Quick highlights in 30 seconds — basically, it’s books, TV, travel writing, voice work, and lots of side projects:
- author of the book on Kiva and microfinance that you might notice subtly placed somewhere on this site
- so far, I’ve helped finance the loans of more than 5300 Kiva clients in 67 countries, with a repayment rate of 99 percent
- co-captain of the Friends of Bob Harris lending team at Kiva
- freelance travel writer, Travel+Leisure (2010), Forbes Traveler (2008-09), others, has circled the globe three times (2004-present)
- author of four books, including Who Hates Whom (Crown, 2007), a pocket guide to global conflict; Beyond Caprica (DK, 2010), a mock travel guide to the 12 colonies of the Caprica/Battlestar Galactica universe; and Prisoner of Trebekistan (Crown, 2006), a memoir of 13 Jeopardy! games over 10 years (see below)
- co-host of the History Channel’s National History Bee (2012).
- writer for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS, 2002-03), freelance writer, Bones (Fox, 2009)
- former asesor de producción for El Pantera, Mexico’s top original action series (Televisa, 2007-08)
- voice actor, numerous TV, film, online, and audiobook projects
- one-off puzzle maker for MAKE magazine (2010) and the New York Times op-ed section (2009)
- former AP award-winning nationally syndicated radio commentator (1997-2002)
- former on-camera presenter for the TLC series Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed (2003-04)
- winner of over $350,000 in cash and prizes on Jeopardy! and several other quiz shows (1997, 1998, 2000, 2005)
- keynote speaker for events ranging from tech conferences to a Yale Master’s Tea (2006-present)
- former stand-up comic, headliner or feature act at hundreds of clubs and colleges (1986-96)
- frequent contributor to National Lampoon (1986-92)
- has officiated marriages in two states, kissed the Blarney Stone, swam with giant mantas, and generally enjoyed life bigtime
- Bachelor of Science cum laude, electrical engineering and applied physics, Case Western Reserve University (1984)
- hablo español bastante bien pero no con fluidez; le même chose avec le français
Whole shebang, with photos, links, and more: My career path is hardly linear, but for good reason. When I was 23 I studied with improv comedy guru Del Close, who taught an attitude of “yes, and” — the exploration of surprising ideas as a key creative tool, one that even extends to life itself. Brilliant and fascinating, Del often said “yes, and” offstage, too, whenever new career and personal opportunties came up. By the time he was 50, had grown into one of the most ingenious and creative people you could ever meet. I thought it might be fun to try to follow his example. Still do.
The photo at left was taken by a young girl in Athens when I fell on my keister in front of the Parthenon during my Almost Seven Wonders trip to six of the ancient Seven Wonders. It’s included here because falling on our asses and picking ourselves back up is pretty much the essence of things. For me, for you, for everybody. Especially if you’re trying to live creatively. So let’s get to it. Here’s some stuff people seem to find interesting:
This year I had the pleasure of serving as color commentator on the History Channel’s inaugural National History Bee, a competition between smart middle-school students who one day will rule the world. Al Roker was a fun inquisitor, Brian Unger (“How the States Got Their Shapes”) did a great job as the host, and Rutledge Wood (“Top Gear”) was a gas as the sideline reporter. Really hope this becomes an annual thing.
I used to write for the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the original recipe version set in Vegas. If you ever saw the episode where a stand-up comic gets busted for murder thanks to trace evidence left by coffee made from the poop of an Indonesian civet… that would be something I actually got paid for. Told you it was gonna get weird.
I also recently wrote my first episode of Bones, a JFK-themed story which turned out to be the highest-rated episode in more than a year. The credit for that belongs not to me, but to terrific work by the producers, director, and actors. This was huge fun.
Last year when the Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica was first being created, I was hired to take the dozens of small references to the 12 colonies over the 5 years of BSG and weave them into a coherent set of cultural and physical histories. With the show’s success, Syfy and NBC Universal approached DK about turning my show bible thingy into an actual little travel book. Fun!
For a while I was Asesor de Producción (roughly equivalent to a Consulting Producer) on Televisa’s El Pantera, one of the top shows in Mexico. This involved suddenly running a writers’ room in Mexico City and cramming Spanish like no hay mañana. It’s awesome pulp I’m very pleased with — even if you can’t sling the Spanish, weapons are fired, things blow up, and tight clothing is worn. You will be entertained. I smile every time I think about the whole experience.
