Ken Jennings wants you to buy a duck

The ‘Jeopardy’ champion and author talks about his new book ‘Planet Funny’, how looking things up on our phones changes who we are as people, and what it’s like to lose at trivia to a supercomputer.

In the age of the internet, we no longer care about pure knowledge in the same way that we used to. And on one level, why should we? There are devices all around us — phones and laptops and smart watches and fridges that have WiFi for some reason — whose job it is to look up facts and figures for us, and it would be rude of us from not letting them do their job. Simply put, we may very well be living in a world in which we no longer need to remember that the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne and that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 and actually happened a few miles northeast of the British town of Hastings.

However, Ken Jennings does not think this way, and neither should you. “The main thing I think about when I think about people know[ing] fewer things, whether it’s state capitals or historical events or whatever, is that you kind of need those facts to base decisions on” he tells me, speaking to me on the phone while running errands in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two children. “When you make a complicated decision — Where am I gonna live? What am I gonna study? Who am I gonna vote for? — it’s a synthesis of thousands of different facts, and I don’t think people will look all of them up if they don’t know the basic ones.”

After winning on Jeopardy! 74 times in a row back in 2004, the one-time computer programmer made a name for himself as the guy who has a massive amount of information rattling around in his brain. He became an author, writing books on maps (Maphead), the history of trivia (Brainiac), and the lies we accidentally tell children (Because I Said So!), as well as a series of children’s books called the Junior Genius Guides which relay interesting facts about things kids love like dinosaurs, ancient Greece, and outer space. While it certainly doesn’t hurt that Jennings is funny and engaging on top of being very, very smart, we only know that he is funny and engaging because he can do things like sweep an entire Double Jeopardy category by coming up with a celebrity’s intials and then convert them to Roman numerals, a seemingly impossible task that you can watch him do below:

Jennings and I spoke in advance of his new book, Planet Funny, which traces the evolution of humor from ancient history to our present, meme-saturated day. It’s a natural choice of subject for Jennings, whose Jeopardy run was characterized by his wry humor and in later years developed a following as a Twitter jokesmith (though, as he and I discuss below, he hasn’t always landed on the right side of funny). Along with musician John Roderick of The Long Winters, Jennings is the host of a very good podcast called Omnibus, in which he and Roderick attempt to explain the arcana of our civilization to whatever beings take the earth over from us. According to his Twitter, Jennings has also won on HQ multiple times, though his winnings — rarely above ten dollars per game — aren’t quite what they were in his Jeopardy! days.

The Outline: The thing that I think is interesting about you is that you’re famous for knowing facts.

Ken Jennings: It's good to have a very narrow niche. It’s almost a one-man show nowadays.

It seems like a lot of people tend to offload a lot of basic factual knowledge onto their phones these days.

KJ: This isn’t something that was at the top of my mind until 2011 when Jeopardy! put me on back again to play against Watson, the evil IBM supercomputer. Upon losing that match, it really hit me: How much of my identity comes from being the guy who knows stuff? That feels obsolete now, when everyone’s like, “Why do I need to know that? I’ll just google it.”

Jennings on the second day of competition with Watson

Jennings on the second day of competition with Watson

Do you think that tendency changes who we are fundamentally?

KJ: It does. And up to a point, it’s fine. It’s great that I now have a Google Calendar and an alarm clock on a phone, so my brain’s not like, “Am I supposed to call Drew now? No, I’ve got ten more minutes.” It’s great, it’s super efficient that I moved that to my pocket. But when it’s something as fundamental as the act of knowing things, that seems like something you don’t want to outsource. I don’t know if I want an app that outsources, say, empathy. To me, the things we know are important. That’s what makes us ourselves. I don’t want my phone or my search engine doing that for me.

It’s almost like if after we invented the car, we were said, “We might as well stop caring about running because we have machines to do that thing for us.”

KJ: Maybe Henry Ford would have gotten very rich from that! There are people who get rich from our tendency to let Google and Siri do stuff for us.

And with the anti-tech backlash and the mass anxiety about our data, it does show the dark side of that impulse.

