Oct 13, 2017

Austin Rogers, "Jeopardy!," and the Cult of Personality

Austin Rogers
When announcer Johnny Gilbert first announced the name Austin Rogers on Jeopardy!, it wasn't a moment anyone expected to evoke change. He was just some lowly New York City bartender who bought his entire wardrobe from thrift shops. If one was to even assess his potential lasting appeal by the second commercial break, he wouldn't be more than the quirky guy who accidentally cursed during a Daily Double segment. He was unfiltered but most of all he was smart. After a 12 day winning streak that racked up $411,000, the world said goodbye to him (at least until Tournament of Champions). So what did he do to enter the hearts of America, even appearing as a guest on The Tonight Show? He did what makes Jeopardy! in general the greatest game show ever: he was himself.
There is no harder achievement in life than being a nobody who becomes a celebrity on a game show. Outside of Jeopardy!, there has only ever really been two: the man who rigged Press Your Luck, and the Dating/ Game killer. It's weird then that Jeopardy! has an embarrassment of riches, even having host Alex Trebek as one of the most imitated men on Saturday Night Live's popular parodies. Still, there is a small fraction of people who devotedly watch the show and form a bond with the personalities on the show. There's of course Ken Jennings, but last year also brought forward the "did he murder someone?" appeal of Matt Jackson, the "is he cheating?" controversy of Arthur Chu, and the greatest narrative in a game show in 2017 with cancer patient Cindy Stowell. Like Rogers, part of the magic came from low expectations. People have won on Jeopardy! for a day only to ever disappear. 
So what makes Rogers so special? It's best to view this as a traditional narrative in which an underdog achieves greatness, or in this case "Tournament of Champions" status. By the end, Rogers was in the Top 10 in terms of winnings. By the start of his first day's Double Jeopardy however, he was a runner up and showed no signs of what was to come. He was eccentric, yes, but so many other contestants were as well. It became inspiring when he came back with an incredible win that started off his winning streak and began his status as the Jeopardy! winner who broke the mold. He wasn't the uptight type that people associated with intellect. He was smart AND funny.
As seen in the Robert Redford movie Quiz Show, there is something to a winner like Rogers that is hard to ignore. He had a back story that was matched by a charisma. Rogers wasn't afraid to riff when he got a question wrong. He seemingly took forever to answer high stakes Daily Doubles, possibly for dramatic effect, only to confidently answer correctly. He was an unstoppable force who had interview questions that were quippy and endeared America to his style. As time went on, he even performed comical bits during his introduction to every episode. Despite being filmed months ago, Trebek couldn't help but asked how he liked his newfound fame. His response was, as usual, upbeat and witty.
He was just a bartender who felt like a pal you could invite to pub trivia. His knowledge expanded so many categories that he could jump from third to first in a matter of questions. Trebek even established his reputation, telling new players every game to watch out for Rogers. Even at his most enjoyable, he seemed intimidating, as if he was now a staff member for the show and needed to win or else. It's a pattern similar to Ken Jennings. who has since become his own celebrity. These people were praised for their intellect, and Rogers just so happened to also have jokes to balance the perception of dullness. 
So what makes Jeopardy! the best game show? It's in part the structure for which the show has little breathing room between questions. It requires high intelligence to even compete properly, and it draws trivia geeks in droves. Still, the people who do win make an impression different from other game shows. Programs like Family Feud and Wheel of Fortune may make the news for absurd moments, but rarely does it accelerate the contestant to a status of Jennings or Rogers. It's just a silly moment of a competition gone wrong. While Jeopardy! isn't free of these mishaps, the moments that get recognized are often credited to the contestants. For instance, Jackson's awkward stare lead to a meme suggesting that he buried bodies in his backyard. Jenning's now famous episode against the super-intelligent computer Watson still produces a chuckle now and then. Maybe Jeopardy! just has better branding, but it could also be that the show feels like it requires more character to stand out.
Rogers will be back for the Tournament of Champions, but his farewell was just as memorable as his surprise first win. Following a question about a nickname for police officers, he got Trebek to say "I know nothing about a dick tree," which is a moment worthy of Saturday Night Live mockery. With Rogers laughing, it revealed that he was just like us all in that moment, laughing that a very smart man said something really juvenile. When he lost by a mere dollar - another impressive and intense moment - he looked relieved to have been beaten fairly. While he was only on the show for 12 days, he showed more enthusiasm than most contestants will in the months to come. This isn't an attack on those people, but it takes a special quality to have the appeal of an Austin Rogers. Not everyone can be as unpredictable and endearing as him, and that's part of the show's general charm. 

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