this! is! jeopardy!

Jeopardy!’s Newest Head Writer on ‘Problematic’ Clues and Alex Trebek’s Morning Routine

Michele Loud. Photo: Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Back in 1993, Michele Loud became the newest member of the small but mighty Jeopardy! team when she was hired as a researcher. Now, with the show’s 36th season underway (and with an in-recovery Alex Trebek still our delightfully stern taskmaster), Loud received one hell of a promotion, becoming a head writer alongside fellow Jep! veteran Billy Wisse. You love those “Before and After” categories? Or how Daily Doubles fall on the board? You have Loud, Wisse, and their formidable team to thank, and as soon as Vulture was alerted to Loud’s promotion, we knew we had to get on the phone to learn more about her game-show ascent. We also, among other things, discussed how the writers’ room operates on any given day, and how Trebek loves getting to the studio super early to answer mail.

Can you walk me through how you got your first job at Jeopardy! and the circumstances that led to your hiring?
It was a long time ago. [Laughs.] I saw an advertisement in one of the trade publications. There was a classified ad that said Jeopardy! was looking for researchers, so I sent in my résumé and I signed up for a test session, which, at that time, was very much like the test you would take to be a contestant on the show. I had actually tried out for the show a few weeks before and didn’t pass the test, and when I tried out to be a researcher it was the same format but different questions. And I actually passed that time! So, I came in for an interview, and then it was total radio silence. I eventually got a letter saying they would keep my résumé on file. About a year later, I got a call out of the blue from the show saying they had another opening for a researcher. I came in for another interview and met with the executive producer and head writer at the time, and they basically hired me on the spot. Apparently people really do keep your résumé on file sometimes!

And how did your role evolve from there?
When I started, there were five writers and five researchers. I was very happily a researcher for about two and a half years. The show was expanding its writing staff a little bit because they did a version of the show called Jep!, which was Jeopardy! for kids. So I was made a writer in 1997 and began writing for Jep! That show didn’t last long, so I started as a writer for the regular show later that year. I also wrote for Rock & Roll Jeopardy! and Sports Jeopardy! I’ve written for all of the variations at one time or another.

There are all sorts of procedures that go into ensuring the writing is sharp and that we’re not writing the same thing as each other all the time, and that the questions within each set of games are different. I’ve always been happy to volunteer to do these different tasks, so I was officially given the title “editorial supervisor” about eight years ago. I’ve always been there doing these extra things, and earlier this year the show came to me and said they wanted me to become a co–head writer. I have to say that I couldn’t have asked for a nicer, more supportive co–head writer than Billy.

Is there a “normal” day at the office for you?
It totally depends on if we’re taping an episode or not. We’re not taping this week so there’s a little bit more breathing room, so I came in and I wrote a clue for someone else’s category because one of the clues was a little bit problematic. We were having trouble with it in research. The next thing I did was meet with one of our producers about a future category he wants me to write. Before you called me, I was going over categories that some of the other writers have written for upcoming games. But our days are generally very fluid. We kind of walk in and out of each other’s offices and go, “Hey, can you help me with this clue? I need help here!”

What’s your organizational system for clues and categories?
We have a little color-coded system that we use for categories. Yellow is wordplay, green is lifestyle, blue is academic things — like science or history or geography or literature — and pink is entertainment. I try to grab a few out of each folder so I have a little bit of variety of what I’m looking at.

Do you have a preferred style for clue and category creation?
There are a couple of different ways I go about thinking of things. Sometimes I think of a great title and just think, Well, great, I’ve now gotta figure out something to do with this. My other way is coming across a list of something in common. A list of seven things is very useful to us writers, because our categories actually start with seven clues — something as simple as seven Tom Hanks movies that have whatever in common. One way or another, you get into your category that way.

How do you deem a clue either too “problematic,” as you said, or too hard for gameplay?
Sometimes you find a great fact and you simply can’t source it. We have a standard of double sourcing, so we have two independent sources for each fact in the clue. If you just can’t find it, then unfortunately a great fact has to go away. Sometimes things are too good to be true. You have to be skeptical of things. As for the toughness factor, it comes from experience. If none of the writers can correctly answer it, we feel like, Well, how can anyone else have heard of it? If it’s too obscure for all of us in the room, there’s no point in asking it. We’re not out to stump the contestants and the people at home. That’s not an interesting show. There’s always something better that you can write about.

