To viewers at home, “Jeopardy!” moves at a brisk pace, cruising through 61 clues that could cover anything from presidential campaign slogans to pop metal bands in the span of 30 minutes.

But on the Alex Trebek Stage in Culver City, California, a game will sometimes pause for several minutes — sometimes as long as half an hour — if a contestant has offered up a response the quiz show didn’t anticipate. Writers and researchers on set will dig into reference books and call museums. 

“Whatever it takes to make sure we make the right call,” “Jeopardy!” host Ken Jennings recently told the Deseret News. “We are very concerned about getting things right.” 

It’s the same approach Jennings took with his new book, “100 Places to See After You Die: A Travel Guide to the Afterlife.” Advertised as a bucket list “for after you’ve kicked the bucket,” the book journeys through dozens of cultures and goes century-hopping to explore 100 different afterlives, ranging from depictions in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” to episodes of “The Simpsons.” 

And Jennings was thorough in his research. He visited university libraries in search of obscure Buddhist sutras and Talmudic writings about the world to come. He read tens of thousands of lines of Dante’s poetry. And he watched a lot of TV. 

“If you’re writing a travelogue, you want to make sure you can put the reader in the world,” Jennings said. “And that meant watching a lot of episodes of ‘Lost’ I thought I was never gonna see again.” 

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Ken Jennings brings the afterlife to life

Despite Jennings’ intensive research for “100 Places,” the trivia buff is quick to assert he’s no expert on life after death. 

“I’m not an academic or a serious theologian writing about the afterlife,” he said. “It’s kind of a goofy book idea — obviously the world was not crying out for a travel guide to the afterlife — but I wanted to make sure I got this right. … I do take the facts seriously, even if it’s a subject where there are no dust-settled facts.”

Writing “100 Places” stemmed more from Jennings’ love of pop culture than it did any serious musings about life and death — the “Jeopardy!” host said some of his earliest exposure to death came from the losses of Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street” and Spock in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” 

And as someone who’s made a career out of knowing his facts, there was something especially appealing about the mystery of the great beyond. 

Jennings pitched his book several years ago — the afterlife sitcom “The Good Place” hadn’t even come out yet. But he didn’t begin writing in earnest until after his book, “Planet Funny,” hit shelves in 2018. 

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About a year into his research, libraries shut down amid the pandemic. Following the death of longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek in late 2020, Jennings served as the inaugural guest host of the show. And then in 2022, “Jeopardy!” named Jennings — along with “The Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik — a permanent host.

Bringing “100 Places” to life was almost as convoluted a journey as navigating Dante’s nine circles of hell, or the meandering seasons of “Lost.” 

To tackle the project, Jennings started with the familiar, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s afterlives from “The Silmarillion” or the heaven in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As he developed his narrative voice, he gradually branched out into unknown territory. One day he’d write about a theme park ride at Disneyland or “Black Panther” comics. The next day, he’d be immersed in the works of Homer and Virgil. 

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He became acquainted with the flying palaces of Hinduism’s heaven, and the Maori afterlife that begins with a cliff dive — “really exciting, extreme sports stuff,” Jennings quipped. He came to really love the baseball diamond afterlife in “Field of Dreams” and found it fascinating that God is the only character in “The Simpsons” who has five fingers (everyone else has four). 

Growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jennings was especially appreciative of the faith’s view of the afterlife.

“I really enjoyed the entry on the Latter-day Saint vision of kingdoms of glory because it’s so elaborate. When you’re writing about the afterlife as a travel guide, you really want detail. Like, what are the highlights here? Where do you stay? And boy do Latter-day Saints have an elaborate cosmology of the afterlife to the degree that missionaries often have to draw a flowchart for potential converts,” said Jennings, who served a two-year mission for the church in Spain. “There’s so much going on there.” 

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At its heart, “100 Places” is a product of Jennings’ longtime enthusiasm for pop culture, but “if readers think a little more seriously about what if there is another world beyond this one, I don’t think that would be a bad thing,” the author said. 

“I wanted to be as universal as possible. … I wanted to make sure I covered the world, and it’s a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be the middle-aged white guy explaining all these mythologies, but I felt like better to err on the side of being inclusive and universal. And I hope I got it right.”


Ken Jennings on hosting ‘Jeopardy!’ — ‘Luckily they took a chance on me’

Jennings’ dedication to correctness played a key role in his legendary “Jeopardy!” run in 2004 — a staggering record of 74 wins that remains untouched nearly 20 years later. 

