Jeopardy! Has Descended Into Chaos. I Couldn’t Be Happier.

It is fair to say that the VIP set is not the stiffest competition you can face on Jeopardy! The famous Saturday Night Live parody of the game show’s celebrity edition and the ill-fated stars who appear often seemed a little too real. So when Ike Barinholtz—who has built a lucrative career as a comedian and as the doofy dad in a catalog of midbudget comedies—won the prime-time version of Celebrity Jeopardy! in 2023, nobody gave it much thought. Barinholtz was facing off against a murderers’ row of casual players: In the first game of the series, he beat out Constance Wu and Jalen Rose, who each finished with a final score of $0. By taking the top prize, Barinholtz netted $1 million for charity and cemented himself as a reasonably well-informed famous person—no more, no less.

But this time, one thing was different: Jeopardy! had decided to give the winner of Celebrity Jeopardy! a slot in the Tournament of Champions. Instead of facing off against actors and retired basketball players, Barinholtz would now be doing battle with a much more formidable Jeopardy! milieu, the professors, lawyers, scientists, and dweebs of all stripes who would certainly condemn him back to West Hollywood, where he belongs. The consensus was wide: This was going to be brutal.

Except … that’s not what happened. In Barinholtz’s first champions game back on Jeopardy!, he won his quarterfinal matchup. Let me repeat that. Ike Barinholtz, the guy from The Mindy Project, took on two contestants who qualified for Jeopardy!’s most prestigious tournament, folks who have waited for this moment for as long as they’ve watched the game show, and sent them packing. One of them had previously won 13 straight games. Barinholtz didn’t totally dominate the game, but he pulled ahead in Final Jeopardy: The clue was on ancient Roman poetry, and Barinholtz identified Ovid as the correct answer, with a wager large enough to catapult him into the winners circle. On Thursday night, he’ll appear in the semifinals, which means he’s only two games away from claiming the title.

Will that happen? Perhaps not. But Barinholtz seems to be reveling in the chaos he hath wrought, as he very much should be. “People were giving me a lot of well wishes, and a lot of them were tinged with the tone of ‘I thought you were dumb?’ ” he told host Ken Jennings, reflecting on his time in Celebrity Jeopardy! “I am, full disclosure, but it was wonderful.”

This year’s Tournament of Champions has been a little wacky: Cris Pannullo, who previously won 21 games and $748,000, had been expected to be formidable but promptly flamed out in his first game. Then came Barinholtz. Jennings has been openly stunned at some of the results, calling the first-round gameplay “the most dramatic in history.” I suspect that Barinholtz’s unlikely run will be snuffed out before too long—tonight he faces Ben Chan, the frisky college professor who hasn’t missed a beat this tournament. Still, I can’t say that I’m not compelled by the bedlam. I’ve been pretty vocal about my distaste for the deluge of playoff formats that have choked up the Jeopardy! calendar of late, but that is mostly rooted in the monotony of it all—the same players, over and over again, locked in a monthslong grind to the finish line. You know what breaks up that tedium? A comedian showing up to defile this sanctum of geekery, forcing everyone in the knowledge industries to reconsider how smart they think they are. We have our villain, and his name is Barinholtz.