In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
“Weird Al” Yankovic- “I Lost On Jeopardy”
PEAK: #81 on July 7, 1984
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Prince’s “When Doves Cry”
Nowadays, Jeopardy! has become perfectly embedded within American culture, the kind of show that’s hard to imagine living without. For me and many others, there are fun memories as a child of watching it with your family where you never get tired of watching three contestants try their best to give the correct questions to the answers. All of this was shown recently with the outpouring of grief for its longtime host Alex Trebek who died in November after a battle with pancreatic cancer. With Trebek’s last episode now aired and GOAT contestant Ken Jennings among others guest hosting, it’s going to feel weird to watch the show now without the man who made it a modern cultural touchstone.
But when famed pop music parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic released his parody about a helplessly outmatched Jeopardy! contestant in 1984, the show was considered a relic of the past. It had been almost a decade since its original version was canceled and it seemed like people had moved on from it. Yankovic’s song “I Lost on Jeopardy!” was simply meant as a nostalgic tribute to a show that he loved growing up. Little did he know that at the same time, the show’s original creator Merv Griffin had begun planning a syndicated revival of Jeopardy! that would premiere in 1984 and is the version that’s still airing today. Just think that without Weird Al, we wouldn’t have had Alex Trebek in our lives.
The origins of Jeopardy! date back to the early ‘60s when Merv Griffin and his wife Julann discussed an idea about a game show where contestants were given the answers and had to come up with the questions. This was in response to the recent game show fixing scandals that had programmers iffy about the idea of game shows on television. Griffin brought the idea to NBC who were immediate fans premiering the show in March 1964 with Art Fleming as the original host. The show quickly became a major success becoming one of the highest-rated game shows of the period before a time shift in the ‘70s cost the show much of its viewers leading to its cancellation in 1975.
Talking to Claire McNear in the new book Answers In The Form Of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!, Yankovic recalled being a big fan of the original Jeopardy! as a kid in the ‘60s, “It was the old show hosted by Art Fleming, with Don Pardo as the announcer, which I honestly just had the vaguest memory of, but I thought, well, this would be a fun thing to write a song about.” As usual for Yankovic, he looked around at what was happening in pop music at the time to find the perfect hit to set to his parody. Luckily, he didn’t have to look that far.
In the spring of 1983, the pop-rock group the Greg Kihn Band had a major hit with a song that happened to be titled “Jeopardy.” The original song was not about the game show but instead about a guy fretting that his relationship is falling apart as the main hook implies, “Our love’s in jeopardy, baby.” Aside from the perfect title, the original “Jeopardy” is also a silly song. Frontman Greg Kihn sings the lyrics with a lot of comical melodrama as a guy freaking out about his relationship. When you add in the equally melodramatic music video, it lends itself perfectly to a comedic parody. “Jeopardy” wound up peaking at #2 unable to top the phenomenon of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” (It’s a 6.)
In discussing his idea for parodying the Greg Kihn Band’s hit, Yankovic felt it would be a natural twist on the original “Jeopardy” giving it more of a pop-cultural bent. As with most Yankovic parodies, his take stays largely faithful to the song he’s parodying. Aside from lowering the key, not much is different. Producer Rick Derringer maintains the same driving keyboard playing, the same reverb guitar riff that plays in the chorus, and the same goofy group singing that gives the chorus is catchiness. (Derringer has made #1 hits as both a member of the McCoys and as a producer but his highest-charting single as a lead artist, 1973’s “Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo,” peaked at #23.)
Lyrically, instead of freaking out about a failing relationship, Yankovic is freaking out because he’s losing on Jeopardy!. Outmatched by two smarter contestants, Yankovic is nervous admitting that maybe it’s not his night. He’s failing at giving the correct questions and blanks out when he has to answer the all-important Daily Double. The show’s original announcer, Don Pardo, makes an appearance in a spoken-word interlude telling him of all the cheesy game show parting gifts he didn’t win and that he’s a disgrace to his family. Defeated, Yankovic figures he’ll do better on another game show The Price is Right next weekend.