Before all that, I was an on-camera regular on the TLC series Mostly True Stories, debunking urban legends by smashing fruit and riding around in race cars and firing large weapons. Good times. I was also the technical advisor on the Travel Channel’s Million-Dollar Blackjack, explaining arcane tournament strategies, and a while back I wrote some of the UK speculative documentary series The Perfect Disasters, where I got to destroy Sydney (my favorite city on earth) in a firestorm. This was surprisingly fun. If you ever get the chance to destroy Sydney in a firestorm, go for it.
My favorite minor detail: I once did an uncredited cameo on Buffy The Vampire Slayer as the voiceover on the training film when she starts work at the Doublemeat Palace (“Let’s take a look now at the process of harvesting these two special meats”). People always seem to enjoy anything involving appalling foodstuffs. (Can you see any connection between these jobs and a life spent writing comedy? I can’t. For some reason, my TV career implies that I’m rather expert around dead bodies, half-truths, gambling, and massive destruction. You’d think I was working for FEMA.)
Like anyone capable of operating a mouth, I’ve occasionally been asked to do talking-head stuff. Producers note: if you want actual conversation, I’m there. But imposing a preset left-right frame on the 24-hour issue de jour and then playing Rock’em Sock’em Spokesbots for four minutes is really just pro wrestling with less credible hairlines. Really, was the Iron Sheik ever phonier than the claims we heard about Iraq? Obviously not. But an entire class of pundits and shills bought in, despite contemporaneous debunking by actual experts. And everybody still has their job. No wonder an entire generation now looks elsewhere for useful information. There are a few shows that don’t suck utterly, and yeah, I’ll usually be happy to talk about anything I actually know about. But Hannity & Colmes should just strap on the unitards, grease up, go Greco-Roman for an hour a night, and be done with it. Not that anyone wants to see either Hannity or Colmes rocking a unitard. Yikes. Forgive me for sticking you with that visual in the About page. Moving on.
My daily tirades about the news ran on KNX 1070, the CBS News flagship here in Los Angeles, from 1997-2002. These one-minute bursts won awards from the AP and the L.A. Press Club, and they were syndicated to about 75 stations starting in 1999. Armed Forces Radio even broadcast my pieces four times a day in over 150 countries. For a while, things were rolling so well that The Hollywood Reporter even named me as an “Air Apparent” (their pun, not mine) to the likes of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. This may have even been intended as a compliment.
Unfortunately, my radio career ended shortly after 9/11. It’s almost hard to remember the political climate back then, but in early 2002, insisting on national airwaves that George W. Bush wasn’t conducting the Global War on Terror with the greatest respect for the constitution was considered bad taste if not worse, even if by now it’s pretty much consensus. Eventually I got canned by a boss who didn’t even have the yarbles to admit that’s why he was canning me. Oh well.
.More TV: Quiz Shows I’ve been on Jeopardy! thirteen times, winning over $150,000 in cash and prizes, most recently in the 2002 Million-Dollar Masters tournament and the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions. I’ve never won a tournament, mind you. So far, in fact, I have not won a total of over $3.1 million. But there were enough cool stories involved, and I made so many wonderful friends along the way, that eventually I even wrote a book about it, Prisoner of Trebekistan, which I bet you just may have already noticed somewhere on this site. .
There were also some interesting moments on Greed, where two people I’d just met and I split a million bucks, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, where I was a lifeline for my friend Howard, giving him an answer worth $250,000. Later, I was on the short-lived USA game Smush, too, where I won the grand prize after a Playboy Playmate wrote a leering little joke about her breasts in lipstick on a mirror. But Jeopardy! was always the most fun, and my fellow players have become a wonderful fraternity to hang out with. Not long ago, I got the chance to play Ken Jennings himself in an informal match, the Jeopardy! equivalent of illegal back alley dog fighting. You can read about it here (on my blog) or here (on Ken’s). If you’re curious, Ken and I both lost — to Ed Toutant, an old buddy whom you’ll meet in Trebekistan.
Btw, Prisoner of Trebekistan eventually became a question itself on both Jeopardy! and Millionaire. The circle of life, I guess.
I’m just starting a super-exciting project on global microfinance, but it’s not quite to where I can write about it. (Yes, I just used “super-exciting” and “microfinance” in the same sentence. Trust me.) It’s a humor book. It’s a travel book. It’s about making the world a better place. It’s also still in its pupa phase.
So until that’s ready… If you like puzzles, I created this one recently for the New York Times op-ed section. Here’s my essay that went with it, and here’s the introduction by novelist Arthur Phillips, who introduced me to the editors.
Before that, the main thing I did with my days was Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up, a Woefully Incomplete Guide™, (Three Rivers Press, 2007), a handy thumbnail guide to about 35 of the world’s major conflicts, with original maps, sidebars, photos, and illustrations. Who Hates Whom is meant to be useful the next time something blows up in Thailand or Rwanda or Colombia or Turkey, and CNN or Fox moves on to the next Lindsay Lohan story before bothering to fill in many details. (If you think I exaggerate, see this list of major news stories that were virtually ignored in the U.S. on the day that Anna Nicole Smith died.)
