Interview: Ken Jennings Talks Hosting “Celebrity Jeopardy” And Upcoming Semifinals

The Celebrity Jeopardy! quarterfinals came to an end on December 6th, and the semifinals are just around the corner. This primetime version of the classic game show returns to ABC on Wednesdays at 8/7c beginning January 2nd. In anticipation, I had the honor of interviewing Ken Jennings, one of the winningest Jeopardy! contestants of all time, host of the daytime version, and now host of the latest season of Celebrity Jeopardy!.

(ABC/Eric McCandless)

(ABC/Eric McCandless)

Benji: You’ve been part of the Jeopardy! family for some time, but this is the first time you've hosted Celebrity Jeopardy! What has the experience been like for you?

Ken Jennings: I've watched Alex [Trebek] host it. I watched Will Ferrell pretend to host it on SNL, but this is my first time getting thrown into the circus. It's been a lot of fun because it is a little bit different than your average syndicated Jeopardy! show. These are contestants who are very comfortable on camera, which is often the thing that characterizes regular Jeopardy! contestants: they're nervous. This is my favorite show, but now I've been tossed into the middle of it. Celebrities are very comfortable on camera, bless their hearts, and it's unpredictable. You don't know what they're going to know, what they're not going to know. You don't know if they've seen the show or if they're going to ask about the rules. There might be tap dancing at some point, as we learned when Dulé Hill was on. These have been a lot of fun

Benji: I thought it was interesting when the contestants were like, “Oh, we'll make it a true Daily Double.” And then the audience clued him in that that was probably not what he wanted to do. And you saved him from losing quite a bit of money on the show.

Ken Jennings: What's remarkable is how well the stars tend to do at a show they're just learning, and doing for fun for a good cause. Some are students of the show and grew up watching it, and I think you'll see in the semifinals that those people start to rise to the top in many cases. But it is a lot of fun to see average smart folks try their hand at Jeopardy!, who are also fun and charismatic to watch like these players are.

Benji: There's a lot of banter between the contestants. They're leaning on the lectern more than in the syndicated version, but the competition is still intense. You had a tie, you had some very close games. It's not just fun, there's a real game here to be played.

Ken Jennings: Jeopardy! is driven by the format. There's something perfect about Merv Griffin's answers and questions format of Jeopardy! that makes the host and the players much less important than the board. And in this case, the Jeopardy! format will push you through. Even when the contestants are a little bit unpredictable or having fun amongst themselves, the game just pushes itself ahead, and you're just trying to strike a balance. Sometimes, I feel like I have to be the mean substitute teacher and be like, “Hey, you guys are talking a little too much in the back. Would somebody pick a category? This is going to be on TV.”

Benji: Speaking of the format, one format change that you do have in this iteration is Triple Jeopardy. Not only are the point values tripled, but you also have three Daily Doubles, which throws another wild card in there. What are the benefits of these changes?

Ken Jennings: It just means the game is never out of reach. I think a lot of times during Jeopardy!, the viewer may be like, “There's only one Daily Double left, and she's up by 10,000. This is pretty much over.” Whereas in Celebrity Jeopardy!, somebody could come back at any time. And also, I get to say Triple Jeopardy, which is very funny because we've never heard it before. It's almost like we had scientists in a lab, and they finally figured out how to add a third level of Jeopardy! and keep the nucleus stable. I love talking about Triple Jeopardy.

Benji: Every time you say it, I imagine if my grandmother were still around, she’d be losing her mind that she lives in an age where this is possible. Growing up, we've all seen Jeopardy! in its regular form. We've gotten accustomed to it, but what we've seen a lot more recently is primetime iterations on ABC, whether it’s Celebrity Jeopardy!, Jeopardy! Masters, or you winning Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time, what does it mean to have Jeopardy! on for an hour with a primetime presence?

Ken Jennings: I think everybody loves Jeopardy! It's part of our culture. It's not a controversial institution, it's a beloved one that people have fond memories of. But it's really good for the brand and the property to have it on in primetime sometimes because a more casual audience discovers it and thinks, “Oh, this is pretty fun to play along with.” And it's on every day. It's on 230 times a year. For a lot of people, Jeopardy! is kind of the centerpiece of their evening. And we love those viewers, we love those fans, but I'm getting yelled at on the street a lot more since I started doing Celebrity Jeopardy! I realized there is a new casual audience who's seeing promos for this and is thinking about Jeopardy! I love that. It's always been my favorite show, and I'm always glad when it finds a new viewer.

Benji: You have a unique perspective in that you've been a contestant. Not many game show hosts are known most famously for being a contestant. On a Celebrity Jeopardy! episode, you are sort of the common man of the show. You're not coming in as a celebrity. What's it like to be almost the voice of the audience when you have these contestants who are quite well-known?

Ken Jennings: I think about that a lot every time I'm hosting Jeopardy!, that I'm running the show for the contestants, but I'm also framing it for the home viewer. I can see it from the contestant's point of view as well because I remember what that's like emotionally, how difficult, and how much fun it is. I think it works. I was wondering how it would work on Celebrity Jeopardy!, but I realized that's almost kind of how Alex played it when he would host Celebrity Jeopardy! He was a very famous and distinguished broadcaster, but when he hosted Celebrity Jeopardy!, he was the house, he was the casino, he was the face of the institution, and he wasn't talking to people that you would imagine him hanging out with at parties, although he might. He was just there to be the sphinx-like face of Jeopardy! while the stars had fun, and I think that's about the right way to host.

Benji: One thing the public might have a misconception about Celebrity Jeopardy! is that it’s painfully easy. The SNL sketch would ask celebrities to make any sound. But it's not that easy. It’s not on the same difficulty level as The Greatest of All-Time or Jeopardy! Masters, but there's some challenge there. Do you think audiences may be surprised by the actual success that some of these contestants have in answering questions that viewers might not know the answer to?

Ken Jennings: We know about the SNL premise and punch line. We love these stars who are willing to play for charity. We are not out there to make them look dumb, but I think throughout, and especially in the semis, the main focus of the show is just being surprised at how good these celebrities are at playing Jeopardy! This is an unguarded moment where we're seeing their real minds at work. All of them are incredibly bright, some are fans of the show, and you see a high competitive level of play. I'm surprised all the time. I would often tell the writers, “This [question] could be on real Jeopardy! Are we sure we're going to put this on the board?” And then, invariably, one of the celebs gets it right. Celebrities, they never let us down.

Benji: Well, thanks so much. Congratulations on the Celebrity Jeopardy! Quarterfinals. We're looking forward to the return so we can see the semi-finals and then the championship.

Catch up on the Celebrity Jeopardy! quarterfinals on Hulu, and don’t miss the semifinals on ABC on Wednesdays at 8/7c beginning January 2nd.

Sign up for Disney+ or the Disney Streaming Bundle (Disney+, ESPN+, and ad-supported Hulu) now