September 21, 2010

Jeopardy!, or How to Win $2,000 Without Embarrassing Yourself

I made my national television debut yesterday on Jeopardy!, which is syndicated, meaning I got text messages, Facebook notifications, and e-mails in waves from friends and relatives in different TV markets. Everyone was very nice and excited to see me on television, which was great – so thanks, everybody! – especially since I still haven't managed to watch it in full myself. I don't like the way my voice sounds on recordings, and I remember thinking I hadn't done the brief interview with Alex Trebek very gracefully, so I haven't watched it. My mother, however, has watched it at least twice. (I'm sure I'll steel myself and watch the whole thing through eventually.)

So how did I end up a runner-up on America's Favorite Quiz Show®? The short answer is this: I took the online test. Three times. The third time, incidentally, was the charm, and I did well enough to be invited to the in-person auditions in Chicago last May. I should note that many of the people I met in Chicago (and, later, in Los Angeles) had taken the test many, many more times than I did, so I'm all the more amazed by how quickly I ended up on the show. At the audition, there was yet another 50-question test and some mock games. This test was the easiest one yet, and the “signaling device” – A.K.A. the button you press to ring in – didn’t take too much getting used to. Plus, they gave us free pens. Following that audition, we were put into the contestant pool for 18 months, meaning that we could be called up anytime during that year-and-a-half and invited to be on the show. I wasn’t holding my breath, since most of the people at the Chicago event had auditioned at least once before and had their 18 months expire without a phone call.

Much to my surprise, I got a voicemail not less than two months later from the fantastic Maggie Speak, who is one of the most entertaining and likable people I’ve ever met. When I returned her call, she ran through a list of questions (have you been convicted of a felony/appeared on any reality show in the last six months, do you know anyone who works for Jeopardy!/Sony/Alex Trebek) and then invited me to come to Los Angeles for their first week of taping for Jeopardy!’s 27th season. How cool is that? A contestant packet came in the mail the following week and I signed, initialed, and dated a lengthy legal document and provided some “fun” facts about myself.

All that was left was to actually get to Los Angeles. We flew in on Saturday night and spent the next two days sightseeing. Taping was on Tuesday and Wednesday at Sony Television, just up the street from our motel.

On Tuesday morning, I was up at 5:30 and cursing the time difference. Contestant call time at Sony Pictures Studios was 8AM sharp, so I had plenty of time to get dressed (and agonize – do I tuck the shirt in or not? hair up or down?) and my mom dropped me off at the security check-in. Most of the other contestants were already milling around and chatting. At this point, I noticed that everyone else had suitcases or those big garment bags for suits, while I had stuffed two extra shirts in my purse and called it a day. Well, I figured, chances are I’ll only need the clothes on my back, so who cares? Still, though, I felt a little underprepared.

We were collected and sent through security by Corina Nusu and Glenn Kagan, who had been at the Chicago auditions, and ushered into the greenroom by Robert James, with whom we would spend most of the rest of the day.

The next couple hours were spent signing forms confirming we were still who we said we were, still hadn’t appeared on any reality shows, so on and so forth; we were also sent into makeup, where I was painted up by a twice-Emmy-nominated makeup artist. The returning champion, Meg Miller, offered a few words of advice and talked about appearing on the show (“For me, the whole world shrank down to the gameboard, and there were two disembodied voices to my left [the other contestants] and another disembodied voice to my right [Alex Trebek]”) and told us she had won $29,299 in her two wins so far. Wow. She had been reigning champion since March, when they taped the 26th-season finale, which aired July 30. Robert went around the room and ran through everyone’s top three stories, the factoids they give Alex Trebek to ask the contestants about. We were able to pick which story we wanted to talk about, but were warned that Trebek would just pick whatever he wanted.

It was the first day of shooting for the new season, so it was the first time Maggie – who barreled into the room and sort of woke everyone up – had done her spiel since March. She kept turning to the guy on her left, Roger Craig, to remind her where she’d left off before her most recent tangent. That was the only reason I remembered his name for the next hour or so, because he was very unassuming and fairly quiet. As for the rest of the contestants, the whole group was surprisingly young. There was also another contestant from Minnesota, Katie Ganfield, hailing from St. Cloud. Everyone was really nice and I had a good time even just sitting in the greenroom with the other contestants.

We all spent about an hour in the studio, goggling at the set and squinting at the gameboard (man am I glad I had my glasses prescription updated before we left MN) and getting used to the signaling devices and the pens for writing our names and Final Jeopardy responses. I went through three or four versions of my handwriting before I found a way to write my name that didn’t look like I had let a child do it for me. We played mock games, where they would rotate us out throughout the games so everyone got used to being on stage, ringing in, and calling categories and clues. At one point during the musical-chairs games, I was sitting between Returning-Champ Meg and Roger, chatting about how cold the studio was and how small the clues are on the gameboard. Roger asked me if I was having trouble with the timing on the signaling device and we talked about trying to find the best way to time your ringing in. Obviously, he figured it out. I had less luck.

