Ken Jennings is the happiest man ever to lose on "Jeopardy!" Of course, his loss was like no other — it came after 74 victories and a total of $2,520,700 in winnings.
And, because the syndicated game show tapes its episodes months in advance and contestants can't reveal what happened, it means that Jennings doesn't have to keep quiet about the experience any longer.
"I sort of feel like some career CIA man who's finally quit the agency and doesn't have to keep any secrets anymore," he said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News just before he taped an appearance on Tuesday's "Late Show with David Letterman." "It's been pretty hard, first to have to keep the secrets of all the wins and then to have to keep the secret of the loss. It's a big relief to be done with secrets."
Not that he doesn't have some mixed feelings about his exit from the show.
"When the game aired, there was maybe a flash of disappointment realizing you really only get one chance in your life to play 'Jeopardy!' " Jennings said. "Mine has gone on far too long, but now it's over. It's sort of sad to realize I won't be able to come back and have the same fun again.
"But the main feeling was just relief. My life has been on hold for so long while I waited to see how long this crazy 'Jeopardy!' ride would last."
It lasted until his 75th appearance, when Jennings, the 30-year-old software engineer from Murray, lost to Nancy Zerg, a real estate agent from Ventura, Calif. He ran into trouble when he missed both Daily Doubles during the game and took only a $4,400 lead into Final Jeopardy, when he failed to come up with the question for this clue — "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal employees work only four months a year." He wrote, "What is FedEx?" The correct answer was H&R Block.
Zerg got it right, taking her total to $14,401. Jennings' incorrect answer cost him $5,601 for a final total of $8,799. And left host Alec Trebek calling Zerg "a giant killer."
She's certainly happy, and she'll undoubtedly go down as a footnote in TV history. (Reportedly, her reign as "Jeopardy!" champ will last only one day.)
But it marks the end of what turned out to be a national sensation of sorts, with ratings up by more than 20 percent nationally and doubling at times here in Utah. And Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in America.
"It wouldn't have happened if it was just anybody," said Steve Beverly, Web master of the tvgameshows.net site and professor of broadcasting at Union University in Tennessee. "If they had had an arrogant contestant — someone with a sour personality or someone with no sense of humor, no warmth — it could have had an adverse affect on their ratings.
"He (Jennings) has such a pleasing and warm personality that people liked him and rooted for him."
The attention certainly took Jennings by surprise.
"I never got the idea that this would turn into news known to the outside world. I was as surprised as anybody when I started seeing the headlines and getting the phone calls," he said. "This was unlooked for, but there have been a lot of fun things to come out of it. Doing 'Letterman' tonight, that's a dream come true for me."
And he's enjoying being a hometown hero of sorts.
"It's nice. There's really nowhere I can go in Salt Lake where I don't get a lot of congratulations and high-fives," Jennings said.
The media blitz certainly hasn't slowed down yet. In addition to innumerable interviews with print reporters, Jennings was a guest on Tuesday's "Letterman," which aired at the same time "Nightline" was reporting on "Jeopardy!" He's on "Live with Regis and Kelly" today (9 a.m., Ch. 4). "Biography" profiles Jennings tonight (7 p.m., A&E) and will include him in its annual "Biographies of the Year" on Dec. 15.
Interviewed for that A&E special, Beverly was asked if the "Jeopardy!" champ is a role model for nerds.
"I was insulted by the question. . . . No, I think he's a role model for knowledge. He's a tremendous role model for young people across the country that learning can be valuable, " Beverly said. "In his case, it's been richly valuable."
And it has made him very much in demand, at least for right now. He's taking a leave of absence from his job to work on writing a book. But he plans to return to work at some point, "even if it's only part time."
In the meantime, he's weighing his options. Jennings said he's "sort of deeply conflicted" because he liked "the quiet life," but "at the same time, opportunities come and you think, 'Well, I'm never going to have the chance to do this again, so do I really want to be so quick to turn it down just because it makes life a little hectic?' I haven't really answered that question for myself. I'm going to sort of take it as it comes and see what is fun and what's not and what I can figure out."
And Beverly, for one, thinks Jennings is going to remain in the national consciousness.
"I think people will remember Ken for a long, long time," Beverly said. "I think the woman who beat him is the one who's only going to get 15 minutes of fame."