The Time I Almost Played Trivial Pursuit With Ken Jennings

You know who Ken Jennings is, right?
You know! The guy from Jeopardy. (crickets) The one who went for many many consecutive weeks as the champion and broke all kinds of records. On Jeopardy. (sound of moths pinging a light fixture) He recently just competed against a supercomputer? Anyone? (No sound. Whatsoever. More silent than the vacuum of space.)
Okay, so there’s this guy named Ken Jennings who’s really smart. He is kind of a big deal. To every nerd on earth. He has a funny blog. And a Wikipedia page. And he wrote a book.

Well guess what? I’ve MET him. I’ve HUNG OUT with him.

So basically what I’m saying is that I roll with celebrities.

This is Ken Jennings at a book signing. Because that’s what celebrities do. They sit at tables while people line up to get books signed by them. (So yeah, I’m kind of a big deal too, is what I’m saying. But it totally doesn’t matter, because we’re all equal, and we’re all humans of worth. Even people who have NOT hung out with Ken Jennings.)

See, my friend Jessie Christensen used to be on some BYU College Bowl of Smart People with him and they did world tours or visited Idaho occasionally or something. (I’m a little unclear on the specifics because I’ve never won millions of dollars on Jeopardy because of my breathtaking memory.) At any rate Jessie invited our family over for dinner one night to celebrate her son’s birthday. It was gonna be a small family thing, a few friends, some good food because Jessie’s a great cook. No big deal.

Except, when we got there, Ken Jennings was there with his family. And nobody else. Us. The Christensens. And the Jennings.

I was like “Oh, hello Ken Jennings…” and then I looked away awkwardly for a moment, not sure of what to do next.

The thought process directly following when you meet Ken Jennings at a birthday party for a three-year-old goes something like this: First, you’re like, “Whoa. That’s Ken Jennings. He’s real smart. I bet he’s thinking all kinds of knowledgeable thoughts right now, like about the origin of birthday parties and the history of human dwellings and how they evolved into modern apartments like the one we’re sitting in and other deep stuff like if aluminum foil is made of the element aluminum and if Jell-o really has ground up bones in it. Or maybe he’s counting in his head using Roman Numerals right now and reviewing an atlas in his brain and examining the distance between Tonga and Uzbekistan.” That chain of thought lasts a few seconds.
Then, after initial introductions, your brain wonders “can someone like this engage in normal human conversation?” and you decide to test this hypothesis by saying something very engaging like “Hello.” When he responds in kind, you freak out because you were just addressed by a celebrity and then your brain goes into overdrive trying to figure out what to say. You wanna say something bright, but you don’t want to say any fact whatsoever just in case you’re wrong about that fact. So you say something safe like “I see that your daughter likes Legos” and his wife, who, like him, is very nice, says “Actually, that’s our son.” And you look down and realize that the little person you called a girl doesn’t even look like a girl. And plus, girls don’t even play with Legos. Idiot!
After recovering from the embarrassment of this, you try to move forward. But it’s hard because, how do you avoid saying something stupid in this situation when 78% of what you say is fabricated on the spot or based on something you were pretty sure you heard on the radio in high school, or loosely related to a fact you overheard during a vivid hallucination you had while getting your wisdom teeth out in college?
You decide to just be cool. Play it natural. It’s you and Ken, and your families, chillaxing in the apartment, waiting as Jessie and crew finish prepping the festivities. Small talk works for a while, but soon the conversation dies down, and you start to feel a little awkward again. You’re there, with Ken Jennings. And you have run out of things to say. And Alex Trebek  is not there to supply a category. And it’s getting uncomfortable.

