Sid Caesar: The Ultimate Comedian

This month’s blogs are dedicated to Your Show of Shows and the stars who made the show such a success. Last week we learned about the career of Imogene Coca, and today it’s Sid Caesar’s turn.

Sid Caesar - Wikipedia
Photo: wikipedia.com

Sid Caesar was born in Yonkers, New York, the youngest of three boys. His parents ran a 24-hour luncheonette. Sid grew up waiting on tables which allowed him to study the accents and mannerisms of a wide range of people and ethnicities. His brother David loved comedy sketches, and the brothers worked on comedy routines together.

At the young age of 14, Caesar traveled to the Catskill Mountains, playing saxophone with the Swingtime Six. Occasionally he performed sketches with his collected accents.

After graduating from high school in 1939, Caesar struck out on his own, pursuing a career in music. He landed in Manhattan where he worked as an usher and a doorman at the Capitol Theater. He played sax at the Vacationland Hotel, a resort also in the Catskills. He was able to audit clarinet and saxophone classes at Julliard.

After a few months, he decided to enlist in the US Coast Guard. He was stationed in Brooklyn, and he played in military revues and shows.

In 1942 Caesar met Florence Levy at the Avon Lodge in the Catskills. They were married the following year and had three children. In November of 2009, Greg Crosby wrote about an interview with the Caesars in the Tolucan Times. He quoted Florence, “I thought he would be just a nice boyfriend for the summer. He was cute looking and tall, over six feet . . . I was in my last year at Hunter College; we were still dating when Sid went into the service, the Coast Guard. Luckily, he was stationed in New York, so we were able to continue seeing each other, even though my parents weren’t too happy about it. They never thought he would amount to anything, that he’d never have a real career or make any money. But we were married one year after we met, in July of 1943.” They would remain married until her death in 2010.

After joining the musicians’ union, Sid played with several well-known bands, including Benny Goodman.

Sid Caesar Wiki, Wife, Career, Net worth and Death children, House,
With wife Florence Levy
Photo: hollywoodmagazine.com

While in the Coast Guard, he was able to collaborate with Vernon Duke, the composer of “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” He and Duke put together a show called “Tars and Spars.” Max Liebman, future director of Your Show of Shows, was also part of the show, although not part of the military. Liebman asked Sid to do a few stand-up bits between songs and when the show toured nationally, Sid continued these routines.

Caesar left the service in 1945. He and his wife moved to Hollywood. In 1946, Sid was able to reprise his role in the film version Tars and Spars with Columbia Pictures.

Eventually, he returned to New York and accepted the offer of opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the Copacabana. He also received a contract with the William Morris Agency. He was able to perform in a Broadway show, “Make Mine Manhattan.”

In the fall of 1948, Sid made an appearance on Milton Berle’s popular show, Texaco Star Theater. The following year, he and Liebman met with Pat Weaver, VP of television at NBC. The meeting resulted in the Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca. It was very successful but Admiral could not keep up with the demand for new television sets so it pulled the sponsorship and the show was canceled after 26 weeks.

Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows,” the Best TV Has Ever Offered – Once upon  a screen…
Photo: onceuponascreen.com

In 1950, Weaver, Liebman, and Company created Your Show of Shows. It started life as a second half of the Saturday Night Review but became its own 90-minute program in 1951. In 1954, a 160 episodes later, it ended so Coca and Caesar could both have their own shows.

Sid’s show was called Caesar’s Hour, a one-hour show with Howard Morris and Carl Reiner from Your Show of Shows as well as Bea Arthur and Nanette Fabray. The show was not a success. In 1958, Sid tried again with Sid Caesar Invites You.

In the sixties, Caesar took stage roles, as well as big and small-screen parts. He had several specials on television, starred on Broadway in “Little Me,” which got him a Tony award nomination. He also was part of the ensemble of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a huge success that earned six Academy award nominations.

Sid appeared in a few television shows during his career but only a handful. A couple of those include That Girl, Love American Style, Laugh In, Vega$, and The Love Boat.

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That Girl Photo: ebay.com

Caesar didn’t write his own material. He often performed long sketches, 10-15 minutes. He relied on body language, accents, and facial expressions. Larry Gelbart called him a “pure TV comedian.” Fabray said he always stayed in character, “he was so totally in the scene he never lost it.” He was able to pantomime many different types of characters: a tire, a gumball machine, a lion, a punching bag, a telephone, an infant, a piano, even a bottle of seltzer. Neil Simon said that “Sid would make it [a sketch] ten times funnier than what we wrote.”

