lead over the formidable Canadian, Bob Blake. Of course, that moment lasted the entire length of a commercial break, shortly after which I was a mere flyspeck in Blake’s rear-view mirror.

    Oh, and Kate Waits is one of the nicest people I’ve met playing Jeopardy. During the ’88 TOC, her husband shuttled my then-pregnant wife between the studio and the hotel in their rental car.

  2. Rene#4 says:

    Ah yes, I remember it well!

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply