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Ken Jennings takes us home to ‘regular Virginia’ in a great Jeopardy! callback

(Regular) Virginia is for (Jeopardy!) lovers

jeopardy game board Photo: Sony Pictures Museum
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

It takes a particular set of skills to be a Jeopardy! writer. The beloved quiz show’s clues are full of clever wordplay and read-between-the-lines hints, and just as important are the category titles, which themselves nudge players in the direction of the correct responses. The writers love to have fun with those titles, and in Thursday’s episode, they threw in a callback to a hilarious moment from recent Jeopardy! history — drawing laughs and appreciation from the show’s fervent fan base.

In the July 28 game, the penultimate one of Jeopardy!’s 38th season, the sixth category in the Jeopardy round was “West Virginia & Regular Virginia.” That pairing didn’t actually come from the writers themselves, though — they were drawing on words uttered by players on an episode that had aired months earlier.

Alex Trebek was fond of saying that Jeopardy!’s contestants, not its host, are the stars of the show. As such, being smart enough (and fortunate enough) just to make it to that stage is the achievement of a lifetime, regardless of whether you can manage to win a game. And of course, there are other ways to become immortalized in Jeopardy! lore.

[Ed. note: The author appeared on Jeopardy! in 2021.]

Let’s take a drive back in time. In the March 2 episode of Jeopardy!, the $400 clue in the Double Jeopardy round’s “Road Trip” category mentioned a scenic Appalachian highway: “The Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with this state’s Shenandoah National Park.” Third-podium player Ujal Thakor buzzed in first with Tennessee — incorrect. Next up was Christie Baugher, who went with West Virginia. That was unfortunate for her, because it, too, was wrong, but a moment later, it turned out to be very fortunate for the previous day’s champion, Margaret Shelton (and for Jeopardy! fans everywhere).

“What is regular Virginia?” Shelton said, which host Ken Jennings affirmed as the correct response with his own bon mot: “regular, original recipe Virginia!”

The human brain works in mysterious ways. A goofy quip like “regular Virginia” is just the kind of flourish that you might spontaneously come up with if you’re a wordsmith, as many Jeopardy! players would say they are. And it also seemed perfectly appropriate coming from Shelton, a middle-aged homemaker from Pittsburgh with cat-eye glasses and bold jewelry. Clearly enjoying herself despite some nerves during her run as a four-day champion, she came across like a fun aunt, the kind of person who might be played on screen by Joan Cusack.

One of the special things about Jeopardy! is that it’s comfort food. The long-running game show airs nationally in syndication every weekday, a reliable piece of edifying entertainment that brings friends and family together. You can tune in for a one-night engagement and simply enjoy the competition on display, but the experience is richer if you’re a regular viewer.

Shelton’s remark immediately became a sensation among the Jeopardy! community, helped by the show’s social media team posting a clip of the moment online. “‘What is Regular Virginia?’ is an all time iconic #Jeopardy response,” wrote Tyler Rhode, himself a five-time champion from earlier this season, in a tweet that has more than 3,500 likes as of this writing. The day after the episode aired, a fan tweeted a link to an “I <3 Regular Virginia” T-shirt, saying, “I made this for the current Jeopardy Champ.” Within hours, Shelton herself said she had bought one.

orange leaves on trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah National Park on a foggy day
The Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah National Park — which is in regular Virginia, not West Virginia.
Photo: Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

All of that made it thrilling and endearing to see the “West Virginia & Regular Virginia” category pop up. It keeps alive a meme in the Jeopardy! community, but more than that, it’s a sign of the show’s writers being in conversation with its players and fans. The March 2 episode was taped on Jan. 11, while Thursday’s game was taped about four months later, on May 17. While it’s not clear how far in advance the show’s clues are written, that’s a pretty good turnaround time for a callback. (As a member of a group chat featuring dozens of former contestants, I can attest that both Shelton’s original line and Thursday’s category referencing it were a big hit with Jeopardy! viewers.)

Jeopardy! makes stars out of, well, regular people who just happen to know a lot of stuff. For most contestants, appearing on the show is the most exciting event in their lives. And whether you’re a one-and-done player or a multigame champ, it can be hard to return to your everyday existence, to cope with the “now what?” finality of the aftermath. (I’m speaking for myself, but also for untold numbers of former contestants that I’ve spoken to.)

That’s why this nod from the show is so meaningful. It lets viewers know that the writers are aware of the Jeopardy! fandom and the online reaction — and it signals to past and future players that the people who make the show won’t forget their exploits on the Alex Trebek Stage.

“This is true love for the contestants,” said Thakor, one of Shelton’s opponents in that original game, to me on Twitter after I posted about the callback. It’s just another memorable moment in the storied history of “regular Virginia.”

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