Considering the comical delivery Greg Kihn did on “Jeopardy,” Yankovic didn’t have to change the tone that much. He brings that freaked out melodrama singing about his mind going blank. The thing that makes all of it funny is the absurdity of it all of getting worked up about an appearance on a game show. But from what I’ve learned, being a contestant on Jeopardy! is one of the most nerve-racking experiences you can have in your life. You’re on national television competing with two other players constantly testing your knowledge in a variety of subjects that you may or may not be familiar with. Then there’s the added pressure of trying to buzz in quickly to give your response and win the money you need to win the game. Even with the dated references, this still rings true. On “I Lost on Jeopardy,” Yankovic makes losing on Jeopardy! sound like something to be proud of, a sort of anthem for the losers.
For the music video, Yankovic did his best to recreate an actual game of Jeopardy! so much so that he managed to get both Art Fleming and Don Pardo themselves to appear in the video in their respective roles of host and announcer. There are also other cameos including the famed comedy radio broadcaster Dr. Demento, the man who helped Yankovic’s early records get big, as well as his band members, parents, and Greg Kihn himself who allowed for Yankovic to parody his song. We see Yankovic nervous and sweating throughout as his two opponents get their questions right and toward the end is thrown out of the studio with Fleming and staff happily singing along to the chorus. In a nod to the “Jeopardy” video, Yankovic gets thrown into the back of a convertible where Kihn then drives off. You can tell everyone involved is having a good time.
“I Lost on Jeopardy” was released as part of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s second album, 1984’s “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D, which is the album that helped to cement Yankovic’s place as pop music’s all-around funnyman. This was largely thanks to its lead single and breakthrough hit “Eat It,” a parody of “Beat It” which ended up peaking at #12, Yankovic’s highest-charting single for over two decades. The second single, “King of Suede,” a parody of The Police’s “King of Pain” peaked much lower at #62. (The Police’s “King of Pain” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) And as the last single, “I Lost on Jeopardy” didn’t do much better peaking at #81.
The song may not have peaked very high on the charts but it resonated in a very big way thanks to perfect timing. By the fall of 1983, Griffin began to weigh the idea of bringing back Jeopardy! thanks to the immediate success his other game show creation Wheel of Fortune was having after it debuted in syndication and to entice networks to air it figured a new version of Jeopardy! would work well with Wheel to create an evening hour block. A test pilot was taped in 1983 with Alex Trebek, then a game show journeyman, hosting but test audiences didn’t respond well to it suggesting people weren’t interested in a new version of Jeopardy!. Undeterred, Griffin and team moved ahead with production.
June 4, 1984, the same day “I Lost on Jeopardy” was released was also the same day that staff for the new Jeopardy! came together for the first time with the head writer making everyone listen to Yankovic’s song. As then-Jeopardy! producer Harry Eisenberg said, “I was surprised “I Lost on Jeopardy” was so popular. It got ample airplay even though the show hadn’t been on in years. Maybe it was an omen of good things to come.” As for Griffin himself, he seemed to like the attention that Yankovic’s parody brought to the show right as it was making its return having Yankovic perform the song on his talk show during the summer of ’84. Talking together afterward, Griffin cited “I Lost On Jeopardy” for Jeopardy!’s return even suggesting Yankovic could have been the host.
Griffin was obviously joking but Yankovic’s parody certainly brought lots of attention toward the upcoming Jeopardy! revival. And it wound up paying off. When the new syndicated version of Jeopardy! premiered in September 1984, it became an immediate hit in the ratings proving that Americans once again had an appetite for answer and question trivia.
Since then, it’s remained a constant ratings draw with last year’s primetime Greatest Of All Time tournament netting at its peak over 17 million viewers. It’s also remained a big pop-cultural presence whether through its various Saturday Night Live parodies, TV and movie placements, or when the famous Final Jeopardy “Think” music is used in various thinking situations. Yankovic’s song has also stuck around showing up on Jeopardy! many times as a clue and when professional gambler James Holzhauer lost after an impressive 32 game winning streak in 2019 he changed his Twitter avatar to Yankovic in the “I Lost on Jeopardy” video. Even the most successful contestants can find solace in Yankovic’s loser parody anthem.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s one of those Jeopardy! clue placements from 2018 where his song became the subject of a Daily Double though thankfully this contestant’s mind didn’t go blank answering it: