Ken Jennings Has Some Questions About Death

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In 2003, Ken Jennings was a twenty-nine-year-old software engineer, living in a suburb of Salt Lake City with his wife and young son, when his old college roommate suggested that they try out for “Jeopardy!” A year later, Jennings, a trivia enthusiast who’d grown up watching the show, made it on the air, had a seventy-four-game winning streak, and won more than $2.5 million, becoming the winningest “Jeopardy!” contestant of all time. (He still is: a year and a half ago, Amy Schneider, the second-winningest, won forty consecutive games.) After Alex Trebek, the show’s beloved host, died in 2020, the show endured an uneasy era of temporary hosts and executive blunders. But now Jennings helms the show, in rotation with Mayim Bialik—and “Jeopardy!,” that reliable source of answers-in-the-form-of-a-question comfort, once again feels like it’s in good hands. Jennings is a natural, ably enhancing the game’s inherent charms with warmth and wit, fostering an atmosphere of collegial curiosity. He even manages to make the show’s personal-anecdote segment the least awkward it’s ever been.

In the past two decades, Jennings has also written several books, hopping from subject to subject in the way of a great generalist: there’s trivia, sure, but also comedy, geography, everyday myths, a variety of fact books for kids, and, now, the afterlife. “100 Places to See After You Die” is a gung-ho travel guide to Heaven, Hell, and beyond, as represented by mythology, religion, literature, and pop culture, extending to realms including Narnia, the Outer Planes from Dungeons & Dragons, and the mid-century gag comic “They’ll Do It Every Time.” Jennings, a lifelong Mormon who approaches his subject with a wry, ready-to-be-delighted open-mindedness, packs his book with helpful pointers for the savvy traveller. To better prepare for your final confrontation in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, “Send a mosquito on ahead to spy on the lord’s plans for you,” he advises. In ancient Egypt’s Duat, definitely check out the Hall of the Two Truths, and “get an early start, because you’ll want to arrive washed, anointed in myrrh, and wearing fresh clothes and white sandals.” In Pandemonium, from “Paradise Lost” (“the granddaddy of fanfiction”), “Don’t miss the four rivers of hate, sorrow, weeping, and anger.”

One truth a reader gleans is that depictions of Heaven and Hell, though entertaining, can be blinkered in their imaginative world-building: the great beyond is suspiciously centered on the individual, namely, us. Occasionally this comes in for Jennings’s razzing. Dante really gets it; in an Inferno theoretically home to hundreds of millions, he somehow “mostly runs into his favorite literary characters from antiquity and his political opponents from thirteenth-century Florence, now receiving their various comeuppances,” Jennings writes. In Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” the secrets of life are revealed to a guy named Eddie. They’re “small epiphanies like ‘Forgiveness is important’ and ‘You did more good than you know,’ so temper your expectations of solving life’s mysteries,” Jennings notes. “No one offers to tell Eddie which religion was the correct one, for example, or whatever happened to Amelia Earhart.”

Jennings, who now lives in Seattle, flies to Los Angeles for “Jeopardy!” tapings. He visited New York in early May, as the rollicking prime-time “Jeopardy! Masters” tournament, featuring Schneider and other “Jeopardy!” heavy hitters, was just beginning—as was the Writers Guild of America strike. We met for lunch to discuss “Jeopardy!,” the connections between comedy and trivia, the frustrating vagueness of Heaven, and his own vision of the afterlife. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Is there a particular vision of Heaven or Hell that sparked your excitement to do the book? When did you first start thinking about it?

It’s got the most prosaic origin story possible. I was in an airport, and they had one of those ubiquitous “five hundred places to see before you die” books, but I was looking at it upside down, so I thought it said “500 Places to Die Before You See.” And I was, like, Wow, now that’s a funny book! Some friends and I were about to get on a plane, and I was, like, I think I have a pitch for my next book, but it’s super hacky because all I have is the title.

