Photos: Sony Pictures Television
Although Danger! First aired in the 1960s, it wasn’t until nine years after Alex Trebek began editing the animated series on October 26, 1992, that the show first launched a week of celebrity contest with comedy legend Carol Burnett, talk show host Regis Philbin and Landing Nodes star Donna Mills as the initial lineup. Burnett picked up a win with a relatively meager $2,900 payout.
Over the past thirty years, some celebrities have fallen flat on their stomachs (shark tank‘s Kevin O’Leary, your failure will always be memorable, and Saturday Night Live got fifteen sketches on the premise that celebrities were stupid from another world). But there have also been quite a few celebrities who managed to deliver under those studio lights, nailing the Daily Doubles and betting smart, ending up with showy amounts when all was said and done.
We combed through three decades of celebrities Danger episodes and found the ten most dominant performances. It should be noted that in November 2001, Danger changed the dollar values of its questions, eliminating all previous top-performing celebrities from this list. So, after ranking the top ten winning performances, we will also list the top ten winning celebrity performances from the pre-doubling era.
The ten best Celebrity Jeopardy games of all time
Cash prizes: $68,000
Date: September 17, 2009
The Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational that ran in late 2009 and early 2010 brought together some of the most successful celebrities in the show’s history and let them compete in a rather epic tournament. Five of the ten greatest celebrities of all time Danger the performances come from that tournament, including this one, which was the first-ever quarter-final game. This was the game in which CNN’s Wolf Blitzer rather sadly ended Double Jeopardy around $4,600 in the hole (under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have been allowed into Final Jeopardy, but in the game of celebrities, the show gives players a $1,000 damage bet because it’s for charity). But the real story was Andy Richter’s dominance. The comedian who was famous for being Conan O’Brien’s sidekick has proven himself to be a quiz show master. In the Jeopardy round, Richter swept the “2-Letter Words” category, in Double Jeopardy he bet big on a Hemingway question for the Daily Double and won, and in Final Jeopardy he bet $29,000 on a possibility of $39,000 to land at the highest total of all time for a celebrity.
Cash prizes: $55,300
Date: January 21, 2010
It was another Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational quarter-final. The Wheel of Fortune the host was against Weeds star Elizabeth Perkins and Desperate Housewives husband Doug Savant. He took a decisive lead after the round of Jeopardy, and although Perkins managed to score big on a Daily Double to keep her under $5,000 going into Final Jeopardy, she missed the last question on Charlie Brown, while Sajak got it right and landed on that. glaring dollar amount.
Cash prizes: $42,900
Date: May 13, 2015
Facing Mo Rocca and Wendi McLendon-Covey, CNN anchor John Berman was actually in second place coming out of the Jeopardy round. By the end of Double Jeopardy, he had managed to take a $1,600 lead on Rocca, and when all three were able to identify this quote – “I just got to the deepest point in the ocean. Touching the bottom has never looked so good” – as having come from James Cameron, Berman bet just enough to earn a win and the third-highest celebrity total in the show’s history.
Cash prizes: $41,600
Date: May 13, 2015
In Best Celebrity Performance by Someone Who doesn’t win their game CBS Sunday morning corresponding and Daily show alum Mo Rocca fought with John Berman, bet big on a Daily Double (“It precedes ‘Special’ and ‘Train To Georgia’ in song titles”) and won, and nailed his answer to Final Jeopardy, to finish $1,300 shy of first place.
Cash prizes: $38,800
Date: November 21, 2
Cumulatively, Michael McKean might be the best celebrity Danger player of all time. He alone holds three of the top ten celebrity performances in the show’s history and is one of the show’s most trusted famous faces. In this match, McKean faced CSI: NY actor Hill Harper and then US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and it was a blast from the start. Michael ran the Stonehenge category chart in Jeopardy singles, and even with Spellings hitting both Daily Doubles, McKean finished Double Jeopardy as the runaway leader. He still bet big enough on Final Jeopardy to establish what was then the all-time celebrity high water mark.
