Ken Jennings is a man of answers.
His unparalleled pursuit of all things trivia led to 74 consecutive victories on “Jeopardy!” and winnings totaling more than $2.5 million. Jennings’ experiences on the game show led to trivia-infused books such as “Brainiac,” “Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac” and “Maphead.”
But in his latest book, “Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture” (Scribner, 320 pages), Jennings doesn’t have all the answers. He can only speculate as to how what he perceives to be a modern explosion of comedy — a rapid-fire “jokes-per-minute” society that can't ever seem to take things seriously — came to be.
“There’s something ominous about … the 50 new Twitter jokes per minute on my phone,” Jennings writes in the opening chapter of “Planet Funny,” which hit shelves May 29. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still laughing, but it feels unsustainable, the same way tourists often feel amid the splendid excess of someplace like Vegas or Dubai.”
A self-described class clown and lifelong appreciator of comedy, Jennings first began writing “Planet Funny” out of a love and fascination for the art form — he even devotes a few pages to dissecting jokes.
“Why do we laugh? Sometimes we laugh at things (and) we don't know why. Sometimes we laugh at awful things and then feel bad,” Jennings told the Deseret News. “Cognitively, it was fascinating to me. What was going on down there at the bottom of my brain when I thought something was funny?”
But as he got deeper into research, Jennings said his fascination turned into “a little bit of repulsion.”
“I started talking to ad agencies about how jokes dominate branding now, and watching jokes dominate political campaigns and realizing that it didn’t seem like anyone was enjoying it all that much anymore — that more was not necessarily better,” he said.
Jennings said writing “Planet Funny” — a book four years in the making — came with its challenges. In addition to his tendency to procrastinate, Jennings said he had to overcome self-doubt that the concerns being proposed were in fact warranted and not just made up. Not a comedian, comedy writer or cultural historian by profession, Jennings said he also engaged in an extensive three-year research process speaking with comedy writers, stand-up comedians, advertising agencies and even “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Receiving reinforcement regarding his research from the majority of those he interviewed — including Yankovic — helped ease Jennings’ mind.
“(Yankovic) was delighted (with the research) and that seemed to me like a symptom of something,” Jennings said. “I didn’t want to be unconvincing to people who actually knew the field.”
But writing “Planet Funny” — a book scrutinizing a fast-paced art form in an ever-changing society — had a unique problem of its own.
“I felt like the culture was changing around me while I was writing it,” Jennings said, citing the 2016 presidential campaign as a “turning point moment” in a comedy-saturated culture. “The month I kind of got serious about a first draft, Trump won the election and I was like, ‘This book has a different ending now.’”
Jennings’ ending to “Planet Funny” doesn’t disparage comedy — “I come to praise comedy, not to bury it,” he writes in the final chapter. But, without giving too much away, he does humbly suggest that our comedy-ridden society should at times be offset with sincerity.
And coming from a former class clown, that’s a telling statement.
“I’m worried about what all the jokes are doing to our culture. I worry that it’s making us less savvy about the decisions we make,” he said. “It’s the product or the candidate or the message that has the best joke, the one that feels the best because we’re laughing (that is successful) and not actually the one that would win on its own merits. … I think that the impulse to always have something quick and snarky to say about everything — which the internet has bred in us — makes us less compassionate and empathetic as a people.”
But again, Jennings isn’t here to trivialize comedy (pun intended) — in fact, he leaves readers with a lengthy list of things that have made him laugh over the years. He is simply here to raise awareness and spark a conversation.
“I would love if smarter people than me started talking about these questions,” he said. “It seems to be one of the most prevalent trends of our time and we haven’t really grappled with it, all the jokes, so I would love to see people read the book and start arguing with it and talking about it and suggesting alternatives, like what … can we do to ensure that there’s still some level of seriousness and sincerity in our culture when it’s merited?"