Many of his favorite comic sketches were parodies of films including gangster, western, and spy movies. Gerald Nachman wrote Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. He said, “the Caesar shows were the crème de la crème of fifties television, studded with satire and their sketches sharper, edgier, more sophisticated than the other variety shows.” Historian Susan Murphy agreed, describing Sid as “best known as one of the most intelligent and provocative innovators of television comedy.”

Unfortunately, like many comedians, Caesar had some demons of his own. His stardom ended quickly. He had no interest in the movies. He was using pills and alcohol to help relieve the pressures of headlining and producing a weekly show. In 1977, Caesar blacked out during a stage performance of “The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers” in Canada and gave up alcohol immediately. He discussed his substance abuse to alcohol and sleeping pills in his two autobiographies, Where Have I Been? And Caesar’s Hours. He said at his worst, he “had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day.”

Later in his career, Sid came back to the movies. He was in Silent Movie and History of the World, Part I with Mel Brooks; Airport 1975, and Grease and Grease 2, playing Coach Calhoun.

Grease (1978) starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard  Channing, Jeff Conaway, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Kelly Ward, Didi Conn,  Jamie Donnelly, Di… | John travolta, Grease john travolta, John lennon  beatles
From Grease with John Travolta Photo: pinterest.com

In 1983, Caesar hosted Saturday Night Live and received a standing ovation. In 1996, The Writers Guild of America, West gathered Sid and his writers from Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour for a two-hour panel discussion which was broadcast on PBS.

Sid passed away in 2014 after an illness. He left behind an amazing career and a legacy of actors and comedians he inspired. I’ll let his friends have the last word since they knew him so well. Carl Reiner commented at the time that “he was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.” Mel Brooks agreed and said “Sid Caesar was a giant, maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade. And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends.”

We were all privileged to watch a master at work. Thank you for the many memorable moments and teaching us what funny honestly looks like.

When Things Were Rotten: No “Happily Ever After” for this Tale

This month’s series is “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies.” For our first blog, we travel back to the 12th century to Sherwood Forest to a time When Things Were Rotten. After viewing one episode of this show, you knew it could only have been created by the comic legend Mel Brooks. In this case, he had the help of John Boni and Norman Stiles.

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Debuting in 1975 on ABC, Brooks considered what life would have been truly like if the legend was just hype, and Robin and his Merry Men were just a bunch of buffoons. The series has many of the traits found in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Monty Python episodes.

Reading the list of brilliant cast members, this show seems like one that should have been a huge hit, but in reality, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Based on its brief airing, perhaps Robert Klein was wise to turn down the role of Robin. Dick Gautier, who worked with Brooks on Get Smart, agreed to take on the role of the heroic leader. Henry Polic II played the Sheriff of Nottingham who always got taken in by the gang. Ron Rifkin is Prince John. Misty Rowe, known best for her Hee-Haw performances, is Maid Marian. The Merry Men were indeed merry, being made up of Bernie Kopell, Dick Van Patten, Richard Dimitri (who had a dual role as identical twin brothers), and David Sabin.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Of course, in this parody, slapstick is involved in every episode. The sight gags were always described as hilarious, and every script was full of great one-liners. It was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, at times the sheriff was said to be barking mad and he would literally bark. In one episode, the “barking” sheriff asks Bertram to hang up some banners and a cutaway scene shows a husband, wife and two children on a wall saying, “Hi, we’re the Banners.” Another example is Richard the-Lion-Hearted coming ashore after the Crusades to be met by an umpire, yelling “Safe,” at which point the sheriff shouts, “Kill the umpire.” The humor came fast and furious at a rapid-fire pace. Brooks described the construction of the show by saying: “We took great liberties, and the writing was very crazy and funny.”

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Unlike some parodies, the production of the show was high quality with lavish costumes and sets. Every episode featured a well-known guest star. Dudley Moore appeared as a piano-playing sheik named Achmed Muhammad Ben Gazzara. Other stars included Carl Ballantine, John Byner, Sid Caesar, Paul Williams, and Mel Brooks himself. Brooks said his favorite episode was “The French Disconnection” starring Caesar as a French ambassador.

Photo: imdb.com

The theme song was written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse who had done the well-known theme for All in the Family as well as many composing for many popular musicals. The lyrics were:

“Once upon a time when things were rotten,
Not just food, but also kings were rotten.
Everybody kicked the peasants,
Things were bad and that ain’t good,
Then came Robin Hood (Ba-bahh!)

“Soon a band of merry men he’d gotten,
They wore outfits made of plain green cotton,
Helping victims was their business.
Boy oh boy was business good —
Good for Robin Hood!

