Monday, Feb. 5, 2001 | 8:48 a.m.
"I'll take '"Jeopardy!" Trivia' for 200, Alex."
Question: "How many weeks in a row has 'Jeopardy!' been the No. 1 quiz show in America (according to the Nielsen ratings)?"
Long before "Star Trek" gave birth to a generation of Trekkers, whose minds are filled with fictional trivia about the show, there was "Jeopardy!," which deals in real trivia.
Is there anyone who is not familiar with the "Jeopardy!" theme song, which has become as well known as the theme for the "Lone Ranger" (which is actually the "William Tell Overture" that's "Classical Music" for 400, Alex)?
An estimated 15 million Americans watch the syndicated "Jeopardy!" series each day.
More than 1,000 of them got to see the show being taped live at the Las Vegas Hilton last month when it came here for the first time.
During the two days, nine half-hour programs were taped four "Celebrity Jeopardy!" installments and five "International Jeopardy!" shows.
"Celebrity Jeopardy!" airs this week, beginning today. "International Jeopardy!" (featuring competition among 15 international champions) will air next Monday through Feb. 17. The show is seen locally at 6:30 p.m. on KVBC Channel 3. New shows air Monday through Friday with reruns shown on Saturday and Sunday.
The reason only four "Celebrity" segments were taped in Las Vegas is that the show airing today, featuring actress Jodie Foster, actor Nathan Lane and singer/actor Harry Connick Jr., was taped in Los Angeles more than a month ago.
The winners of the five matches were ... sorry, that's confidential.
Journalists who attended the tapings -- including this reporter -- were sworn to secrecy. Nothing that will be shown can be reported on until after the show airs. "Celebrity Jeopardy!" wasn't pretty -- it was fun, but not pretty.
"I'll take 'Lame Answers' for 1,000, Alex."
Anything that won't air is fair game, however, such as the question-and-answer sessions host Alex Trebek enjoyed with the audience during breaks.
"Do you ever reject a celebrity because they are too dumb?" one fan asked.
Trebek paused while the audience laughed. He pondered the question as if it was the first time it had been asked, when in fact most questions he answered were asked at the start of each taping.
"No. We are honored when they accept our invitation," said Trebek, a man who seemingly never loses his composure (and even enjoys spoofs of himself and his show on "Saturday Night Live" and other comedy programs).
Among the dozen celebrities who competed during the Las Vegas taping were Jeff Probst (host of "Survivor" and "Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy!"); Martha Stewart (domestic goddess); Charles Barkley (retired basketball star); Wayne Brady (comedian and "Whose Line is it Anyway?" regular); Dana Delany ("China Beach" star); Eric Idle (of "Monty Python" fame); Mike Piazza (New York Mets' catcher); Kevin Sorbo (Henderson resident and former "Hercules" star); Jane Krakowski (co-star on "Ally McBeal"); Seth Green (who appeared in the film "Austin Powers"); Steven Page (singer/songwriter with Barenaked Ladies) and Brandi Chastain (soccer star).
Celebrities (who donate their winnings to their favorite charity) are invited to appear on the show, so they don't have to audition. Noncelebrities, however, must respond correctly to at least 35 questions of a 50-question test to be considered for the show.
Before each taping, contestants engage in a practice game. At the Las Vegas Hilton, celebrity players were swarmed by reporters before the practice began.
"I was hoping to have some football players up here," future hall of famer Barkley, who retired last year from the Houston Rockets, said with confidence. "Football players are dummies. I'm not a trivia buff. I'm an old, has-been basketball player."
Probst, fresh from taping "Survivor II" in Australia, was not as confident.
"(Barkley and Stewart) have formed an alliance against me," he said.
Probst (playing for the Beagles and Buddies animal shelter in Los Angeles) spoke briefly about "Survivor II." He said 6,000 people applied to be on the original "Survivor" series. More than 50,000 applied for the second one, which recently began airing on CBS.
"Our challenge is to hook (the audience) in the first couple of shows," he said. "I think we will. But it's a sequel, and sequels don't usually do as well as the original. This one may."