.Of course, there’s also Prisoner of Trebekistan (Crown Publishing, 2006), which makes a great gift for “anyone who loves Jeopardy!, has ever seen it, or is breathing,” to quote Joss Whedon, who gave the book the greatest blurb I could have prayed for. (I think he was actually the third person on earth to read the manuscript, including my editor, and yes, I just about keeled over with glee when he liked it.)
One of these days I’m gonna get around to an original comic book/graphic novel thing for Dark Horse, but this has been hovering for years now, since other things keep coming up. They are supremely cool people, incidentally. I’ve done odd jobs with them now and again, like chipping in here and here and a few other places. In 1999 I wrote a collection of political essays called Steal This Book And Get Life Without Parole that the few people who have ever heard of it seemed to enjoy. It’s not bad, but looking back, I was trying too hard. Before that I wrote lots of articles for alt-weeklies in the 1990s, and before that I wrote for National Lampoon for a few years. If you ever read the “Letters” page or “Lampoon’s Index” (my version of the Harper’s Index) in the late ’80s or early ’90s, yeah. Hi.
My hobby of late has become hurling myself into places I can barely pronounce and meeting people in places I’d never heard of ten years ago. There’s really nothing more fun than getting completely lost in Indonesia or being chased by a pack of wild baboons in South Africa or taking night-vision-goggle footage of fairy penguins in Tasmania. So far I’ve made it to more than 70 countries on six continents, usually with no more than a bag over one shoulder and a notebook in hand.
ForbesTraveler.com hired me in 2008 to zip around the world visiting about 40 new entries on the their annual list of the 400 finest 5-star hotels on earth, with side trips to gin up dozens of articles with names like Europe’s 50 Best Hotels. Suddenly this son of an auto worker was seeing original Picassos in the hotel where he and Matisse used to hang out, getting deep-tissue massages in Monaco, learning which wine to order with barracuda in Hong Kong (a sauvignon blanc does nicely) and getting paid for it. This was deliriously weird. I felt like a cross between Eliza Doolittle and King Ralph the whole time. It was sometimes difficult to enjoy, though, and not just because traveling with one sport jacket makes it hard to smell like you belong. The grinding poverty at the edges of a lot of places made being the top-hat dude on the Monopoly board spiritually uncomfortable. So now I’m using my small pile of Steve Forbes’s money to do some good for those people on the edges. And that’s the beginning of the micro-finance book I keep mentioning.
I spent most of the 1980s doing stand-up comedy. This was something like 1000 shows in about 100 nightclubs and one-nighters. This was also something like wandering among the undead. Doing standup comedy is like joining the Roma people, only with less social acceptance. I rose from middle act in B-minus clubs up to B-room headliner, but I never got the big TV break. My favorite club was always Catch a Rising Star in Cambridge, right there by Harvard Square. Smartest crowd in the country. Now it’s one of those places where they sell books by the pound.
I spent most of the early 1990s doing humorous yet serious college lectures on history and politics and foreign policy. This included over 250 talks at almost 200 colleges, including Dartmouth, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago. Still, what I mainly remember is a lot of interstate driving and food from gas stations.
Getting off the road, and having more time to spend building my relationships in Los Angeles, was the main reason I went on Jeopardy!, in fact. The Jeopardy! thing led me to also give talks on how to remember stuff easily. These talks were more fun than the politics, because I was making people feel happy and empowered. I probably did about 40 of these talks.
Voice work and other stuff
Thanks to the radio years, I get offered odd little voice gigs sometimes. I’ve been Eliza Dushku’s brother in the Torchwood webisodes, the Emergency Broadcast Service announcer in This Is Not a Test, Sparky the penguin in This Modern World‘s animated form, and a bunch of other stuff.
Other minor details Not that I use it, but I hold a Bachelor of Science cum laude in electrical engineering and applied physics from Case Western Reserve University, class of 1984. My first job out of school: consultant to the Saudi Arabian Army Signal Corps, training officers in the use of high-end avionics equipment. It only took my about six months to work up the courage to quit the job, toss the degree, move to Chicago, and finally start doing what I wanted to with my life. It was in Chicago that I met Del, yes, and he taught me to say “yes, and.” I’ve been swerving happily through the world ever since.
What happened if the site stops getting updated If the site ever suddenly stops being updated, I’m probably out visiting friends, taking more pictures, dangling from things, and trying not to get eaten.