Author and legendary 'Jeopardy!' champ Ken Jennings comes to the Texas Book Festival
Ken Jennings, aka That Guy Who Won More Than Three Million Dollars on Jeopardy!, is coming to the Texas Book Festival this weekend to promote his newest book: Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids. He'll be presenting the myth-busting, delightfully written volume on Saturday, with author (and also recent Jeopardy! champ) Neal Pollack moderating. We chatted briefly with the gregarious factmonger, to get a less trivial sense of who he is and what he's about, and this is what we learned:
Austin Chronicle: Let me get something out of the way first, before we even get into this interview. You're a bastion, a powerhouse of information and knowledge – if only, at least, trivial knowledge. How do you pronounce the word "data"?
Ken Jennings: [laughs] You know what? Until the late Eighties, I said "da-tuh." But, like everyone else of my generation, I converted to "day-tuh" when Star Trek: The Next Generation came on.
AC: All right! And you're coming here for the Texas Book Festival, so what can you tell me, what facts do you know offhand, about Austin?
KJ: Well, you may not know this, but ... it's the capital of the great state of Texas.
AC: Oh – no shit?
KJ: [laughs] Yes, it's your state capital. And I believe Austin is also the largest city or metro area in North America that doesn't have a professional sports franchise in one of the four major sports – is that correct?
AC: Oooh, very nice. But, y'see, I don't know – sports is an area of basic ignorance for me. I think you're right, though. We've got UT football – well, for what it's worth, these days – and we've got the Aztex soccer team, which is true football. But I don't know. We do, though, have our contingent of former Jeopardy! contestants. The panel at the book festival where you'll be talking about Because I Said So!, that's gonna be moderated by author Neal Pollack – who just won something like $60,000 on Jeopardy!. And our Master Pancake man, John Erler, was also on Jeopardy!. So, I'm wondering, is there some kind of, like, Seekrit Jeopardy! Illuminati, where you guys get together in every city that you go to?
KJ: You know, it's not formal, with a handshake or anything. But, yeah, it generally happens. It's a small enough fraternity, people who have been on Jeopardy! – or who have won on Jeopardy! – that I find myself just running into them wherever I go. They'll come to readings and signings, sometimes I'll even recognize them if they were big champs back in the day. So, yeah, there does seem to be some sort of cabal of Jeopardy! champs that runs the world.
AC: There's the saying that "knowledge is power." As we see, these days, in the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, it's power, all right – it's got governments cringing. But when is knowledge, or too much knowledge, when is it not a power but a weakness?
KJ: I've always been a big believer that it's always better to know a thing than not to know a thing. Like, unless your parents are explaining the account of your conception in great detail, there's almost nothing you're ever going to regret knowing. In fact, it's a great feeling when something in your head actually pays off in the real world because, unless you're on Jeopardy!, it happens so infrequently. I guess the danger is not knowing how little you know, of thinking "Oh, I did quite well on Jeopardy!; therefore, no one can tell me anything." When, really, that's not true. To win on a game show, you just need a very broad, millimeter-thick slab of knowledge. You can do very well there and not be near being an expert in any field at all. So I always try to remind myself how little I know. Because, obviously, there's always more to learn.
AC: Yeah, your power – especially on Jeopardy! – comes from being a generalist. But is there a particular sector of knowledge that Ken Jennings does have a deep understanding of?
KJ: Well, I'd say there's a few. Like, 1980s pro wrestling.
KJ: Yeah, I'm pretty much near-guru level there. And, ah, Halloween-themed cereals. You know, even the weird ones that they don't make anymore, that werewolf one – Fruit Brute. I have my niches of specialized knowledge.
AC: And do you have any niches of specialized knowledge that are of practical use in the real world?