But, thinking more in depth about it—a lot of the book is pop culture, and a lot of my personal experience with death came through pop culture. Like, the first deaths I remember are Mr. Spock, and Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street.” I think I had a great-grandma die when I was at college; that was the first person I knew who died. So I kind of experienced death through TV shows, along with the kind of sitcom afterlife you would see, with dry ice on the floor. I was very attached to seeing death through what our writers have told us about it.

You’re about my age—did you see those “Oh, God!” movies? [The “Oh, God!” series features George Burns as God, appointing various human messengers.]

Oh, yeah! That’s so funny! We had those on VHS. And, weirdly, I think I watched the second, inferior one with the little girl more than I watched the one with John Denver.

“Oh, God! Book II.”

[God] goes to see a kid, and there’s a televangelist plotline. But, you know, when you’re a kid in the eighties you watch the same terrible movies on VHS over and over.

Or good ones on HBO. “Airplane!” was always on.

That’s the first movie I saw on home video. My friend had a Betamax, and at his third-grade birthday party we watched “Airplane!” I think his dad forgot there were boobs. And he was, like, “Uhh . . .”

Wasn’t there just an “Airplane!” question on “Jeopardy!”?

Yeah! The comedy category with Jason Alexander last night.

How far ahead do those tape?

We try to be two or three months ahead. With “Masters,” we are not. In fact, we have not taped the ending yet. So I’m being very honest when I go on TV and say, “It’s anybody’s game.”[“Masters” ended on May 24th; James Holzhauer won.]

It’s a lot of fun.

It is, because the players are a lot looser. Like, “Jeopardy!” is so terrifying? I think at home it plays as kind of calming and cerebral, but in person, for these poor civilians, it’s very intense. They’re doing it for the first time, and this thing is going to be on national TV.

Yeah, and then if you win—

You’ve immediately got to do it again. Basically, the experience is you blink and it’s over and some nice contestant coördinator is explaining to you if you won or not. Imagine watching a version of the Olympics where all the players have just picked up their equipment that morning. With “Masters,” these are people who have played—some of them have forty-game streaks, some have been back for multiple tournaments. They’re the only people in the world who are that comfortable on “Jeopardy!” So they can tease each other, they can tweak the host, they can take a second for observation.

It seemed mildly radical when Amy Schneider kind of zinged the two other contestants. And then you zinged her about her number of wins.

On the Internet, people were, like, “How can this happen on ‘Jeopardy!’? They’re chatting!” Like, It’s against God’s law!

People must’ve freaked out about being able to see where the Daily Double was.

We have a traditionalist audience in general, for good reason. It’s a show that people watch as a matter of ritual. They’re watching because it reminds them of watching with Grandma, watching with their friends in the dorm. And I have to honor that. [The Daily Double reveal] is such a small cosmetic change, and I feel like this kind of prime-time show is the time to try it.

Yeah. And I think that it’s understood that this is slightly different, slightly more fun. We already know those characters, probably, if we’re watching it.

Right. It’s the best of both worlds because it’s got the loose, party-game vibe of “Celebrity Jeopardy!,” except it’s like “Jeopardy!” celebrities. It’s the people who are best at the game. I feel very lucky to be hanging out with them.

So I’m interested in how you researched the book. Did you start with religion?

It was pretty research intensive. The proposal had Egyptian mythology and something religious—I think the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because they always have those nice paintings in their pamphlets, where they’re kind of hanging out with animals and strumming on a guitar. It’s a good vibe. And then I did the Heaven in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a movie I’d seen thirty times.

Honestly, the TV shows took the most time. It was, like, I guess I have to watch every episode of “Dead Like Me”? Because you’re not watching the show for the show. You’re watching the show for the rules—here’s how the ghosts in this haunted house behave, here’s how the guardian angels operate—because the conceit is you’re writing a travelogue. It’s a lot of time spent in university libraries, trying to find the Buddhist sutras that actually tell you, O.K., it’s this many trillion years of this punishment in Buddhist Hell.

Well, that’s another interesting thing. With religion and mythology, what is the definitive version of Heaven and Hell, and how do you figure out what it is?

