When we left off last week, Yogesh and I were talking about the process of researching, writing, redrafting, and assembling sets of questions; something that’s not only challenging and rewarding in itself, but it also has the added bonus of making you learn new things along the way!
SH: And that’s part of the fun of it too.
YR: Exactly, right. That is the thing and that is why one of the most infuriating things about the pub trivia scene is that it’s run by people who aren’t particularly good writers. And one of the core parts of my podcast has been that I take as given that quizzing is a creative medium. I simply have no patience for anyone who thinks otherwise. And a lot of people – especially once the online quizzing scene burgeoned during the pandemic – a lot of people told me that they now have difficulty playing regular pub quizzes or things that are written by uncreative people, or non-passionate people. Because once you’re used to that standard… It’s like any other taste; if you start getting into fine cuisine, regular, ordinary food doesn’t really cut it anymore. I always start off with the thought in my head that I am creating a creative product, and that it’s my job to bring my creativity to try and shape something. Even though I know that the actual outcome is not 100% under my control, because it’s going to interact with people, and I can’t predict in advance how they’ll react. But if anything, I think that that brings it closer to performing arts.
SH: Oh, certainly. It’s a hybrid event where you are part of the creative ensemble, and your contestants are another part of the creative ensemble, and it all goes together to make the end product. And it’s that’s the fun of it, too, and the unpredictability of it.
YR: Right. But when you work in a field, like drama, theatre or comedy even, it’s taken for granted that what you are doing is creative. Some people are more successful at being creative than others, but no one ever questions that it is creative. And the frustrating thing about quizzing is that no one thinks of things like writing. I’ve written essays that I’ve been told make a very good case for it. But to the general public, there is no concept of it as an art form or a creative medium. Which is especially true when you’re stereotyped. If you’re good at it, you’re stereotyped as uncreative, because you supposedly just have a robot-type memory. Yet even the act of answering questions, if the questions are well written, shouldn’t just be about spitting things out from memory or making really simple associations between words… it should be about reasoning, about thinking about the intentionality of how the question is crafted, thinking about ‘what do these word choices imply’, and ‘what am I being guided toward, by not just the overt clues, but also by the choice of words and how they’re they’re laid out?’
SH: And deduction. It’s a meeting of the minds of the questioner and the answerer, in its purest form. One thing I was really curious to ask you about was the mechanics of your lead-up to Jeopardy. It sounded like it was analogous to my experience with Sale Of The Century where I went on in 1994, then again in 1999, and then came back in 2006. So it was a very long gestation. You mentioned that you’d been applying for Jeopardy for about 10 years, I think?
YR: About 20 years.
SH: 20 years? I beg your pardon – goodness me. And how did you feel on the day when you got the call? And on the day when you went in to the studio? How did it meet up to – or not meet up to – your expectations, the actual studio experience?
YR: Well, I think the first part is what I answered at the beginning of our conversation where I told the story, and I think there are people who, for some reason, resented my putting it that way. It’s difficult for me to understand why, until I try and put myself into the shoes of someone who doesn’t see Jeopardy as a game show or a TV show, but who has a cult-like attachment to it. And it was educational for me to realise how many people hold that cult-like attachment, and how that is very much not a good thing, their inability to place it properly within the ecosystem of quizzing activities out there. And it’s not just their bristling at the suggestion that Jeopardy shouldn’t necessarily occupy the centre and take up 95% of the oxygen, it’s the violent reaction to the suggestion. Especially when nothing that I’m saying should be particularly controversial. I found an interview with Shayne Bushfield, who runs Learned League, the big online quiz league. Way back in 2016, he was interviewed by Psychology Today and he was asked “a lot of former Jeopardy contestants were in the league, including Ken Jennings, but they’re not always the winners, are they?” And he says “they are not, because this is a different game; speed in hitting the buzzer is usually an important skill, but that’s totally irrelevant in Learned League.” “The other part,” he says, “is that you have to qualify to appear on Jeopardy. And there’s a certain type of person who tends to make it; you have to be telegenic. There are players in Learned League who would never qualify for Jeopardy, even though they are exceptionally good.”
