When ‘Jeopardy!’ messes with politics, Washington collectively groans

Some people geek out over quiz shows. Some people geek out over politics. Some people do both

When “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek returns this week for another season of the quiz show, viewers will notice a few changes on the set. What won’t change is the Venn diagram that keeps Washington watching. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
When “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek returns this week for another season of the quiz show, viewers will notice a few changes on the set. What won’t change is the Venn diagram that keeps Washington watching. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 6:00am

Sometimes it can seem like “Jeopardy!” contestants are blissfully unaware of politics, gliding along in their own world night after night.

“Congress has this many House members,” went a clue a couple years ago. “What is 438?” one player guessed.

No one laughed, and if host Alex Trebek cried a little inside, his face didn’t show it. The longtime host, now battling pancreatic cancer, has seen much worse. He remained calm in recent seasons as various contestants proved exactly how little they knew about the legislative branch.

They couldn’t name the chair of the House Intelligence Committee (Adam Schiff). They failed to identify a senator from Nebraska (Ben Sasse). 

They even botched an answer meant less for Congress-watchers and more for lovers of wordplay: “The last names of these 2 current senators, one from Virginia & one from Massachusetts, are anagrams of each other.” 

As “Jeopardy!” begins its 37th season this week, viewers will notice a few changes, including the addition of legendary winner Ken Jennings as a consulting producer and podiums spaced farther apart to allow for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. What won’t change is the reaction in Washington — groans and shouts at the television — when someone gets a political question wrong.

It’s hard to believe that anyone in the Trump era could fail to recognize Schiff, a key antagonist of the president. But quiz show players don’t necessarily consume the same steady diet of cable shows and Twitter that counts for a political education on Capitol Hill.

“What I’ve heard from a lot of contestants is that even if they closely follow the news or studied extensively for current political questions, many don’t really watch cable news,” says Claire McNear, a staff writer for The Ringer who has spent a good chunk of her time lately immersed in the history of the quiz show. 

McNear just wrote “Answers in the Form of Questions,” a new book set to publish this fall. Current events have long been a “Jeopardy!” staple, she says, a way to “fight the traditional fussiness of trivia.” Yet studying for the show has only gotten harder in recent years, especially when it comes to questions about presidential politics.

“The current administration has had a fair amount of turnover,” McNear says. “For people trying to go on ‘Jeopardy!’ they have this batch of names to keep track of.” 

Some people geek out over politics. Some people geek out over “Jeopardy!” And then there are people firmly in the middle of that Venn diagram, like CQ Roll Call politics editor Herb Jackson, who first saw the show as a kid back in the 1960s, when Art Fleming was the host. Now he’s a loyal viewer.

“I do sometimes, when they have a political question, freeze the screen and take a screenshot and put it up on Twitter,” he admits.

He’s not mad when contestants miss an answer about Congress, but he’s been known to yell a question or two at the TV. “Oh yeah all the time,” he says. “And my wife has to go in the other room.”