Sunday, July 20, 2014

Inside story on the CHEERS "Jeopardy episode

Sometimes a Friday question requires its own post. And someone other than me answering it. Dan O'Shannon and his partner Tom Anderson wrote the Jeopardy episode of CHEERS. When a blog reader asked about it I sought out Dan for the answer.

Dan O'Shannon became a show runner on CHEERS, FRASIER, and has executive produced MODERN FAMILY. He also wrote the definitive book on comedy analysis.    Many thanks to Dan for writing back and writing the episode in the first place. If he ever writes a blog and someone asks a question about MANNEQUIN 2 I'm happy to return the favor.

From Ed:

I loved the Cliff blows the Jeopardy show ep. I'm curious as to how much back and forth there may have been amongst all y'all in deciding categories and what questions would be asked - and most especially, the Final Jeopardy question. Any anecdotes would be much appreciated.

The idea of Cliff trying out for Jeopardy started with Tom Anderson. It was the B story in our spec script, which eventually got us on the show. (Cheers, not Jeopardy). Once it was decided to use the story in an episode, we needed to expand what we had.

As we pitched on it in the room, I came up with the notion to fill the board with Cliff's dream categories. I'd scribbled down four or five possible examples, like "bar trivia" and ending with "celibacy." Once the idea was pitched, we batted categories around the room, which was great fun. I remember us all shouting out ideas and laughing like crazy.

The final Jeopardy question came from something I'd observed back when I was doing stand-up. Anyone could win all the money on Jeopardy every night if they wanted, because for each answer given on the show, there are an infinite number of technically correct questions. The final exchange (the names of the three celebrities, and "who are three people who have never been in my kitchen") came directly from that.

PS -- I like to think that a young Ken Jennings caught my act in Warren, Ohio in 1983 and now owes me -- at the very least -- a big thank you.

Dan

20 comments:

Michael said...

Interesting that one of the most memorable CHEERS episodes had it's origins in a spec script.

Friday question: As someone who worked on a successful spin-off (FRAZIER) and a not-so-successful spin-off (AfterMASH), why do you think one worked and the other didn't? Was it simply the character(s) chosen or was it the execution? Also, are there are other supporting characters on shows you have worked on that you think would have been able to carry their own show?

Michael said...

Embarrassing typo above - FRASIER, not FRAZIER.

Stoney said...

Since that episode aired there have been Jeopardy episodes on other comedies like The Golden Girls and others.

Ken, If you haven't seen CBS Sunday Morning yet, you might enjoy Mo Rocca's segment about Ronald Reagan's jokes.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Okay, I know we're getting a James Garner eulogy, right?

mmryan314 said...

I went to a funeral a few years ago and this episode was quoted during the Eulogy of the man. It got a big laugh even in the church. I'd say it was a classic.

emily said...

The episode:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=botdmsQilnU

Max said...

Friday question: Are there any actors you have worked with over the years and were absolutely blown away by their talent...but they never "made it"? Is that common, or do the truly exceptional actors generally rise to the top eventually?

DBenson said...

That list of categories still kills me. Also (if I'm remembering correctly) Cliff's less-than-elegant handwriting on display. I assume the "Jeopardy" folk kept a very close eye on the script and performances.

Recalling a Carol Burnett "Mama" sketch where Eunice went on "The Gong Show." It was one of the more-bleak-than-funny ones where Eunice saw this as her ticket to stardom and escape from her despised relations, and tells them so (Why did Carol and friends seem to love throwing those into an upbeat comedy show?). We finally see her on the actual show getting mocked and gonged. Still wonder if "The Gong Show" people knew they'd be the twist of the knife in a very bitter, almost painful bit.

Christopher Finke said...

When watching the clip of Cliff on Jeopardy on YouTube, I noticed a continuity error. The woman in the middle (Agnes) had $3,300 going into Final Jeopardy. She bet $2,900 and got the question wrong, leaving her with $400. After Cliff blows it and Alex tells Agnes that she has won, her display again reads $3,300. You can also see that the man on the end is still shown having $750, even though he should be at zero. When the camera pulls back, the totals are back as they should be.