Cash prizes: $37,900
Date: April 16, 2010
In the quarterfinals of the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational, the former Saturday Night Live and 3rd Rock of the Sun faced Isaac Mizrahi and CCH Pounder. Mizrahi stayed close throughout, but thanks to a bold gamble in Final Jeopardy and critical insight into the life and career of Laurence Olivier, Curtin made it through to the semi-finals.
Cash prizes: $37,100
Date: May 4, 2010
Moving on to the semi-finals of the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational, where McKean took on Isaac Mizrahi (back!) and The nannyis Charles Shaughnessy. It was a close contest throughout, with each winning a Daily Double and all three separated by just $5,000 entering Final Jeopardy. McKean and Mizrahi both passed the Final Jeopardy question (“In 1953 it became the only state whose official song was written for a Broadway musical”), but McKean bet enough to qualify for the final with a conspicuous amount.
Cash prizes: $32,400
Date: May 1, 2003
The former MSNBC host took Gilmore Girls starring Lauren Graham and Emergency roomis Paul McCrane in a very competitive game. Graham finished the Jeopardy round in the lead, but Chris went 4/5 in the Historic Moments category and took the lead going into the final. And with a ton of confidence in a category that played to its strengths — government agencies — it bet its entire $16,200 stake on an issue that was actually as much about entertainment as it was about government. He knew this CIA was where Emma Peel’s leather pants and Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone were displayed, and so doubled down and prevailed.
Cash prizes: $32,000
Date: April 28, 2003
Queer as Folk star Hal Sparks faced Commercial spaces host Paige Davis and Julie Bowen, who at the time starred as the love interest on NBC Ed. It was an extremely close contest, with Sparks hitting two of three daily doubles and Bowen getting 4/5 in the Oscar category in Double Jeopardy. Bowen was in the lead before the final – a question about the queen mary – but Sparks bet all he had, and Bowen bet too timidly, and thus was able to pass her and take the win.
Cash prizes: $31,600
Date: May 6, 2010
One last time in the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational. It was day one of the two-day final that pitted McKean against Jane Curtin and Cheech Marin, who were the pride of every pot smoker that day. McKean ran the “It’s Handy” category in singles Jeopardy, but Curtin hit both daily doubles in Double Jeopardy, so was only $2,600 behind McKean going into the final. There, knowing it was a two-day final, they each bet relatively conservatively – $10,000 each, about half of their respective totals – on a question about Moby-Dick. If McKean had been more aggressive, this game would rank much higher on this list, but he’s already been here three times, so it’s rude to complain. McKean would win the entire Million Dollar tournament the following day.
The ten best Celebrity Jeopardy games before the dollar amounts were doubled
Andy Richter: $24,000 (November 16, 1999)
Jon Stewart: $23,000 (November 17, 1999)
Mark McEwen: $21,700 (April 28, 1997)
Bob Costas: $20,000 (March 22, 1999)
Thomas Gibson: $19,400 (February 5, 1999)
Sam Waterston: $18,800 (May 1, 1997)
Jeff Greenfield: $18,000 (April 12, 1999)
Jerry Orbach: $17,000 (November 11, 1993)
Peter Krause: $17,000 (November 19, 1999)
Wallace Langham: $16,800 (March 29, 1999)
That’s right – Andy Richter holds the record in pre and post price doubling periods. Really fame Danger GOAT. The Serena Williams of the celebrity circuit. A few other trends to note: reporters/studio hosts have always done very well here, with Stewart, Costas, Greenfield and McEwan representing all four corners of TV news (politics, sports, weather and parody). Let’s listen to it too Law and orderwhose stars Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston were among the best performers of all time.
Celebrity danger! premieres on ABC Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. ET.
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Joe Reid is Primetimer’s editor and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AV Club and more.