The honest answer is that I’m not an academic, so I’m free to kind of pick from the smorgasbord of belief. But, you know, nothing matters more on “Jeopardy!” than correctness. If one alternate answer is unaccounted for, we have to stop for twenty minutes, maybe. So I’m a stickler for that kind of stuff. And that meant I had to read everything.

Are there descriptions of Heaven and Hell in the Bible?

It’s very limited, actually. And even some of the things we think we know about Biblical Heaven and Hell are filtered through millennia of interpretation—like, all those things we think we know about Lucifer, that’s from Milton, basically. The Bible just says, Oh, we feel bad for that King Lucifer, and Isaiah’s probably referring to some Babylonian king, not Milton’s Satan. There’s a lake of fire in the Book of Revelation, but all the baroque punishments are medieval. And the Jewish tradition of Sheol, it’s kind of nonexistence. It’s like a shadowy underworld.

And then, when you get to Heaven, you get to read more Torah.

But this time Abraham is there! It’s like a V.I.P. lounge. Noah is there. That’s a very funny aspect of a lot of these—there’s a celeb culture, whether it’s Dante or the Talmudic Heaven. It’s, like, which of the dead do you get to schmooze with?

How is that true in Dante? Like, who do you hang out with?

Well, the funny thing is he can’t imagine any celebrities bigger than, like, people from northern Italy at the time. You’re, like, Come on, Dante—what about the people who don’t die near the Tiber River? How are they going to get to Purgatorio? It never seems to occur to him. In all three of the Divine Comedy works, Dante’s always hanging out with the big names. Helen of Troy. Even in Hell, Virgil’s like, Boy, I wish I was baptized, but I know you love my work, so I’m going to show you around. And then, in Paradiso, he’s hanging out with the apostles and King David and the Virgin Mary.

It’s sort of sweet how closely the visions of Heaven and Hell often reflect the worldly life of the people and traditions—

Of the time they’re from. And you can even see it on a micro level. You watch an early-sixties “Twilight Zone,” where the angel is some fussy guy with a clipboard and a visor, and you’re thinking, Oh, this is an America that’s very into efficiency and bureaucracy. It’s like Eisenhower-era Heaven.

I was actually going to mention bureaucracy. A lot of thought seems to have gone into how it’s all organized and run.

It’s beyond angels on the head of a pin. It’s, like, who’s writing the accounting software that tells you how many angels are on the head of a pin.

There was one in China that reflected what the country was going through at the time.

Oh, yeah. They had just ramped up their civil service, where everybody had a title and a stamp and a very elaborate set of documents for everything. And they imagined that the next world would also have that. So people would literally have documents stamped, assuming that they would have to present it, after their death, to the underminister in charge of grave mounds, or whatever.

Do you think that Hell tends to be more vividly imagined than Heaven?

In the past, certainly. I don’t want to have some reductionist view of religion, but Hell is often a means of control over people. You know—you better straighten up, or here’s exactly how hot the tongs are, and exactly which body parts they’ll be on. You can imagine pastors trying to be very vivid, to keep people’s attention. And, honestly, in a time where you couldn’t go home and watch “Game of Thrones,” it also appealed to the fantasy nerds. Like, Wow, Hell has nine levels? And I can see a map? Tell me more!

It’s funny, I was thinking about “Game of Thrones” as I was reading, because I used to write about it a lot, and the details were so crazy that I just had to say what they were in order to be funny. And you have a very deft way of doing that here.

I learned that before I ever wrote a book. The writer Stefan Fatsis wrote the book “Word Freak,” about the world of professional Scrabble. I’m a puzzle nerd, but I had no interest in professional Scrabble, and I realized that the more detailed he got—you would think that’s when it got boring, but it just got more delightful. And I think that’s true of this book as well. You don’t have to worry about explaining the rules of Heaven as shown on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” There’s something delightful about going deep on what Larry David thinks Heaven is, even in the smallest particulate.

What is Larry David’s version of Heaven?

He donates a kidney to Richard Lewis and dies briefly on the table—Bea Arthur plays his hectoring mother.