Stewart (playing for College of the Atlantic) said she plays "Jeopardy!" at home a lot.
"I'm told I have to be very agile with my thumb," she said.
Idle (playing for the Los Angeles Free Clinic) said he likes "Jeopardy!" but rarely watches it. "I'm not a big TV fan."
The appearance of celebrities onstage was a bonus for the fans who filled the Hilton showroom. For most members of the audience, the show itself was the celebrity, and it didn't matter to them who was pressing the buzzers.
While "Jeopardy!" fans don't wear pointed ears and "Star Trek" attire, they are every bit as devoted as their Trekker counterparts.
Boulder City resident Elsie Chesley became a "Jeopardy!" addict when it first aired in 1964 as an NBC daytime game show. She has rarely missed a program.
"I was a big fan of Art Fleming," the 80-year-old retired secretary said.
The late Fleming hosted the show from 1964 to 1975 (the year NBC canceled it) and again during the 1978-79 seasons, when it made a brief return to NBC's daytime schedule as "The All New Jeopardy!"
Trebek has been the host since "Jeopardy!" returned as a syndicated show in 1984.
Chesley's four sons and daughter (and their children) are almost as devoted to "Jeopardy!" as she is, and her husband was.
"I lost my husband three years ago. We almost never missed a show. He knew every answer," Chesley said. "I'm good on Bible questions."
Even when on vacations, the couple would watch the program. "We belonged to an Airstream (trailer) club," Chesley said, "and when we would drive across the country in a mini-caravan, we would stop at trailer parks and watch 'Jeopardy!' "
Chesley's daughter, Deobrah Brezney, surprised her mother with a pair of tickets and brought her to the "Jeopardy!" taping.
"The show keeps my mother's mind active," Brezney, a dispatcher with the Clark County School District, said.
Brezney, who knows better than to call her mother when "Jeopardy!" is on, also is an avid fan.
"My husband and I go to the gym, but not till after 'Jeopardy!' and 'Wheel of Fortune' are over," she said.
Both shows were created by TV talk show host-turned-producer Merv Griffin. While "Jeopardy!" has the highest rating for quiz shows in the country, it is No. 2 in syndication (in terms of the number of stations picking up a program) -- behind "Wheel."
Quiet on the set!
Before taping each show, announcer Johnny Gilbert gives an admonition to each group of spectators: Don't respond to the answers out loud.
"We are delighted to have all of you here with us," he said, again and again. "You are extremely important to us. We want you to help us do the program. During the 17 years with this show, we have learned that (fans) watch it out loud at home. That is wonderful. We want you to do that. But don't do it here. We will have to stop the show and change the material if you blurt out the answers ... We have eight or nine different cameras around the room ... so if you are here with someone else's husband or wife, get the hell out now."
No one left, but a few people could not suppress an urge to answer the questions aloud to demonstrate their depth of knowledge to their immediate neighbors. However, the microphones apparently did not pick up the comments because the tape didn't stop.
The only major break in taping, which lasted about 20 minutes, came during the "International Jeopardy!" segment, when judges tried to figure out whether a contestant from Russia pronounced a name correctly.
Laine Sutten, spokeswoman for the show, said "Jeopardy!" tapes 230 new shows per year, all during a period of 42 days. Generally, there are two weeks of taping followed by a week of editing.
"Jeopardy!" normally takes its show on the road twice a year. Besides Las Vegas, it will visit Philadelphia and Seattle this year.
In addition to "Celebrity Jeopardy!" the show has several specials each year, such as "Back to School," "College Championship" and "Teen Tournament."
While the show's studio in Culver City, Calif., seats 120, the road-show audiences number 1,000 or more. Sutten said admittance to all shows is free.
Several thousand fans wanted to see "Jeopardy!" in Las Vegas. The audience was selected by a lottery system. The lucky winners were treated to a surprise appearance by Vanna White (who points to letters called out by contestants on "Wheel") and to the sight of Trebek in a $150,000 costume once worn by Elvis.
"I'll take 'Absurd Images' for 100, Alex."