The Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time tournament has scored huge ratings this week, pitting the show’s three most dominant players, James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter against each other. It’s also been a reliable stalwart in syndication for 36 seasons, and behind it all is Harry Friedman, who’s been the executive producer of both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune since 1999. Friedman, who will retire after this season, talked to Slate about setting up the tournament, how social media has changed Jeopardy!, and the enduring wit of Alex Trebek.
Jeremy Faust: The Greatest of All Time Tournament has a format that’s different from regular season gameplay but also from past versions of the Tournament of Champions. How did you come to set things up this way? Did you consider a more standard single-game format, first to four wins, or something?
Harry Friedman: We did debate a lot of different scenarios. ABC wanted each episode to be an hour. Two of our usual half-hour games could have worked. But we had to think in terms of energy and momentum. We had the advantage of a built-in format, the two-day final that we know works and that the players already understood from their own past experience. The most important thing was that we just wanted to make it fun, interesting, and competitive. And, of course, settle the question.
Unlike in regular season play, the Jeopardy! writers actually knew which contestants they were writing for. You know Ken does not drink alcohol, and yet he somehow crushes it on Potent Potables. James is a sports encyclopedia. How did you balance the questions to ensure fairness?
We wrote the games first. We then went back and compared that material to all of the other games that each of these three contestants had ever participated in. We eliminated anything similar to anything any of the players had already seen in the past.
Did you have to reconsider anything?
We absolutely had to take back some clues.
How did you decide how difficult to make these GOAT games? With these players you can really push the envelope.
We worked hard to keep [the] range of material at one end of the spectrum. We wanted it to be challenging and at the championship level, but not so difficult that it would stump the contestants—not so obscure that anything is truly “trivial.” And still, people are going to be playing along at home. So we have to consider that. It’s the same rule we apply to the [daily] syndicated show.
Among Jeopardy! fans, there’s always this debate over how hard the material on the show should be. Is that something you think about for regular season games? People love seeing great players go on long winning streaks, and harder gameplay is probably more amenable to encouraging those streaks.
The downside of games that are too hard is that people at home feel alienated. Also, if the game consistently stumps even our bright contestants, it is boring and unsatisfying. It just isn’t fun to sit there and watch no one ring in. But it is also difficult for us to know what everyone knows and how much they don’t know. The one thing we do understand is that making the game material exponentially harder is not going to serve anyone well.
Over the past several years, Jeopardy! seems to have taken on new meaning for fans. Why do you think this is?
I think always has been there. But in the past 15 years or so what has fueled and accelerated the connection to the show is social [media]. Absolutely social media is the main reason.
There’s also been a shift in how people play the game. There’s a community amongst the players. You can see it in the 2017 Tournament of Champions finals in which Buzzy, Alan, and Austin are battling it out for $250,000 but they’re also collaborating on elaborate visual jokes during the show’s introduction.
A lot of this comes from Alex’s willingness to accept the show as not just academic but also as a game, and as something that can be more fun. The game has become more playful, which in turn has allowed players to enjoy it more and be themselves. We found out that having fun and having facile ability to perform on Jeopardy! can coexist.
It also seems like the writers play into it, trying to make Alex say amusing things that we don’t expect from him, like reciting rap and pop song lyrics.
Absolutely. Alex is game for all of that as long as the material behind it is legitimate.
I think Alex is simultaneously admired and yet somehow underappreciated. I mean, how many ways can you mix it up when saying a player is right or wrong? And yet he keeps it so varied. He knows when to add a comment and when to keep things moving. Is that him? Good directing?
It’s all Alex. In fact, he never uses cue cards [except for the clues]. For example, for this Greatest of All Time tournament, he didn’t use a cue card when we was explaining the format to the audience and how the games would work. We talked about it. I’m sure he rehearsed it. But he’s so good that he’s just able to treat it like he’s having a conversation with the audience. That’s not memorization. That’s internalization of the big picture.
Alex revealed last year that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. How is he doing?
His course of treatment keeps changing. He is on now on a trial drug that just got approved. He’s tough. He loves being host of Jeopardy! There have been days when he comes in to work and he doesn’t feel well. But by the time we get to taping a few hours later, there’s somehow a resurgence in strength and energy. It’s a marvel to behold. He is able to put everything else aside when the moment comes, host the show, and do it well. He has not called in sick once.
It’s no secret that Alex will at some point do his last show. He’s spoken about this candidly. As we approach that, there have been some lovely expressions of appreciation. Can you talk about the moment in the 2019 Tournament of Champions in which a player wrote, “What is, we love you, Alex?” as his response in Final Jeopardy?
That moment. Yes. That was special. We all had goosebumps. The contestant’s name was Dhruv [Gaur]. A wonderful young man.
Could the production team see that unfolding, as he wrote that out in real time?
Yes, we can see what the players are writing in real time. But there was only 30 seconds between the time he wrote it and when Alex saw it. So it happens kind of quickly. We knew it was heartfelt.
We don’t know when Alex will step down, but you’re retiring this year, after over 20 years producing Jeopardy! and numerous Emmys. Will there be big changes to the show?
It’s safe to say that my successor is not likely to make anything other than superficial changes to the program. We have such a strong format and we know that is why the show is a success.
What’s your reaction to the success of Greatest of All Time tournament? Can we expect more events like this in the future?
The general response and also the ratings we have gotten are both a wonderful affirmation that broadcast television is still powerful and meaningful. It’s great to see that there’s clearly a hunger for this kind of programming.