We were eating the last of this year’s fresh corn for dinner while watching “Jeopardy” recently. Writing questions for “Jeopardy” would by my dream job. All of them seem so incredibly easy when you know the answer. “Hawaii became a state in this year.” “She sang ‘You Light Up My Life.’” “Midnight mass happens at this time.” These “questions” are easy, because unlike real life, they only have one answer. Imagine how hard “Jeopardy” would be if they asked questions like “This is the best Woody Allen film,” or “This chain makes the best doughnuts,” or “The three appropriate circumstances in which men can use hair mousse.”
But many times, even on easy questions that you know the answer to, it’s hard to spit it out quickly, hard to beat the other contestants to the buzzer. You can see the actor’s face but can’t bring up the name. You’ve read the book but can’t get the title to come out. It’s not like they’re asking you to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, but they are asking you to think fast. Add all the things I don’t know – the names of vice presidents who weren’t in office during my lifetime, medical and scientific terms, opera plots and characters, Shakespeare plays – and it’s obvious what a miserable contestant I’d be. The perfect contestant would be an opera-singing, classically trained actor with dual degrees in biochemistry and geography. But even all that wouldn’t be enough to win. You’ve got to have the answers on the tip of your tongue, not way down deep in your diaphragm.
How many times have you known the answer but not been able to say it? But as soon as the contestant blurts it out, you chime in with, “That’s it, that’s right, that’s what I was thinking of.” It’s like singing along with a song on the radio; the words come out effortlessly. Yet stand in front of a group of people and try to do it by yourself and blankness descends. What is the first line? What’s the first word? How are these contestants able to pull out the answers so fast? If we all know a lot of the answers but can’t spit them out as fast as the winner, does it mean they are smarter, or just faster?
So, Sue and I are watching “Jeopardy” and the clue is something like, “This member of the Beatles is celebrating his 70th birthday this year,” and we both know the answer immediately, “Who is Ringo Starr.” I didn’t know he was 70, but I knew he was the oldest Beatle. You could not be our age and fail to know that. It would be like not knowing who shot Lee Harvey Oswald or not knowing what Cassius Clay changed his name to. What a softball question! But the guy who ended up breaking one of the game show’s records by winning the most money in a single day said, “Who is Paul McCartney?”
Here’s a guy that knew that “Rh” was the symbol for rhodium, for God’s sake. I didn’t even know there was an element called rhodium. He knew who Millard Fillmore’s vice president was, he knew that Emma Lazarus wrote the poem on the Statue of Liberty, but he didn’t know Ringo? “I’ll take how can anyone not know that for $800, Alex.”
Sue said, “You missed every other question they had. Your answer to every music question you don’t know is ‘Lady Gaga.’”
“Hey, it’s a good guess. They always tell you to say the first thing that pops into your mind.”
“Try saying nothing for a change. Why let people know you’re stupid? Let them find out the hard way. The way I did.”
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at email@example.com
Copyright 2010, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.