YOU Are The Champion, My Friend

Ahh, there’s good news tonight.  And for some of us, not a moment too soon.

It seems that nary a day goes by of late where some other friend of mine , mostly of the social media kind, shares or confesses something negative.  A firing, a death of a relative or a pet, a health issue, sometimes even having nothing to with COVID.  Nothing one can do in those kinds of situations but offer the empty calorie reaction of a “care” emoji or the proverbial “thoughts and prayers”.  I tend to avoid the latter, since it makes me seem too much like an elected official.

But on very rare occasions like yesterday, something truly positive, and in this case richly deserved, comes across my feed.  And I’m not embarassed to say I called it long ago.

You may already know who Brian Heneger is, especially if you love game shows, as so many who follow these musings do.  Like me, Brian loves the genre, confessing he was literally weaned from infancy on it.  As someone who learned his vocabulary from the original version of PASSWORD and his numbers from the original version of CONCENTRATION, blaring morning, noon and sometimes nights from a massive (but small-screened) black-and-white console entertainment unit with a perpetually broken “victrola” and a fully stocked liquor cabinet that always seemed to reek of spilled scotch bookending it, I could relate.

We became Facebook friends when he’d advertise his regular “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” events on Twitch, where he seemed to be ever obsessed with effectively pulling off the patented Regis Philblin monochrome shirt and tie look, ever attentive to details.  I would offer my thoughts, fashion plate that I am (not), and somehow he took them to heart.  Eventually, the algorithm would have more and more of his posts show up in my feed, so I learned more about what motivates and inspires him, which beyond game shows  is apparently his family, his faith, and his beloved Tennessee Volunteers–sometimes in slightly different order.

So earlier this year, when he realized a lifelong dream that took him within minutes of my doorstep but was sworn to secrecy when it occurred, I was truly happy for him.  And, sure enough, he got to realize his own Andy Warhol-like arc of fame, a lot longer than 15 minutes.  As NEWSWEEK’s Ryan Smith reported when he popped onto the pop culture scene:

Henegar, from LaFollette, Tennessee, instantly won over an army of fans when he stormed to victory on Tuesday night’s installment of the syndicated quiz show. Trouncing the competition, the guest services agent secured $23,201 in winnings.  Viewers took to social media to praise him for his animated reaction of disbelief as he was crowned the new Jeopardy! champ at the end of his episode.

As someone who once hopped on national television to a similarly life-changing amount of money, albeit to a much smaller audience, I knew how truly monumental a moment it was for him.

But then, as is far too often the case in a world this crazed and infused with trolls and haters, his moment in the sun grew dark, as Smith continued:

However, his win was marred by a number of viewers whom Henegar noticed were comparing him to genocidal dictator Hitler in a flurry of comments online.  Henegar wrote: “Apparently… several people on Twitter think I look like a certain infamous world leader… and that’s all I can think about now and it’s really making me upset.”

His terse and emotional response: “Right now I’m feeling every emotion under the sun reliving my Jeopardy! appearance. And I’m seeing what a bunch of Jerks on Twitter are doing because all they can focus on my looks… So I’m going to be leaving Twitter for a while, see you soon”.

And at that time, I began to exchange private messages with him, a man I’d yet (and still haven’t) met in person.  He was truly distraught, and seemed to need some consolation.  Something else I can identify with all too well, and something I’ve rarely received myself.

Brian’s arc played out over three days, where his final total was just under $70,000, which goes a lot further in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee than it does in Los Angeles.  And in that neck of the woods, just like it was for me when I was living in a frigid hamlet called Oswego, New York, that made him a folk hero.  As Knoxville TV station WBIR’s Madalyn Torres noted yesterday, Henegar’s hometown was proud of his success. He received a plaque that declared April 12 in Campbell County as “Jeopardy! Champion Brian Henegar Day.” 

But between that honor and his appearance on the station’s daily 10 ABOUT TOWN show yesterday, Brian had been somewhat of a nervous nellie, particularly as the WGA writers’ strike hampered and altered production on the episodes that have been airing this season, which in a more normal year would have already resulted in him being part of a “Jeopardy Champion’s Wild Card” qualifier round where popular champions with somewhat less lengthy arc than the 74-game streak set by now-emcee Ken Jennings are given the chance to compete for the show’s annual Tournament of Champions.  That’s part of the numerous changes and evolutions to the now 60-year-old format which executive producer Michael Davies has instituted since he took over the show’s reins after rescuing it from the self-inflicted wounds of overly aspirational ex-EP Mike Richards in 2021.

Having worked with Davies myself, realizing that save for a continent and a few millions in the bank we were kindred spirit ourselves, I continued to offer Brian reassurances that a) the strike would somehow, eventually be settled and b) knowing full well what Davies and the Sony team consider to be a storyline, he would undoubtedly be invited back.  Especially since, as Smith noted, Brian had bravely stood up to America after all of the Twitter angst and earned immense respect from a much larger and representative swath of the show’s fans:

He…showed glimmers of a sense of humor about the discussion around his looks. When one Twitter us”er wrote that Henegar resembled Cheers actor John Ratzenberger, he wrote back: “See…I was thinking more like Higgins from Magnum, PI ;-).”  When another tweeted that they were “kinda getting Oliver Hardy vibes […] with better hair,” Henegar quipped: “Well that’s ANOTHER fine mess you’ve gotten us into :-).

His final responses were epic:

Henegar posted on Twitter that “even though I’ve spent about 10 years on it, I’m shaving off my mustache tonight…too much work to keep it tight.” “And second, to all of you jerkolas you thought comparing my appearance to one of the most evil dictators who ever lived was the height of comedy, when I get my Jeopardy winnings, I will be making a donation to the Anti-Defamation League,” Henegar added.

So I knew darn well Henegar and JEOPARDY! were certain to have a reunion, especially now that the show has resumed its normal production cycle in the wake of the strike’s settlement.  Brian even felt confident and secure enough that when the station, which just happens to be the local home for the show, invited him to be a guest yesterday, there was merely confirmation and reminders awaiting him.  He even donned his now-ubiquitous and Regis-reverent monochromatic look, in Volunteer orange, of course, for the occasion.

But TV being what it is, more was awaiting him.  After all, even in Knoxville, it’s an important time of year for advertisers, and good news tends to boost ratings.  Here’s what happened.

No, he didn’t hop.  But his reaction was truly priceless.  And exactly what I know Sony wants.

And frankly, what I want, too.  Because I’ll likely get a chance to hug him myself when he tapes his episode(s?) next February.  And possibly see HIM be a millionaire–or, at least, a quarter-millionaire, as if form holds from previous year’s, that’s what the tournament winner gets.  But Davies being Davies, and especially with as competitive a field of champions as ever, one never knows what other surprises might still be up their sleeves.

Well, maybe I’m not quite spot on with that prediction.  After all, that would involve the potential of spending more money, and we know all too well how unpopular  such a move is in the TV biz these days.

But I’m really, really happy I was prescient in this case, and far happier to have played an incredibly small role in keeping Henegar calm and just a little more confident as 2023 played out.

Go get ’em, Rocky Top.

Until next time…






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