But despite his unparalleled run, Jennings still sounds genuinely surprised that he landed his “dream job” of hosting the long-running quiz show.

“I was 100% confident I would not get a shot at the job — because that would be insane,” he said. “If I were hiring for that job, I would go with a sturdy broadcaster with decades of experience, not just somebody who happened to be good at the show many years ago. But luckily they took a chance on me.”

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On the phone during a 2.5-hour drive from his home in Seattle to a book event in Portland, Jennings often speaks with a self-deprecating tone, downplaying his success. He praises how seamlessly Trebek hosted “Jeopardy!” for 36 seasons. And he credits his wife, Mindy, for giving him a much-needed self-esteem boost when he took on the gig. For a time, she was also dedicated to having “Jeopardy!” on in the house each night. 

“And I would say, ‘Why are you watching Jeopardy?!’ I’m not at the office, do we have to have this on?” Jennings said with a laugh. “She wanted to watch me daily on ‘Jeopardy!’ Maybe I was not supportive. ... I love ‘Jeopardy!’ the same way I did when I was a kid, but I can’t watch it the same way I did when I was a kid.

“She’s always been like a real reassuring presence for me,” he continued. “Like the first day I was filling in for Alex, I called home and she said, ‘Well, how did it go?’ And I said, ‘Well, let me put it this way: I am not Alex Trebek up there.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know what? Maybe on his first day, he wasn’t either.’ And I really needed to hear that right then.”

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Jennings is still his own toughest critic, though. Last month, he was having dinner with a friend when the “Jeopardy!” Masters tournament came on. As they watched the episode unfold, there were parts Jennings said he “didn’t like at all.” 

But the host was pleasantly surprised that the contestant interview portion of the show went better than he had remembered.

“I remember how fraught that moment is,” said Jennings, who at one point as a contestant had to make up an anecdote because he was running out of ideas during his lengthy “Jeopardy!” run. “Somebody’s in their first eight to 10 minutes of being on TV and suddenly you’re like, ‘Hey! Put down your buzzer, and tell a funny story.’ It’s like the Miss America Pageant suddenly switches to the talent round or something.”

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The “Jeopardy!” Masters tournament, featuring six of the show’s top players, has been a highlight of Jennings’ hosting career thus far. He loved the camaraderie of the contestants and how they were comfortable enough with the game to have fun in a high-pressure situation competing for a $500,000 prize — ”they weren’t our usual terrified civilians,” he said. 

And then there was James Holzhauer’s many zingers at Jennings’ expense. The dominant “Jeopardy!” player often had his games in the bag by the Final Jeopardy round, and would use the round to take a jab at Jennings — everything from “If a Ken falls in the forest and no one’s around, does it make a dad joke?” to “Stop ducking a rematch, Ken” (Holzhauer lost to Jennings during the 2020 “Greatest of All Time” tournament).  

While “Jeopardy!” fans would undoubtedly love to see Jennings return to the game as a contestant, the host seems to have made up his mind — for good.

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“Jeopardy!” has a rule that once someone has hosted the quiz show, they are no longer allowed to compete, the Deseret News reported. But Michael Davies, the show’s executive producer who took over after Mike Richards’ firing in 2021, has said he would be willing to bend the rule should an appropriate occasion arise.

But Jennings is adamant that his days as a “Jeopardy!” player are over. 

“Let me be very clear and on the record here: It’s because I’m terrified of playing James because I think he would win,” he said. “I’m very happy to be retired from ‘Jeopardy!’ because I think I got away with one in the GOAT tournament. And I think there’s a very good chance that he would just wipe the floor with me if we had to play again. So I feel very lucky to be retired — ain’t gonna be no rematch.”

Since his 2004 “Jeopardy!” run, Jennings has heard countless stories of what the show means to viewers. For many, it brings memories of lost loved ones. Some talk about how they were never allowed to call their grandparents during “Jeopardy!” And for most, the show is a daily staple.

It was that way for Jennings, who would rush home from school every day to watch the quiz show. While he may no longer watch it like he did when he was a kid, to continue to be connected to the show after all these years means the world to him.

“Now that I’m driving the truck, I really take that responsibility very seriously, like the way I saw Alex do it,” he said. “I’ve gradually gotten a little less terrified — just like playing the game, I guess.

“I do have my dream job, and I kind of have to pinch myself every day,” he continued. “I do not take it for granted.”