He never has to pee.

He never has to pee, right. He has a full head of hair. He’s basically wearing his costume from the show, but in white.

Did you grow up believing in Heaven and Hell?

Yeah! And, to some degree, I still do, perhaps more out of a sense of aesthetics than conviction. Like, wouldn’t it be so much nicer if there were something bigger? But, growing up in the Mormon faith, that’s a very complicated, esoteric Heaven that’s trying to harmonize a bunch of Biblical traditions. It gets very baroque.

What was your understanding of it as a kid?

It actually comes with blackboard drawings, as if someone is trying to explain the periodic table. As a trivia nerd, I kind of liked that—that religion could have its own trove of lore. And, of course, that’s the original trove of lore. Like, long before people were writing ten-thousand-word pieces about “Lost,” that’s what the Talmud is, you know? Not that I would equate them. [Laughs.]

But I think my childhood experience with the afterlife—it was a combination of Sunday school and being a Gen X kid, with Leonard Nimoy telling me about the Bermuda Triangle or U.F.O.s.

The Bermuda Triangle was so huge in the seventies.

I really thought it would loom larger in my life, given the number of books I had about it. But death is the great mystery, you know? Going back to Mr. Spock, the “Star Trek” movie where he dies was going to be called “The Undiscovered Country,” from “Hamlet.” They ended up using that in “Star Trek VI.” But I love the idea of death as the last mystery, as an exploration.

That mystery is partly what makes the specificity of Heaven and Hell appealing. But they’re also so confusing to imagine: Where are they? How do they work? How are they even possible?

Heaven in particular tends to be very vague. Because all you can say is, Oh, it’s so much better than you can imagine. It’s difficult from an authorial standpoint, you know? It’s a narrative challenge. It’s a thing your earthly mind can’t understand, and also it goes on forever.

That’s why there’s often cheats, like the second afterlife. Movies about ghost and angel stuff will often have another unknown resting place after the one you’re seeing. Patrick Swayze at the end of “Ghost,” or Albert Brooks at the end of “Defending Your Life.” The great beyond has a second unseen beyond.

What do you think is the funniest idea of the afterlife?

Bosch is very funny. It wasn’t painted to be funny, but clearly he’s having such a good time in that part of the canvas—like, this guy just cannot wait to get to the “Where’s Waldo?” part of Hell.

I was just talking about the Tolstoy “All happy families are alike” idea, which I don’t think is true—

I don’t, either!

I feel like there’s a similar dynamic with Heaven—that the people imagining it have been less interested in its pleasures. It seems boring to them.

I might have to lift that. It’s exactly the “Anna Karenina” thing, you’re right. It’s the idea that, if Heaven is perfect, why would there be any telling details? That’s why I admire the Buddhist ones, where it’s, like, “And each tree is made of a thousand gems, and each gem has a thousand colors, and each color sparkles with a thousand beams of light.” It’s more poetic than anything in Milton.

One idea I thought was beautiful, from multiple Native American traditions, is that the Milky Way is a bridge to Heaven.

That’s the big mystery: What is that river in the sky? I was a little nervous about those parts of the book. You know, middle-aged white guy explaining . . . but I figured that the way to do it was to cast as wide a net as possible—there’s Inuit traditions, and Aztec and Polynesian and traditional African ones, too.

There were a few traditions, not just Larry David’s, that imagined no bodily functions.

I always do the indexes in my own books, and it was funny to see how long the entry was about pee. I think most of those are modern, although I believe, in Islamic Heaven, there’s no bodily functions.

Did you choose to leave anything out?

I mean, getting to a hundred good afterlives, it’s actually a bit tricky, you know? Since the book is a travelogue, you really need to get enough world-building to understand what it would be like to be a soul consigned there. After I turned in the book, I realized that Ursula K. Le Guin has a great one in one of her cycles. I deeply regret leaving out Le Guin. The animals in “Animal Farm” have one, and I dropped that when Ta-Nehisi Coates started writing the “Black Panther” comic book. He had a really great afterlife, so out went Orwell and in went Black Panther.

