Isthmus editor Kenneth Burns wins on 'Jeopardy!'

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Posted by on February 24, 2009 at 14:12:32:

Isthmus editor Kenneth Burns wins on 'Jeopardy!'

by Katjusa Cisar | 77 Square | February 24, 2009

"Hey, Madison! I'm Kenneth Burns. Grab some cheese and watch me on 'Jeopardy!'"

That's the "hometown howdy" from Madison's own Kenneth Burns, known to most here as Isthmus' arts and entertainment editor. On Monday's episode of "Jeopardy!", he finished triumphant and $21,600 richer. On Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. on WMTV Ch. 15, he'll be competing as the returning champion.

He can't divulge the outcome, but he said Madisonians should "certainly" watch Tuesday.

"Jeopardy!" staff coached Burns and his fellow 10 contestants to give their "howdy" some hometown flavor, hence Burns' Wisconsin cheese reference.

"Groupthink sets in. The guy from Philly says 'cheese steak' and it goes from there," Burns said in an interview Tuesday morning.

The episodes that air this week were actually taped back in January at the "Jeopardy!" studios in Culver City, Calif. Burns' taping happened to be on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

"I remember at about noon, (a "Jeopardy!" staffer) looked at her watch and said, 'Oh, we have a new president.' It was a tense group of people, as you can imagine, but that was a tension breaker," he said.

In retrospect, spending time with a tense group of "Jeopardy!" contestants is rife with humor. In an entertaining piece about his "Jeopardy!" experience over on Isthmus' Daily Page, he related how one contestant was feverishly studying a Wikipedia printout about Shakespeare before the taping began.

Burns is a lifelong fan of "Jeopardy!" and has played alone with the television and with friends over the years. The show's emphasis on liberal arts knowledge appeals to him. He has an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in international relations, both from the University of Chicago.

"I love the show. Unlike most commercial television, especially reality television, it emphasizes a broad range of knowledge. I think that's something that's not prized as much as it used to be, except on 'Jeopardy!'"

But he also exercised his pop culture knowledge, correctly identifying a "15-year-old star" with "controversial magazine photos" as Miley Cyrus.

Often, it just comes down to finding the correct key words, he said. For example, he didn't know all the details in an answer about "this Russian empress," but his guess of Catherine the Great turned out to be right.

There's also a trickiness to hitting the buzzer at exactly the right moment.

"It's a game. There's an element of luck," he said. "You need that baseline knowledge, but you also have to manage the buzzer well, and wager wisely in the Daily Doubles. It's good not to guess on the higher value questions."

Burns' ten fellow competitors represent ten states across the country. They were "cordial" with one another and made small talk, he said, but the vibe was "a little awkward, partly because of the novelty of the situation."

The contestants definitely didn't get together back at the hotel for raucous post-game parties.

"The evening after my triumph, I spent some time on the treadmill," said Burns.

Despite generally liking the other contestants, Burns said he hasn't kept in touch with any of them since January.

"There really ought to be a Facebook group for Jeopardy contestants," he said.

Facebook did bring old friends from grade school to grad school out of the virtual woodwork, he said: "I promoted this on Facebook, mostly via my status. The well wishes and congratulations just poured in. It's a testement to how Facebook is changing things."

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