Soon the pressure to talk in order to end the silence leads you to contemplate another conversation starter, but your brain defaults to: “this guy knows a lot of trivia. I know what I’ll do! I’ll think of the most trivial thing in the entire world and totally stump him.” This plan seems like a fun, engaging choice until you realize you don’t know any trivia other than the very rudimentary knowledge of your fields of study. This leads you to think of gripping questions like “what language is primarily spoken in England?” (answer: English) or “what letter does the word ‘therapy’ start with?” (answer: does “th” count as a letter?) or “what was my second minor again?” (answer: who the crap gets two minors in undergrad? Someone who’s too cool for paychecks, that’s who.)

As a last ditch effort, your brain decides it might be cool to ask something really original and probing like “So, is your real name actually Kenneth?” but before you get the chance Jessie comes in and sits down with her husband Ben. Whew. Pressure’s off. Except, oh no, what is this? Jessie and Ken start talking about… stuff. First there is a discussion about art or something, and then somehow the conversation funnels down to a discussion of Holy Week in Latin American countries as opposed to Spain (where Jessie, her husband Ben, and Ken all served their LDS mission) and I may have, sorta, kinda said something that wasn’t true at this point.

The convo went something like this:

Jessie: Yeah, I can’t exactly remember what Holy Week is like in Latin America. Josh, you lived in Venezuela.  What do you remember about it?

Me: (looks up, doe eyed, distracted from counting and recounting how many fingers he has (do thumbs count as 1 or 1/2???)) W…w…what?

Ken: We’re trying to remember how Holy Week is celebrated in Latin America. Do you remember?

Me: Is that the same thing as Semana Santa?

Jessie: …Yeah. That’s a direct translation. Do you remember how they celebrate it?

Me:(stuttering) I’m…a… pretty sure they ride actual donkeys to emulate Palm Sunday… and then go straight to Lent… followed by Rosh Hashanah… and a parade featuring salt-water taffy and rain dancing…


Ken: Hmmm, I don’t remember reading that…

and then, somehow, I found myself unintentionally asserting that whatever it was I had said was correct. Not explicitly. But somehow, in my demeanor, I accidentally looked like I was sitting across from Ken Jennings, a man who has won Jeopardy more times than I have watched Jeopardy, saying “you know? I think you’re wrong about an item of trivia I’ve never studied.”

It was awesome.

Thankfully, the guy’s gracious. I think he might have even said “Well, you might be right…”

No Ken. No. I wasn’t right. I was barely even able to track the fact that six people were engaged in a simultaneous conversation. I was probably strained at having to breathe and speak at the same time. I most certainly don’t know squat about Holy Week in Latin America. But thank you for not making me feel stupid because you’re a genuinely nice guy.

Anyway, it was about this time (HEY, when did I switch tenses? English just tricked me!) that Jessie threw out the idea that maybe we should play trivial pursuit.

Seriously Jessie? SERIOUSLY?

It only took a moment for my brain to log what this would look like. Ken Jennings, Jeopardy champion, playing with Jessie, who has qualified two or three times to be on Jeopardy herself, and their spouses who are also very smart, and Wife who runs circles around me in knowledge of trivia, playing against me, who recently pooped his pants on a run when there was a porta-potty about ten feet away from him, and who tends to get lost on the way back from any bathroom, anywhere, and who, just today, couldn’t remember if the percent sign goes before or after the number (it’s confusing, okay?)

.Fun party game, or tool for utter humiliation? You decide.

Yeah. That would have been rousing.

Thankfully, other voices of dissent ruled, and the idea was shot down. And then we had hot chocolate and cake and, and as the evening wore on, I for one ended up having a good time..

But I’ll always remember how close I came. How close I came to playing Trivial Pursuit with arguably the most brilliant trivial mind alive today. And how close I came to losing so drastically that my self-esteem was irreparably, irretrievably destroyed.

Ah, the memories…

Photo attribution here and here.


  1. Best post ever! Mainly because I'm in it. For the record, I'm pretty horrible with trivia too, so I was probably one of the voices of dissent. But I do remember that it was our son's first birthday party, not third. I bet you totally feel stupid now.