“They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank,
They jumped a lot of fences.
They robbed the rich, gave to the poor —
Except what they kept for expenses!

“So when other legends are forgotten
We’ll remember back when things were rotten.
Yay for Robin Hood!”

When Things Were Rotten was definitely a product of its time. Like Laugh-In or even Sesame Street, viewers had no time to reflect on a comment. Things moved at a frenetic pace. One of the New York Times critics, John O’Connor, timed the gags and noted there was a new one every fifteen seconds.

Photo: imdb.com

The critics gave the series great reviews and mentioned its inventiveness and quick humor. The ratings never backed up the praise however. Brooks had a different perspective. In an interview with Frank DeCaro in the New York Times (7-19-2013), Brooks discussed the show’s ending. “The show was canceled, Mr. Brooks said, not because it failed to find an audience — ‘The ratings weren’t bad,’ he insisted — but because, as a one-camera show, shot like a film, it just cost too much to produce. ‘I was very happy with When Things Were Rotten,’ he said. “We were on our way to doing 36 episodes, and then someone at Paramount called and said, ‘Mel, could you do it as a three-camera show?’ I said, ‘You mean like “I Love Lucy”? Are you crazy?’” When the network pulled the plug, Mr. Brooks remembers, friends offered their condolences. ‘Everybody said, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work.’ I said: ‘It did work. It was just too expensive.’”

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The same reason many viewers might still appreciate the show today is also one of the factors of its demise. The show depended on fans knowing a lot of pop culture knowledge. People who love cultural history would have a blast watching the show, but the younger generations whom don’t have that database in the brain might feel disconnected.

Photo: imdb.com

Of course, the television schedule always has a lot of sway about whether a show is a hit or a flop. This show was on Wednesday nights. Its competition was Tony Orlando and Dawn and Little House on the Prairie. While Tony Orlando and Dawn was on its last legs and would not return in 1976, Little House on the Prairie was very popular. This was the second season for the show which had a huge audience; the show would continue until 1983.

Photo: nytimes.com
Comedy legend Mel Brooks

The show might have ended, but Brooks could not let the concept go. In 1993, his film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights would continue the concept. In this version, Cary Elwes as Robin leads his men, but if you look closely, you might think The Abbot (Dick Van Patten) resembles Friar Tuck in When Things Were Rotten.

Photo: imdb.com

One interesting technological advancement is that a show like this typically would never have been released on DVD because of its short run. Now, however, manufactured-on-demand makes the show available on Amazon. It’s the perfect length for a week-end marathon. You might realize that When Things Were Rotten, they were also pretty good and funny.

Jeopardy: What is My Favorite Game Show?

 

Three games shows have been around for a majority of my life: The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy. As a fan, I think most viewers fall in one of the three camps. I am definitely in the Jeopardy camp.

The Back Story of Jeopardy

The original Jeopardy was created by Merv Griffin in 1964. On the site, mervgriffinabc.blogspot, a story is included where Merv explains how Jeopoardy was created: “My wife Julann just came up with the idea one day . . . She noted that there had not been a successful “question and answer” game on the air since the quiz show scandals. Why not do a switch and give the answers to the contestants and let them come up with the question? . . . I loved the idea, went straight to NBC with the idea, and they bought it without even looking at a pilot show.”

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Photo: stl.com

It was hosted by Art Fleming and ran until 1975. While Jeopardy’s format of giving contestants the answers and requiring them to provide the answer is unique, it was not the first tv game show to do that.  Television Quiz, airing in 1941-1942, also used this structure.

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A nighttime syndicated show was on in the evenings from 1974-1975. Don Pardo was the announcer for both the original and the nighttime show. John Harlan was hired as the announcer for a show titled The All-New Jeopardy which aired in October 1978 and ended in March 1979.

In September of 1984, the current version hosted by Alex Trebek (whose real name is George), began and continues today. Johnny Gilbert has partnered with Alex as announcer during the show’s run. The current version has produced more than 7000 episodes, just in case you wanted to watch them before you audition. Five shows are taped a day for 46 days. That would be a fun job to have with lots of time to recharge every year.

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Photo: johnnygilbert.tv

When I was in college in the mid-1980s, I remember listening to a radio show on Sunday nights from St. Louis that Art Fleming hosted and, as I remember it, it was very similar to Jeopardy.

Jeopardy has won a record-setting 34 Emmys. It also won the Peabody Award in 2011 for “decades of consistently encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge of this, that and the other.” It has won several other awards including the Writers Guild of America Award in 2014.

