Quiz Show Underground: Quiz Grand Prix

Most people’s idea of a Japanese game show involves ridiculous stunts and/or over-the-top variety shows.  This show is not like that, but just as interesting.

This week Jeopardy! celebrates 30 years of syndication by beginning a Battle of the Decades tournament featuring past champions. It’s sure to have some high-grade brain power (see for yourself), but the tourney does nothing to highlight its true origins and how even before Alex Trebek brought his mustache to primetime, everyone’s favorite A&Q game was already taking the world by storm and resulted in one of the most full-of-awe quizzes to ever hit Japanese television.

Have you heard the story of how Jeopardy! came to be? It’s neat. While entertainer and one-time Ryan Seacrest-employer Merv Griffin was trying to think of the next big game show, his wife, lamenting how the quiz show scandals ruined trivia games, suggested that instead of the contestants finding answers to questions, it’d be the other way around. In 1964, it went to air on NBC with Art Fleming as host and lasted nine years. (Fun Fact: as a make-good for canning Jeopardy! NBC agreed to pick up Wheel of Fortune, which started airing the next week.) In 1970, Jeopardy finally went global, as versions started airing in Australia, Italy, and of course, Japan, with the latter’s Quiz Grand Prix ended up outlasting the other two countries’ versions by 2 and 6 years respectively. Maybe because of how nuts it was.

Each day, instead of two newcomers and a returning champion, five players played in a 15-minute sprint against the Jeopardy board and each other. The six genres (categories) were always the same: Sports, The Arts, Literature & History, Society, Science, and a rotating special category (which for championship games became a general potluck). The values were the same as Fleming’s version, except they were 10-50 points to be paid out at ¥100/point. Also like the Fleming version, you could buzz in as soon as the answer was revealed. Unlike the US version (but like most Japanese quizzers) there were no rebounds for wrong answers. Two chance cards (Daily Doubles) were on the board and the winner of the single 15-minute round came back on Saturday to play the week’s other winners for double stakes and a trip to Europe.

Later, Quiz Grand Prix got reduced to five days a week, so the end-of-week game was 4 winners and the highest-scoring non-winner. There was also further tinkering with the format that lasted until the show’s end in 1980, but those weren’t part of the episodes that were available for viewing (emphasis on “were”). What was available was simply crazy. I don’t think there was any dead air within the 15-minute episodes. The allowance for instant buzz-ins allowed for a relentless can’t-blink pace that American Jeopardy has never created. (Fleming Jeopardy feels slower thanks to commercial breaks and while 1990’s Super Jeopardy did have 4 players, the buzzer and rebound rules resulted in some stop-and-go game play.) I can’t think of any other game show that had such constant velocity, maybe Split Second or Britain’s Fifteen to One, but the half-hour format and multiple rounds means deceleration must occur. Quiz Grand Prix may very well be the game show version of Godzilla, an already ubiquitous and important thing twisted into a more powerful and spectacular form. It certainly felt it left me in the dust.