That was more true in 2016, and for the decades before it. Now, in the post-Alex Trebek era when Ken Jennings was brought on as not just a host but a consultant and a producer, it does seem that there has been a shift to where people like me and Troy Meyer are being allowed to be on the show, whereas for 20 years before then, we were consistently trying and weren’t.
SH: Right, I see.
YR: You know, they’ve always been opaque about what their selection criteria are. It was widely rumoured for a very long time that they were anti-selecting out people who were experienced quizzers – basically people who are really good and dedicated to it.
SH: That seems counter-intuitive to me, because if people are more likely to win on their show, that’s good for ratings, isn’t it?
YR: Right. But also, the show is designed to put obstacles in the way of expert quizzers if they want to win. They have the timing thing rather than speed, which… if you’re an experienced quizzer, you process things quickly, answers come to mind very quickly. So if it were just about who buzzes first, you’d generally be in ahead of other people. So it’s not about who buzzes first.
Also, it doesn’t really test depth-type knowledge, the way something like Chicago Open Trash would. And then it has the Daily Doubles, the Final Jeopardy –
SH: The gambling part of it. Nothing to do with quizzing.
YR: Right. Yeah. You could imagine a competition built around bringing in the best in the country and testing them, but it would require a whole different style of questions writing – one that would actually actively differentiate between people at a high skill level – and it would require a lot more creativity and thought into how to sell it to audiences. And I mean, in the UK, there are shows like Mastermind, Only Connect and so on, but in America, Jeopardy is the intellectual game show.
SH: I see. The one and only.
YR: Yeah, right, in spite of the many ways in which it isn’t really intellectual, in the sense of rewarding intellect – but like I said, it’s not designed to be the Olympics, and it never has been. I mean, the Olympics certainly don’t have a selection procedure based on how extroverted you come across in an audition.
SH: Or what anecdotes you’ve got up your sleeve.
YR: That’s right. Exactly. And if you watch Wheel of Fortune, The Price Is Right, Family Feud, the people on them, they jump up and down. These are people who are unafraid to look cringey, who are unafraid to make a fool out of themselves on national TV. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being that kind of person. But you can really only justify making that a criterion if you say “I’m just making an entertainment program, to just entertain the masses”. You certainly can’t justify it if you’re trying to make any claim to rewarding merit at some skill-based activity. Many of the best quizzer are introverts, right? Through no fault of their own. They’re just not super comfortable jumping up and down or plastering a gigantic smile on their face. You know, even the ones who get on generally faked it. Every Jeopardy audition I came out of, my mouth muscles were literally hurting, because when I walked in, I plastered a gigantic smile across and I held it as long as possible.
SH: Well, you need to look into training – train your cheeks! A smiling training regimen.
YR: Right? Yeah. And being a performer gives you an advantage because they’re looking for people essentially to perform. And it means selecting out people who are just naturally introverted, and selecting out people who’ve maybe experienced trauma in their lives, who have been bullied; people who are more sensitive about letting that side of themselves show. And these are all things that would be okay if it weren’t the only way of rewarding people for the skills they spent a lifetime accruing.
And one can also talk about the entitlement inherent in the expectations people have of contestants, such as people repeatedly dog-piling on me and justifying it by saying I didn’t look like I was having fun.
SH: What do you do with that?
YR: Right, exactly. When you watch NBA games, do you monitor to the players to see if their faces project fun? And with an NBA game, if you lose, generally, you’re allowed to play another game. It doesn’t just end your career if you lose once. So if anything, the stakes (on Jeopardy) are higher. But I mean, what do people – people who aren’t even in the audience there, people who are the TV audience watching it months later – what do they think they’re entitled to, from me?
