The experience of three contestants who demonstrated a distinct lack of football knowledge on a recent episode of “Jeopardy!” prompted an obvious question: If these three game show participants don’t qualify as the worst contestants in history (and they don’t), who does?
While we can’t claim an exhaustive list, herewith some potential nominees.
1. The ‘Newlywed’ Clip that Lives in Infamy
The exchange never made it to air, but in a 1977 taping of “The Newlywed Game,” host Bob Eubanks asked couples to name the most unusual place where they had ever pondered engaging in marital relations. Readers can find the uncensored version here (warning: strong language), but even the censored version makes the problem plain:
2. Wolf Blitzer Puts his Intellectual Reputation in Jeopardy
Even without the “Saturday Night Live” parody versions, “Celebrity Jeopardy!” has provided notable examples of audience amusement at the expense of prominent entertainers and luminaries. The first ever episode of “Celebrity Jeopardy!,” which aired in October 1992, featured Regis Philbin faring poorly—but at least playing for laughs in the process.
Conversely, CNN broadcaster Wolf Blitzer’s second “Celebrity Jeopardy!” appearance, in September 2009, contained few such humorous notes. In an episode where comedian Andy Richter set a “Celebrity Jeopardy!” record of $68,000 (a record that still stands), Wolf finished the Double Jeopardy round with a score of -$4,600:
The lowlight for Blitzer: A clue that asked for “this 5-letter word that refers to an economic crash and the fear-driven rush to sell.” Wolf’s response: “What is a crash?”
For those who have not attended a live “Jeopardy!” taping, clues remain up on the screen in the studio after Alex finishes reading them. That fact means Wolf was staring at an on-screen clue referencing the word “crash” even as he gave “crash” as his response to that clue.
3. For Vanna White, The Price Is Wrong
Before she became “Wheel of Fortune’s” co-host, Vanna White famously appeared on an episode of “The Price Is Right” in 1980. Vanna was one of the first four contestants asked to “Come on down!” at the start of the episode, but could not win any of the six pricing games to get on stage.
While host Bob Barker started the show with a comment on White’s appearance, by the end, he became annoyed when Vanna asked him for her fellow contestants’ bids: “You know, you’re so busy looking at yourself on the monitor you don’t know what’s going on.”
4. ‘I Don’t Want to See That Either’
Among the most popular and infamous clips from Steve Harvey’s time hosting “Family Feud”: Contestant Rob Speegle’s response to what a burglar would not want to see when breaking into a house:
5. ‘Wheel’ Contestant’s Offensive Suggestion
The less said about this contestant’s thinking in selecting a letter, the better. After hearing the letter choice, host Pat Sajak gave an incredibly long pause, understandably flummoxed and troubled by it:
6. A Major’s Fraud
While the other participants in this list merely suffered embarrassing moments on camera, Charles Ingram’s game show infamy landed him in jail. As the ITV documentary “Major Fraud” explained, Ingram appeared on the original British version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in September 2001. After burning two lifelines and struggling through seven low-value questions to win £4,000 in his first day’s taping, Ingram correctly answered the next eight high-value questions, including the million-pound question, with only one 50/50 lifeline to help him—a 32,768-to-1 shot if guessing randomly.
Unfortunately for Ingram, he had more than luck on his side. Prosecutors charged him with fraud, alleging that he, his wife (a former “Millionaire” contestant herself), and a fellow contestant in the audience devised a system of coughs to feed Ingram answers. A court convicted all three for their cheating scheme in 2003.
7. Money Rip-a for the Taking, But…
From an Armed Forces Week episode comes a category of “Wheel of Fortune” fails all its own: Four separate instances of contestants mis-pronouncing the hosts of “Live with Regis and Kelly.” Only on the fifth try, and after more than two minutes where practically every viewer knew the puzzle’s correct solution, did the contestants finally put the audience out of its misery.
On the plus side, however, the incident testifies to the military’s work ethic, proving that servicemen don’t have time to watch daytime television programs like “Live.”
8. Who Wants to Be a Llama?
In August 1999, as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” arrived in the United States and became an instant cultural phenomenon, contestant Robby Roseman’s game ended almost as soon as it began. Seconds after saying “I’m not going out on the first question,” Roseman did just that, when he thought that Hannibal used llamas (a South American mammal) to cross the Alps:
The episode led to “llama” becoming a term among “Millionaire” fans for contestants who leave empty-handed. As I noted during my own episode of “Millionaire,” I did not inform friends and family prior to my taping because I feared “llama-ing out” on the first question. (Thankfully, I didn’t.)
9. Worst Phone-A-Friend Ever
“Millionaire” contestant Ruby Reber’s friendship with Will Durst cost him a whopping $218,000. After answering his $250,000 question correctly, Reber used his phone-a-friend lifeline to call Will—or, as he answered the phone, “Durst.”
Durst claimed to be absolutely certain that John Landis directed the video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” He didn’t, and instead of winning $500,000, or walking away with $250,000, Reber instead had to settle for a much smaller $32,000 payday instead.
Since that episode, if a “Millionaire” contestant acts on bad advice from his or her friends, or the audience, and loses out as a result, that contestant got “Dursted.”
10. Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Know [Blank]
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has a reputation as an intellectual, but his recent appearance as a panelist on “The Match Game” demonstrated a distinct lack of common sense (watch the episode here). In the first half of the show, Tyson gave a response of “books” when asked what object Abraham Lincoln hid under his stovepipe hat when going to the theater. (Most panelists responded with “popcorn.”) The audience booed Tyson’s response—as they are wont to do with nonsensical answers—which fellow panelist Carolina Rhea dubbed the “worst answer ever!”
When asked for the hypothetical title to a Tim Gunn dance show based on his catchphrase “Make it Work,” Tyson responded with “Make it Shake,” when four of his fellow panelists responded with “Make It Twerk.” Andy Richter thought the panel could reveal their cards in unison, assuming they would all go for the obvious rhyming reference to a popular dance move. He assumed wrong.
When Tyson gave a response that sweet nothings to a weird girlfriend went in her ear and out her eyes, host Alec Baldwin commented: “That’s a lovely answer, Neil. Useless, but lovely.” On another question, as Rhea made faces and joked that Tyson is “so smart on paper,” Baldwin mocked “the world famous astrophysicist” for “still trying to figure it out.”
The coup de grace: The final question asked what cookies would say: “I knew milk was the one, because whenever we get together, I” blank. Tyson’s response: “Get hard”—a Freudian response, but not a logical one. (Most celebrities responded with “Crumble.”)
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He has appeared on episodes of Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?