What do you think of Purgatory and the in-between states, the bardo and so on?

I like the idea that the earthly mistakes we make in a seventy-year span or whatever do not condemn us to infinite suffering. If we made finite mistakes here in a finite time, then there should be some finite period of expiation that lets us work through them. It seems very unjust to deliver an infinite verdict. But often they’re just Hell with an ending, you know? Purgatory is just, you take your beating until you come around.

Here’s a somewhat weird question. I was just thinking about all this—about how Heaven and Hell are often better or worse versions of our current existence. And your life changed very dramatically with “Jeopardy!” You went from being a pretty ordinary guy, with an ordinary life, to a famous person who did something that had never been done.

It was a sudden and accidental celebrity.

And I’m sure to some extent your life must be like the life you had before.

I mean, I often frame it as—you know, we had just bought a starter house in the Salt Lake suburbs, we had an eighteen-month-old son, our lives were pretty good. For a twenty-nine-year old, I was kind of grownup. And I was really determined not to screw that up. And luckily I had the jaundiced Gen X view of celebrities, which is that they’re all kind of awful. I mean, teens have always had idols, but for whatever reason—probably because of my religious upbringing, Mormons are thrifty pioneer stock—there was this sense that to be wealthy and famous was not just immoral but somehow unseemly. It was a bad look.

To that end, there was a real attempt to say, Hey, whatever we do, we’re a happy family, let’s keep it that way. So I drove the same Toyota for another decade. A Corolla runs forever, you know? And, to this day, I really think it’s a moral failing if I become a different person because I won on a game show.

And now it’s changed again, with hosting.

It is a big change, yeah. Becoming a host—that’s really show biz. Now you can’t pretend anymore.

You’re very good at it.

Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s a very hard job, and Alex made it look easy. So it’s kind of a no-win thing—the only other person we’ve seen do it looked incredibly confident and graceful for thirty-seven years, and we all loved him.

How is it difficult?

It’s the speed of it. It’s hard to overstate how fast it moves and the mechanics of what the host has to do sixty-one times a show: read the clue flawlessly, call on the right contestant, adjudicate their response correctly. And then it all repeats.

So you decide if they’re right?

There’s a table of judges that I can appeal to. But, in practice, Alex made a lot of those calls on the fly, just because he knew the game and knew it had to keep moving. And you’re also in a tough position. You’re the referee of the game, kind of managing the players, but you’re also managing the studio audience and the home audience. You’re the stadium announcer, and you’re the play-by-play guy in the booth. You’re trying to do it all.

And really the way to do it, it turns out, is just to play the game as if you were a contestant. I’m kind of playing along in my head, like, Oh, I know this one! Let’s see if they know it. Hey, they do, great! We did it! We get to go again! And I don’t know if that’s the right—it’s definitely not Alex’s energy, but nobody can do what he did.

You really seem to make people feel comfortable.

I’m always thinking, How can I make the contestants feel—I don’t know about comfortable, but at least not panicky? Because I’ve been there, and I know it’s tough. I see the hand shaking when they’re trying to wager.

That seems like one of the hardest parts to me, how they strategically calculate at the end.

And they know it’s a weighty moment. The good thing is, you can take an afternoon and do some online research and break down how to wager Final Jeopardy. If you can know four or five cases, and if you can train your brain to do that flowchart, you can be ready. That said, it’s a crucible, and people do it wrong sometimes.

So are the “Jeopardy!” writers on strike?

Yeah, they’re out now. Luckily, we always take a hiatus in May, so scripts were locked through the end of the season. So now we’re just hoping against hope that the studios do the right thing and make them a fair deal. Because the writers are the engine that runs “Jeopardy!” More than the contestants, more than the host, it’s a show about the words. And it maybe has more words in every half hour than any other kind of show. Sixty-one of those very dense, tightly, carefully written, doubly researched clues. It’s almost like each one is a little haiku or a villanelle, engineered to try to get the player to exactly the right degree of difficulty and proximity. [After our interview, Mayim Bialik, in further support of the strike, announced that she wouldn’t host the season’s final week of episodes; Jennings took over for her.]