SH: Well, that’s the burning question, isn’t it? You’re not their property, and you’re not their plaything. And those people don’t realise that; they don’t have the sophistication or empathy or compassion to think like that. It’s just a commercial product. It’s a sausage factory; another one comes out tomorrow night, and another one comes out the night after that, and another one comes out the night after that. They don’t care.
YR: Except, in my case, they apparently did. To the point of hunting down my home address – which is not public – to let me know how much they hated me.
SH: Far out. I’m sorry to hear that. That’s scary.
YR: Yeah. And to circle back around to the question you asked, when you said something like, “How are people misconstruing you?” When Fox News reached out to me – and I don’t think they were really that interested in what I had to say, because he kept contacting me after I’d gone to bed, at like 2:30am, saying “I have a deadline of 6am”, so of course, I wouldn’t see it until I had woken up – but he asked “what is your response?” And I was like, “What do you mean by that?” And he was like, “What are people missing?” which is a different phrasing than what you said, and it opens it up for a lot more wordplay. Because the answer to “what are people missing?” can be “brains”, “heart”, “compassion”, “empathy”, “basic literacy”, “reading comprehension”…
SH: There’s a wide palette, yes.
YR: Right. But that was where my mind went, just because I love wordplay. The more serious answer is, when you ask, “What are people missing?” you are inherently taking it as read that there is something they are getting; that they are in some way engaging with what you are saying, and any anger or response they have is a consequence of that. And I don’t see any evidence that’s true. People had a lot of things to say to me, but none of them related to the arguments that I spent a lot of time crafting and expressing.
SH: Yes. So, just so that I understand… the word “misconstruing” is loaded. And when I said that, that was never my intention, but now that I hear it coming back, I understand how it sort of puts the onus back on you. And there’s an implication there (completely unintentional) when I say “What are people misconstruing in your comments?” I understand now why that’s offensive. And I apologise again. I understand. Because you don’t have a case to answer. You don’t have a case to answer. And that question might imply that you do. Am I on the right track?
YR: Yeah, I mean, I think the implication was that there was in some way a breakdown in communication; that people engaged with what I had to say, but there was a flaw in my message that allowed it to be misunderstood. And I don’t know that I’m convinced, because if that were the case, then people would be responding to what I actually said. And also, if it were the case that what they claim is true – that I’m just a sore loser, an irrational narcissist who can’t handle losing, who’s just lashing out at Jeopardy, well, then that wouldn’t provoke the kind of response I got either. Because if I really were a child saying a bunch of stupid, childish things, then I could just be ignored. They wouldn’t have to respond to me, they wouldn’t have to come to my personal social media, they wouldn’t have to track down my non-public home address, they wouldn’t have to go into my podcast and leave reviews that have nothing at all to do with the content of the podcast, and are just to slander me and to discourage people from checking out all of the things that I pour hours of my life and my heart and soul into. So they’re doing it for a different reason. And I have a pretty extensive background in social psychology, and I can deduce the reason. My whole training is about developing explanations for things and asking, “What fits the facts and what doesn’t fit the facts?” And my first thought, when I saw how people were ignoring everything that I had to say was, ‘Okay, well, they’re not actually paying attention to what I’m saying’. But then I thought about it more. And I thought, no, they’re not paying attention to the substance of what I’m saying, but on some level, they are picking up on the fact that I’m criticising the status quo. Now, for most people, the mere fact someone is criticising the status quo is not a justification for attacking them. But there are people who are heavily invested in the status quo, or who have strong opinions about what type of person should be allowed to challenge the status quo. And for them, there’s a threat, right? It evokes some kind of – cognitive dissonance is the technical term – something that has to be managed and dealt with.
