It’s raining Ken

By Katherine Fletcher

With several days left before classes officially begin, I will just take a moment to reflect on my summer: I worked, listened to The Cars a lot, fed my Junior Mints addiction, saw a few flicks, and suffered from bronchitis. When it came down to relaxing in front of the television, Pop-Up Video and Jeopardy! were at the top of my TV-viewing repertoire.

I don’t know about Pop-Up Video, but Jeopardy! became must-see TV for millions of viewers across the globe in June and July, all thanks to Ken Jennings. Jennings, a 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City, is the 38-day Jeopardy! champion, having accumulated $1,321,660 U.S. by the end of the show’s season. He will continue to defend his title when the show returns for its 21st season on Mon., Sept. 6.

Jennings has bloomed into a pop-culture icon. He’s made several media appearances and is a hot topic in articles and blogs and on message boards on the Web.

He has generated massive interest on the Internet, where he is a polarized figure. There are those who think he has "devishly good looks", and those who think he’s "a cross between Hoody Doody and Frankenstein’s Monster". People find his quirky behaviour, such as shaking his head in disbelief when his winnings are announced at the beginning of each show and often speaking in accents when he responds to a clue, either charming or annoying. Some viewers believe he is an inspiration to good, clean cut, and honest people, embodying the value and importance of education. Others think he is a smug, greedy little bastard who won’t give the other competitors a chance. The words "nerd" and "geek", most commonly used to describe Jennings, are terms of endearment as well as of disgust.

"KenJen," as he is dubbed on the Net, is fodder for conspiracy theorists. Many folks have referenced the 1994 movie Quiz Show, based on the true story of Charles Van Doren, who revealed that he had cheated on the game show Twenty-One by receiving the answers in advance by producers to attract more viewers. Incidentally, Jeopardy! ratings have increased about 62 per cent during Jenning’s appearance on the program.

And lest we forget the religious aspect. Jennings is Mormon, and many people on the Net have refered to him as the "Second Coming" or "Jesus Incarnate". KenJen certainly has a cult following. The Jeopardy! message boards are flooded with questions directed to Jennings and requests for autographs.

Jennings’ sudden pop-culture status reveals our culture’s obsession with "instant celebrities", due to the reality-TV craze. Granted, he is not a reality-TV star, but game and reality shows have two fundamental things in common: competition and a prize (usually monetary). The feeding frenzy on Jennings is a popular addition to the buffet of "instant celebrities". Permit me to offer my "instant celebrity" recipe:

Take one bag of flakes (or nuts or fruits) and mix contents of bag with hot water (or hot air). Voila  Рinstant celebrity!

Millions of TV viewers are getting ready to feast their eyes on Jennings come September 6. Damn, these food metaphors are making me hungry. I’m going to get some Junior Mints.

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