You had a good description of it in your book about trivia—there are plenty of facts in the world, but it’s not just about facts. Often, there’s a little element of surprise, or a twist.

Yeah. I realized that playing “Jeopardy!”—there’s a level of psychoanalysis, where these clues were not written by ChatGPT. A human intelligence had to write them, and that person might have the same aesthetics for fact and knowledge that I do. What would delight or surprise them? As a piece of art, how does this work?

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but there’s a natural link between comedy and trivia: surprise, specificity.

A payoff, yes. Did you watch “Celebrity Jeopardy!”? [Some of] the top players were Patton Oswalt, Ike Barinholtz, B. J. Novak—all comedians and comedy writers.

Wow, that’s interesting. So, before Double Jeopardy, the contestants bring all these personal details to the show—

Yeah, I never liked that part.

It’s usually the most awkward part.

It’s a little cringey. And, even if the players tell an amazing anecdote perfectly, I mean, that’s just not the time for it, like when they interrupt a football game for Jennifer Lopez or to salute the troops or whatever. Like, why is this happening now?

I don’t think Alex loved the interviews. I think he was kind of ready to get back in the game.

It’s a lot of pressure for those poor people, who are already pretty stressed out—now they have to be interesting and funny.

And I have nothing but sympathy for them, because I did not have seventy-five good stories. I didn’t have three good stories.

Did you have to come up with new ones all the time?

Yes, every time I had to fly to L.A. to do more shows, I’d get a call from the contestant coördinator: Hey, just in case you tape ten new shows, can you give us twenty new stories?

One of the pleasures for your audience is your personality, on the page and on the show. You’re very curious, but there’s also a lightness that draws us in.

I was aware, from a young age, about being a know-it-all. You immediately realize that America doesn’t like that, that it’s not a hit with girls in your class to know Captain Kirk’s middle name. So, to this day, I carry, in a healthy way, some of the shame of that, which I think has been chemically turned into self-awareness. It is kind of silly to know this weird stuff, but we can have a good time with it. It’s better than not knowing it, right?

Are there any places you like to imagine could be the afterlife, or that you’d like to experience?

I’m a big baseball fan, so I love the idea of a Field of Dreams, where you play low-stakes, old-timey baseball forever. That seems pretty good to me. Maybe the uniforms are itchy, I don’t know.

I’m sure in Heaven they would be soft.

When I consider the question seriously, I feel like my answers are pretty boring and universal. Like, as long as family is there, that’s what’s important.

I’m going to tell your family that you think they’re boring.

Ha ha! But, you know, we miss our loved ones who are gone. That’s probably what drives a lot of these stories. [The idea that] the elders are still kind of with us—we don’t see them, but they’re involved in our lives.

Many other stories are very clear about how soon you’ll be forgotten, though.

There’s one really brutal one where you see your village but everybody’s forgotten you.

Like, you’re being tortured and stuff, but then the worst of all is you get to see your kids’ new stepdad.

It’s like Act III of “Our Town,” but such a bummer.

I think that’s why it makes sense to have a version of the afterlife that privileges the past, honestly. Like, you get to see Grandma again.

That might be a good version of Heaven and Hell, where you got to know all your ancestors. You imagine them in all these cool ways, but also—

You have to see them beat their spouses or whatever.

Or persecute witches.

Exactly. Hear every racial slur my great-grandparent ever said. I guess one thing that does appeal to me—and this occurred to me as a kid, when a pastor would tell me about the afterlife—is that I finally know the answers to all the questions that my teachers weren’t sure about. You know, like, What did kill the dinosaurs? Where is Jimmy Hoffa? Did Shakespeare really write Shakespeare? Or all the Leonard Nimoy stuff: like, is there life on other planets?

That’s all stuff that I probably won’t know in my lifetime. In Heaven, we could presumably learn. ♦


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