ANSWERS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
I need to begin this review of Claire McNear's Answers in the Form of Questions with a disclaimer. In 1999, I took the test to appear on Jeopardy!, resulting in a three day appearance in June 2000, so I approach McNear's behind-the-scenes exploration of the gameshow as someone who has gone through a process similar to the one she describes in her book. Naturally, my own experiences influence my reading of the book.
It is important to note that my experiences were vastly different from many of the experiences McNear describes. The test and audition process that existed at the turn of the millennium has changed as the gameshow has taken advantage of emerging technology. The internet has also led to the J! Archive database and other methods potential Jeopardy! contestants can use to prepare for both the test and the actual show. Reading McNear's description of the current state of Jeopardy! preparedness makes me look back on my own experience and wonder how I was ever successful.
McNair's book is not the first exploration of Jeopardy!. Many former players have written memoirs of their experience or books that explore the different strategies and game theories involved. In addition, Alex Trebek has written books about Jeopardy! What sets McNair's book apart is that not only is she not a former contestant, but the producers of the show have provided her with unprecedented access to their processes.
Throughout the course of the book, McNear not only describes the show and how it operates, but also takes a deep look at some of the contestants who have appeared on the show. McNear goes beyond the players who have become household names, looking at the experiences of players who were "one-and-done," only appearing in a single game, something that happens to about 75% of all Jeopardy! contestants. She also describes the experiences of people who won a single game before going home. Her writing not only gives a strong sense of the feelings of triumph and devastation, but also looks at the variety of different ways in which people prepare for the show.
Jeopardy! does not exist in a vacuum (although some contestants, like Pam Mueller and, well, me didn't know about the massive trivia community that provides a lot of the contestants with a pathway to the show until after they appeared). McNear describes the way Jeopardy! hopefuls and former contestants meet on-line, at bars, and at national tournaments to practice their trivia chops.
The timing of McNear's book is unique. Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is 80 years old and suffering from pancreatic cancer, announcer Johnny Gilbert is 96 years old. Long-time producer Harry Friedman retired in 2020, as did contestant producer Maggie Speak and, although it happened after McNear finished her book, so did contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan (who called to tell me I was invited to be on the show). It is likely that Jeopardy! will move in new directions under their new staff, but McNear has been able to capture the show at a seminal moment in its history.
There is a camaraderie among former Jeopardy! contestants that McNear documents throughout her book, discussing a robust on-line community that includes emotional support and advice for those who have had recent appearances. However, McNear doesn't try to sugarcoat that Jeopardy is a competition with real money at stake, but she also explores the human aspect of the show. She also discusses the negative reactions many viewers have towards individual players and discusses Alex Trebek's on screen persona in stark terms throughout the book.
The real entertainment of Jeopardy! is watching the show, but McNair's book opens the curtains on the activity that goes on behind the scenes to ensure that half hour of daily television occurs as well as shines a light on the community that has grown up among the former contestants. There are other books that might serve better for the reader who is trying to earn a place at one of the three podiums in Culver City, but for the Jeopardy! fan who wants to have a better understanding of the nuts and bolts of the show, McNear provides an excellent and entertaining resource.
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