Call it fate, call it destiny, or call it a guaranteed intelligentsia ratings sensation, but it was only a matter of time until Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer, and Brad Rutter were going to compete against each other in a prime-time Jeopardy! special. Such a showdown is currently happening in the show’s rousing Greatest of All Time tournament, where the trio (who hold the top spots for all-time highest winnings) will cramp their buzzer fingers night-after-night until the ultimate champion — whoever wins three hour-long matches first — is crowned. And we hate to give credit to the social-media equivalent of pond scum for making the tournament happen, but … we absolutely love you for this, Twitter!
“It really came together after James’s run. The impetus was social media,” longtime Jeopardy! executive producer Harry Friedman told Vulture, citing Twitter as the most prominent hub of interest. “It was the chatter and the speculation of people saying, Even though James fell short of Ken’s record, but we think he’s the best of all time. And other people would chime in saying, Definitely not, Brad is the greatest of all time, look how much money he has won. And other people would say, Actually, no, Ken had a 74-day run, he’s no doubt the greatest of all time.”
While Friedman confirmed there had been conversations with ABC over the years about the possibility of doing some sort of Jeopardy! prime-time show, “we didn’t have a format or a focus for it” until Holzhauer cemented his icon status last year with his strategically aggressive chops.
“When this opportunity came along, it presented itself simultaneously to all of us and it made sense. We could settle this once and for all and find out who’s the greatest of all time,” Friedman said. “This came about really naturally. It’s what every producer hopes for: having your show talked about in the most positive ways and engaging in that conversation on a daily basis.” Despite social media being the main catalyst for the tournament, though, it had no influence on how it was ultimately structured.
“We came up with the tournament idea ourselves, because we wanted it to be simple and familiar,” Friedman said. “We found that we had the solution in what we’ve been doing for many years now. For regular tournaments, the last two episodes are the total-point competition. We employed that structure for this tournament, because otherwise to do a single one-hour game would not be terribly exciting. By combining two half-hour games into one match, we found it universally understandable with the highest possible stakes.”
Jennings, Holzhauer, and Rutter all “immediately” agreed to participate in the tournament when Jeopardy! presented the idea to them in the fall, even though there was no title attached to it yet. Alex Trebek, too, was “thrilled” at how seamlessly it all came together. “With so much interest in the show from the beginning of 2019 to the end of the year, we really just wanted to keep it going,” Friedman said, noting the surge of Jep! popularity thanks to Holzhauer’s long run and the group All-Stars tournament. “There was no reason to wait. Why not do this now while everybody is interested.”
And because we know you’re curious about how everyone behaved behind the scenes: Friedman, who’s been executive producing the show for over two decades, said it was easily one of the show’s greatest highlights. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’m not prone to hype. But it was electric,” he added. “We knew that it was something special. The level of competition was something rare. We celebrate excellence, and that’s really what it’s all about. They knew it, they felt it, they supported it, and they loved it. These three guys are the most elite Jeopardy! players of all time. The camaraderie was as genuine as the competition, and the respect was very, very sincere.”