KJ: It’s tempting to use the 2016 election as a data point for that as well.

It does seem that trivia is having a moment because of HQ.

KJ: Right. America always loves trivia for, like, five minutes. Trivia was a fad in the 1920’s. One of the best-selling books of the 20’s was Ask Me Another, where they had celebrities take these quizzes, and you could see if you could answer as many questions as Robert Benchley or Bill Tilden the tennis player or whoever.

And then [America cared about trivia] again in the 50’s with the crooked quiz show boom, and then in the 80’s with Trivial Pursuit, and then in the 2000’s with the non-crooked quiz show boom with Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Trivia’s like a boom-and-bust economy, and we’re in the middle of an app-driven boom.

There also seems to be a rise in bar trivia nights, or at least in the town I live in.

KJ: It’s funny, I never go to bar trivia. I think I would get beat up or something. If I win it’s not good, if I lose it’s not good. But I went last night because my son plays. He’s in a group of ninth-graders who play at an all-ages bar, and they were tired of losing and he really wanted me to come play with them. So I went last night and we did win, but I felt bad.

Were people aware it was you?

KJ: I wore a cap and my wife’s reading glasses. I thought I’d be a little less noticeable that way. But I don’t really know. Ideally, nobody figured it out. My son was like, “Will you come with us next week?” I was like, “You do not want me hanging out with your ninth-grade trivia friends every week.”

What made you decide to write a book about humor?

KJ: It was actually social media that made me aware of this new avalanche of comedy that was just infusing our culture. With Twitter, you can get a hundred jokes a minute if that’s what you want. Good jokes used to be this scarce natural resource. Being on social media does sort of mess you up, and I kind of wanted to turn my pain into a book.

A tweet you made which read, “Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair,” sparked an online backlash that eventually turned into an anti-ableism campaign.

KJ: One of the issues in the book is, “How is a culture where everyone can comment on every joke change joke-telling?” I’m actually in favor of that — more oversight around the jokes we tell and less of a free pass given to people who say, “Well, I was just joking!” I don’t really have a real drum to beat about the evils of outrage culture. Honestly, I think it accomplishes a lot. I’ve gotten pilloried on Fox News for making jokes about Andrew Breitbart or Trump, and once I got in trouble for making fun of Star Wars fans. It’s just the lay of the land now. In some cases, like [with my tweet], it’s such an ineptly told joke that it’s immediately clear that the thing that was in my head was no longer in the joke, and it seemed awful. And for that reason, I left it up. I was like, “The responses to this are actually really great points about ableism, I don’t want to whitewash this, let me just leave it up for people to dunk on. The photo hashtag last month, I thought was the perfect example of that. It’s really a fascinating thing that’s happened to jokes — we think about them very seriously, and I think rightly so. They’re a uniquely persuasive and contagious way for ideas to spread, and we should be talking about what they reveal about us.

I think you can see that phenomenon, of what jokes reveal about us, in the way that Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner was received.

KJ: To me, the real issue with the Michelle Wolf outrage pointed out that we’ve all internalized this idea that jokes are important and we should be sensitive about them, but the world is still full of millions of smart people who don’t understand them. A lot of the scolding, head-shaking response to Michelle Wolf was to misunderstand the jokes, to say, “That’s really below-the-belt to make fun of someone’s makeup.” And I think even Wolf said that the point of the joke is that the makeup is perfect, the twist is that she’s using the ashes of lies to make the perfect eye makeup.

Humor happens so low on the brain stem, I think, that we’re not even aware of what’s going on. There’s a story in the book about me watching dashboard camera footage of a fiery car crash, unwillingly laughing at the crazy, slapstick way that the crash develops, then asking myself, “Why am I laughing at this? That’s not funny. Someone just died in that video!” I think a lot of comedians believe the barometer is if something’s funny, it works, and if the audience doesn’t laugh, you need to find a more sensitive way to tell the joke. I don’t think that’s true. It’s pretty easy to make people laugh, even at things that are just terrible. If you’re talking about the social utility of the joke, I don’t think the laugh test is going to tell you anything. It’s just a mystery why we laugh.