KJ: I don't know what you mean. I just said "Halloween-themed cereals" and "Eighties pro wrestling"! [laughs] But ... real world, huh? OK, I'm pretty good at ... ah ... well, my Seattle restaurant knowledge comes up quite a bit. When we have people in town, and we have somebody who wants to know "Where do you get the best milkshake? Or fried chicken?" That's something I've got an encyclopedic knowledge of, that people actually ask about. Which is a very rare occurrence for a know-it-all, that people actually ask you a question.
AC: Now, not to swell your head with compliments here, but I noticed in reading both Because I Said So! and especially your previous book, Maphead, it's not just that there's this encyclopedic barrage of information; it's also that you're ridiculously witty and a joy to read. So do you ever consider doing books that don't deal with lists or compilations of trivia?
KJ: That's a very nice compliment, thank you. And I've been trying to move away from the sheer trivia books. I feel like each of my books has been less of a straight trivia book than the one before it – mostly because I feel that's a pretty annoying niche to be stuck in 10 years later. You know, "Oh yeah, you're that guy who was on Jeopardy! for six months; my grandma still talks about that!" So I've made some attempt to diversify. And, witty? I remember one of the Simpsons writers saying "Clever is the eunuch version of funny," and I don't want to fall into the trap of being more clever than funny. But it's a very low bar: People see you on a game show and they think, "Well, there's no way this guy's funny." So they're pleasantly surprised when you even try.
AC: Well, yow. OK, here's a thing: What's the difference between a fact and a factoid?
KJ: I guess, technically, people use these words wrong. Are you aware of this? The original meaning is that a fact is true and a factoid sounds like a fact but it's bogus.
AC: So it's like truth and truthiness?
KJ: Exactly. But, over the years, "factoid" has come to mean a small, attractive fact. And that's how it gets used. And, to me, that's the appeal of trivia. You know, the world is full of true facts – but most of them are incredibly boring. A factoid should be something you want to know, for whatever reason, even if it's not important. Like knowing that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on exactly the same day, month, year. It's just a stupid coincidence, but it's interesting – you want to remember it.
AC: What are some of your favorite factoids like that?
KJ: I was speaking the other day in front of an audience, and I was mentioning some of these goofy things – opossums have 13 nipples – the type of things that are interesting only because they're nuts. And somebody asked me "What's your favorite fact?" And I thought about it. And my favorite fact – which, actually, seems to have some kind of cosmic significance – is that pretty much any element in the universe bigger than ... oxygen, I think ... comes from supernovas. That's the only place where heavy elements can form. So what that means is that the gold in your rings and the calcium in your bones and the iron in your blood all came from supernovas – we all walk around with starstuff inside us, all day, every day. That's the kind of factoid that really makes you think.
AC: You know, Ken, this is a really enjoyable interview. And the only thing that might match it for me, I think, is that I might get to interview Neil deGrasse Tyson in a couple of weeks. And now I'm wondering, what would you ask him?
KJ: [laughs] What would I ask Neil deGrasse Tyson? Um, OK, I was reading this thing where Stephen Hawking was saying we shouldn't be broadcasting radio signals out into space, because there's a certain quantifiable risk that aliens will hear them and come after us and want to colonize us, rule over us with, you know, their electrical whips and put us to work in the salt mines or whatever? I'd be interested in what his take is on that. Should we really be beaming Family Matters re-runs out into space?
AC: [laughs] And what is the next book from Ken Jennings that we can look forward to?
KJ: I have a series of kids' books coming out next year, called the Junior Genius Guides, and these are pretty straight amazing-facts-for-kids books. My publisher came to me with this idea, and I loved books like this when I was a kid. And there's gonna be a bunch of these. You know, like "Presidents," "Geography," "Greek Mythology," "The Human Body," and other stuff. And, for grownups, I'm actually thinking about a book about funniness. You know – why do our brains think things are funny? Is funniness constant over culture? What was the first joke, and would we laugh at a joke from 800 years ago? I'm really interested in what tickles our brains that way.
Ken Jennings appears at the Texas Book Festival Saturday, Oct. 26, 4:15pm, at the Sanctuary at First United Methodist Church.