And sometimes when people feel cognitive dissonance – because someone gives an opinion that they’re not used to hearing or that disturbs them – sometimes they process it, and they either come up with counterarguments, or they say, “Oh, ha – I guess there’s some validity to it, even if I hadn’t thought about it before.” This is how people with some degree of integrity, open-mindedness, critical thinking ability, how they respond. But if you don’t have any of those things, a really efficient way to deal with cognitive dissonance is simply to de-legitimize the source. And the way you do that is to replace their actual identity with an identity that is widely agreed by society to be the kind of person who shouldn’t be listened to.
I felt that, back when I was in Las Cruces, and I first started speaking out against the discrimination in pub trivia. Some white man who felt he had to put me in my place started by saying “I just have to say that this reminds me of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.” Which is interesting, right? Because I don’t recall any episodes of The Simpsons where Comic Book Guy spoke out against racist discrimination. But on some level, he knew – the way that bullies know what they’re doing, they have an innate understanding of basic psychology – he understood what he was doing, right? Because if a woman or a person of colour speaks up and says, “I’m undergoing discrimination”, there are some people who will be tempted to listen to them and try and see what’s going on. But if Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons says he’s undergoing discrimination, people are primed to point and laugh.
SH: He’s a figure of fun.
YR: Right, right. Yeah. And so what he was doing – like any bully – he’s replacing your identity with a different one. He’s saying “This is not a human being who’s undergoing exclusion for reasons he didn’t deserve and who’s being slandered to justify it, and who deserves our sympathy and who deserves some accountability for the people who are harming him. No, he’s just a physically grotesque, socially inept, privileged white man who’s just whining and doesn’t have the self-awareness to understand how repulsive he is to others, and is just whining, and we should just laugh at him, rather than give any credit to what he’s saying”.
SH: “And I’ll get a very mean-spirited laugh in the process, to bolster my fragile ego.”
YR: Yeah, right. And then while I was researching that podcast episode – you mentioned the DC Comics one – you might recall I had a question about ‘Cluemaster’, the villain. But while I was reading it, I read it the whole Wikipedia article on Cluemaster, but there’s a part that I didn’t touch on in the podcast. There’s a section called ‘In other media’, and it discusses the appearance of Cluemaster in the animated series called The Batman. It says “introduced in the episode Q & A, this version was a spoiled, self-entitled, yet brilliant prodigy with an inferiority complex and Peter Pan syndrome. After losing on the game show Think Thank Thunk following a 12-week champion run and a failed attempt by his mother to sue everyone involved on the ground that the show was rigged, Brown dropped out of school and secluded himself in her home for the next 20 years to plan revenge. All the while he’s consuming the lifetime supply of chocolate bars he won on the game show, becoming obese and very durable. In the present, Brown hires henchmen to publicly humiliate and kidnap the contestant who beat him, Yelena Clemenoff, and Think Thank Thunk‘s host Ross Darren and producer Herbert Ziegler, so he can put them through a twisted version of the game show with the intention of dropping them in acid. However, Batman eventually locates Brown’s lair and defeats him.”
SH: Oh, spoiler alert!
YR: Yes! Well, in more ways than one, because Cluemaster is in fact the father of the Batman character called ‘Spoiler’!
SH: Okay, well, I did not know that. There you go.
YR: Yes, so, right. Obviously, it’s not that people who are attacking me have necessarily seen this specific episode.
SH: That’d be pretty unlikely, wouldn’t it?
YR: Right. Rather, it’s that in creating this character, it draws on tropes that exist in the culture. Tropes that tell you what kind of person is a villain. It’s all of these things. It’s easy to assemble out of parts of Sheldon Cooper and all the other unpleasant, book-smart, socially inept, narcissistic people who appear in pop culture. It says this is the kind of person who’s wrapped up in how they perform on a game show. They’re unable to process the fact that they’ve lost; they insist that it must be rigged because they’ve lost. They’re physically grotesque, socially inept, stuck in arrested development, they bear resentment toward the person who defeated them and toward the makers of the show. And they lash out in a violent, aggressive and unstable manner for that reason.
