Why are some celebrities so bad at Jeopardy?

(and why that’s an unhelpful question)

Published January 20, 2024

On Jan. 23, the three celebrities who have made it to the finals of Celebrity Jeopardy will compete to win $1 million for their charity of choice. Lisa Ann Walter, Katie Nolan, and Mo Rocca will go head-to-head, after a grueling set of quarter-final and semi-final matches. While much has been written about how Celebrity Jeopardy is easier than regular Jeopardy – see this recent interview, in which Emma Stone said she wants to be on “real Jeopardy” – some stars definitely fare better than others. 

But what makes a strong Celebrity Jeopardy contestant? And do the celebs fall into different pitfalls than players on the O.G. version? When I was watching the show, I noticed a number of rookie errors that we don’t see often on layperson Jeopardy. Just a few examples:

  • This was a Daily Double clue in the quarterfinal match on Oct. 18, 2023: ‘“5-4” is a podcast that calls itself an “occasionally profane take on the ideological battles” of this federal body.’ Actor Melissa Fumero gave no response. Ken Jennings said, ‘“5-4” because it’s the Supreme Court,”’ and Fumero replied, “Yeah, “5-4” would have been the clue…” The response tells us about the gap in her thought process: She belatedly realized that the hint was in the question itself, which regular players would have already known to pay attention to.
  • In that same episode, NBA champion Shane Battier incorrectly responded “I am not a thief” to the “Historical Quotes Rephrased” category clue: ‘Richard Nixon, 1973: “I don’t self-identify as a thief.”’ The correct response was “I am not a crook”; experienced players know that with very few exceptions, no part of the correct response will be in the clue itself.
  • In the Jan. 9 semifinal, Dulé Hill made another common mistake among Celebrity players: basically not paying attention to the category’s title. In the category “Countries that Begin With I,” the clue was, ‘An anagram of “Arabs,” Basra is a port city in this country.’ Hill rang in with United Arab Emirates, which doesn’t fit the category. Civilian players occasionally fall into this trap, but it seems to happen much more on Celebrity Jeopardy – even in the semi-finals!

Essentially, most of these mistakes betray a lack of understanding or experience with the types of clues that often come up not only in Jeopardy, but also in most pub quizzes. In my experience as a host, they’re also the types of things that flummox new players, as well as random folks who get enlisted to play trivia by their friends. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of players frustrated by clues like this, often complaining that “they‘re tricks” or feeling bad because “the answer was obvious.” Neither thing is actually true; like all other games, and possibly most things in life, “being good” at trivia comes with experience.

This is why, despite Dulé Hill’s flub in the semifinal round, we see fewer of these types of errors as the Celebrity Jeopardy season continues. The players all get more comfortable and more experienced with the format, and they know what to look out for.

For another perspective, I spoke with Andy Saunders of The Jeopardy Fan, who argued that in addition to their lack of trivia experience, there are some other factors that might be at play for these celebs.

“I still don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that the two non-American celebrities, Emily Hampshire and Becky Lynch, struggled the most this season,” Saunders said. “I honestly think their struggles were a combination of ‘they got nervous early and couldn’t recover’ (Emily), and ‘they were on the wrong end of a really close judges’ ruling or two early, and it completely shattered their confidence.’ (Becky)”

I agree with his argument that missing a series of answers in a row can spell doom even for regular players – but possibly even more so for the celebrities, since they still have a public image to maintain after the show!

There were issues with the material itself, too. “Especially with Celebrity this season,” Saunders said, “the academic material seems to be coming from ‘things every American probably learned in school,’ or, at least in many cases, ‘things you’d have to go out of your way to realize if you’re not American.’” He pointed to the U.S.-centric hint that eluded Hampshire in the clue, “Yeehaw! Paniolos are Hawaii’s equivalent of these workers, also the name of a Texas pro sport team.”

So there you have it. The stars on Celebrity Jeopardy get caught up in mistakes due to their relative lack of experience with trivia formats, lack of attention to the clues, nerves, and/or non-American disadvantage. I think we should give them a bit of a break – but also that we should do the same for regular players, and for the friends we bring to pub quiz. The game is supposed to be fun, and if we want our (regular and celebrity!) friends to play with us, we should forgive them for rookie mistakes.