Why We Write

January 11, 2008

Why We Write – Number 15: Mark Gaberman

Number 15

Today’s piece is written by Mark Gaberman, a writer on “Jeopardy.” 


There are 61 blue boxes available to play in one game of “Jeopardy!”.  We make 230 shows a year—that’s 14,030 boxes that 8 of my friends and I have to fill.  I have learned things about Queen Victoria that I never really wanted to know.  Some information about car repair that I have since forgotten.  Morgan Freeman has spoken words in celebrity clues that I wrote for him.

He was God, you know.  At least twice.

I love to fill in those blue boxes.

I’ve had Alex Trebek rap Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”—he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind that day.  Did a category called “Death and Texas” just because I liked the title (and finding stuff about people dying and/or getting killed in Texas turned out to be remarkably easy).  I’ve learned about Jean Sibelius, and word to the wise, if you see “blah blah blah this Finnish composer blah blah blah…”, Jean Sibelius might not be your worst guess.  Well, at least if I wrote it.  I’m just not that up on my Finnish composers.

I think for any writer, there is an indescribable thrill at having your words come to life onscreen.  For the 9 of us, those words are literally on the screen itself for everyone to see.  I’ve been with the show for a decade now—7 years as a writer, I’m one of the newbies—and I still can’t wait to see how my categories will play during that day’s shooting.  I know the others feel the same way about their material, too.  It never gets old.

Until one tanks.

Contrary to what some may believe, we aren’t out to stump the players.  Challenge ‘em to the limit, you bet, but to us, a 3-contestant deadball basically means we failed to get even one of them to where we thought they could go.  Oh, the horror that is the triple stand-and-stare.  The eternity that is the few seconds between the time Alex finishes reading a clue and the head-scratching, how the hell do they expect us to know that? reaction it gets from the contestants.  Then, DOOTDOOTDOOT!  The merciful sound that ends their suffering and then has Alex saying something like, “ooo, sorry, we were going for Slovenia.  Slovenia.  Select!”  Maybe I reached way too far and used Kurt Bevacqua in a clue instead of an easy Babe Ruth, just because I thought it was funny that Tommy Lasorda said Kurt Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a bleeping boat.  Or perhaps these 3 particular players weren’t quite ready for an entire category of “to Heloise and back”.  Another 3 might have been all over it.  Luck of the draw there.  Or maybe they just never knew that Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby”.

Nah, they should’ve known that.  That one would probably just make me mad.

That, however, is the beauty of our game.  I get just as floored as anyone who watches the show if that butcher from Boise knows that obscure fact I discovered about Pushkin.  Baffled if that insurance agent from Des Moines doesn’t know Lincoln was president during the Civil War.  Positively mind-boggled when that lawyer from Pensacola doesn’t put enough on a Daily Double with an opportunity to go ahead, late in the game (you’d be amazed how often betting like that happens.  Trust yourselves, folks!  No guts, no “Jeopardy!” glory!).  But the fact that I helped create all that…it’s a feeling I really miss, and one that I look forward to experiencing again soon.

I love to go to work each day.  To see my friends.  To learn something new.  To try and be creative and contribute to something a lot of people seem to enjoy.  To actually get paid to do it. 

I love to fill in those blue boxes.


WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.


  1. Wow. How fascinating! That sounds like one of the coolest writer jobs ever! (Sorry. What is one of the coolest writer jobs ever?)

    Comment by Bon — January 12, 2008 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  2. this is fantastic. thanks for posting it, as i’ve often been curious about the writing process for jeopardy! clues (and have openly wondered about it in the “jeopardy! roundup” segment of my sucky podcast.)

    confession, though: i cringe when you give trebek an excuse to bust out his impeccable french skillz. smarmy francophone.

    Comment by jbg. — January 19, 2008 @ 7:47 am | Reply

  3. I’ve been a professional classical musician for 25 years and I don’t know of any other Finnish composers either.

    Comment by beppo — January 19, 2008 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  4. Hi,

    Einojuhani Rautavaara is a well-known, prolific, modern classical, Finnish composer who has written eight symphonies and an astonishing variety of other compositions. His music is often performed by contemporary orchestras. You could look it up.

    Have a nice day!

    Comment by Antti Nannimus — January 19, 2008 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  5. You’re my hero. I watch a lot of Jeopardy!, which gets me ridiculed at school, but I know what you mean about the surprise factor, and being amazed by the contestants. I also love when I nkow something. Especially on Final Jeopardy. I was totally on top of the Jonathon Edwards question. My fave preacher.

    Comment by zoe — January 19, 2008 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  6. I loved tonight’s final jeopardy (rerun? I’m unsure). It asked which country, named for an Italian, was named only once in a certain play by Shakespeare. Normally, I hate final jeopardy, as it almost always stumps me. For this one, I immediately knew the answer, and I can’t believe only one of the contestants got it! I think it’s really fun when the contestants don’t trust themselves on a super easy question. Oh, and I loved the FJ with H&R Block as an answer too — I knew that one as well 🙂

    Comment by Leah — January 21, 2008 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  7. Mark, some questions: Did you get into Jeopardy! as a writer or as a trivia buff? How does that work? I can see how each would come in handy, and honestly, the excellent phrasing of most clues is something I admire greatly. Trivial Pursuit’s got nothing on how you guys work layers of hints into your clues (do you call them clues or questions or answers or what?). Keep up the great work.

    Do you get to hang out with the Clue Crew?

    Comment by Grover — January 23, 2008 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  8. I LOVED reading this — fascinating. I tried out for the show two years ago and didn’t make it, but maybe I’ll make another go at it soon. (My boyfriend’s brother was on in in ’02 and got 2nd place though!)

    Comment by Sara — January 24, 2008 @ 3:21 am | Reply

  9. Grover, thanks for your kind words. To answer your questions–I started at “Jeopardy!” as a researcher and became a writer there a few years later. I’d worked with our head writer on a previous show so that was my in. And yes, we do hang out with the Clue Crew folks, at least when they’re in town.

    Comment by Mark — January 24, 2008 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  10. Wow! Great story about Jeopardy’s inner workings. I’ve been watching since I was a little kid, and it’s really cool to see some backstory and characterization in the world’s longest TV show: Man with giant brain holds perpetual contest to humiliate North America.

    Just joking :p. That was a really great essay Mark!

    Comment by Jason — January 28, 2008 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  11. […] the essay by Mark Gaberman, a writer on […]

    Pingback by mental_floss Blog » Why We Write — June 22, 2009 @ 12:28 am | Reply

  12. I write trivia questions on numerous topics and feel that I am quite good at it. How can I find information on how to become a question writer for Jeopardy? Can I submit some of my samples for someone to review? Thank you.

    Comment by Matthew Urtz — August 12, 2009 @ 8:55 am | Reply

  13. […] This is Jeopardy! […]

    Pingback by gefährdet! = jeopardy! « — October 12, 2009 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  14. you can say that morgan freeman is one of the most versatile actors that we have today `

    Comment by Canister Set · — November 3, 2010 @ 2:46 pm | Reply

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