Here’s the second half of our 12 Questions with Ken Jennings. (Click here for part one.) We thank Ken for participating in our 12 Questions feature, especially for his smart (but delicate) responses to the obnoxious, smart-aleck questions that seem to come with the territory.
7. What was your family like? How did you meet your wife? What size family do you and your wife hope to have?
My family is, above all, loud-talking and fast-talking. In-laws and guests are frequently mystified by the impenetrable conversations around the dinner table, which sometimes almost seem to be spoken in a private language. And, to be fair, my whole family is pretty brainy as well. When my parents got engaged, a friend told them, “You two can’t get married! You will spawn a super-race.” Sadly, that didn’t happen, but we are all pretty good at Scrabble. Sort of a letdown as super-races go, but what are you going to do?
Mindy and I met at BYU, where we lived across the street from each other. She was the girl next door! I was good friends with her roommates, and when we stayed too late or talked too loudly at her house, she would stomp out of her bedroom to yell at us to shut up. It didn’t actually happen this way, but I picture her then in curlers with cold cream on her face, straight out of a ’50s movie. It was love at first sight! We learned we had both lived overseas, and from there found out we had a truly bizarre amount of things in common, like an encyclopedic knowledge of the sorta-funny 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc? We were engaged three weeks after our first date. Do not try this at home! Especially if you are one of my own children reading this twenty years in the future! Speaking of which, we both come from happy families of four kids and that seems pretty close to a good family size for us. We have just the one at the moment and he runs us ragged. We don’t see how all you parents-of-eleven do it.
8. Aren’t Daily Doubles a form of gambling?
Yes, I feel like the wagering aspect makes Jeopardy! the moral equivalent of gambling, and therefore I just don’t feel right about paying tithing on my winnings. No, not really. Heber J. Grant said that the Church “is opposed to any game of chance, occupation, or so-called business, which takes money from the person who may be possessed of it without giving value received in return.” Wagering on Daily Doubles doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that could lead my family to financial ruin (on the contrary, there’s been plenty of “value received in return”!) nor is it a particularly addictive behavior, so it doesn’t really qualify for either of the reasons why I consider gambling a dangerous behavior.
9. Tithing: gross or net? Why?
This is like the Times and Seasons equivalent of “Boxers or briefs?” isn’t it? MTV questions for the Sunstone crowd! “One Cumorah or two? White shirt or colored? Ay-men or ah-men?” I don’t think there’s one right answer to “gross or net,” and I almost think that to ask that question is to fixate on the wrong elements of the law of tithing. But I’ll be paying gross on the Jeopardy! winnings. It makes the math easier, for one thing.
10. Will there be game shows in Zion? Why or why not? Is there anything morally wrong with game shows—that is, large payments made by passing tests of random knowledge? Is there anything more wrong with game shows than there is with, say, professional sports or the stock market?
I believe that FARMS research will one day reveal that game shows were commonplace in the city of Enoch: hit shows like Gene Rayburn in The Match Game 73 BC, Dick Clark in The $100,000 Ziggurat, and Alex Trebek in Classic Consecration.
I would say that winning big bucks on a game show or reality show brings with it exactly the same opportunities and challenges as, like you say, other windfalls: inheritances, investment earnings, big sports salaries, etc. People often don’t cope well with these kinds of changes. Lottery winners routinely tell their bosses to take their wage-slave job and shove it, only to return hat in hand months later, bored with daytime TV and wanting their job back. One study showed that a majority of windfall recipients had lost the entire amount within five years due to poor investments, prodigal son-style “riotous living,” and other dumb moves. Because of these pitfalls of suddent wealth, in Zion, when there are no poor among us, I can’t imagine there will be game show zillionaires either.
On the other hand, someone who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and makes their millions the old-fashioned way might have a sense of entitlement and attachment to their wealth that a lucky game show winner might not. I have no illusion that I did anything special to earn my Jeopardy! money, and I know I was certainly doing okay without it before. In some ways, maybe I’m luckier than the capitalist pig-dog who knows full well how hard he sweated and toiled to earn his fortune, and is therefore less likely to share it substantially with others.
One other point: it’s not like I won big for guessing the price of the floor wax, or matching Charles Nelson Reilly’s punchline. Jeopardy!, at least, asks its contestants about important stuff. It might help to know the names of the kids on The Partridge Family, sure, but it’s more likely to help if you know Civil War battles, rivers of Africa, the noble gases, and so forth. Cultural literacy and a broad liberal education are rewarded, and I’m a big believer in both. I think we as a society would be better off if everyone still knew all these common referents and could use them as touchstones in our communication and pursuit of further light and knowledge. In Zion, therefore, the game shows will all be like Jeopardy!
11. Has your celebrity allowed you to share the gospel more? Have you taught any discussions or given away any pass-along cards to curious fans? On the other hand, does celebrity interfere with church function? In short, how has your experience benefitted, harmed, or simply transformed your experiences in everyday church membership?
The “have you taught any discussions?” part of this question displays an MTC zeal and innocence that makes me nostalgic for my own mission:
NEWLY MINTED ELDER LEAVING PLANE: I sat next to a deaf 95-year old Filipino woman who speaks no English and slept the whole flight.
TRAVEL GROUP LEADER: Oh. (Pause.) So, did you teach her a first?
Many press interviews I’ve done have brushed on tithing and the Word of Wisdom, which is about the extent of the Jeopardy! missionary-ing I’ve done. Alex Trebek is surprisingly knowledgeable about the Church, and he and I have had many gospel-themed discussions both on and off camera. And I’ve received a truly astounding amount of mail from Protestants and various other “friends of other faiths” complimenting me on my clean-cut appearance, willingness to tithe, etc., with nary a “but you’re going to hell. Your biggest fan, Agnes.” If nothing else, in some parts of the country, I’m sure it’s good to have a Mormon on TV who evidently doesn’t have horns and ten wives. So, yes, there have been some opportunities, and I’m sure there will be more.
It is hard, though, to be the momentarily famous guy in an LDS ward. It takes me 20 minutes to get from classroom to classroom on Sundays, because of the dozens of friendly ward members who want to ambush me on the way and ask what Alex is like, or whatever. Many well-meaning folks at church have asked me earnestly how I’ve changed or if I still have a testimony, which (beyond being sort of rude) is a little frustrating, since I feel like *I’m* exactly the same person, while everyone else around me seems to have changed their behavior toward me utterly! To be fair, despite all that, church has still changed less for me than, say, going to the office has, or going to the grocery store, and there are still ways in which it’s a comforting respite from the cares of the outside world. But I’m eagerly waiting for the day when all this will die down, leaving me free to do the occasional fireside or something, but not necessarily be “that Jeopardy guy” 24/7.
12. Answer: Yes
Question: So, it sounds like things have been pretty hectic for you and your family. Would you do it all over again?