How does the energy, or just the overall team structure, change from writing days to taping days?
Some of us have secret secondary jobs. I’m the backup scorekeeper. I’m always keeping a running tally on a score sheet with paper and pencil to make sure that scores are correct, because the person who runs the score computer sometimes gets an itchy trigger finger or does the wrong thing. We’re all, of course, attentively listening to the contestants’ responses. Sometimes they slur responses or you can’t hear what they’re saying clearly. One of the senior researchers enables the buzzer-lockout system, so when Alex is finished reading the last syllable of the last word in a clue, the researcher hits a button and the lights go on on the side of the board, which tells the contestant it’s safe to ring in. One of the other writers sits onstage with a computer so that he can instantly do research if an issue arises. The rest of the writers and researchers are in our office and library — they monitor the taping in real time. We can all easily communicate with our phones if any issues with answers or pronunciations arise.

Commercial breaks are a real blessing. Through the magic of television it can look like we make decisions very quickly, even if we have to stop for more time than we’d like. We just want to do what’s right factually and what’s fair. We’re not trying to advantage or disadvantage anybody, because we realize any score change could disadvantage two people while it advantages one person.

How does Alex ebb and flow with the writers’ room? Does he have any involvement with the creation stage when he’s not hosting?
At this point he doesn’t. He was a producer on the show in the very early days. When he comes in he’ll suggest things to us as clues or categories, and we’re always happy to take his suggestions and write things that he wants.

What does he structurally prefer?
When the short part of the clue comes first if it’s a clue that has “this” or “that.” He thinks the shorter thing should always be at the front. He comes in on the mornings of tape days very early, at around six, and reads the paper and answers mail and does things like that. And at 7:30 he’s given the set of five games we’re taping that day. He reads them over, and if there are things he doesn’t know how to pronounce, he looks it up himself. If he can’t find it, he asks us to help him. If there are things he’s not as familiar with — current pop culture, typically — he may ask us about it. [Laughs.] But he knows a lot. He’s very sharp, he does his homework, and he’s self-sustaining. Occasionally he’ll ask for a clue to be rewritten slightly because it sounds a little awkward to him. But he typically doesn’t have too many notes for us. He personally loves categories about geography, movies, or movies about geography. He really makes his job look so easy that I think sometimes people don’t appreciate how good he is. Hosting this show is much, much harder than you think.

Before the James Holzhauer era began on Jeopardy!, Alex admitted that he strongly disliked when players jumped around the board, believing it ruined the natural flow of the game. As someone who watches every show from the sidelines, do you agree with that?
I would say each player should play the game that he or she can play. James Holzhauer was a one-in-a-million player. A lot of people think that’s a great strategy, when you rack up a lot of money so you have a lot of money when you get to the Daily Double. Unfortunately, not everyone is that kind of a player. Most people would benefit from starting at the top of the board and figuring out what the category is about. Sometimes the category is more limited than you think or it’s not what you think based on the category title, and you don’t know it until the first clue sets it up for you. So you can get yourself into a lot of trouble by starting at the bottom of the board, and you don’t even know it. But, personally, I’m with Alex. I would prefer players to start at the top of the board because we write the categories so that they flow from top to bottom, and they get harder as you go down the board. There’s a nice rhythm that happens when you play the category in order, and a lot of the time the game feels choppy if it’s not executed in that way.

Alex’s health updates have been pretty frequent over the past few months, and he recently said that he’d leave the show if his skills kept diminishing. As someone who’s been an integral part of the show for years, I think you’re one of the few people whose opinion on the matter is actually significant. Have you thought, even just to yourself, about potential replacements?
I truly don’t think beyond Alex. I’m enjoying every moment with Alex and staying very present in the moments that we have him, and, yeah, I don’t think beyond that. That’s an honest answer; I really don’t have a replacement in mind.