The Fascinating Story Behind Cheers' Jeopardy Episode Featuring Alex Trebek

When a sitcom reaches a certain level of longevity, it can be easy for writers to take their audience for granted. Storylines get lightly reworked, if not recycled wholesale. Cheap ratings are scored by having a significant character get married (call it the "Rhoda boost"). And there's no better way to guarantee the maximum amount of eyeballs than to have a major celebrity play themselves within the world of our favorite characters.

This typically works. Who can forget the time Bobby Brady faked a serious illness to earn a bedside visit from Joe Namath on "The Brady Bunch," or the time that pint-sized prankster Arnold Jackson pulled the same trick to get Muhammad Ali up to the Drummond's penthouse on "Diff'rent Strokes?" These are memorable episodes to be sure, but there's nothing more to them than the cameo.

It's far more satisfying when you can drop the celeb into the madness of the characters' lives, and watch them marvel in shock and terror that such people exist in this world. This is what the "Cheers" gang accomplished during their eighth season when they hit upon the genius idea to have Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), the watering hole's dispenser of often unasked-for trivial knowledge, participate on "Jeopardy!" It was a can't-miss episode, and the show's host, Alex Trebek, effortlessly rolled with the insanity, all the way up to Cliff's Final Jeopardy debacle.

It's hardly a surprise that a writing staff as skilled as "Cheers" would nail a guest star appearance (they once deftly worked Ethel Kennedy into a cold open). Interestingly, it was almost a smaller element of the episode until the writers realized the explosive comedic potential of Cliff on the ultimate smart-person game show.

What is... a perfect sitcom episode?

The episode, "What Is... Cliff Clavin?," began life as a "Cheers" spec script submitted by the writing team of Dan O'Shannon and Tom Anderson. Spec scripts are essentially sample episodes knocked out by writers eager to land a gig on a network sitcom. The rule of thumb is to have several specs in your repertoire for different shows (for your agent to submit), and if you really want to showcase your talent, make sure they're for top-flight series.

Sitcoms didn't get any better in the 1980s than "Cheers," and the producers loved O'Shannon and Anderson's "Jeopardy!" idea that they hired them and asked them to turn what was in their script as the B-plot into the A-story.

Writing for veteran TV writer Ken Levin's blog, O'Shannon gave Anderson the credit for the "Jeopardy!" premise, but the expansion of the concept was apparently a team effort, one that everyone in the writers' room had a blast with.

"As we pitched on it in the room, I came up with the notion to fill the board with Cliff's dream categories. I'd scribbled down four or five possible examples, like "bar trivia" and ending with "celibacy." Once the idea was pitched, we batted categories around the room, which was great fun. I remember us all shouting out ideas and laughing like crazy."

The other three categories are "Civil Servants," "Stamps from Around the World," "Mothers and Sons" and "Beer." Once these are announced, we cut to Woody (Woody Harrelson) and Norm (George Wendt) in the audience. Woody predicts Cliff to win in a rout, but Norm knows better. He's going to blow this. And, boy, does he ever. How he blows it originated in an old bit from O'Shannon's stand-up act.

Cliff destroys, then saves Jeopardy!

Like many comedy writers, O'Shannon got his start as a comedian, and one of his jokes was an observation that, playing by the game's own rules, you could never be wrong on "Jeopardy!" As O'Shannon explained, "Anyone could win all the money on 'Jeopardy!' every night if they wanted, because for each answer given on the show, there are an infinite number of technically correct questions."

Cliff puts this concept to the test when, up by several hundred thousand dollars on his closest opponent, he risks it all in Final Jeopardy on the topic Movies. The answer: "Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz and Lucille LeSueur." The correct question is "Who are Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and Lucille Ball" (these are the actors' birth names). Cliff doesn't know this so he asks "Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?" Having cockily risked all of his money, he loses, but not before ranting into the television camera that a grave injustice has been done.

In the final scene, Cliff notches a minor victory when Trebek drops by the bar to apologize. Cliff's question was, in theory, correct. This revelation has shaken the host to his core, to the extent that he is going to quit the show and spend time in Tibet. Cliff pleads with Trebek to stick with the show for the good of America. The host takes his advice, allowing Cliff to crow that he saved "Jeopardy!" And that's how you do a celebrity episode.