Now here's a dream job: Writing clues for 'Jeopardy'

Billy Wisse (center), "Jeopardy!" head writer.
Source: Sony Pictures Television

Are you bursting with facts and figures? Known for knowing the unknowable? Love finding obscure trivia? Then a "Jeopardy!" clue writer might be your dream job and Billy Wisse has it.

Wisse started working at "Jeopardy!" a quarter of a century ago and has served as its head writer since 2011.

The team is surprisingly small when you consider they write 230 shows a year, with only eight writers and eight researchers. On taping days the team produces five shows a day, that includes about three hours of preparation, taping three shows, breaking for lunch, and then taping two more shows.

One of the biggest challenges for the "Jeopardy!" writers is not making clues too difficult. The contestants need to have a shot at getting it right and the home audience must be able to relate, as well. "Jeopardy!" has about 25 million viewers each week. Clues that are too easy must be avoided, too. That's where the finesse comes in.

"You have to figure out ways to write extremely difficult categories that help people realize they actually do have some knowledge of it deep down in their brains," Wisse said.

One of the masters of that skill… Who is Alex Trebek? That's right. "Jeopardy!" 's host since 1984 has a special gift when it comes to tweaking clues to make them clearer. And you might be surprised to learn that occasionally the writers do have to look up foreign pronunciations for Trebek—despite how smoothly he delivers them on air.

Ultimately, Wisse is responsible for smoothing the language. One of the perks of being the head writer is that he also gets to rank the difficulty of the five questions in each category. So, if you think a $2,000 question is too easy, take it up with him.

The "Jeopardy!" stage at Sony Pictures Studio, Culver City, California.
Source: Sony Pictures Television

The job of a "Jeopardy!" writer, as you can imagine, requires a plethora of research. That part has changed dramatically since Wisse was hired as a proofreader back in 1990 thanks to, you guessed it, the Internet.

"Back then, today's version of the Internet was a fantasy. Each of us still had a weekly 'library day.' We spent hours and hours digging up information," Wisse said.

The biggest change? "Back then we actually made phone calls. I miss that," Wisse said.

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He fondly recalls researching a category involving actress Uma Thurman and chatting with her father on the phone. Bet you didn't know Uma's father, Robert Thurman, was the first American Buddhist monk ordained by the Dalai Lama. Wisse also remembers calling the creator of Kitty Litter to confirm the product's origin. Not having information at your fingertips meant a good category idea took much longer to fulfill. A lot more ongoing lists, asking around, constantly making notes on scraps of paper and so on.

Though the days of researching in an office filled with ceiling-high stacks of books and old periodicals are gone, Wisse said the research is still just as difficult because of a gradual shift in "Jeopardy!" 's content.

"Back then we had a lot more academic material: history, geography, meat and potatoes. It was easier to research," he said.

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Now pop culture plays much more of a role on "Jeopardy!," which means a different kind of research. Wisse said he and his team constantly try to stay relevant as the average age of contestants continues to fall below the average age of the writers. That's due in part to the low turnover rate. The "newest" writers have been in their roles for about a decade.

So what keeps the turnover so low on the "Jeopardy!" writing staff? "It's a great job with a lot of variety. You get the quiet bookish part and the exciting production part. Plus, you get to see your name on TV," Wisse said.

Some of the writers, including Wisse, are at computers on the stage during tapings. Others are about 100 feet away watching on closed-circuit televisions ready to triple-check any questionable answers.

Cheating and errors

Cheating is prevented by the use of a third-party firm. The team doesn't know which games will be played before the taping day when they're selected randomly by the firm.

Errors happen but they're rare. Because of the high volume of shows the writing team must depend on secondary sources, as opposed to actually conducting proprietary research. Thanks to the Internet, errors happen less often but they do still occur. Wisse said about every two years they have to bring a contestant back because a mistake actually impacts the outcome of the game. Usually it's caught before taping is completed though; that's when Trebek makes a correction after a commercial break and awards or takes away money.

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The "Jeopardy!" team has a massive database of all the past shows, which is consistently cross-referenced to prevent repetition.

How to land the gig

Wisse landed a proofreader job at "Jeopardy!" in 1990 after answering an ad in Variety. Like countless others in Tinseltown, he moved there hoping to sell a screenplay. While he waited for that dream to pan out he did the odd jobs many other English majors fill: working in book stores and freelance copy editing. Wisse earned his degree from McGill University in Montreal. Back then, you had to pass the contestant test to become a researcher. That's no longer the case.

What are they looking for? Someone who doesn't assume things.

After 25 years working on Jeopardy, what's the head writer's favorite clue?




And our favorite clue from "Jeopardy!" episode 6113, which first aired March 23, 2011?