Every once in awhile, Jeopardy! does a special series of episodes called Celebrity Jeopardy!, where the contestants are celebrities playing for charity. Most of them are laughably bad, and I mean that literally: I (and the studio audience, and the contestants themselves) actually laugh at their poor responses. The celebrities are mainly there to provide entertainment, and to bring attention to their charities and their own projects and to Jeopardy! itself; playing a few rounds of Jeopardy! is a formality.
The problem is simple: Regular Jeopardy! games are populated by contestants who pass one or more screening tests that verify that they meet some minimum standard of knowledge, comprehension of English, and ability to operate the buzzer. Celebrity Jeopardy!, on the other hand, is populated by celebrities. They have no qualifications other than being famous and being willing to be on the show to benefit a charity.
This year, they’re doing a variation of Celebrity Jeopardy! called the “Jeopardy! Million-Dollar Celebrity Invitational”, where they have one Celebrity Jeopardy! episode every month for nine months, followed by a three-day semifinal and two-day final in the tenth month. The other episodes in each month are at least mostly regular episodes, perhaps with a Tournament of Champions, Kids’ Tournament, or College Championship at some point.
Tonight was the first episode in this celebrity tournament. The contestants were Andy Richter (for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), Dana Delany (for the Scleroderma Research Foundation), and Wolf Blitzer (for the American Cancer Society). Richter’s performance tonight inspired this post.
Andy Richter decimated his opponents. Dana Delany did pretty averagely, entering Final Jeopardy! with $2800; Wolf Blitzer ended up well negative (they gave him $1000 with which to play in Final anyway, since this was a charity event). Richter got most of the answers, and he almost always gave right questions. He even ran a category.
This tournament, every celebrity’s charity is guaranteed a minimum $25,000 donation, and each winning celebrity’s charity is guaranteed a minimum $50,000.
Andy Richter won $68,000.
It makes me think that most celebrity contestants just show up, figuring that it’s $25k their charity wouldn’t have otherwise, and all they have to do is stand there for an hour or so and throw out an occasional right answer—something regular contestants can’t do, because they have to earn their spot behind a podium. And it makes me think that Andy Richter didn’t do this: He took this tournament seriously, and put in the exact same study and buzzer training that any regular contestant would have done.
I could be wrong. Maybe the other two contestants just got screwed on the buzzer (although that wouldn’t explain Wolf Blitzer’s score). But if I’m right, Richter’s charity should be really happy with the work he put into it.
I have one idea for how Sony (the company that runs Jeopardy! in the US nowadays) could improve things. Tell every celebrity who agrees to play that they will have to take the same screening test as a regular contestant would have to. If they fail, no problem: They still get to play. But if they pass, Sony doubles its minimum donation guarantees for their charity. That may be enough of an incentive for celebrities to take it as seriously as Richter seems to have done, and bring a real game to the Jeopardy! set like he did.
You might object that I shouldn’t complain about these celebrities who are playing for charity; after all, isn’t it great that the charities get all these thousands of dollars for free? True, but the celebrities can win even more money for them, and I think Richter demonstrated that it’s much more entertaining when they do.
On a related note: I wish Jeopardy! episodes were available online.
UPDATE 2009-09-19: YouTube to the rescue: Part 1, part 2. Thanks to Ian Baird for linking to one of them.