If you've ever set a quiz by thinking up questions on the fly over a few beers, you can appreciate just how hard it to write good questions. Rick Rosner can feel your pain ... or would if he knew who you were ... and if he weren't putting in 14-hour days working on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Rosner got his start as a Hollywood writer, not in Hollywood at all, but in New York City, when he saw that the MTV game show Remote Control was looking for run-through contestants. Until then, Rosner had made something of a career of graduating from high school, having done it twice, and at age 27, he saw the MTV environment as his "last chance to be 18 again."
As he puts it: "I put my retainer back in my mouth and did the show. But I also saw all the writers backstage, and it was the first time I had ever seen a group of people who were smart and funny. So I wrote to Remote Control and said that I wanted to work for them and that I'd even do it for free. It turns out that 'free' is the operative word when you want to work at MTV."
He started as a fact checker on the pop culture quiz show but, inevitably, he started writing questions as well. "You come across a great fact that would make a better question than the one you're working on, so you write it."
From there, he went on to work on the network version of The Weakest Link and on Twenty-One, and he also co-created My Generation, a music trivia show that ran on VH1. On the flip side, he has been a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Jeopardy, as well as a run-through contestant on Win Ben Stein's Money. Ben Stein's sidekick was Jimmy Kimmel, who brought Rosner to The Man Show and then to Kimmel's own late-night ABC show, where Rosner now works as a comedy writer.
Generally, quiz show writers spend the day at their desks, rummaging through reference works and other solid sources looking for questions. At Link, writers were expected to develop 20 to 28 questions a day. This may not sound like much, but each question has to be entertaining, concise and accurate. Rosner calls this process "pinning a question," which means that a question "must have a single clear and unambiguous answer."
(We offer a ridiculously long essay of our own on pinning questions.)
He compares question writing to journalism. "Quiz show questions are based on truth," he says. "Any decent journalist has his facts double-checked." Once the writer has prepared the day's questions, the head writer sends them back for rewrites, at which point the remaining questions go out into the hopper for fact checking.
Sometimes, a researcher finds that question's wording turns out to be a bit wobbly, so it needs reworking, or it gets rejected altogether. In fact, many questions are written but for one reason or another never make it to the show, whether because the writer can't make them work, or because the fact checker shoots holes through them or even because the head writer simply doesn't like them.
And even then, once the questions are signed, sealed and delivered, the executive producer decides which ones to use. On many shows, the executive producer rejects as many as a third or half of the questions. Each show has its own standards for what sort of questions appeal to their audiences, but certain rules always apply.
"Among the writers of Ben Stein and Weakest Link, an unfairly deceptive question is known as a 'f - - k you' question," explains Rosner. "The standard example being, 'How many fingers does Bill Cosby have?' The Bill Cosby question throws a contestant into befuddlement-is it based on a highly obscure Bill Cosby factoid? Is it a roundabout way of asking how many fingers the average human has? A 'f - - k you' question scuttles a contestant's confidence and fails to test knowledge."
By contrast, a good question can communicate interesting factoids without being evil. A Trivial Pursuit question once asked for the 28th cop character played by Dennis Franz. That's Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue. A f--k you question, on the other hand, would have asked for the 27th.
Instead of trying to "beat" contestants, good writers try to find interesting nuggets of knowledge that make for good TV. "But some facts are almost impossible to turn into good game show questions," he says. "The situation behind them is so amorphous that they cannot be turned into a 20-word question."
A 2004 question on Millionaire, for example, asked for the longest river in the US. After a 50:50 lifeline, the options left were the Mississippi or the Missouri, both of which are claimed as being the longest by different, and equally reputable, sources. Rosner elaborates on that question's difficulties: "Of course the issue is wobbly, with the longest US river arguably being the Mississippi-Missouri-Red Rock, and then there's the issue of the Red Rock-Missouri being longer than the Mississippi but the Mississippi being longer than the Missouri. But the briefness of Millionaire's question didn't allow for any of this to be pinned."
Rosner compares question writing to gag writing. In both cases, the punch line comes at the end. In fact, many quiz show writers go on to write for other shows, including comedy shows. "Game shows are the best place to break into TV writing. Here's why. First off, you might not be ready to write a sitcom spec script, but you can write a 14-word question. Second, game shows are slightly less shark-infested than other TV genres, with mild-mannered trivia lovers scattered among the slimy showbiz types."
In fact, although most game show writers are hired from the Hollywood writers' community, many become writers after having been contestants. However, the best writers share much in common. "A lack of contempt for the genre is important. The really good writers love game shows and it shows."
And when the writers love the show, so do the fans. Despite very low pay, Jeopardy writers stick with the show for as long as they can. And fans have been watching for 20 years.
First posted: March 2004