What did people find funny in the 1920’s?

KJ: Mostly it would be like, a hobo stealing a pie, or a person wearing a barrel. It’s funny when you see jokes that have come and gone and think, “Really? That was a thing?” Like in the 30s, there was a radio comedian whose catchphrase was, “Wanna buy a duck?” People just loved the idea that this guy would say, “Wanna buy a duck?” People tend to laugh by stampede. If everyone agrees that a particular comic sensibility is in, it’s hard not to laugh. The result is we’ve kind of bred this very strange comic mood today where we’re laughing at things that are so ironic that we can’t really explain why we’re laughing and what about them is a joke. They don’t appear to be jokes to a reasonable bystander and we scarcely know why we’re laughing ourselves.

Seems like you could also say that about, “Wanna buy a duck?”

KJ: Exactly! That was an early sign of that fad. In Dickens’s time, he coined a joke format called “Wellerisms,” based on a Pickwick Papers character named Sam Weller, who would say some axiom and attribute it to somebody funny. Like, “As the vicar said to the countess, ‘Every little bit helps.’” It was the hottest thing going!

Jokes tend to build upon each other. The new one has to be a little more surprising, a little more complicated, a little more sophisticated than the last time. I think that’s what gotten us to this rarefied point where we’re telling jokes that wouldn’t even be recognizable as jokes to someone 20 years older than me.

That reminds me of how when someone makes a Borat reference in 2018, it’s funny because of how poorly Borat has aged.

KJ: Right! There were 20 years when you couldn’t make an Austin Powers joke and get a laugh, and now you can, but it’s a different kind of laugh. It’s like, “Remember Austin Powers? Say, ‘Yeah, baby!’” You have to kind of be in agreement with the people you’re talking to as to how many irony levels deep you are in the conversation.

Jennings, relatively early on in his ‘Jeopardy!’ run.

Jennings, relatively early on in his ‘Jeopardy!’ run.

I remember when you were making your run on Jeopardy!, it was this slowly building phenomenon that spread through word-of-mouth. I feel like if you’d done it in the age of social media, there would have been memes of you every night and you would have had to analyze your performance on Twitter.

KJ: That does happen, even to Jeopardy! contestants now. They win for a week, and suddenly they’ve got hashtags about them, people trying to decide if they like or hate them, they live-tweet their own games. I think there was something about [my run] where they found about it by accident, or heard about it from their roommate or grandma, and they felt like they discovered this thing, like finding an unknown band or something. To this day I’ll hear from so many people who were little kids then and would watch it with their grandpa every night, or their whole dorm would shut down so they could watch Jeopardy!. It’s really sweet that people have such fond memories.

When you returned to Jeopardy! to play against IBM’s Watson computer, did you learn anything about it that people should know?

KJ: I was just thinking the other day about how slow Watson was, because somebody asked me how Watson would do at HQ. The fact is, Watson might not be able to play a lot of online quick-response trivia apps. The ten seconds it would take Trebek to read the question, it would be humming away. Even with 1200 super-fast servers running in parallel, it just wasn’t fast enough to immediately have an answer the way a human being can — to just look at a thing and pick out the capital of Ecuador (Quito). It needed to run and run. When the questions were very short, Watson couldn’t hack it. That was really the only time Brad (Rutter, another former Jeopardy! mega-winner who competed alongside Jennings against Watson) and I could get in, because it was still processing text. I’m sure it’s gotten faster since then. Maybe Watson could kill it at HQ, I don’t know.

It’s almost like you filled the same role that Garry Kasparov did when he played chess against Deep Blue.

KJ: I was actually a computer science student studying AI when Kasparov lost to Deep Blue. The one thing everybody probably remembers is he was a terrible sport about it. He ranted about how the computer cheated, it was all rigged, it was bullshit, blah blah blah. That was a good example for me of what not to do. If you lose to the computer, have some fun with it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Question time

In Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the questions are trivial

But the pursuit is not.
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