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Comedy, Jeopardy and Bob Harris

 If you're a long-time Jeopardy fan, you'll remember Bob Harris.

In the 1998 Jeopardy Tournament of Champions finals, the former stand-up comedian went up against Berkeley professor Dan Melia and another stand-up comedian named Kim Worth. Together, they produced two of the funniest, most entertaining, half hours the show had ever seen.

After the first game, Harris bet big on a Final Jeopardy question about US presidents, only to flub it and take himself out of the running. (Tournaments typically end with a two-game, cumulative-point match. Both games are filmed back to back but are broadcast on consecutive on nights.)

Worse, he was running a 101-degree fever. "Now I had to spend another 30 minutes on national TV with no chance to win," says Harris. "But from my years on the stage doing stand-up, I knew how to turn personal humiliation into comedy."

At one point, for example, Alex offered the far-behind Harris some conciliatory words, to which Harris replied, "I don't need your pity!" The audience roared with laughter, but as Harris recalls, "I think I was only 50-percent kidding."

15 Jeopardy legends, $1 million bucks

The performance was so memorable that Harris was one of just 15 people invited to participate in the 2002 Jeopardy Million Dollar Masters Tournament, alongside such legends as Frank Spangenberg and Chuck Forrest.

In fact, in the first round, Harris knocked out Spangenberg, a New York police officer who held the all-time winnings record for 13 years, losing it only when the show doubled the money values. The 15 competitors got along famously. "We bonded like air crash survivors." Almost the entire group remained in touch by e-mail afterward, keeping in touch with each others' lives and work.

Speaking of which, Forrest, who held the five-day winnings record of $72,800 for over four years until Spangenberg came along, is now hunting down Iraqi war criminals. "Chuck, you rock!" says Harris. "You win game shows and then you vanquish evil!"

The selection of the 15 contestants became controversial. The producers decided, for example, not to simply invite the top 15 scorers, possibly avoiding what might have looked like what Harris calls "a Forbes-for-president rally." Instead, they picked the best players, or the most memorable ones, and that included a diversity of women, minorities, and the legendary Eddie Timanus, who is blind.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the scores alone don’t always tell you much about the quality of a player. Four of my five games were runaways, so I didn’t bet as much as I would have if the games had been close.” A runaway is a game in which you go into Final Jeopardy with twice the score of any of your opponents.

Leszek Pawlowicz, who was excluded from the tournament, has a different perspective.

He'd love to do it again -- "it's Pavlovian: ring your buzzer, get a prize" -- especially now that the five-day limits have been lifted. "A lot of people I was on the Masters with could have gone much longer than five games."

Backstage at Jeopardy

Harris still has something of an ongoing relationship with the show.  A few months ago, he was flown to New York to appear on the talk show "Ali & Jack," and he was even invited when Alex Trebek got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“I’m very fond of all the people over there,” he says. “The producers really are genuinely nice people, and so there seems to be very little of the typical nonsense you see around a lot of TV shows. There are people who have been with the show for years, and when you're around the folks in charge, you can see why."

As for Trebek, Harris says at his site that all he knows of him "was from being on stage with him in a very artificial setting -- it's not as if after the show we all strolled off to the lush Jeopardy mansion to sit in a hot tub sipping Potent Potables with Charo and Zsa Zsa."

Nevertheless, he describes the host as "freakishly bright, often quite funny, and always friendly."

After the show

Being on the show also changed his life in other ways. "After the shows aired, I was recognized everywhere for weeks," he wrote in The Realist. "Twenty million people really do watch. I couldn't eat a fast-food burrito without somebody asking me to repeat the $500 term for glowing bacteria on rotting meat. ('What is bioluminescence?'). Which didn't exactly make the burrito any more appetizing."

He also started fielding marriage proposals and sudden contacts from long-lost relatives.  But more importantly, the money allowed him to focus full-time on scriptwriting. Among his credits so far are episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

He also developed a side business giving talks on memorization techniques. "People get asking me 'How do you memorize all that crap?' So now I tell them."

Harris explains there are "tricks" to memorizing vast amounts of data. "In school, we're given a lot to memorize, but we're never taught how to learn. There are specific techniques, based on neural anatomy, based on how biochemical reactions work. What I do is sort of give you an owner's guide to your own mind."

(We have an essay on memory as well, although nothing of the depth Bob can provide you.)

Advice from the champ

He also teaches basic logic and reason, which he finds sorely lacking, even among some Jeopardy contestants. One thing that surprises him is that many players never learn the game's basic strategy. "Unless you're three quarters sure, never buzz in with a guess. You'll get it wrong, lose the points and give somebody else time to think of the right answer."

Harris's success also came from his mastery of the buzzer. His technique was to lay his hand down on the podium, to take the tension out of his arm. "If you're going to be there all day, you want zero fatigue."

Instead, he left his index finger depressed about three eighths of an inch down on the buzzer and let that finger do all the work. "You have more control with your index finger, and those microseconds can make a difference."

He also relaxed and had fun. This not only helped him ease into the rhythm of the game, but it projected confidence that knocked other players off their games. "I know, in the five games I played, I beat at least a couple of players who knew more than I did."

As he elaborates on his site: "Being the returning champ already gave me a psychological edge; appearing comfortable enough to gently tease Alex, as if we were old friends, increased that advantage visibly. In any band of primates, proximity to the Alpha Male confers status."

Contrary to what many will advise, Harris did indeed study for his appearance, hitting the books every day with a diligence he says he never exercised in school. He had three weeks' warning before his taping and realized that his major in electrical engineering would do him little good. "I don't know squat about Antarctic Mythology and Cambodian Anagrams," he wrote in The Realist. "But if the Jeopardy buzzers stop working, just get me a soldering iron and stand back."

