Jeopardy! is a game of structure and rules, so learning that one of them is entirely arbitrary may rattle some longtime fans of the most popular syndicated trivia show in America. And yet, here we are, slowly seeing many of the institutions we’ve come to rely upon erode before our very eyes.
The latest, perhaps less consequential example of this comes from journalist Clare McNear, who wrote a book about Jeopardy! called “Answers in the Form of Questions” this year. She also wrote a post for The Ringer about who the next permanent host of the show may be, as Ken Jennings has taken over the duties temporarily following the death of Alex Trebek.
The most fascinating part of that story, however, was pointed out by McNear herself on Twitter: The show’s host is actually in charge of determining when to ring the tone that signals when contestants ran out of time to answer a question. Yes, though you likely may have assumed there’s a set time players have, it’s really up to the host to physically press a button that plays the chime. This was revealed by other hosts of spinoff Jeopardy! shows, including Bob Bergen, the former host of Jep!
Both Bergen and Patrick remember the surreal experience of finding themselves suddenly in control of that iconic blue set. “I will tell you, it is one of most difficult jobs in the world to host a game show,” says Bergen. He still recalls his shock when he realized that the boop-boop-boop tone that sounds when contestants don’t ring in wasn’t automated—the host, be it him or Trebek, had a button in front of him to manually trigger it. “The very first day, Harry”—Harry Friedman also oversaw the trio of spinoffs—“is showing me the podium with the button. I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s no set time? Do you edit it down so people don’t go, ‘How come he had ten seconds and he had four?’ He said, ‘Nope, and nobody in the history of the show has ever questioned it.’”
The tough-to-describe sound is impossible to not hear if you’re a fan of the show, which is why an audio example of time differences may help here. A handy video of four different clues all being read by Trebek surfaced online after the Ringer article was published. And what may have been dismissed as editing for time now seems to make a lot more sense: It was actually Trebek deciding when players didn’t have the answers and it was best to move on.
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If anything, it’s a simple reminder of just how much of an impact Trebek had on Jeopardy! and how daunting the task of replacing him will be. Not only was Trebek the voice of the show, he quite literally controlled how the game flowed. Contestants have trained their answering skills on the signaling device on the cadence of his voice and the way he ended questions to get their timing down. But, as it turns out, it was also his own skills on a different button that was key to the show’s pace over the decades as well.
[via The Ringer]