Why Comics Kill It On 'Celebrity Jeopardy!'

In your face, Anderson Cooper.
Why Comics Kill It On 'Celebrity Jeopardy!'

Turd Ferguson may be the king of SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy!, but when it comes to the real thing? No one kills it like comedians. This season’s edition is only three episodes old, but two comics, Iliza Schlesinger and Ike Barinholtz, have already advanced. The third? SNL host Simu Liu. 

Comic dominance isn’t a fluke -- lists of the biggest ever Celebrity Jeopardy! winners are littered with comedians, including hilarious brainiacs such as Cheech Marin, Jon Stewart, Penn Jillette, Aisha Tyler, Wayne Brady, Mo Rocca, Michael McKean, Jane Curtin, and Andy Richter.  

Perhaps because Celebrity Jeopardy! questions are less difficult than those on regular Jeopardy!, the secret does not seem to require intensive study. “I’ve memorized all the lakes in Africa, says Schlesinger, and all of our presidents, one through two.” 

Andy Richter, a multi-time winner, shares Iliza’s lack of diligence. On his second appearance: “I did prepare differently in that I did not prepare. Last time, I played Jeopardy! on PlayStation to get some kind of practice for it, whereas this time, I put on this suit and that's about it.”

But don’t let that lack of preparation fool you. Smarty-pants know-it-alls like Anderson Cooper get destroyed by comics. “I was against Cheech Marin from Cheech & Chong, and I got really cocky because I was like, I mean, come on, Cheech Marin,” says Cooper. “He's been smoking a lot. The synapses can't be really sharp."

Of course, the 74-year-old Marin “destroyed me,” says Cooper. “He's so fast on the buzzer and he's so smart! He knows everything.”

Knowing everything might be the key. That sounds self-explanatory but think about comedians’ jobs for a moment. Every day is a hunt for funny material, every news item is a possible joke subject, and every scrap of funny history is a potential stand-up bit. It’s impossible to work on Saturday Night Live or late-night comedy shows without being immersed in current events. Turns out, some of that soaks in.  

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Jon Stewart ain't afraid of no microchip

And that knowledge breeds confidence for comics like Jon Stewart. After winning big on Celebrity Jeopardy!, he challenged IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the game show challenge. “You wanna throw down, computers?" said Stewart. “You wanna play games?”

Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean was once asked why comedians seem to have an edge on Celebrity Jeopardy! His theory? Maybe it’s the button. “We're really hitting a rimshot, you know?” he theorized. “Maybe we treat everything that Alex says as though it's a punchline and then you go bum-bump. Maybe that's it.”

The final key to winning may be an intense desire not to appear stupid. “Of course you want to win money for charity but you really just don’t want to look like a moron on national television,” says Schlesinger. “I can’t have America thinking I don’t know what a polygon is.”

Anderson Cooper knows what game-show shame feels like. “You know what it's like to walk into the newsroom at CNN after you've lost to Cheech Marin?” laments Cooper. “It doesn't go well.”

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Top image: ABC

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