The rest of the day was spent watching Roger win and going from hoping I wouldn’t be picked next (in the morning) to being raring to take him on (after lunch). J! tapes five shows per day, two days a week, so everyone I met on Tuesday was on the show last week (September 13-17), except for Jelisa Castrodale, who played the giant-killer on today’s show (Sept. 21). Jelisa and I had to come back the next day for our chance to prove our smarts.

I drew the first game on Wednesday, going up against Roger, now a five-time champ, and Mary Keating, a lawyer from Baltimore and the first contestant from the new Wednesday group. I did my Hometown Howdy, which is sufficiently embarrassing:

The game itself is kind of a blur now. I do remember that we had to stop twice during taping due to technical difficulties, and each time they had us turn away from the game board, presumably so we wouldn’t see any clues accidentally revealed while the board was fixed. The card for the “Blarney” category in the first round was particularly troublesome. I scrolled through a transcript and had apparently gotten a clue about constellations and Capricorn, but I have no memory of that, nor do I have any idea how I knew it at all. I don’t know that now, I certainly don’t know how I knew it then. I wasn’t particularly bothered by my mispronunciation of “Ziegfeld” (until I went to the Will Rogers house the next day and mentions of the damn Ziegfeld Follies were EVERYWHERE, TAUNTING ME). I was pleased to see a category about female writers in Double Jeopardy, having done my senior thesis on Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe…and then I didn’t know any of the clues except for the one I answered (Sylvia Plath, whose work I have never read). Going into Final Jeopardy, I knew there was no way I would win, but looking at the scores, I did some quick strategizing. I knew that I wanted at least $1,000 left if I was wrong (the equivalent of the third place prize money). I knew that Mary was likely to bet the house to have a pretty good chance of overtaking Roger, especially if she was right and he was wrong. So my $5,000 wager was an almost arbitrary number that was meant to leave me, hopefully, with more money than Mary at the end of the day. With a category like “The Western Hemisphere,” all bets were off, especially since geography isn’t one of my strong suits. When the clue was revealed and it was about islands? Please. I just wrote down the first wrong answer that popped into my head and sat back to wait for the music to end.

And you know what? My meager attempt at strategy worked. Roger continued his string of victories to the tune of $230,200, and I walked out of there $2,000 richer. Or, rather, with the promise of a $2,000 check before taxes, to be received no less than 120 days after the airdate of my game. So…only 119 more days to wait, I guess!

Now I’m cataloged for posterity on J! Archive, where you can see exactly how many questions I answered right and wrong and see every clue we played on the show.

All in all, a fantastic experience, thanks to the fine folks who work at Jeopardy!. The other contestants were great, and it was fun even when we were just sitting in the audience cheering the others on. I’ve had texts from friends and relatives unhappy that I had to play against Five-Day-Champ Roger, but that $231,200 couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy. So, congrats to Roger for his six-day reign as Jeopardy champion, and congrats and good luck to Jelisa Castrodale as she defends her title tomorrow.

Will I be watching? You betcha.

If you want to know more, just leave a comment. I skipped over plenty, and I'm more than happy to detail my game show exploits in greater detail, because, really, it's my blog and it's all about me here.


  1. Hey, you did great. I'm pretty good at Jeopardy and I wouldn't wanna go up against Roger. Nice blog post btw. You should check out Empire Avenue if you get time. Kind of a social media stock market thing. It's what got me blogging:) And your appearance gained you at least one Twitter follower, @SpaceBlizat.

  2. Irene and I were thrilled to watch you perform on Jeopardy. You looked great, just bad luck to be pitted against Roger Craig. We were impressed by Jalisa when she played giant-killer and surprised to see her lose the next round. So much depends on the categories! Now that you are an experienced TV gamester, when might we expect to see you on Wheel of Fortune?

    Alan (your mom's first cousin) and Irene Chun

  3. Alan & Irene -- Thanks! Regardless of the outcome of the game, I was just thrilled to be there playing. As far as other game shows, I don't know about Wheel of Fortune, but how about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

  4. Did you get to talk to any contestants after their game? Remember any thoughts when first told to look into the camera?

  5. They held us in the audience after each game while the contestants for the next game got mic'd and had their makeup touched up, so the players who had just finished were usually gone by the time we got back to the greenroom. As far as the camera, I don't remember thinking anything, apart from noticing which one had its light on (indicating it was in use).