‘Jeopardy!’ hopefuls better brush up on Nebraska
Each time “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek reads a clue that mentions Nebraska -- and it’s fairly often -- he teases some staffers after the show.
“Come on. There are only so many questions you can ask about Nebraska,” said Trebek, laughing during a telephone interview from his office in Culver City.
Clues about the sparsely populated farm state frequently pop up, sometimes stumping those contestants who haven’t boned up on Cornhusker trivia.
Why Nebraska? Because four of the show’s top producers and writers are from the state.
“They keep trying to slip in Nebraska clues that nobody else knows anything about,” Trebek said, “like: ‘Where did Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando’s mother go to school?’ ”
Alex, what is Omaha Central High School?
That’s the school executive producer Harry Friedman and senior producer Gary Johnson attended in the 1960s. Johnson also is the head writer -- and mostly to blame for all the Nebraska clues.
Also from the state: associate segment producer Stewart Hoke and longtime writer Steve Tamerius.
Nebraska has been named in at least 68 clues in recent years, and many others have had obvious ties to the state even though it was not named.
“We know Nebraska, so we tend to write about it more than other states,” Johnson said.
Some categories have focused exclusively on the state, including one titled, “Nebraska, God’s Country.” The clues for that category, though, were written by a writer from Florida.
“He was just kissing up to the boss,” Johnson joked.
Tamerius makes sure to get a Nebraska category on the show at least once a year. He also tries to mention his hometown of Fairbury in a clue, usually something about the historic Pony Express station near the Southeast Nebraska town.
“Obviously we don’t want to write and produce the show for our own amusement, but there are things that we think people should know,” Friedman said.
Some of the fans and former contestants track clues that appear on the air. After learning about the show’s Nebraska ties, they find it hard not to notice the frequent clues related to the state.
“It occurred to me after seeing yet another Willa Cather clue the other night that her name pops up again and again on the show. Now I know why,” said Ronnie O’Rourke, a Marietta, Ga., homemaker who was a contestant in April.
(The answer is: In 1913, Willa Cather wrote this book about Alexandra Bergson based on her own experiences growing up in Nebraska. The question: What is “O Pioneers!”?)
History and literature aren’t the only sources of Nebraska trivia.
“If we’re going to do a sports or college football question, you can bet for darn sure that we will mention the ‘Huskers,” Tamerius said. “I’ll always sneak one in there if I can.”
A corner of Johnson’s office is a shrine to University of Nebraska football, including a football signed by members of the school’s 1995 national championship team.
But Friedman said home state ties have nothing to do with the concentration of Nebraskans behind the show.
Tamerius has been there the longest, 16 seasons. The former real estate agent landed a job on “Jeopardy!” after starting a national magazine called Trivia Unlimited. Over the years, he has won five Emmys.
Syndicated since 1984, “Jeopardy!” has received 21 Daytime Emmys. Its production staff includes six full-time researchers and nine writers whose job is to create and assemble categories and questions.
Friedman took over as executive producer in 1997 and soon after hired Johnson. They both were writers on the original “Hollywood Squares.” They met there, even though they graduated a year apart at Omaha Central. Both moved to California after college -- Johnson graduated from the University of Nebraska’s Omaha campus; Friedman attended in Lincoln.
Hoke started as a fact checker at “Jeopardy!” a year before Friedman and Johnson arrived. He moved to California in 1979 to earn a master’s degree, and before landing his “Jeopardy!” gig he worked for 15 years in data processing.
All four Nebraska natives regularly return to see family and friends.
But none miss the Nebraska winters.
“If they can figure out a way to cut the length of those winters in half, I’d move back,” Hoke said.