Hollywood Reporter

When Ken Jennings First Won ‘Jeopardy!’: Flashback Fsalinks

Ken Jennings was initially stumped by the national attention that his record-setting Jeopardy! run garnered 20 years ago. Now the Jeopardy! host, Jennings was a software developer at a health care staffing facility in Salt Lake City when he and his former college roommate drove to Los Angeles to audition for the long-running game show that Jennings has loved since childhood.

It wasn’t until a year later that Jennings learned he had earned a spot to compete and was expected to film in three weeks. “There were reruns on in our market, so I could watch Jeopardy! 12 times a week, and I went into this very serious Rocky training mode where I would stand up behind a recliner that I pretended was a contestant podium,” he tells THR.

In between his audition and his call-up, Jeopardy! had dropped its rule that contestants must exit after five victories — meaning that the show was in uncharted territory when he began his still-unmatched streak of 74 straight wins. Jennings’ debut aired June 2, 2004, and he recalls getting more comfortable as the stretch continued, with host Alex Trebek also becoming looser with him as the two developed a rapport. Jennings was convinced no one would notice him, but the program clearly benefited from his success, as the July episode in which he passed the $1 million threshold marked a 5 percent week-to-week uptick for the show’s ratings, along with a 36 percent increase compared with the previous year.

Among the streak’s standout moments was Jennings’ answer to a clue about the name of a gardening tool that can also mean an “immoral pleasure seeker”; he opted for “What is a hoe?” instead of the preferred “What is a rake?” The clip has gone viral. Quips Jennings, “I still feel like I got jobbed.”

His final episode aired Nov. 30, 2004, as he botched the Final Jeopardy answer to a clue that referenced a white-collar company where most employees work four months a year. Opponent Nancy Zerg got it right: “What is H&R Block?” Jennings — who walked away with $2.5 million in winnings — remembers feeling a sense of relief and adds that it all ended well for multiple reasons: “H&R Block quickly sent me a letter offering me free financial services for life, and they still did my taxes this year.”

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Hollywood Flashback,Jeopardy!,Ken Jennings

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