Ken You Believe It?

When I read that legendary “Jeopardy!” nerd-millionaire Ken Jennings was going to be in Portland last week for a book signing, I thought: I bet he would like to have dinner with me while he’s in town. I mean, who wouldn’t?! I’m a perfectly suitable dinner companion. I exercise proper table etiquette, I don’t talk with my mouth full, and there are many restaurants from which I have not been banned.

Ken Jennings and I both graduated from Brigham Young University (motto: “Resistance Is Futile”) and were there at the same time, but we didn’t know each other. He knew who I was, though, because he read my “Snide Remarks” column in the campus paper every week, and subsequently in the local rag that I worked for. He also figures he must have seen me perform with the Garrens Comedy Troupe once or twice. In other words, KEN JENNINGS WAS A HUGE ERIC D. SNIDER FAN.

I was unaware of any of this until last fall, when I auditioned for “Jeopardy!” and wrote a column about it. The column somehow came to Ken Jennings’ attention — Ken Jennings is all-knowing and all-seeing — and he e-mailed me to say hello and good luck with getting on the show and all that. I replied to say thank you and to point out that THAT VERY NIGHT I was going to be doing a show in Provo in which I would debut my new song ABOUT KEN JENNINGS! How magical it would be, I said, if he attended the show and heard the song with his own nerd ears as I performed it live! Alas, he was flying somewhere for a speaking engagement, so he couldn’t come. He said he was flattered, though, with something to the effect of, “This makes up for all the times I could have impressed a date by being mentioned in a Garrens sketch.”

So now it’s almost a year later, and I see he’s going to be in Portland, where I live. I e-mail him, ask if he wants to have lunch or something, he suggests a post-signing dinner instead, and the arrangements are made. I had cheered for him during his historic “Jeopardy!” run, and of course (as mentioned) he was a devoted, almost rabid Eric D. Snider fan. Our first in-person meeting promised to be a joyous affair of mutual fawning, gushing and admiration.

He was speaking and signing books at the Barnes & Noble at Clackamas Town Center, in the southeastern corner of Portland. It’s part of his tour to promote “Brainiac,” his new book that tells his “Jeopardy!” story, addresses America’s love with trivia in general, offers tips to would-be contestants, and reveals the source of Alex Trebek’s absurdly high level of smugness. (Steroids.)

I showed up at the end of Ken Jennings’ presentation and observed as he chatted with well-wishers, took pictures with them, and signed their books (“Who is Ken Jennings?” is how he signs them). He was amiable and friendly, even with the people who were clearly insane. I asked later if this had been a good turnout for one of his appearances, and he said it was average. It’s hard to gauge where the crowds will be. I said I figured Salt Lake City would be a good one for him, since he’s a Mormon and used to live there, but he said his last appearance there, at the Barnes & Noble in the Sugarhouse neighborhood, was actually rather sparse.

“Well, that’s Sugarhouse,” I said. “It’s a very hip, trendy part of town. If you’d been a lesbian, there would have been a lot of people there.”

“Ah,” he said. “Well, I do like women….”

“See? You’re halfway there.”

We left the mall and walked across the street to Red Robin, the nearest eatery that was not in the mall and not called Chevy’s.

Here are the answers to some things you are probably wondering about:

1. Yes, Ken Jennings paid for dinner. Actually, since he was on the book tour, Random House paid for it. I asked him if people always expect him to pick up the check now that he’s rich, and he said some do. Others offer to pay, “as a point of pride,” perhaps hoping he’ll say no. He doesn’t, though: “If they want to pay, I let them pay.” And that’s how Ken Jennings will STAY rich.

2. No, Ken Jennings was not wearing a suit made of $100 bills. They were 50s.

3. Yes, Ken Jennings drives a 1999 Toyota Corolla.

4. No, Ken Jennings did not slip the Red Robin hostess a 20 in order to get us a better table.

5. Yes, there is a woman out there who has kissed both Ken Jennings and me. While we were trying to figure out if we had any BYU friends in common, he named a particular girl whom I had indeed been friends with, and whom I’d even dated briefly in 1998. Turns out he went to high school with her and dated her back then. Seeking to brag, I said, “Sure, but did you kiss her?” He said, “Yes — why, have we kissed?!” And the answer is that yes, since I kissed a girl who had previously kissed him, in a way Ken Jennings and I have kissed each other. Considering the list of women I have kissed is not lengthy, this is a profound coincidence.

I was pleased to discover that in person Ken Jennings is extremely chatty and funny, very much at ease with his crazy new life and apparently unaffected by it. His humor is self-deprecating — we discussed the issue of his 15 minutes of fame, which he said he’s hoping “Brainiac” will extend — and there was much laughter and merriment as we ate our giant Red Robin burgers and used $100 bills to light cigars.

Aside from the girl we both kissed and our basic LDS, BYU backgrounds, we have a few things in common:

1. We both love movies, pop culture and trivia.

2. We both have had periods of fame where people on the street recognized us. His is waning now, and mine waned a long time ago and was only ever in effect at BYU and in Provo, but still.

3. We both grew up elsewhere, moved to Utah to go to school, stuck around longer than we had planned, woke up one day and said, “Holy crap! I’ve lived in Utah for 10 years!,” and then finally fled to the Pacific Northwest.

4. Sometimes people ask us stupid things. He said a fan e-mailed him wondering if he had contact information for a contestant who had appeared on “Jeopardy!” in 1999, five years before Ken Jennings himself appeared, as if getting on the show entitled you to a copy of some huge “Jeopardy!” contestant directory. In response, I told him about the torment I’ve suffered at the hands of Raven-Symone’s all-idiot fanbase, who believe that since I have mentioned Raven-Symone in a movie review, surely I must also have her e-mail address.

Ken Jennings still had to drive back home to Seattle that night, so we could not linger at Red Robin for hours and hours, nor could we move on to the second phase of my plan for the evening, which was to go to some strip clubs, get drunk, and have Ken Jennings co-sign a car loan for me. We walked back to the Barnes & Noble parking lot and parted ways. I called some friends to tell them that I’d met Ken Jennings, and I’m pretty sure he called his friends to do some bragging, too. He was a pretty big fan of mine, after all.

I'm such a tool.

Ken Jennings wrote about our meeting in his blog, which I recommend you read regularly anyway, because he's a funny writer. And speaking of that, pick up a copy of "Brainiac" while you're at it. A more entertaining and amusing discussion of trivia and "Jeopardy!" I have not read.

Why did I refer to Ken Jennings by his full name throughout the column? I don't know. For some reason I think it's vaguely funnier. I note that the last time I did that, it was with Mel Gibson. Make of that what you will.

If you would like to hear the Ken Jennings song I referred to, it's called "Mr. Bright Guy," and it can be found (with some other Eric D. Snider recordings) here. It's also on my second CD, "Monkeys and Pirates Are Funny."

I mentioned my "Jeopardy!" audition. It happened last November, and I passed the test and was put into the contestant pool. However, there are something like 40,000 people in that pool at any given time, and they only need a few hundred a year, so the odds aren't good. If they don't call you within 12 months, you're out of the pool and you have to audition again -- which means if I don't get a call within the next three weeks, I'm hosed. I'm not holding my breath.

With this column, we implement a new feature on the ability to post comments on any article on the site. Previously, you had to send me an e-mail to tell me how disappointed you were in a column, or how much I've slipped since the old days. Now, you can say so directly on the page on which the article appears! That's progress, kids!