There’s this guy named James Holzhauer who has recently dominated one of the most beloved shows ever to appear on America’s airwaves. (To clarify, for once I am not referring to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.) He’s won over a million dollars in just a few weeks and now holds the top ten single-game records in the history of the show. That’s not right, but here we are accepting it like a bunch of sheep who don’t seem to have the inner fortitude to water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots. The only reason he hasn’t won recently is that his terrible reign is being interrupted by the Teachers Tournament. Anyway, with Holzhauer’s recent success, Jeopardy (the exclamation point will be ignored from this point forward) has been in the public consciousness lately. On top of that, longtime host Alex Trebek announced his battle with pancreatic cancer, which means it’s at least possible that the show as we know it is nearing its end. (Obviously, the show will continue should anything happen to Trebek, but it won’t be the same.) We here at DFO are always attuned to the zeitgeist of the moment, so the powers that be (vaguely Germanic-sounding voices in my head) requested a 25,000 word treatise on Jeopardy’s history, cultural significance, and value as a reflection of human nature’s best and worst impulses.
I didn’t wanna do that, so instead, here’s a little something about my experience on the show.
The year was 2002. Donald Trump was just some asshole who didn’t negatively affect every aspect of American life, and EMF was still struggling to find a follow-up hit after “Unbelievable.” It was a more innocent time, but it was also a time (Ed note: That’s twice you’ve typed “time” so far this sentence. Fix this or your time is up. Crap, now you’ve got me doing it.) when the tech bubble had recently burst, and I was looking for a job with more promise than Day Shift Strip Club DJ. Trust me when I tell you that 10:30 AM is too early to get excited for a triple-shot of Warrant remixes, regardless of whether Cinnamon had finally gotten a tattoo to cover the C-section scar. Anyway, it was a good time for me to explore trying out for Jeopardy. Getting to be on the show was my white whale; not in the Melvillian “maddening single-minded goal” kind of way, but rather the fact that winning money on the show would enable me to buy a white whale.
Jeopardy now conducts tryout exams online; however, back in the dark ages of the early millennium, if one wanted to get on the show, one had to attend a tryout in person. The show occasionally hosted exams in other major cities, but most of the auditions were held in the Los Angeles area. In order to attend, I had to call and make a reservation for a specific day and time, then drive to a hotel where a conference room was set up for the tryout. There were about 250 of us at this audition. Looking at my competition, it was easy to ascertain we were all of a certain type: lonely sociopaths with poor fashion sense. There are certain game shows (Wheel of Fortune, Price is Right, etc.) that value personality and enthusiasm above ability to play the game, but Jeopardy first and foremost wants you to be able to answer questions and do so quickly. Once inside the large conference room, we were all given a form with room for 50 responses, then told that the questions were going to be shown (and read aloud) on twin monitors at the front of the room. Each of the 50 questions would be from a different category, so my extensive study of Norse Reproductive Implements was for naught. Once each question was read, we would have 10 seconds to write the answer before the next question appeared. There would be no repeat of any of the questions. After this test was completed, our answer forms were collected and taken to a different room for grading. I mostly listened to other people talk while we waited, and it was a little comforting to hear that everyone seemed to feel uncertain about the test. Once they came back in with everyone’s scores, you could hear a pin drop. (Bowling pin, from at least 5 feet up, but still.) The proctors proceeded to read the names of everyone who had gotten a certain number of questions right (rumored to be 35 out of 50, but not confirmed). My name was the second one read, so I was able to exhale sooner than most. Overall, about 15-20 people “passed” the written test, and everyone else was dismissed. We were brought up to the front of the room, where each of us had the chance to play a mock game for a few questions, which was their way of making sure we could speak actual words when prompted. Finally, they took each person’s picture (Polaroid instant camera!) and attached the pic to our file, and told us to wait for their call. If they didn’t call us within 12 months, we could probably assume we weren’t getting a call, and should start the process over.
So I figured, to heck with twelve months, they’ll call much sooner than that because they’ll know whether they’re interested right away. So a few months went by, and eventually I stopped getting excited every time the phone rang. After about six months, I assumed the worst; I was far too television-unfriendly for the show, or maybe I had barely passed the test and there were many more qualified people, or maybe I should’ve showered that week and my musk was more offensive than attractive. Dammit, I did something wrong, and now I’d have to go back and take the test again and who needs that aggravation and it’s all stupid anyway. The calendar eventually turned to 2003, and I had given up any hope for the show. The world was a crappy place, and we’d soon start a war in Iraq because (?) and let’s just focus on that because nothing matters anyway and the phone’s ringing and…”Hi, this is Jeopardy calling, and we’d like you to come in for a taping next month.” Wait, really? “Yeah, really.” Uh, I had totally given up on you guys ever calling. “Ha ha, we get that a lot. So if you have a pen, I’ll give you some information…”
I’ve noticed over the last few years watching the show that contestants are dressing more and more casually. Current God-Contestant James Holzhauer generally wears a sweater or long-sleeve shirt. Not sure about underwear, but he seems like a boxer-briefs guy. Probably something colorful yet tasteful. Maybe just a touch of body spray to accent the pheromones. Uh, anyway, the point is, back in the day people dressed up for appearing on Jeopardy. However, my wardrobe was both out of date and ill-fitting, so my wife suggested a trip to Men’s Wearhouse (You’re Gonna Like The Way You Look, I Guarantee It!) so that I would be presentable. I justified the expenditure with the knowledge that finishing last on the show still guaranteed $1000, and soon my appearance went from Oh God No to Eh, Seen Worse.
