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'Jeopardy!' host Ken Jennings says afterlife depictions track pop culture's evolution

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Jeopardy!" champion and host Ken Jennings rose to fame for knowing nearly everything about anything. But just like the rest of us, he's stumped on the biggest mystery of all - what happens after we die?

KEN JENNINGS: Presumably, billions of people who had gone before now either know the answer or don't, depending. And yet word has not gotten back to us.

SHAPIRO: Jennings explored everything from mythology to music and movies to gather as many visions as possible of the great unknown. And he collected his findings in a new book, "100 Places To See After You Die: A Travel Guide To The Afterlife." To help you on your way, he even included travel tips like getting around, souvenir shopping, and best to avoid. For him, it's not a book about religion or even death, but about how our pop culture has evolved over time.

JENNINGS: You can kind of watch the human imagination increase. At first, heaven is just a place that doesn't have crop blight or doesn't have snow, you know? Whatever the culture's biggest bugaboo is, heaven is just the place that doesn't have that. And it takes millennia for human civilization to evolve to the point where we can imagine, well, what if there are these amazing banquets? What if there are gems of a thousand colors? You can watch the appetites and the possibilities evolve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE AFTERLIFE")

PAUL SIMON: (Singing) You got to fill out a form first. And then, you wait in the line.

JENNINGS: The 20th century fictional afterlives are often very bureaucratic. "Twilight Zone" episodes often have a nervous, little angel with a clipboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TWILIGHT ZONE")

MURRAY HAMILTON: (As Mr. Death) Yes, we have to keep these things efficient. Now, today is the 19 of July, and your departure is at midnight tonight.

ED WYNN: (As Lou Bookman) My departure?

JENNINGS: The Buck Henry character in "Heaven Can Wait..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEAVEN CAN WAIT")

JAMES MASON: (As Mr. Jordan) I want a checkout on Joseph Pendleton. When is he due to arrive?

LEE WEAVER: (As Way Station Attendant) Pendleton, Joseph, due to arrive 10:17 a.m., March 20 of the year 2025.

WARREN BEATTY: (As Joe Pendleton) Hey, so he jumped the gun. Anybody could have done that. Just put me back where you found me.

MASON: (As Mr. Jordan) Joe, we can put you into another man's body.

JENNINGS: Our once lofty visions of heaven and hell, we now thought it was funny to reduce them to the corporate structures of our 20th century bureaucracies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UPLOAD")

ROBBIE AMELL: (As Nathan Brown) Are you both...

MATT BRAUNGER: (As Brad) Dead?

AMELL: (As Nathan Brown) Yeah.

BRAUNGER: (As Brad) Yep. Thank God we both had time to upload.

JENNINGS: We're now seeing a dawn of new techno afterlives in science fiction novels and TV shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UPLOAD")

AMELL: (As Nathan Brown) I mean, I feel completely real and alive. The programming depth is insane, and I'm a coder.

JENNINGS: You can be implanted into the heaven or hell of your choice like in a "Black Mirror" episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

RAYMOND MCANALLY: (As Greg) You got to have a signoff from the doc, the patient, a family member. It's to stop folks from passing over just 'cause they prefer San Junipero flat out.

JENNINGS: And I think particularly now, the big difference is that most of these afterlives are created as an act of imagination and not of religious conviction. You know, Dante's "Inferno" is amazing, but at the time, it was being read by a lot of literalists who were actually expecting a hellish eternity to be a nine-level pit. You know, they were reading it as fundamentalists. Today, when you see a fun TV afterlife like the bad place on "The Good Place"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD PLACE")

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (As Chidi Anagonye) The Museum of Human Misery?

TED DANSON: (As Michael) Oh, yeah. OK, it's a torture museum. Famous examples of bad behavior and explanations of the torture they earned.

MANNY JACINTO: (As Jason Mendoza) Is there a gift shop?

DANSON: (As Michael) Jason, this is hell. Of course, there's a gift shop.

JENNINGS: Or the fever dream episodes of "The Leftovers."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEFTOVERS")

AMY BRENNEMAN: (As Laurie Garvey) Where is Kevin? Is he here?

SCOTT GLENN: (As Kevin Garvey Sr.) We asked him to die - again.

BRENNEMAN: (As Laurie Garvey) Well, it's a lot to put on someone.

JENNINGS: You're imagining a room full of people trying to invent a fun idea of what might lie beyond the last and greatest mystery. And so it was a joy to me to revisit the creepy room with the little person from "Twin Peaks"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWIN PEAKS")

MICHAEL J ANDERSON: (As The Man From Another Place) I have good news. That gum you like is going to come back in style.