(screenshots here: http://imgur.com/a/L1hG2)

Johnny Walker said...

I always loved Cliffy's "answer". It works so well because he is, as Dan points out, technically correct.

(As a foreigner, I never understood Jeopardy's format. It sounds like a great idea until you realize all it really means is adding "What is..." to the beginning of any answer.)

Geoff Garvoille said...

Thanks for taking the time, Dan. T'was interesting!

Brian said...

I just watched this episode the other night on Netflix streaming. One of my favorites? I just stopped by this blog for a quick read. Didn't know I'd be making a comment and had to thing of something to say....

Cap'n Bob said...

Johnny Walker--Merv Griffith wanted to air another game show but with a different spin. His wife said that since all the others asked questions that needed answers why not do it the other way around.

Johnny Walker said...

@Cap'n Bob

Yeah, like I said, it *sounds* great in theory... but when you reverse things and they make no sense at all.

Eg.
Question: "Who is Steven Spielberg?"
Answer: "In his early teens, this 'ET' director won a contest with his short war movie 'Escape to Nowhere'."

Pointless.

chuckcd said...

Watched the first 2 episodes of "Extant" and the only thing I can say is "Abort" Abort" "Abort"!

RockGolf said...

The interview confirms what I found to be a fatal flaw in the episode when I first saw it. That Final Jeopardy question would never have been used in Jeopardy! It was badly worded and required specific knowledge - in fact 3 pieces of specific knowledge.
Real Final Jeopardy questions are riddles: there's usually just enough info in them that you can suss out the response even if at first it stumps you.
A recent example from the all-time champs tournament asked for the two Secretaries of State who had never been married, and noted they were in office 150 years apart.
Tough, right? You couldn't be expected to know who a Secretary of State was from the 1850's or earlier, right? Right.
So that person had to do something else for which he would be known. That probably means we're looking for a bachelor president, of which there's only been one - Buchanan. That makes the other S of S recent: Kerry & Clinton have obviously been married. Aha! Condolezza Rice, who once famously referred to GW Bush as "her husband".
The other problem with the clue was the phrasing. There was none. It was just a list of 3 real names. Jeopardy! clue always indicate what they expect in the response. Yes, there are a million differnt ways to answer "Who is Steven Spielberg?" but only one correct "question" to the clue in Johnny Walker's clue.

Raymond said...

@Johnny Walker: "Jeopardy" was a response to the game show scandals, where shows were discovered to have been secretly giving contestants answers to the questions. "On this show, we don't hide the fact that we give the contestants the answers! Of course, they have to come up with the questions."

In its original incarnation, the flip of the question/answer format is much clearer. For example, in the category "Ernest Hemingway", Art Fleming might read the answer "1899". The contestant has to come up with the question "What year was Ernest Hemingway born?"

Over time, the writers got lazy, and now it's just "Stick 'What is...?' in front."

Anonymous said...

Not sure if Netflix really gets Cheers. http://pic.twitter.com/FBSxcPspXM

Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, a good Final JEOPARDY you should be able to figure out. e.g. in the category Sister Cities. "San Francisco, California is a sister city to this one in Italy." At first you say, how the heck would I know? Then you think, there must be some commonality. San Francisco is named for St. Francis, and sure enough, the correct response is...

Anonymous said...

"Dan O'Shannon became a show runner on CHEERS, FRASIER, and has executive produced MODERN FAMILY. He also wrote the definitive book on comedy analysis."

Not too big on a book about comedy analysis that uses ethnic slurs as examples. I guess if he had used a comedic example of an ignorant drunken irishman who steals money from old widows to support his dirty clan, I might have been more forgiving. But I didn't notice Dan using an example like that. Perhaps, since he's an Irishman, he was too drunk to realize he should keep his ethnic slurs to himself.