Confessions of a Jeopardy! Contestant
by Marc Hirsh
originally published in Nuvo Newsweekly (Indianapolis),
January 20, 2000
and Space City Rock, Fall 2000
On January 5 and 6, 2000, I appeared as a contestant on the most popular syndicated game show in the country, Jeopardy! This is my story.
Confession: I don't watch Jeopardy!
In middle school, I was banned from playing Trivial Pursuit with my classmates ever again after a teacher-led game during one of those classes right before the holidays where they can't be bothered to actually prepare a lesson plan. To compensate for trivia withdrawal, I watched Jeopardy! throughout high school and freshman year in college, when my roommate watched it so constantly (Saved By The Bell too, but that's an article I'll write when I get on that show) that I soon had my fill. By the time I auditioned for Jeopardy!, I hadn't seen it in eight years.
Confession: I didn't particularly want to try out for Jeopardy!
In July 1999, I found out through a coworker that Jeopardy! was doing a contestant search in Indianapolis, and I wasn't all that eager to go out for it. My reputation as the office know-it-all (as well as smart-ass, which are two different things) got the best of me, though, and I headed out to the designated Long John Silver's (not exactly where you'd expect to find a room full of Jeopardy! champions) and waited for alleged Indianapolis television personality Dick Wolfsey and his equally allegedly famous dog Barney to draw my name (I seemed to be in a minority, as I didn't know who the hell they were or why a dog was allowed to wander freely about a food establishment). My name was picked and I got the super-extra-double-secret directions to the next stage of the tryout, the dreaded Written Test.
About 80 of us were crammed in a hotel conference room, with five minutes to watch 50 answers whiz by on a video screen and write down the responses (we didn't, incidentally, have to write them in the form of a question). The first question was about Shakespeare, a brilliant way to unnerve a good number of people in the room right from the start (I got the question wrong, by the way). While the tests were being scored, the room immediately took on the air of break time during the SATs, with everybody trying to demoralize everybody else by comparing answers: "What did you put for the question about the Padres player?" "Which National Park is in Arkansas?" "'Midge?' The answer to that one was 'Midge?'"
Thirteen of us got the requisite 35 questions correct, and everybody else was dismissed. The mercenary instincts of the survivors were immediately quashed when we were assured that any and all of us could be on the show. We played a mock show three at a time and were continually reminded that Jeopardy! was a game, not just a quiz; the idea was to see that we were having fun. When we all had a turn, we were told that our names would be "in the hopper" for a year.
Two months later, there was a message on my machine.
Confession: I didn't really prepare for Jeopardy!
I was given a taping date of November 3 and told that all expenses were my responsibility. When pressed about the issue, they indicated that it was to prevent it from looking like they were paying out-of-towners to compete. But I guess it's okay to favor Angelinos instead.
Figuring that either I knew my stuff or I didn't, I decided against studying. At all. I did watch the show again for about two weeks, though, in case anything had changed or if there were any crazy new categories that I should know about. My coworkers, meanwhile, quizzed me constantly; one of them, convinced that it would be a category, forcefed me the patron saints of Scotland, pressing emergencies and mental illness (that would be St. Andrew, St. Expeditus and St. Dymphna, respectively).
Confession: I really didn't belong.
During the next six weeks, there wasn't a single day that I didn't think about the show at least once. I considered the scenarios. I'd win all five days, pocket $70,000 and two Camaros (which I'd sell for even more cash) and go to grad school debt-free. Or maybe I'd only win a few thousand dollars and take a trip to Europe and get a piano. Or, very possibly, I'd choke, walk away with nothing and embarrass myself on a national scale, which I've never done before (not in this country, anyway). Any and all of these were very exciting.
The day finally came and I joined about 15 other contestants at Sony Studios in Culver City, California. They tape five shows in a single day and have a few extra contestants in case somebody explodes or something (although everybody who flies in is assured of playing that day, which is why Fridays tend to be top-heavy with people from Southern California). We were easily recognizable by the extra clothes we were carrying; if you win, you change for the next show in order to create the illusion that it's a different day.
