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Life 'normal' for Jennings

And he still loves Utah, although he lives elsewhere

Published: Monday, July 16 2007 12:02 a.m. MDT

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Ken Jennings still loves Utah, he wants you to know. He just doesn't live there anymore.

"I don't want to insult your readership by saying as soon as I got a lick of fame, I split out of town," the "Jeopardy!" champion told the Deseret Morning News. "I still spend a lot of time in Salt Lake."

Jennings, his wife and their two small children now reside in the Seattle area, where he was born. And life is as normal as it can be for a guy who won more than $3 million on a TV game show.

Their lives have actually changed "as little as possible," said Jennings. "My wife and I felt like we were very happy before. We had a nice little family. We had a nice little life. We didn't want to be the people who money turns them into jerks. Or money changes their priorities or whatever. So I can honestly say the money goes to good causes when we feel so inspired and just sits in investments otherwise."

Jennings and his wife are now the parents of two children, 4-year-old Dylan and 8-month-old Caitlyn. And Dylan was definitely affected by his father's "Jeopardy!" fame.

"He started calling me 'Ken Jennings' that summer instead of 'Daddy,' because that's what he heard the announcer on TV say. And he still sometimes does that when he talks about my TV persona."

And there's a feeling of security knowing that he'll be able to pay to send his kids to college.

"That's the one thing I'm happy about," Jennings said. "I don't know how much of the rest they'll get. I don't want to have some spoiled, Paris Hilton, heiress kids."

There are no ostentatious displays of wealth at the Jennings house. He didn't run out and make some splashy purchase with his winnings.

"I feel like I'm letting America down with my very sound fiscal policies or something. While I was still on, I bought a wide-screen TV because I really had always wanted one," Jennings said. "Whoo — 30 seconds of my 'Jeopardy!' winnings went into a TV."

The self-described "big movie buff" has since upgraded to a home-theater screening room, which is "sort of like my one luxury."

"I'm still driving the same '99 Corolla I was driving five years ago before I was on 'Jeopardy,' and people are always sort of let down by that. So, I'm sorry, America," he deadpanned. "I did not buy a Jaguar."

After that big summer of 2004 when he became a national TV star — and a very rich man — Jennings returned to Utah and his job as a computer programmer. But then came an offer to write a book ("Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs," which will be out in paperback in October) and the first big change in his lifestyle.

"The real change to my life is what I get to do every day. I was not that happy as a computer programmer just because I wasn't that good at it," Jennings said. "It was a great job, but I was a pretty lousy programmer, frankly. And I always wanted to write. Second only to being on a game show, I always wanted to write."

And he's been working on another book, "The Ken Jennings Trivia Almanac," which will be in bookstores in January.

He double majored in college — English and computer programming — and, with an eye toward supporting his family, when he graduated from BYU in 2000 he went into the field he thought would be more lucrative.

"I left BYU and I started working with some friends at a little Internet start-up, thinking, 'This is going to be great. I'm going to be a millionaire at 30.' And I guess I was, but not because of my Internet stock," Jennings said with a laugh.

Writing afforded him the opportunity to work from home. "I got to feel like I'm not missing my kids growing up. I get to do what I like every day. So, in that sense, it has changed my life, but in a good way."

His TV fame hasn't left a bad taste in his mouth.

"People, universally, are very nice no matter where I am. Whether it's the Costco in Murray or up in Seattle where I live now or crossing the street in Times Square, everybody's always very nice," Jennings said. "Whether people wanted me to win or not, there's a feel-good aspect to the story about just a normal nerd with a weird streak."

But Jennings — who's a quick-witted, funny guy — has learned that sometimes things can be horribly misconstrued when you're in the public eye. Like when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek list of suggestions to improve "Jeopardy!" and suggested host Alex Trebek had been replaced with a robot.

"It was just a list of jokey suggestions," like adding killer bees and physical challenges, but it was taken as serious criticism of the show in some quarters.

"Yeah, it was on the crawl on the Fox News Channel — 'Jennings bites the hand that feeds him, insults Alex Trebek,"' Jennings said. "I sent Alex a signed copy of my book with my apologies. I think we're still good. He's not going to put out some game-show hit squad or anything."

The game show he developed for Comedy Central — "Ken Jennings vs. The Rest of the World," which was sort of like "Win Ben Stein's Money" — didn't get picked up by that cable channel.

"I thought the show was smart and funny, and Comedy Central paid us to develop it and then decided to put ('The Colbert Report') on in that slot. I'm a big Colbert fan, so I really couldn't complain about that."

Jennings hasn't disappeared from TV. He appeared on NBC's "1 vs. 100," and he's about to appear on GSN's (formerly the Game Show Network) "Grand Slam," which premieres Aug. 7. That show, an import from Britain, will pit him against 15 of the other biggest winners in game-show history in head-to-head competition.

"As a game-show nerd, it was everything I loved. It was fast-paced, it was high stakes, it was mano y mano. It was more like a sports event than 'The Match Game.' It was very tense and Final Fourish."

Jennings himself doesn't have as much fun watching game shows as he used to.

"I guess it's kind of like the Vietnam vet who can't watch 'Apocalypse Now,' because I hear the music and sort of tense up," he said. "I've got, like, sort of post-traumatic game-show stress disorder. I can't just lie back on the couch and spit out answers anymore. It's a weird thing."


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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