JENNINGS: ...Or the disappointing afterlife in the last episode of "Lost"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOST")

MATTHEW FOX: (As Dr. Jack Shephard) Where are we, Dad?

JOHN TERRY: (As Dr. Christian Shephard) Well, this is a place that you all made together so that you could find one another.

JENNINGS: ...Or "Beetlejuice"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEETLEJUICE")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Adam) Handbook for the recently diseased.

GEENA DAVIS: (As Barbara) Deceased.

JENNINGS: ...Or the cornfields from "Field Of Dreams."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIELD OF DREAMS")

DWIER BROWN: (As John Kinsella) Is this heaven?

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Ray Kinsella) It's Iowa.

BROWN: (As John Kinsella) I could have sworn it was heaven.

JENNINGS: If you're like me and you want old-timey baseball, to me, that seems like a beautiful afterlife. And that would be hell to my wife.

SHAPIRO: And because one person's heaven could be another person's hell, Ken Jennings offered some afterlife recommendations for everyone from history buffs to foodies.

JENNINGS: There are foodie possibilities in the afterlife. I would stay far away from hell. The Hindu hell, for example, has bewitching banquet tables full of delicious dishes and cooling yogurts, but they're not for you. They're just to tantalize you. The Egyptian afterlife was very specific about all the figs you would get to eat. So if you love figs, that's the way to go. I would recommend the Mexican street food in "Coco."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COCO")

RENEE VICTOR: (As Abuelita) Here, have some more.

ANTHONY GONZALEZ: (As Miguel) No, gracias.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, gasping).

GONZALEZ: (As Miguel) I mean, si?

VICTOR: (As Abuelita) That's what I thought you said.

JENNINGS: I mean, if you love history, what you really want to do in the afterlife is celebrity spotting. You want to go ask Amelia Earhart or Jimmy Hoffa, like, what the deal actually was with them. A lot of the most celebrity-rich heavens are in modern telling. You know, "The Simpsons" - when "The Simpsons" shows the afterlife, it's always full of recognizable people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

HANK AZARIA: (As Disco Stu) Whoa, Frank Sinatra.

HARRY SHEARER: (As Frank Sinatra) For me, this is hell. You dig, pally?

AZARIA: (As Abraham Lincoln) Did you know the picture about my life is Spielberg's biggest movie?

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) You were beaten by "Argo."

AZARIA: (As Abraham Lincoln) Argo?

CASTELLANETA: (As St. Peter) We have interesting people. Look, Tracy Morgan's here.

SHEARER: (As God) Tracy, what are you doing here? You're all better.

TRACY MORGAN: (As Himself) Nobody tells me these things.

JENNINGS: In "South Park," especially. Hell in "South Park" is always filled with the biggest names in serial killers if you're a true crime fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH PARK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, you shall rise once again to walk the Earth. And I need you to pick up Satan's Ferrari cake.

JENNINGS: But this goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. I mean, Homer pointed out that all the great Trojan War heroes are out having war games in a meadow in Hades, and Odysseus is delighted that he can see Achilles and Ajax and all the big names.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL HEAVEN")

THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS: (Singing) If there's a rock 'n' roll heaven, you know they've got a hell of a band...

JENNINGS: If you're an arts lover, some afterlives have imagined that these are the places where you go to see the works that were never available to the living. In Richard Matheson's "What Dreams May Come," the people in the astral plane routinely visit concerts of new works by great composers. You know, you can go see Beethoven's 10th Symphony. You know, in "It's A Wonderful Life," we hear that Mark Twain is still working on new novels in heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

HENRY TRAVERS: (As Clarence Odbody) Oh, look, Tom Sawyer is drying out, too. You should read the new book Mark Twain's writing now.

JENNINGS: And if you're a good enough musician, even hell can't hold you. You know, in the musical "Hadestown," Orpheus is able to sneak into Hadestown because of his amazing musical gift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT FOR ME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As character, singing) Wait for me. I'm coming. Wait, I'm coming with you...

JENNINGS: If you're looking for more of an action-packed vacation, in "Black Panther" comics, Ta-Nehisi Coates imagined that the Wakandan afterlife - the Djalia - would have all kinds of extreme sports available.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) In my culture, death is not the end. It's more of a stepping-off point.

JENNINGS: Ritual combat and rock climbing, and there's probably ziplines and parasailing as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR")

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) You could run forever.

JENNINGS: I guess the real question is, is there any afterlife so good that you would not mind spending limitless time there? You know, eternity - a vacation that never ends. I mean, you want to have a hundred options.

SHAPIRO: Ken Jennings' new book is "100 Places To See After You Die."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH")

BELINDA CARLISLE: (Singing) Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on Earth. They say, in heaven... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.