Tuesday, December 07, 2004

What's The Phone Number of Alex's Attorney?

Jeopardy for David Blum:

Over the weekend I happened to revisit "Quiz Show," Robert Redford's wonderful 1994 recounting of the "Twenty-One" scandal of the late 1950s, in which whiz kid Charles Van Doren was found to have been fed the answers to questions on the popular game show. I'd forgotten one key plot point that struck me as relevant to recent events. Van Doren's predecessor on the show, a nebbishy Queens brainiac named Herbert Stempel, had been told to take a dive by the show's producers after his own 17-week run of wins. Stempel had been specifically instructed to give the wrong answer ("On the Waterfront") to the question, "What won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955?" The correct answer, of course, was "Marty," which Stempel - and most of the show's viewers - already knew. It would be more exciting for the audience, the producers explained to the angry Stempel, to see him finally lose with such an easy, obvious question.

Those events bring to mind the oddly similar dive taken by Ken Jennings last week on "Jeopardy," when after amassing winnings of $2.5 million with a seemingly endless supply of arcane knowledge, he lost with a Stempel-style misfire. The man who could accurately recount the plot of the German epic poem "The Nibelungenlied" failed to correctly create a question around an absurdly simple answer: "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year." Mr. Jennings's flagrantly wrong question ("What is FedEx?") makes you wonder whether anything has really changed in television since the Van Doren days.

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