However, as he started going through almanacs and desk references, he realized that the range of likely Jeopardy subjects was smaller than he had expected. "How many major world rivers are there? Not that many. I was able to boil down everything I needed to know about French literature in half a page of notebook paper. The basics of Shakespeare -- titles, locales, characters and major quotes -- took three pages."

All that knowledge didn't go to waste. After Jeopardy he appeared on two other game shows. Whereas it took five hard days to win about $100,000 in cash and prizes on Jeopardy, it took just three questions to win himself a $200,000 annuity on Greed. (He opted for a cash-out instead.)

Jeopardy is like a relationship; Greed is like a one-night stand," he says. "I tried out of Jeopardy five times, just like you'd court a girl. I did Greed mainly because it was convenient, since it was filmed a 15-minute walk from my apartment. I still have an ongoing relationship with Jeopardy; Greed I never saw again."

He has also tried to get on Millionaire, although the fact that Harris was so memorable on Jeopardy may be working against him. He has made it to the show's final audition stage several times, but has never been on.

A quiz show of his own

In the meantime, though, he has written books, scripts and articles; had a syndicated radio commentary for five years; does speaking engagements; and is an occasional guest blogger at This Modern World, one of the funniest liberal Web sites around. A sample of his blogging is below.

He also combined his politics with his quiz show and radio experience to create Twisted, an online game show on that had categories such as Congressional Sex Fiends, Celebrity Freak-Outs and Things That Blew Up. "I realized that there were all these really cool and funny and terrifying facts about this ongoing, impending apocalypse we're creating for ourselves. There are things that get you a 'ha ha,' a 'wow' and then a 'holy crap.'"

If there is a prescription for the three items a perfect trivia question should have, that's probably it: laughter, amazement and the sort of awe one can only get from divine fecal matter.

BY BOB HARRIS -- an excerpt from his posts at

Only 22 percent think Saddam used WMDs?

By now you've seen the recent poll which finds that a third of Americans mistakenly believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, and about 22 percent think Iraq actually used WMDs during the war.

Sounds bad, right?  But let's put these figures in perspective, courtesy a quick visit over to, where I pulled out a few numbers, all from recent major polls, just for fun:

Of American adults, at least 18 years of age...

  • 65% couldn't describe the basic facts about Watergate

  • 56% think media should never question the government in wartime

  • 48% say the news media acted responsibly during the Clinton Wars

  • 45% characterized Watergate was "just politics"

  • 43% attended religious services in the previous 7 days

  • 40% believe the media was biased in favor of Bill Clinton

  • 35% say the government should not fund stem cell research

  • 34% think Rock and Roll has been bad for America

  • 33% believe a wife should "submit herself graciously" to a husband

  • 30% say the Bible is the "actual word of God" to be taken literally

  • 29% think people will be "more likely" to afford college in 2020

  • 28% disapprove of labor unions on principle

  • 28% say the government should have the right to control news reports

  • 27% believe divorce is "morally wrong"

  • 26% thought various natural disasters "foreshadow the wrath of God"

  • 26% think grade-school teachers should be allowed to spank their kids

  • 24% describe themselves as interested in what celebrities think

  • 21% admitted to a pollster that they had cheated in a relationship

  • 21% say justice was served in the O.J. Simpson case

  • 20% approve of the how the Catholic Church handles pedophilia

  • 20% believe that the killing of civilians in Vietnam was "relatively rare"

  • 15% were upset at Diana Spencer's death like "someone you knew"

  • 12% think the United States should have a British-style royal family

  • 11% stockpiled food and water in advance of Y2K

  • 11% think "Titanic" was the best American movie of the 20th century

  • 10% would eat a rat or an insect on a "reality" TV show

  • 10% think it's advantageous to be a woman in American society

  • 10% believe Oswald acted alone

  • 10% say they are "very likely" to become rich someday

  • 8% could not name a single TV network

  • 8% fear they are "very likely" to be shot or badly hurt by a stranger

  • 7% think Elvis is possibly still alive

  • 6% say Garth Brooks is the best male singer of the 20th century

  • 5% are ?very afraid? of thunder and lightning

  • 5% would be "more likely" to buy food labeled as genetically modified

  • 3% wanted to see the questions on "Millionaire" become less difficult

So... what to make of all this?

1) A measurable percentage of Americans will say pretty much any damn thing you can imagine.

2) Looking at the other opinions floating around 20 percent, I'd say that the extent of lunatic public perception of WMDs is, if anything, surprisingly low , given the constant drumbeat of bullshit coming out of the White House and megaphoned by the press for much of the past year.

3) About the same number of people who think it's an advantage to be a woman in America would eat a rat on live TV.  Clearly, we've got some work to do on the whole gender-equality thing.

4) Speaking of social progress, there sure seems to be a remarkably consistent hardcore of about 25-30 percent who seem to be living sometime in the late 19th century at best. Beatings as a form of education?  Wives submitting graciously?  Vengeful gods screwing with the weather?

Gallup really ought to quiz these people in a little more detail; after all, there's a lot we still don't know the Spanish menace in Cuba, how to handle an acute case of quinsy, and this Tennessee schoolteacher concocting folderol about our forefathers descending from monkeys.

So one-third of Americans mistakenly think we found WMDs?  Great.  We can work with that.  After looking at these numbers, I'm just relieved 30 percent don't think Saddam's disembodied wraith is looming in a vengeful stormfront, ready to deflower the womenfolk, lead our children into Satan's bosom, and force the men to read science books.

July 2004