Now, none of this describes my actual behaviour even a little bit. But it very closely describes the description of me that has been repeatedly thrown in my face by people online. Including people insisting that I was rude toward – or that I carried resentment toward – the woman who defeated me, despite a complete lack of evidence of even a single act demonstrating that. In addition to the fact – early on, when I saw where it was going, I did on social media say, she is a very good player, she outplayed me, she won, she won deservedly, she deserved her victory. Even though I shouldn’t have to say that; it should be taken for granted that that’s what I think, but I knew that it wouldn’t be. So I said it explicitly. Didn’t make a difference, of course, not to these people. Because to them, it’s not a question of ‘what do the facts say’? It’s a question of ‘how can we delegitimize this person who is threatening the status quo by erasing his real identity and putting a repulsive, undesirable identity on him, that broadcasts that he shouldn’t be listened to’?
SH: Just shaping everything into their narrative?
YR: Yeah, right. It’s been claimed that I claimed that the show was rigged. I literally never said anything that could possibly be interpreted that way. I’ve never once claimed the show was rigged or unfair. Everyone knows the rules. It’s a TV show! And I read the rules as well, going in. And it was a game held exactly according to the rules, the way it was supposed to be. And the woman who defeated and eliminated me did so entirely within the rules on the basis of her skill at playing the game in an entirely fair and justified fashion. I’ve never indicated at any point anything otherwise. But nonetheless, they’re all insisting that I am eaten up with resentment.
People are talking about how I expected that I would have a long run. Quite the opposite, right? I knew in advance how non-meritocratic the game is, I knew how much random variance is built into it. And I’m a Hindu – I come from a background that says it’s your job to do your dharma and let whatever else happen with you. If you get rewarded, if you don’t get rewarded, you just have to do your own best. But nonetheless, people who don’t know me, who don’t know anything about me at all, felt comfortable in declaring that I was definitely crushed because I expected to have a super long run and thought that I was the best Jeopardy player etc, etc.
At every social event where quizzing people go, there’s a Jeopardy simulator. I’ve played it before, I’ve lost plenty of times, I know exactly how the game works and how easy it is to lose. In my first game, I almost lost – I scribbled down a Final Jeopardy answer at the last second. If I had been a little bit slower in scribbling it, I would have lost my first game. My third game, I was outplayed, and I only won because my opponent missed Final Jeopardy. In front of the camera, I wiped my brow and it was broadcast on the episode itself – a very clear signal that I understood that I had a narrow escape, that I was not guaranteed victory. But facts don’t matter.
People are writing out there that I lack a sense of humour. You know, in all three of my first three games, during my interview segment I said something that made the entire studio audience laugh. In two of the three games where I had control of the board at the beginning, I began the show with a joke, which contestants don’t normally do, and if I had been able to figure out a way to keep that joke running for the third time, I would have done so.
Throughout it, I repeatedly demonstrated that I was playing with the format. Where the answer itself was in the form of a question, I gave the answer without phrasing it in the form of a question (because it was already a question), which is something I have always wanted to do since I was a kid. I gave a shout-out to my favourite actress from Pretty Little Liars. 10 million things that I did that indicated that I was in fact having fun… Yet I was roundly pilloried for naming the Statue of Liberty as ‘Liberty Enlightening The World’.
SH: Which is its name.
YR: Yeah, that is its name. And, you know, I was born in New York City and my parents are immigrants. I have reasons to care about the Statue of Liberty and want to know about it in depth. And if this is my only chance to be on national TV and show off how much I know, then why not? The people who watch Jeopardy are supposedly watching because A) they want to see knowledgeable people show off their knowledge, and B) they want to learn new things. Well, I gave them both of those things and apparently they hated it.
And that’s where we’ll leave our chat for today. We’ll see you back here next Tuesday for the next instalment, but until then, a quick reminder that you can find Yogesh’s blog The Wronger Box right HERE, and his podcast Recreational Thinking is right HERE.
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