If you ask Alex to pick his favorite contestant from his 30-plus years on the show, Dana Venator is a name that is always near the top of the list. As a finalist on Jeopardy!’s inaugural Teen Tournament in 1987, Dana captured the hearts of viewers particularly during her interview segments. From her “bad poetry” recitations, to her thoughts about bagpipers, to her marveling at a hotel room, Dana’s natural, earnest charm created an enduring memory not only with Alex but with fans as well.
Dana last appeared on the program in 1998 during the Teen Reunion Tournament, but since we’re in the middle of this year’s Teen Tournament, we thought it’d be a good opportunity to catch up with her to hear about the J!Effect in her life.
Her J!Effect Story
The first time (I was on Jeopardy!) was the very first Teen Tournament, and I had an absolute blast. Earned some money for college – it looked wonderful on the college applications, by the way – and met some really fun people, had a wonderful time. It also was a real confidence booster for me. And it helped bring me out of my shell a little bit, so that was great.
And the second time, for the first Teen Reunion Tournament, I didn’t do as well on the show, but the money I did win allowed me to pay for some eye surgery, which I desperately needed. For the first time in 20 years, I got to see the world without glasses. So it literally improved my eyes – I could see the world differently because of Jeopardy!
I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many people remember me … or when they find out I was on, the positive response I get from that. It’s a real connection with people. It’s sort of like if you went to a summer camp and (years later) you’re meeting someone at a cocktail party and it turns out they went to that same camp, too. Suddenly, you have this common experience; it’s sort of like that. It’s a really great icebreaker.
All in the Same Tribe
The only reason [the Teen Tournament contestants] were successful is that we all had that same mindset of, “This is cool, this is fun – isn’t it great that we’re not being punished for being smart?”
All that negative stuff in popular culture that usually gets cast on people who are smart or engaged in learning and really enjoy learning – that’s all gone. We all knew as soon as we walked in that room that we were all in the same tribe. We all had the same attitude; it was very positive and encouraging. Everyone was as kind as they could be. … We had this common, shared experience and this same outlook on things. It was incredibly positive.
Alex Trebek, Favorite Dinnertime Guest
Alex Trebek has always done a great job in being a very gracious host in every sense of the word. He’s also everyone’s favorite dinnertime guest, because a lot of people eat dinner while watching Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek is always the guest that is welcomed into their home, and he’s always going to behave impeccably. He’s always going to be kind, welcoming, trustworthy, honest. And he’s always going to be humorous. He’s a funny guy – he’s a very warm, charming person. And the show as a whole is built in such a way that those are the virtues that come out in all of the contestants.
Everyone Is Welcome
[Jeopardy! is] a confidence builder, an ice breaker, and it’s extremely inclusive. There is no color barrier, there is no age requirement. Everyone is welcome and everyone participates. You can be an ordinary person and you are still just as welcome as a college professor, a lawyer, a stockbroker; just as welcome as anyone else to be on the show. Everyone is welcome, everyone is eligible, everybody’s in the game.
There is actually a product that many teachers use where you play Jeopardy! in the classroom. … It’s a very non-threatening way of giving people an opportunity to participate in a very positive way. ... I think there’s a lot of bad baggage that comes with educational issues in our country, but Jeopardy! is a great antidote to that, and it does celebrate learning.
We’re All On the Same Team
Everybody I’ve ever talked to loves Jeopardy!, watches Jeopardy! It’s a part of their family life. … It’s something that keeps them engaged. It’s a very positive way to recognize intelligence and humor and civility. And every time I hear [people] talk about Jeopardy!, their faces just light up, and they smile. It’s a real way to connect with people, [and] to discover that total strangers do, in fact, have a lot in common. It gives everyone who watches it – no matter how much money they have, no matter what they look like, no matter what accent they have, no matter how old they are, no matter what their family situation is, it gives us all a shared experience that is positive and celebratory and civil and encouraging. …It’s a half-hour, every day, where we’re all on the same team.