In the ever-saturated world of game shows, there is one that continues to enjoy a lofty perch apart from the rest of the pack. Where shows like Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud provide a quick, hackneyed way for selected contestants to earn an easy buck through games based more on luck and entertainment than valid knowledge, Jeopardy! has always stood apart.
For over 50 years, the Alex Trebek-hosted staple of early prime time has eschewed the shiny and showy frills of other shows to stick to its own fundamentals: three intelligent contestants tasked with quickly buzzing in and replying to difficult clues in the form of a question. Sure, some of that reputation comes from a certain smugness that the show seems to exhibit, be it through a self important intro or the airy, droll nature of Trebek. I mean, the actual title of the show contains an exclamation mark! But the long-running program continues to be legitimized through its knack for offering ample brain nourishment and serving as a haven for trivia buffs.
Although the show, in which prospective contestants must qualify to earn their spot at one of the three podiums, has introduced us to the brilliant minds of Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, not every Jeopardy! contestant has quite been up to snuff. As with any other game show, it has seen its fair share of moments that range from head-scratching to downright laughable. The pressure of the spotlight is enough to get to even the brightest minds, and these 11 fails show that even Jeopardy! isn’t immune to some serious ‘oops’ moments.
11. “What Is A Threesome?”
As a five-time Jeopardy! champion and “Tournament of Champions” semifinalist, Kara Spak hardly seems to merit inclusion on any ‘fails’ list. However, it was during a “Tournament of Champions” game that she gained a level of infamy when responding to a clue about Andy pining for Brenda and Brenda yearning for Charlene by suggesting the clue was describing a “threesome”. The faux pas – the correct answer was “love triangle” – was only made worse by Trebek, who drolly suggested, “Kara has obviously had much more experience than I.”
10. Cross Loss
For contestant Judy Nichols, missing a Final Jeopardy! clue about the actor most notable for portraying Mark Twain was more a case of insufficient editing than a lack of knowledge. Nichols, a two-time champion who won nearly $50,000 on the show, initially scribbled down Twain’s alias Samuel Clemens, but quickly corrected her answer to “Hal Holbrook”, which was right. Unfortunately, while her screen showed that Clemens has been properly crossed out, the first name remained, making for an incorrect answer of “Samuel Hal Holbrook”.
9. Blitzer Gets Blitzed
Few newsmen carry more of an air of respect and dignity than CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, so one would have viewed him as a favorite ahead of his 2009 episode of “Celebrity Jeopardy”. It didn’t quite work out that way. En route to finishing with -$4,600, Blitzer referred to noted French chef “Julia Childs”, had no knowledge of noted comedian Chelsea Handler and suggested that an excerpt of a book was “annotated”. He also buzzed in for three clues in the “E” Times Three category, never once offering an answer with three “E’s” in it.
8. Music Legend Chris Farley
A contestant named Gayle found herself in third place but within reach of her two competitors as she headed into Final Jeopardy!, but got stumped on the last clue. Under the category of “Music Legends”, she had to drum up an answer for the hint which said, “His 2003 People magazine obituary was headlined Fade To Black.” Grasping for an answer, she wrote down “Who is Chris Farley“, a deceased comedian who had actually died in 1997, was never associated with the color black and had no known music career.
7. No Love For Canada
It must have been disheartening for Trebek, a Sudbury, Ontario native, to see his trio of American contestants fail so mightily on a “Canadian Cities” category during a 2015 Jeopardy! episode. The three contestants, one of which was a US soldier, left the category until the bitter end of Double Jeopardy – and rightfully so. They did not get a single clue correct and guessed a city in the wrong Canadian province on three separate occasions. Randy, the soldier, even thought that residents known as ‘Moose Javians’ belonged to Winnipeg, not Moose Jaw.
6. Donkey Punch
If you don’t already know what a “donkey punch” is, you may want to Google it, although be warned that it is certainly NSFW. A contestant named Mike may or may not have known of the urban definition of the term when he guessed the animal for which a blow to the back of the neck is named for. The correct answer, in fact, was a rabbit punch and, mercifully, the Jeopardy! audience was not treated to any awkward banter on the subject from Trebek. The host either remained blissfully unaware of the meaning of the phrase “donkey punch”, or even he realized how messy things could potentially get.
5. Burned By Trebek
Trebek’s often smug and sometimes antagonistic demeanor has been mocked by regular viewers of the show and served as the basis of Will Ferell‘s send-up of the host on the recurring SNL “Celebrity Jeopardy” skit. But rarely has it been more firmly on display than in a 2008 episode as Trebek reacted to an awkward response by contestant Daria Labinsky. In the “R”2 “D”2 category, in which each correct response featured two R’s and two D’s, Labinsky replied to a clue that simply read “More Rubicund” by guessing the non-word, “rotunderer”. Trebek reacted to the failed effort with laughter, followed by a terse “no” to dismiss all hope.
4. Not You, Kareem
A category called “I Went to UCLA” would seem to be right in the wheelhouse of NBA legend and former Bruin Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That is, provided that he doesn’t confuse himself with other All-Star centers. After buzzing in on a clue that read “Tell your old man to drag this 1970s UCLA & Trail Blazer center (& Lanier!) up & down the court for 48 minutes,” Abdul-Jabbar confidently answered that the clue referred to him, apparently forgetting he never played in Portland. In actuality, the clue referred to star Portland center and fellow UCLA alum Bill Walton.
3. Final Jeopardy Flops
Sometimes, risks just don’t pay off. It isn’t common, but sometimes all three contestants will gamble big on Final Jeopardy in hopes of securing a major payday – and lose. Earlier this year, all three contestants put all of their earnings on the line, only to get the final clue incorrect and leave no champion to carry onto the next show. This had only happened on three previous occasions on regular episodes of the show, including three years prior during the Teen Tournament, leaving all three youngsters out of the final grouping.
2. Watson Is Stumped
A 2011 Jeopardy! game that pitted two of the show’s greatest champions against IBM super-computer Watson served as both a publicity-generating gimmick and a fascinating social experiment to measure how far artificial intelligence has come. At the end of the three-day event, Watson had crushed its human opposition, but not without some imperfections. Most notably, Watson bizarrely blew a Final Jeopardy geography clue based on the names of a city’s airports by guessing Toronto, followed by numerous question marks. The guess was wrong and the framing of it was so strangely human in nature.
1. Hoe No
Perhaps the last contestant you’d expect to see on a list like this is Ken Jennings, who reeled in nearly $3.2 million thanks to 74 consecutive wins on the show. But even the game’s greatest minds have their low moments. And so Jennings, for all of his trivial brilliance, may be best remembered for identifying a long-handled gardening tool that can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker as a “hoe”, which was creative albeit incorrect. Still seems to make plenty more sense than the correct term – “rake” – does, though!