The Rules of the Game

While there have been a few changes to the Jeopardy format over the years, the game has remained basically the same. Three contestants answer questions. Whoever buzzes in first is allowed to answer. Until 1985 contestants could answer as soon as the clue was revealed. In September of 1985, it was required that the contestant not hit the buzzer until the clue is read. The Jeopardy round has a clue where the contestant can bet an amount of their money, or up to $1000 if they have less than that amount. In the Double Jeopardy round, there are two clues available and players can bet up to $2000 or the amount of money they have.

A contestant chooses from categories of clues. Each of the clues vertically increases in monetary value. The second round, Double Jeopardy, features six new categories of clues. Clue values are doubled from the Jeopardy round.

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The Final Jeopardy round features a single clue. Contestants write their wagers using a light pen to write on an electronic display on their lectern. The contestants have 30 seconds to write their responses, while the show’s iconic “Think!” music plays in the background. In the event that either the display or the pen malfunctions, contestants can use an index card and a marker to manually write their response and wager.

The contestant with the highest score at the end of the round is that day’s winner. If all three contestants finish with $0, no one returns as champion for the next show. The second and third place winners receive a small amount of money.  The top scorer(s) in each game retains the value of the winnings in cash and return to play in the next day’s show. If there is a tie, both players can come back the next day.

Seven times a show has ended with no winner. Three new contestants then show up the next day.

The Clue Crew

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Photo: maximumfun.org

In 2001, the Clue Crew was formed. They travel around the world to tape clues. More than 5000 people applied for the three positions. The current crew is comprised of Sarah Whitcomb, Joe Cannon, and Kelly Miyahara. The team has been to more than 280 cities, including all 50 states and 44 other countries.

The Writers

Nine writers and five researchers create the categories and clues for Jeopardy.

You’ve Probably Hummed the Theme Even if You Don’t Watch the Show

Since the debut of Jeopardy in 1964, several different songs and arrangements have served as the theme music for the show, most of which were composed by Griffin. The main theme for the original Jeopardy series was “Take Ten” composed by Griffin’s wife Julann. The best-known theme song on Jeopardy is “Think!” originally composed by Griffin under the title “A Time for Tony”, as a lullaby for his son. “Think!” has always been used for the 30-second period in Final Jeopardy when the contestants write down their responses, and since the syndicated version debuted in 1984, a rendition of that tune has been used as the main theme song.

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Photo: youtube.com

Even Game Shows Have Spin-offs

In addition to the daily show, three other versions of Jeopardy have been created: Rock & Roll Jeopardy which was on VH1, Jep! which was on the Game Show Network, and Sports Jeopardy! hosted by Dan Patrick.

More Than Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Ken Jennings holds the record for the longest appearance on Jeopardy, June 2 – November 30, 2004. He won $2,520,700.  Many people have studied Jennings’ streak and determined that due to filming fatigue, no one is likely to break his record.

The highest earner is Brad Rutter who won $4,355,102 between his first appearances and his tournaments. Roger Craig has the all-time record for a single day of winning. In 2010, he won $77,000.

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Julia Collins who was on in 2014 holds the record for female both for number of games and total winnings. She won $429,100.

Another famous contestant is buzz kill Arthur Chu. He was the first contestant to consistently skip around the board trying to find the daily doubles. Since Chu’s appearance, many contestants have jumped around the board instead of trying to run the categories from top to bottom. Often the categories can be understood better if contestants pick them in order. Personally, I admit that I did hold a grudge against Chu for many years for “ruining” Jeopardy.

Watson, I Presume

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The IBM Challenge aired February 14–16, 2011, and featured IBM’s Watson computer facing off against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a two-game match played over three shows. Watson won both the first game and the overall match to win the grand prize of $1 million, which IBM divided between two charities (World Vision International and World Community Grid). Jennings, who won $300,000 for second place, and Rutter, who won the $200,000 third-place prize, both pledged to donate half of their winnings to charity.

Tournaments

During the most recent version of Jeopardy, various tournaments have been held annually. Currently, there is a Tournament of Champions featuring the top fifteen winners from the past year, The Teen Tournament, The College Championship, Celebrity Jeopardy, and the Teachers Tournament.

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Photo: berkeleyside.com

Portrayals and Parodies

Jeopardy has been part of several television shows and movies over the years. In 1988, a show titled “Mama on Jeopardy” featured Thelma Harper (Mama’s Family) competing on the show when Iola was rejected. She doesn’t know many answers but starts to make a comeback and is able to move into Final Jeopardy. She ends up in second place but wins a trip to Hawaii for herself and her ungrateful family.

