Jeopardy! Head Writer Billy Wisse On Those Viral Music Questions and Making Alex Trebek Rap
Alex Trebek doesn’t actually know everything. Behind the Jeopardy! host, of course, is a staff of writers coming up with the clues that Trebek reads so astutely, as well as a cadre of off-screen judges who weigh the veracity of a contestant’s answer. Still, part of the fun of watching the show is Trebek confirming correct answers and rebuking wrong ones by inflecting his voice with knowing cordiality or loving disappointment, respectively.
Trebek is a facade of omniscience made humane, but his status within the show instantly, if briefly, falls apart when he reads a clue that, for instance, goes like this: “Panda, Panda… Panda, Panda, Panda, Panda, Panda.” The cadence with which Desiigner raps those words on his hit single “Panda” is embedded into the mainstream conscious, so when Trebek—old and unaware of the spastic joy of Desiigner—chanted the hook in his dry Canadian drawl, it was pure comedy.
That clue wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Although the long-running game show has long had a cheeky sense of humor about mining of-the-moment phenomena, recent forays into popular music—like the February category “Let’s Rap, Kids,” a “Yas Queen” line reading, and just last night, “’90s R&B Hitmakers”—have yielded increased viral attention. Trebek and the writers—including Billy Wisse, 54, who’s been the head writer since 2011—are having fun with it. Wisse spoke to SPIN about coming up with the clues, how a 33-season game show remains hip and happenin’, and just what type of music Trebek actually listens to. The conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.
How do you guys decide which clues make it on air?
There a lot of reasons for picking one clue over another, but writers write a category and within a category you just try to have fresh material that’s accessible to viewers, worded in an interesting way, and that our contestants are going to be able to answer them. It’s subjective but we just try to pick the most interesting material.
Do you have a music or pop culture expert on staff?
Of course, some people know more about certain things, but everyone is expected to pretty much be able to write about anything.
Then how do you guys keep up with what’s going on in pop culture?
One of the advantages of a wired world is you almost can’t avoid it. If your default screen is Yahoo! News, you go to your computer and there’s, like, seven headlines, you kind of can’t help seeing these names. So, you almost almost have to make an effort to avoid pop culture. And we’re all curious by nature, I think, so we try to stay curious. When we start hearing a name a lot, we’re like, “Oh, who is this Frank Ocean?” It’s very easy to go to YouTube and just watch a couple of videos.
Does Alex Trebek do his own research?
I would have to say, definitively, no he does not. He lets us write the clues and we tell him how to pronounce some of the names. He trusts that we know what we’re doing. It happens to us, too, where, “Well, I’ve never heard this word before, but I think I can make it come out of a contestant’s mouth.”
There’s a late February episode in which you had a category called “Let’s Rap, Kids.” How did that one come about?
We’ve done [music categories] a few times before with Alex and Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, and it’s gotten a little bit of attention every time. But the most recent one seems to have gotten more traction, and I think Alex has gotten a kick out of the attention also. We don’t want to go to this well too often. Alex has a certain personality and 99 percent of the time we stick to that personality and the tone of the show. But sometimes it’s fun to go against it a little bit. You obviously can’t get too raunchy at our show, but we try to get some things that sound a little bit goofy coming out of Alex’s mouth.
So it’s a mix of levity and discretion.
Yeah. It’s still going to be Jeopardy!, and the great thing about our format is that there’s 12 categories plus the Final. So, even if you had a little fun with one and there’s a certain segment of the audience that didn’t get into it, there are 11 more that they’ll hopefully enjoy.
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You even take some of the lyrics out of context, too. The “Becky With the Good Hair” category comes from Beyoncé lyric, but the group ranges from literature to TV.
That was great, because you could take a reference, but the clues would be solid Jeopardy! clues. There was one about Vanity Fair, a 19th century novel. That’s a classic Jeopardy! topic. That’s really kind of the sweet spot. Where you can be a little more hip with the title and the actual material doesn’t have to be a stretch for us. It’s just a new way to do old material.
Do you intend to lean into the attention you’ve gotten from the rap category and references?
We don’t want to start going after things like that. I think things happen organic, and our executive producer Harry Friedman is great at creating an atmosphere where cool things happen for the show on the right schedule. We’re not chasing after clicks or whatever, but at the same time, you don’t want people to say, “Oh! Jeopardy! is still on the air.” You want to get a little extra attention once in a while.
What type of music you and Alex listen to?
Alex is a Frank Sinatra guy—he likes that whole era. I’m kind of an ‘80s music guy, but hopefully not stuck back there. On hourlong drives, I’ve become an addict of this one country music station.
Are you and Alex planning on listening to anymore Beyoncé or Drake anytime soon?
We’re gonna stick to our own tastes, I think.