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Ken Jennings defends trivia, generates laughs

Eileen Duffy | Tuesday, April 19, 2005

This “Jeopardy!” champion visited Notre Dame Monday night, packed DeBartolo 101 with 500 people and sparked laughter and raucous cheering among the crowd throughout his speech.

Who is Ken Jennings?

The Utah software engineer who earned $2,522,700 during a 74-episode, five-month run on the popular game show entertained students with a talk on the value of trivia and a simulated quiz game as part of the Student Union Board’s AnTostal Week.

As Jennings descended the stairs of the classroom he was greeted with cries of “Yeah, Ken Jennings!” He chuckled and shook his head when he reached the podium.

“It’s like Charlie Brown … it’s always Ken Jennings, first and last name,” he said. He went on to say that he would be speaking “in defense of trivia,” something he said he didn’t realize needed a defense until his first day taping “Jeopardy!”

“You cannot say the t-word on the ‘Jeopardy!’ set,” Jennings said gravely, explaining that to Jeopardy! contestants, nothing on their show is trivial.

The word trivia comes from the Latin trivium, Jennings said, meaning three roads. In history, it was used to describe the three central courses that made up the ancient curriculum; however, it was also used to describe a crossroads, or a vulgar, common place. Thus, trivial has come to mean something basic or, literally, commonplace.

“I think trivia gets a bad rap,” Jennings said. “I know it’s easy for me to say that, what with the whole two and a half million [dollars] thing. Still, I think there are reasons why this stuff is cool.”

He described a recent encounter with A.J. Jacobs, editor of “Esquire” and author of “The Know-It-All,” a book documenting his experience of reading every volume of Encyclopedia Britannica. When Jennings asked Jacobs what his favorite facts were, Jennings recalled, Jacobs answered that opossums have 13 nipples and that René Descartes had a thing for cross-eyed women.

Jennings laughed along with the crowd.

“Seriously, though, why does he love facts like this?” Jennings then asked. “The same reason I do. One, they’re strange. Second, they’re true … a great, weird fact like that can break up a humdrum life.

“Even the most trivial-sounding trivia can bring us joy.”

He talked about various places in his life where trivia has had an impact. Recently, Jennings said, he was about to skip an article on the tsunami, having read so many already. However, the story began with an unusual trivia fact about the magnitude of the wave, which sparked his interest – so he kept reading. In the end, he said, he was compelled to click on a link to donate to the Red Cross.

We are living in the age of information, Jennings said, a “time of increasing specialization.” People of different trades are finding it harder and harder to communicate, Jennings said. This, he said, is where trivia comes in.

“The things we call trivia are not trivia at all,” Jennings said. “This is good old general knowledge … the common web of cultural allusions anyone can understand. This helps us communicate.”

Jennings then recalled one question from the “million” interviews he’s given since his run on the show ended: how did he do it? The reporters are always disappointed, he said, to find out he doesn’t have a secret.

“I’m just always curious to know stuff,” he said. “Not everything I learned came from a classroom. In fact, I don’t think most things I learned came from a classroom.”

He pointed out that he’s learned about D-Day while watching a movie, global warming while reading a magazine at the dentist, the French and Italian languages while cooking with his wife, and even trains while watching “Thomas the Tank Engine” with his two-year-old son.

“People are worried about the Information Age, but for someone like me, who loves learning new things, there’s never been a more exciting time to be alive,” Jennings said, telling audience members they should be “learning something new every day.”

He reminded the audience that answers on “Jeopardy!” come in the form of a question.

“I think we should live our lives in the form of a question,” Jennings said. “Even if it’s just the number of nipples on an opossum, if it makes the world seem a little more strange, or wonderful, there’s nothing trivial to me about that.”

After the speech, Jennings answered questions from the audience, admitting that one of his favorite facts is that the mother of Mike Nesmith, member of the “Monkees,” invented Wite-Out. He also joked that the reason he wagered enough to remain just under the single-day earnings record for so long was “just to [annoy] Trebek,” who, Jennings added, “is always acting like he knows all the answers.”

Jennings also participated in a mock game show versus sophomore Erik Powers and senior Mike Draz, which Jennings won handily.

Notre Dame is the third of four universities that Jennings is visiting this week, he said after the events. The crowd here was “very big and enthusiastic” and more “into it,” he said, than any other place he’s been to thus far.

Jennings said that when the Speaker’s Bureau contacted him to make this tour of college campuses, he seized the opportunity.

“There are not a lot of people who get famous for this short amount of time and for this kind of school type of knowledge,” Jennings said. “I figured, why not take advantage of it?”