As it turns out, there's a bit of a game show subculture. Some folks had been trying to get onto Jeopardy! for years. One woman, who was on Sale of the Century during the 1980s, thumbed through an Almanac during the downtime for some last-minute cramming. Most had favorite contestants from the past. The two weeks that I watched the show became crucial to my joining the conversation, since that was when Eddie Timanus, the blind contestant who became a five-time champion, was on. But I mostly faked it.
After some forms and general preparation (and the delight of hearing one of the contestant coordinators refer to "Wheel" in condescending tones), we went out to the studio to practice with the buzzer, which is the key to why everybody thinks they can do better than the contestants. The buzzers don't work until Alex finishes reading the question and lights on either side of the board go on; pressing the button any earlier locks you out for a half second, giving your opponents the advantage. I discovered that if I really focused on those lights and didn't panic at the sound of furious clicking around me, I could buzz in first almost every time. But I played a lot of video games growing up.
Confession: Alex doesn't like me.
Before the show and during the time allotted for commercials, Johnny Gilbert and Alex Trebek talk to the studio audience and answer questions. Alex is in fact pretty smart (if you get an answer wrong, he usually knows what you were going for) but also somewhat... strange. He's like a conceptual comedian, just riffing on audience questions (Q: "Since you're Canadian, do you have a favorite hockey team?" A: "Yes. Next question?"), category titles (he repeated the category name "From Play to Ballet" several times and then started dancing that fake ballet dance that people do) and anything that strikes his fancy (he kept referring to one of the stagehands as "keno girl" throughout the day). He told me during one commercial break that he didn't like me (he said the same to the player on my left immediately afterwards), but I think he was just being funny. I think.
Confession: I choked. A bit.
I perform improv comedy twice a week with ComedySportz, a national organization with teams in Indianapolis, Houston and 24 other cities around the country, and I've been doing it since 1995. You'd think, then, that I'd be fairly quick on my feet. As it turned out, though, my improv experience failed me when I needed it most. Sure, the audience didn't intimidate me, but then Alex started the back-and-forth. Beforehand, you're asked for a list of things to talk about: funny stories, interesting hobbies, unusual talents. I had intended some of mine to be fourth- and fifth-night, I'm-winning-thousands-and-I-can't-be-fazed subjects. Alex, naturally, made a beeline right for them and asked me follow-up questions that I couldn't really answer. He watched me flounder for a few seconds, reestablished himself as the alpha male and moved on.
Confession: I won my first show, but I sort of feel like I lost overall.
The whole thing went by very quickly, and my grand total of $800 is still $800 more than most contestants win (since most contestants, you know, lose), but it was a bit disappointing. I mean, the value of the second-place prize was more than my total as champion. Still, reflecting on it later, with a few exceptions, I'm more or less pleased with my performance. I didn't blank on anything that I knew (they do not, incidentally, "give" you any categories; the questions are written completely independently of contestant selection), and I made respectable and plausible (though incorrect) guesses for the Final Jeopardy questions both nights I was on. And I was Jeopardy! Champion, regardless of how much I won. Plus I thought I saw Neve Campbell in the studio commissary at lunch (Party of Five films right across the alley from the Jeopardy! set), but two seconds later I thought better of the chances of her munching on burgers with measly game show contestants.
Confession: I screwed up.
I figured out, too late, the secret to wagering during Final Jeopardy. This is my gift to you, if you're ever on the show. If you're in first place, make sure that you'll end up with more than twice the second place contestant's starting score. Third place should wager just enough to beat what the leader has going into the round. This requires the frontrunner to get the wrong answer, but if he or she gets it right, you'll lose anyway. Second place is trickier: you need to combine the two (no use beating the leader but getting trumped by somebody behind you). This'll at least minimize your losses if you get it wrong. Of course, if your opponents counterbluff, the whole thing goes to hell. If I'd understood this going into it, I would have taken home about $7000 more and not been so surprised when Alex declared me winner (which took me completely off-guard). Then again, my opponent obviously didn't understand this either, since he wagered far more than he needed to beat me (even if we'd both answered correctly) and should have been declared champion himself, so maybe I'll just let it drop. As it stands, when you deduct taxes and the cost of the plane ticket, hotel and car rental from my winnings, the whole experience was more or less a wash.
Confession: I don't plan on trying out for, nor do I watch, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
So don't ask.
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