Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'll Take Goofy Game Show Titles for $800, Alex

Answer: He wrote a book called Brainiac, which is a recounting of his experiences as the champ of Jeopardy! champs, as well as a gratifyingly engaging exploration of the world of trivia and its geeks.

Question: Who is Ken Jennings?

I was reading said book last night--specifically, a chapter that charts the history of TV game shows--and was struck by the number of, shall we say, questionable titles in the question-and-answer business. You can start with Jeopardy! and that superfluous, hysterical exclamation point. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, on the other hand, is just crying out for a question mark, as many have noted. (Troy Patterson recently speculated in a Slate article that "perhaps the quiz show's producers believe that using one would transform the title into a pointless rhetorical question" or that it is actually a relative clause: "Jamal, who wants to be a millionaire, is the protagonist of Danny Boyle's worst film ..."  In fact, word is, the punctuation is omitted because of a superstition in the production world about using question marks. Apparently there is no superstition about appearing to be sub-literate.) This disregard for the finer points of fine points seems to go way back in game show lore: according to Jennings, one of the first quiz show phenomenons debuted on radio in 1938 with the title, Information Please. Comma, please.

Those are just the punctuation offenders. In the 1950's, Johnny Carson got his break hosting Who Do You Trust?, which, while bravely taunting the gods with its use of the question mark, features an incorrectly employed nominative pronoun. Then again, to be fair, Whom Do You Trust doesn't have the same jaunty ring. (The writer Calvin Trillin once famously opined that "the word whom was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.")

That's still better than sounding like a Soviet proctologist, which is what I think of when I read one of the tales of game show trivia that Jennings describes-- a story that takes place on the hit Argentine program, Today We Have an Examination.