SO YOU THINK YOU’RE READY (DAY OF TAPING)
Jeopardy is filmed at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles. They tape five shows a day, generally two days a week. As a result, on the day of your taping, they tell you to bring a few changes of clothes, so you can plausibly appear to be there on different days. We were told to be at the studio by 8:00 AM. Living about 40 miles away from the studio, I felt that leaving. say, 3 hours early would be a good idea. Naturally, traffic was non-existent, so I arrived at the parking structure with over two hours to spare, and nothing to occupy my time except trying to keep breakfast from coming back up. I had brought a couple reference books with me, but I never could really figure out how to study for the show. Watch it a bunch, then hope you get good categories? Seemed as good a strategy as any. Eventually it was time; I met up with fellow contestants and headed into the studio. First they had us all sit around a conference table and go over the day’s schedule. Then they pulled up each of our files and went through our “interesting” stories to tell Alex when he briefly interviews us. “So, you’ve got a few stories about riding in a hot air balloon and seeing a World Series game, but what’s this last one…you can fart the Jeopardy theme with your hands?” Um, yeah. “Let’s see.” Um, really? “YES.” Okay…(farts Jeopardy theme with hands)… “Awesome. You’re doing that. Don’t argue.”
After the meeting, we all went into makeup. That was a first for me (Halloween excepted). Apparently without some foundation or rouge or mascara or whatever they did, everyone would look like death. Finally, they had all of us test out the buzzer and stand behind a podium on stage so we could get a feel for what it would be like. Things were officially getting real, but all I could think about was hand-farting. Answering the questions? Whatever, fine. Being on stage in front of an audience? Sure, who cares. But having to hand-fart while talking to Alex Trebek? TERRIFYING. Now they were ready to start the taping. The previous game’s champion was there, so they randomly picked two people to join him for the first game, then had the rest of us wait in the audience, sequestered from everyone else. We got to watch the first game, but I don’t think any of us really registered what was happening. Soon we would have our time in the barrel, and that was all that mattered. At the end of that first game, a stage manager tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go – you’re up next.”
“Ok, you’re at the first podium. Hit the buzzer when you see the lights go on around the board. If you press it too soon, you’ll be locked out for about half a second. The lights will appear as soon as Alex is done reading. Lean forward, we need to touch up your makeup. Alex will pose for a picture with you during the first commercial break and we’ll send you the picture as a souvenir. If he messes up a word or mispronounces something, we’ll fix it in post, so don’t stop or anything. Oh, and if you win…please try to remember to act happy. A lot of winners just look like they’ve finished a torture session. Okay, you good?”
No, but I guess we’re gonna do this thing anyway.
By far the easiest and best part of the whole experience is answering the questions. Once the game started, I forgot all about nerves, the audience, the camera, and my disturbing comfort with the makeup, and just focused on the board and clicking the button. It was going pretty well, but suddenly…break time. Oh crap. Gotta talk to Alex. GAHHHHH. This is gonna be awful.
Ok, good. That’s out of the way. Back to the game. By the time we got to the end of the Double Jeopardy round, I was in second place thanks to a few dumbass mistakes (I mean, who the hell confuses Mary Tyler Moore with Marlo Thomas???), so I needed some good luck with the final question to get the win. The category was At The Movies, and the clue was a video of Alex in front of a house surrounded by greenery, saying that this house in Nairobi was a primary setting for this 1985 movie. Ok…what do we know…1985, Africa…seems like Out Of Africa would be the logical guess. Good, write that down…and, done. However, the person in first place was a lady who seemed right about the age where she would have watched Out Of Africa like thirty times. Crap. If I know this, then she definitely knows this. Oh well. Good effort. Second place isn’t too bad…
She missed it? Holy crap. A very very very large weight fell off my shoulders. I had lucked into a win. They brought me back to a waiting area, congratulated me, and told me to hurry up and change, because we were taping the next show in about ten minutes. And we were off and running. Having the experience of playing a game is a HUGE advantage. You’re more relaxed, you have a feel for the timing, everything just seems much easier. (Except talking to Alex. That was nerve-wracking EVERY TIME.) Game Two went really well; there were actually Sports and Beer categories side-by-side! Game Three was more of the same, and I was starting to think, hey, I might be getting good at this. Big mistake, of course. The last game of the day was my Waterloo (that’s right, I answered every question with an Abba song.) As it turns out, it’s physically exhausting taping shows all day and being sharp for that long. I made every possible mistake I could and finished last. But I was playing with house money at that point, so I really didn’t care at all (until later, when I thought about how badly I played and spent approximately 15 years beating myself up about it). Once you’re finished on the show, you sign all the financial forms, and they tell you to expect your money within 120 days after the episodes air. There was about four months’ time between tape date and air date, and another four months before they sent the check. Fun fact…if you play on the show, you can never come back again. One and done. Another fun fact…they do not pay for anything if you have to travel from out of town. There was a contestant on my second game who came from Hawaii. He finished last. The $1000 consolation prize probably covered his airfare.
Ken Jennings is amazing for winning 74 games in a row. The endurance it takes to be at your best for five games in a row (taped in one day) is something I didn’t have. The current champion James Holzhauer might just surpass Jennings’ money and wins record, and his take-no-prisoners method of playing is also remarkable. These two guys are in a different league from the rest of us who have played the game. They’re Joe Montana and Tom Brady, I was Josh McCown. Maybe. Still, like McCown, I made it to the big leagues, and it was the experience of a lifetime. Well, that and meeting Henry Winkler in an airport. But that’s an amazing story for another time. (He asked who was winning a basketball game on a bar television. I told him. MAGIC.)