There’s Actually a ‘Jeopardy!’ Buzzer Guy Who Manually Controls the Show’s Signaling Devices
If you’ve watched the quiz show Jeopardy! for any length of time, you may have noticed the dance of the buzzer among contestants. Some, like Ken Jennings, intuitively learn how to work it effortlessly. Other contestants seemingly wrestle with it, unable to buzz in before their fellow players.
The trick, players have said, has been to learn the rhythm of the host’s reading of the clue before ringing in.
The contestant buzzers aren’t controlled automatically or electronically. Instead, they’re manually managed by one very important staffer at Jeopardy!
Jennings said this was his secret to buzzer success
A big part of winning at Jeopardy!, 74-game winner Jennings revealed, was learning the ways of the buzzer. According to the former contestant, who has served as the show’s consulting producer since 2020, players who don’t know their way around the buzzer will likely lose even if they know all the answers.
Jennings explained at the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference “the very narrow window” of time that Jeopardy! players actually have to buzz in.
“The buzzer is famously tricky,” he said. “You can’t click as soon as you know it. You have to wait for Alex [Trebek] to finish reading the question. At that point, somebody at the judge’s table flips a switch, activating your buzzer. If you buzz in early, you get locked out for a fraction of a second. If you buzz in late, you get beat.”
He told Interview the buzzer, in the end, is a “zen thing.”
“If you watch it for decades like I had, you internalize the rhythms of Alex’s voice and then the whole cycle because you see it 60 times an evening. Alex reads a clue, there’s a beat, somebody buzzes in, gets called on—you hear that staccato of it in your head, almost like a pulse. . . If I think about it, I can’t do it. It’s very much a zen thing.”
The ‘Jeopardy!’ researcher who is king of the buzzer
Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! author Claire McNear gave the man behind the buzzers a brief, deserved moment in the spotlight for an unsung job.
McNear stated in The Ringer last month that Jeopardy! staffer Michael Harris, who’s a researcher for the quiz show, also is tasked with control of the players’ buzzers.
Surprisingly, in the Alexa-driven, digital atmosphere we all inhabit, Jeopardy!‘s buzzer system is efficiently handled by Harris.
“On Jeopardy!, the mechanics of the signaling device are mostly hidden from viewers at home,” McNear writes. “As the host reads each clue, researcher Michael Harris looks on from the offstage judges’ table.”
McNear’s buzzer narrative confirms Jennings’ account: “At the precise moment that the host finishes the clue’s final word, Harris flips a physical switch that simultaneously activates the contestants’ buzzers and illuminates a row of blue lights along the outer edges of the Jeopardy! game board,” she writes. “If players buzz in before Harris flips the switch, they’re locked out of the system for a quarter-second.”
The guest-host revolving door has tested Harris’ skills
With celebrity guest hosts taking the helm since Alex Trebek’s death, viewers have been treated to two-week hosting stints with Ken Jennings, the show’s executive producer Michael Richards, Aaron Rodgers, Katie Couric, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Anderson Cooper, and Bill Whitaker. Still to come are Savannah Guthrie, Mayim Bialik, and Sanjay Gupta.
For Harris, guest hosts seem to have been less of a treat, as he’s had to acclimate himself to each one’s clue delivery, according to McNear.
“It’s a fresh challenge for Harris, too,” she said. “After years of flipping along to a Trebekian tempo, he must now recalibrate with each new host. He, at least, gets some practice before showtime: As the new host works out their delivery kinks during their rehearsal day, he’s on hand to perfect his own.”
It seems Harris won’t have to worry about getting used to new guest hosts much longer. Jennings reportedly announced “there will be a permanent host next year. I’m not being coy.”