'Jeopardy!' champ Ken Jennings says fatherhood is 'a lot like being a cruise director'

Ken Jennings talks Jeopardy! and why parenting teens is
Ken Jennings talks Jeopardy! and why parenting teens is "like being a cruise director." (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers) (Getty/Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

In 2004, after 74 consecutive wins, Ken Jennings set the record for the longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history — earning a total of $2.52 million. Since then, Jennings has competed in multiple Jeopardy! tournaments and in 2020, went on to earn the G.O.A.T. title after winning the show's "Greatest of All Time" tournament. Later that same year, he joined the Jeopardy! family (officially) as a segment producer.

These days, the game show champ is teaching a virtual Varsity Tutors class for kids (free of charge, this Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. EST), which he hopes will allow young students and their parents to explore the secrets of trivia, learn how to boost their memory and compete in trivia challenges.

We caught up with Jennings from his Seattle home to talk about being a parent to two teenagers and what a day on the set of Jeopardy! is really like.

How would you describe your approach to parenting?

It’s changed over the years — my kids are now 18 and 14 years old. Parenting is always a moving target: you’re really just responding to the current needs of the kid, which might be different [needs] than six months ago. So it’s a lot of listening, because the kid will tell you what you need — but it’s not going to be what you expect and it's not what you remember you needing at their age.

What was parenting like during the pandemic? How did you adapt?

We had a smooth and privileged pandemic compared to most; I always worked from home, so that wasn't an adjustment. We had childcare — both my wife and I were at home — [so] we weren't on top of each other. We spent the pandemic at home in Seattle. We didn't have it as bad as a lot of people, but it was still really rough. The teachers are trying their best but [my kids] were not getting out of it what they got out of it by being at school.

For me, being a dad is a lot like being a cruise director, being the smiling face of the family. Like, here are the activities, here’s the good attitude (despite everything) — a rah-rah Scoutmaster type. That’s not who I am at my core, but as a dad, you kind of have to turn into that. Luckily I had over a decade of experience of it when the pandemic hit. That’s when you need your best cruise director's affect and attitude.

That’s a good attitude. Do you have any advice for fellow parents who may be struggling through these uncertain times?

Take time for yourself so that your kids don't drink in your frustrations or your anxiety. So when you’re with them, they’re getting everything they need — like confidence and optimism. Don't use your kids as little therapists and be careful about what kind of venting you do in front of them. They kind of need a rock.

What has surprised you about parenting? What were you least prepared for?

The constant change: People tend to remember their childhood as a constant, steady state, but when you see a kid from a parent's eye, you realize there’s a new interest or a new quirk every few weeks. It’s eye-opening how your own perception of childhood maybe isn't that accurate. You need to be ready for your kid to have a new challenge or obsession monthly — or more.

How do you carve out time for yourself?

When you work from home, you have to be intentional about creating a schedule. I’ll say these are the office hours, these are the home hours — even though the office is 10 feet away— [and I’ll] make sure there's a schedule for Mom and Dad to be alone too.

Does your Jeopardy! fame give you any cred at home with your teenagers?

I have a little more cred with them because they’re a generation who thinks they’re getting the truth from public figures and celebrities.

It’s hard to keep up with the host schedule at Jeopardy!. Have your kids ever mentioned who they’d like to see host it?

I think it’s me, actually! So they can go to Los Angeles more often [laughs]. When they were younger, they probably would’ve wanted Bob the Builder [laughs].

I went to a taping of Jeopardy! in the early aughts at Radio City Music Hall. The theater, from what I recall, was freezing. What’s something you wish people knew about what goes into a taping?

They tape five [shows] in a day, first of all. But the main surprising thing — and people don’t think about this — you’re watching people who are playing a game for the first time. Imagine watching Olympics fencing and seeing the athlete pick up a sword for the first time. So I think people are too hard on Jeopardy! contestants — they’re on TV for the first time ever, trying their sport for the very first time.

Tell us about the Varsity Tutors class you’re teaching.

I had to think about how preparing for Jeopardy! was like preparing for other things in life, like a mid-term test or job interview. It’s a stressful scenario and some people freak out in that scenario; it’s an interesting test case for people who worry about grades and performance because game shows are fun. Here’s a different lens to look at that through.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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