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Who is the highest-earning game show contestant of all time? A Q+A with Ken Jennings

Hilltop Now’s Sydni Walker talks trivia, the late Trebek, and teaching the next generation the importance of shows like Jeopardy! with Ken Jennings.
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Courtesy of Hilltop Now
Sydni Walker interviews Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings before the Tate lecture on March 5.

DC contributor and The Roundup’s Sydni Walker sat down with the Jeopardy! host for a one-on-one interview ahead of his Tate Lecture.

Whether you saw him competing or hosting, Ken Jennings is game show royalty. He won over 4 million dollars on the hit quiz show, Jeopardy!, and was nominated at the Primetime Emmy Awards last year for outstanding host for a game show.

The trivia buff won 74 episodes of Jeopardy! in a row in 2004. Now, he’s back as the show’s host, filling in after the loss of Alex Trebek in 2020.

Jennings visited SMU campus as part of the Tate Lecture series on March 5th, 2024. Before he gave his big lecture that evening, I sat down with Jennings to learn more about Trebek’s legacy, the importance of keeping Jeopardy! alive, and more. We even stumped him on some SMU trivia.

Walker stumps Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings on some SMU trivia (SMU News)

Sydni Walker:
I’ve been a Jeopardy! fan for a long time, so I’ve seen you on both sides of the podium. Do you think that that should be kind of like a prerequisite to hosting?

Ken Jennings:
I mean, the greatest person ever to hold that job, Alex Trebek, had never been a contestant. But he was a bright, inquisitive guy who had decades to figure out the job. So I think that’s the main prerequisite, is you have to be actually engaged in the game. You can’t just be pretending to know and be like, ‘No, I’m sorry, what is…Lithuania?’ You have to kind of sell it. And I find that if I’m playing along in my head with the players, it’s a more convincing hosting job.

Walker:
So you brought up Trebek. I know with my family, it felt like someone had left our home when he passed away. And I know for you it was probably even harder to navigate. What do you want the viewers to know about Trebek that maybe they don’t know, maybe they haven’t heard?

Jennings:
Sometimes viewers might have thought he was a little bit, you know, smug with his very correct French pronunciations and his eagerness to correct people. But the funny thing is, that was just something he put on for the job. Like, in person, he was very loose and funny. He liked to warm up the crowd with jokes because there’s a live audience at Jeopardy! You know, in commercials, you would often see him doing a little celebrity impression or a little bit of soft shoe or something. In real life, he was much more goofy uncle and much less like imposing quiz guy.

Walker:
You said in an interview once that Jeopardy! is kind of a neutral space, that you know, like red states, blue states, young, old it’s something we can all get behind. So what is the importance of a younger generation continuing to watch Jeopardy!, continuing to enjoy that show?

Jennings:
I understand the challenges of getting younger viewers to watch Jeopardy! because it’s still on broadcast syndicated television

Walker:
You’re preaching to the choir.

Jennings:
That thing that Gen Z famously loves… to set up an antenna by their TV. It’s not on streaming yet, although I think that’s a change that’s going to happen sooner rather than later, which will be great for letting the show find a new audience. But yeah, it really is kind of the king of that kind of quiz show for a reason. You know, for the last 60 years Jeopardy! has been on for 50 of them. You know, there was a brief break in the 70s. And it didn’t change.

Walker:
My dad, every time we get to Final Jeopardy is like ‘Please be sports, please be sports, please be sports.’ It’s never sports.

Jennings:
It’s rarely sports.

Walker:
It’s rarely sports.

Jennings:
And that’s because we’ve seen Jeopardy! players try sports. It’s not always pretty.

Walker:
This is more kind of fun, and less formal. We have SMU questions for you. We’ll see if you can get them.

Question one:
Which business owner and member of a famous family attended SMU for a semester?

Walker:
… heavy on the famous family.

Jennings:
That’s all we get, business owner and famous family? Umm… I don’t know who this is. It’s a… Kardashian.

Walker:
Yeah.

Jennings:
It’s…. Kim?

Walker:
No.

Jennings:
It’s Khloé…It’s Kris… It’s… I missed one. It… starts with a K. Who is it?

Katie Bergelin:
It’s Kourtney!

Jennings:
Kourtney!

Walker:
Kourtney Kardashian famously went to SMU for a little bit.

Jennings:
“Famously” at SMU.

Walker:
At SMU. That’s all we have, really. Like, nationwide.

Jennings:
No, no, that’s legit… congrats. Congrats on having the presidential library and a Kardashian.

Walker:
Yeah, thank you. That was a big deal for us.

Question two:
Controversy over a new Pontiac Trans Am surrounded which former SMU football player.

Walker:
This was before SMU football got the death penalty.

Jennings:
Oh, this is 80s-era Trans Am trivia? Boy, I mean, that’s kind of my era. When I would have been watching college football more. Trans Am. I have no idea.

Walker:
It was gold, right? It was a gold Trans Am?

Bergelin:
Uh-huh.

Jennings:
Who got a gold Trans Am?

Walker:
It’s a football player.

Jennings:
You’re actually asking death penalty trivia on your SMU pop culture show. Wow, what a new era we’re in. Who was it I don’t know.

Walker:
Eric Dickerson.

Jennings:
Ah, it was Dickerson. Yeah, I remember he was at SMU. See, I should’ve known that. But that’s what I’m saying. Jeopardy! contestants shouldn’t try sports.

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