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Photo: Courtesy Jeopardy Productions Inc.

A Career in Jeopardy!

SOMEBODY HAS TO THINK UP ALL THOSE CLUES

As a freshman, Michele Silverman Loud, J91, took a test to appear as a contestant on her favorite TV game show, Jeopardy!. She didn’t get on. But today she has the best job a trivia-loving former English major could want: writing the program’s clues. She’s one of the writers who think up the categories and questions, assign them a monetary value, and determine the daily doubles.

After fourteen years on the job (and three years before that as a researcher), she is still loving it. She enjoys her wacky colleagues, for one thing. “Our meetings are simultaneously silly and academic,” she says. “All of the writers are characters. We all have an intellectual curiosity and love to play games, so we often are testing our material out on one another.”

Plus there’s plenty of creative latitude. “For the most part, as a writer, you have the freedom to say, ‘Today I feel like writing a category on children’s literature or John Cusack movies,’ and just run with it.”

And then there’s the opportunity to work with Mr. Urbane Sophistication himself. What is Alex Trebek really like? “Much different than you would think he would be in person,” Loud says. “The funny thing about seeing him in the office for the first time is that he is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and not impeccably dressed in a suit, the way you see him on the show.” And he’s fond of saying that of course he knows all the answers—he has them in front of him. “He is very warm and friendly, and he loves talking to the audience and taking questions,” Loud adds.

Unlike game shows that go on a hiatus between seasons, Jeopardy! keeps churning out episodes—which means the show’s eight writers and seven researchers work year round to keep up with the demand. “We tape five shows a day, so material gets eaten up pretty quickly,” Loud says.

Since the quiz show cheating scandals of the 1950s, the FCC has tried to ensure that contestants never know the answers ahead of time. “For each day of taping, we have six games ready instead of the necessary five,” Loud says. “Then the five that are played that day are chosen at random by outside standards and practices. We also have more contestants on hand than we need, so except for the returning champion, you have three people being picked for the other two spots. It’s a random assignment of game and contestants.” In other words, if there’s a lawyer who gets a law category, “it’s pure coincidence and luck,” Loud says.

Besides creating clues, Loud and the other writers sit in during tapings to make judgment calls on contestants’ answers. “Some of us are on stage at the judges’ table, with the bulk of the staff standing by to do instant research,” she says.

Loud says her Jeopardy! experience has been useful outside the studio: “All of the writers have settled many a bet for family and friends, because if one of us doesn’t know something off the top of our head, we certainly know how to look it up—although my dad tells me that Google is putting me out of business in that arena.”

Where does a Jeopardy! writer look for inspiration? “Everything I read or see on TV or watch in a movie is fair game,” Loud says. Here’s one of her favorite clues: In 1929 William Dreyer and Joseph Edy created this ice cream flavor, named in part to reflect the times ahead. Answer: What is Rocky Road? Source: the label of a gallon of Dreyer’s ice cream.

KAITLIN PROVENCHER, manager of web content and strategy in the Tufts Office of Web Communications, often writes for Tufts Now (now.tufts.edu), where her article first appeared.

 
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