In 1990, an episode titled “What Is . . . Cliff Clavin?” aired on Cheers. Cliff appears on Jeopardy and wins $22,000, way more money than his competitors have. However, for Final Jeopardy, Cliff bets everything. The answer is “Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz, and Lucille LeSueur” and the correct question is “What are the real names of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, and Joan Crawford,” but Cliff’s answer is “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen” and he ends up with no money.

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In 1992 on the Golden Girls in “Questions and Answers,” Dorothy auditions but is rejected because they don’t think she’s likable enough for the viewers to root for her. She has a dream that night where she does appear, competing against Rose and neighbor Charlie.

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Photo: imdb.com

Perhaps the most famous show to host Jeopardy was Saturday Night Live with their version.

Happy New Year

In honor of its 35th anniversary, Jeopardy is holding a special All-Star tournament this year. Six teams will compete in February during a two-week period. Some of our favorite contestants will be part of the celebration. Captains were chosen and they each drafted their own team. Captains include Buzzy Cohen, Colby Burnett, Julia Collins, Austin Rogers, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter. This should be a fun couple of weeks.

I admit these three were my favorite contestants during a tournament. This was a fun couple days. One of my favorite moments was during the introduction of the contestants when they portrayed See No Evil, Hear No Evil,  Speak No Evil. (Buzzy Cohen, Alex Trebek, Alan Lin, Austin Rogers)

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Photo: tvline.com

Will You Marry Me?

One of the contestants in 2018 was Michael Pascuzzi. When it came time for Alex to talk with the contestants after the first commercial break, he announced he had no information on his card about Pascuzzi. So, Alex told him to say whatever he wanted. He then proposed to his girlfriend, Maria Shafer, who was in the audience. She must also be a fan, because not only did she say yes, she answered “What is yes.”

 

To Be-ard or Not to Be-ard

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Photo: dailymail.co.uk

Of course one of the most asked questions at the beginning of each fall season is will Alex have the mustache or not. This year, Alex took it a step further. He began the year with a full beard in addition to the mustache and let viewers decide whether it was a keeper or gotta go. Spoiler alert: You will only see the beard for a few shows.

 

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Photo: dailymotion.com

So, You Want to Be on the Show

Auditioning for the current version of the show begins with a written exam, comprising fifty questions in total. This exam is administered online periodically, as well as being offered at regional contestant search events. If you have considered auditioning for Jeopardy, here is what you should know. I took these paragraphs directly from the Jeopardy site:

“First, you must take and pass the online test. If you pass the test and meet the minimum eligibility requirements, you will be placed into a random selection process for an invitation to an audition. Assuming you perform well at the audition, you will be placed into the contestant pool and could be invited to compete up to 18 months from your audition date. Making it to an audition is not a guarantee of being invited to compete on the show.

There is no fee to take any of the tests, but any costs you incur in connection with the test are your responsibility. Likewise, if you are invited to participate in an in-person audition, all costs (including, but not limited to, accommodations, meals, transportation and parking) must come at your own expense.

If you pass the test and do well at your audition, you will be placed in a pool of potential contestants for 18 months after your audition date. But attending an audition and being put in the pool does not guarantee that you will be invited to appear on the show. If you are selected to compete on the show, our contestant coordinators will contact you with full details. Prospective contestants are notified about a month in advance of their tape date.”

What is My Favorite Jeopardy Story?

Some of the most entertaining parts of Jeopardy are when Alex talks to the contestants. I remember one woman who was in Yellowstone and while the rest of the family was taking a class about what to do if bears show up, her mom was alone at the campsite with several bears. One lady said she and her mom learned Swedish because they loved Abba songs. One guy said he met his wife because she came over and introduced herself. Later he found out, she did that because she thought he was very smart and talking about philosophy because she heard him discussing Plato. He had to inform her they were discussing play-doh, nothing enlightening. One poor girl said her parents got pregnant late in life and could not decide on a name. Her mom asked her bridge club for suggestions. She ended up taking the first letter from each of their names and calling her daughter “Pidge.”

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Photo: youtube.com

One of my favorite facts about Jeopardy was discovered on a Seinfeld episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but it has also been discussed on the show.  Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner get together every night for dinner to watch Jeopardy. Watching an episode with them is definitely on my bucket list.

There are a lot of shows that made me sad when they left the air, but when Jeopardy is cancelled, I will go into a major withdrawal. Like so many Jeopardy fans, it’s a multi-generational interest. my son Brice and daughter-in-law Melanie and I share many texts about watching Jeopardy shows and how we feel about categories or contestants. For my entire life I’ve counted on people dying, paying taxes, and watching Jeopardy. I can give up the first two, but the last one is gonna be a challenge!