  2. Oh, geez. How humiliating. For you. For you not remembering which birthday was the one where I met Ken Jennings at your house. Naturally, I'm right, here even though it's your son, and now that I think about it, did you even live in Seattle for his 3rd birthday?

    Whatever the case, I think it's pretty clear that there is high likelihood that I am going to argue my point in an embarrassing assault on obvious facts, so, good luck with that.

    (Your next line is a befuddled, "you might be right…?")

  3. Awesome post – I am sure he was envious of you too. I am guessing Ken might not be as witty. 🙂

    A politician friend of mine told me that whenever someone is ranting at him about issues or legislation he disagrees with, he doesn't argue. He says "You might be right about that..".

    I have started using it myself. Special Agent has already caught on that I actually mean "you sir, are an idiot…".

  4. I think I may have actually cried if I was told I had to play Trivial Pursuit with Ken Jennings. I know surprisingly little trivia, so little actually that I hate watching Cash Cab with Shane because I NEVER know the answer.

    As for the rest of the night…smooth, real smooth. 🙂

  5. BWAHAHA! I am laughing at your pain, despite the fact that I might have reacted in much the same manner had that been my encounter. I'm awkward enough with strangers, let alone famous strangers. I would have been one giant ball of awkward.

  6. @The Onion–Aw thanks! Truth be told, he's also pretty dang witty, too. Why do some people have all the luck? 😉 Also, I like your code. I think I might have to use it.

    @Kimmel–Yeah, it sounded pretty potentially devastating. And as far as bragging rights "I almost played Trivial Pursuit with Ken Jennings" sound nearly the same as "I played Trivial Pursuit with Ken Jennings." Or, maybe it doesn't… OPPORTUNITY: LOST

    @Loradona–Yeah, it was pretty awesome. By the end of the night I walked away thinking "I think my efforts not to be like "WOWZA!!! KEN JENNINGS!!! *FREAKS OUT*" actually made me seem standoffish and a little bit d-baggish." Oh well.

  7. .

    I need to take this lesson to heart since my social circles intersect with your social circles in such ways that I might end up with the option of "Pulling a Weed" (as they say in the Jennings household).

  8. I love how you've already had this awkward moment with Ken Jennings, thus sparing all the rest of us with similar personalities from doing the same. 🙂

  9. The Weed is officially cooler than Paul Joseph.

    Okay, he already was cooler, but this further advances him on the coolness ladder. He's so high up there, I can't even see his feet from down here!

  10. @Mr. Fob–EXACTLY.

    @Th.–You win a prize for the rare feat of coming up with a Weed joke I haven't heard. Good work, sir!

    @Su–Very true! It's cuz I'm a giver…

    @Todd–Yeah, he really does. His tweet today kinda made my decade.

    @Itsme–I have heard that. However, I think you can rest assured, I have no idea what I'm actually talking about. Ken? Any input?

    @Paul–Impossible. Also, I don't have depth perception, so if I was actually climbing coolness ladder, I'd probably fall in a really disastrous and embarrassing display. But thank you 😉

  11. @Jennifer–See how good I am at keeping promises? I saw this and knew I had to respond immediately, lest I be called a liar by my Catholic mascot. However, where were you when I really needed you, huh? Huh?! …maybe next time?

  12. You…you…promise keeper! (Hey, that's a good thing.) It's really only because I am timely, for a change. I usually like to arrive fashionably late at your blog, except everyone has already left the party.

  13. @Jennifer–Yeah, that's gotta be an awkward feeling. But I'm really glad you stop by, because my archived posts get very, very lonely.

    @Lois–Never played Minute to Win it (or seen it) but if it doesn't involve brains? I'm in.

  14. Ok..I know this is way after the fact, but that may be one of the funniest things I've ever read! In part because I would've reacted the same way! lol. Probably worse. And I totally pull the "pretend you know what you're talking about" card in conversations…and come out about the same.

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