The Foolish and the Weak are Confounding the Wise and the Strong…Yet Again

If you haven’t watched any of Austin Rogers’ first 12 Jeopardy wins (running currently), you’ve […]

Howie Espenshied / 10.12.17

If you haven’t watched any of Austin Rogers’ first 12 Jeopardy wins (running currently), you’ve missed seeing the most money amassed over a 12 day period (over $400k) in Jeopardy history. Rogers is a bartender from Manhattan. Do yourself a favor, and start setting your TiVos and DVRs, and treat yourself to a master. It’s not what you think, though. Rogers is tremendous at trivia, but he’s even better at poking fun at the Jeopardy Intelligentsia. Take the last 4 episodes for example (through Oct 11). While being introduced, Rogers has mimed making a martini, solving a Rubik’s Cube, and conducting an orchestra—whilst correcting a violin player who missed a cue. Then, last night, he mimed what appeared to be the moment he won a bet, and paid off a co-conspirator? It’s hard to tell. Regardless, the brother is keeping it real, and having a blast.

He is challenging the status quo of the longest running American-brain-game-show at every turn. In Rogers’ episode 11, during the “meet the players” segment, an increasingly flummoxed (by the circus that is Austin Rogers) Alex Trebek asks Austin (with more than a hint of exasperation), “So what do you want to talk about today Austin?” To which Rogers replied, “I don’t know Alex, what do you want to talk about?” Rogers has so perplexed the iconic host (known for decades for his impeccable pronunciation, professionalism and knack for squelching fun moments) that it’s apparent to all watching that Trebek has lost a bit of the edge off of his ability to condescend and maintain the illusion that he is the smartest person in the room. Lawrence Seldon at Vulture explains further:

Numbers cannot explain, though, how Rogers’s style has upset the game’s natural order. Wearing a misshapen pile of hair atop his head and a thick beard on his face—but sharp coats and ties, always—he is both unkempt and natty by the show’s drab standards. And the clothes are just the beginning…

And then there’s his banter with host Alex Trebek. Clearly each has boundless contempt for the other. Trebek can’t stand Austin’s jokes. Austin can’t stand Trebek’s presentation. When a sneering Trebek asked Rogers how he “got to be so smart,” Rogers deadpanned: “Genetics. Luck. Karma.” What about school?, Trebek asked. Pfft, Austin replied.

I watch Jeopardy! because I love trivia, and the show’s trivia offerings are better than those of any competitor. But what makes the show unique (and uniquely aggravating) is its solemn punctiliousness, enforced by Trebek, who delights in humbling contestants. The show styles itself as syndicated TV’s last refuge for sophisticates—I mean, sure, but anything would be, compared to Maury and Inside Edition—and a meritocracy, too. No Wheel of Fortune-style free money here! Cash comes by way of studying. The game’s great champions are teachers, accountants, lawyers. They wager conservatively; they play and dress modestly. The audience is meant to believe their knowledge is but a fraction of what makes them excel, that dutiful reverence for the game matters, too.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back, the Sept 8 This American Life podcast did a story called “Essay B,” about the Stouffer Foundation, who in 1967 identified 20 exceptional 14-year-old African American students from around the US and paid to strategically place them in select all-white private high schools around the US. (This particular podcast is well worth a listen.) The foundation’s goal was to see these students excel at such a high level among their white peers that no one could deny that minority students could flourish in an integrated setting, in hopes to help change deep-rooted racist perceptions, especially among the powerful people who make and shape policy.

Two of the students, Bill Alexander and Marvin Bernard, were placed by the foundation at (the all-boys) Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia. Bill and Marvin were from different backgrounds. Bill was from a middle-class family in Nashville, and the son of a Baptist minister. Marvin lived with his uncle in project housing in inner-city Richmond, Virginia. In 1967, Bill and Marvin were placed in the boarding school as roommates. Throughout their four years there, they were the top 2 students in their class. Bill was class president, even though he lost the black vote—Marvin voted for someone else. Both encountered their share of racism and mistreatment at the school, but they got through it. Bill became a doctor and Marvin became a lawyer. The segment’s writer/producer, Mosi Secret, summarized Bill and Marvin’s achievements with “they struck a blow at white supremacy by being supreme.” The podcast ends bittersweet, as we learn that the foundation’s objective to “change perceptions among white elites” was not accomplished at the level they had hoped. However, fellow students and staff at the various schools were interviewed and told of how hearts and vantage points were profoundly altered among many at the schools.

Austin Rogers is confounding the wise, as we speak, by calling out what wisdom and sophistication is by being, simultaneously, the smartest and the most disheveled. Bill and Marvin changed perceptions at their school not with rhetoric or evangelism, but by taking advantage of an opportunity and running with it. Once Austin Rogers’ reign of trivia dominance ends on Jeopardy, Alex Trebek will likely be back to his smug, humorless, lovable self. I do hope though that we see future contestants express themselves more fully now that Austin has paved the way. Being a little silly on Jeopardy isn’t going to hurt anyone, especially when it’s done in a way that effectively challenges the very comfortable Mr. Trebek.

Bill and Marvin? They’re an encouragement to us all. Their story shows what it might look like for people to be mostly judged by the content of their character. That’s pretty cool, but it’s not enough. Both stories are a glimpse into a better place, and it’s not here. We think we know what it looks like when foolishness confounds wisdom, and when weak things shame what is strong, but until the lion lays down with the lamb, we will always be pushing against oppression and the dark sides of power and control. Here’s to those who encourage us to attempt it.

Postscript October 13: Our guy Austin was defeated on day 13 (aired last night).  This actually bums me out a bit more than the US Men not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup! He’ll be back though for the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions over the holidays. In the meantime, watch for him on the late night talk circuit. It should be entertaining.