It’s Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m., and I’m standing in an alleyway on the Sony Studios lot in Culver City, California, along with nine total strangers. Each of us has a couple changes of clothes, a small bundle of paperwork, and the sort of pit-of-your-stomach nervousness that I haven’t experienced since I took the SATs.
We’re here to be contestants on Jeopardy!.
The ten of us come from all over the country, from all sorts of backgrounds: there’s a homemaker and a lawyer, a graduate student and a professional economist. We chat fitfully, mostly about the pieces of Hollywood glamour that surround us. Just around the block is an outdoor movie set that consists of a half-dozen ’30s style storefronts. Off in the distance is a black golf cart that, according to one of the Sony employees, belongs to Adam Sandler. Above our heads are giant posters for the shows that are being taped at Sony: Rules of Engagement, Necessary Roughness, Community.
Trust me, there is nothing like a professionally retouched, 30-foot-tall photo of Joel McHale, Alison Brie, et al. to make you feel like a plain old plebe at eight o’clock in the morning.
Eventually, our contestant coordinators arrive and take us through the Herculean task of covering all the necessary legal ground, giving us our daily schedule, and (most of all) getting us to warm up and look/feel/talk like we belong on camera. For this they have budgeted three hours.
The first thing we are told, and the thing that gets mentioned multiple times throughout the morning, is that we should be proud that we’ve made it to the contestant stage. We are, as one of the contestant coordinators puts it, “the one percent” of the hundred thousand hopefuls who started the audition process in the last year. We’ve all passed the online test with flying colors, and we’ve all been selected after our in-person audition to be here. So we should have no doubts about whether or not we belong here.
All of that confidence disappears as soon as the previous day’s champion, Andrew, walks into the green room. He’s introduced as a five-time winner (Jeopardy! tapes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, five episodes at a time), which means that he started on the first show and stayed all day yesterday, with winnings of over $100,000 so far. He demurs, bantering easily with the contestant coordinators. Jokingly, he asks whether his outfit is completely TV-ready, and he reacts with mock horror when one of the coordinators urges him to smile more on camera. This guy looks and acts like he belongs here.
Meanwhile, I’m still totally overwhelmed by the mere thought of being inside a television studio. The slightest thing seems to knock my level of confidence down a notch or two, and there are many. In practicing our interviews with one of the contestant coordinators, I get some facts mixed up, and immediately upon seeing my outfit, another one tells me that I’ll have to change ties.
I ask him how it feels to be a five-time champion.
“It makes you a little less patient with all this preparatory stuff,” he says.
All of a sudden I know that this guy is going to steamroll each and every one of us.
It’s just before noon by the time we finish the introductory process, and truthfully, it’s not a bad thing that it has taken so long. After the first hour or so, all of us have managed to calm our jangling nerves, stop babbling whenever someone asks us a question, and even crack a joke or two. I’ve stopped getting the urge to pee out of nervousness every twenty minutes, and mostly I’m feeling impatient to play. Finally, we’re led out onto the sound stage.
You rarely see the full set in a single camera shot on stage, but trust me: it is more than the sum of the close-up shots you get during most of the program. Think Renzo Piano meets the engine room from the Picard-era Enterprise: lots of blue lighting and plate glass. The game board dominates the room, and as I look at it in person for the first time I suddenly know how the early hominids from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 felt when they looked up at the black monolith. Awe, reverence, the profound wish that it will be kind to you.
Each of us probably gets about ten minutes of practice on super-easy clues, just to get comfortable with the mechanics of gameplay: where to look to see the scores, where the video Daily Doubles appear, where the timer is that tells you how long you have to respond.
As I said before, the hardest thing to master is the timing of your buzzer. And the way I’ve been practicing is all wrong. I’ve been trying to key off of the end of questions, but the guy who controls the buzzer and I have a different interpretation of where that is, so I am consistently too quick to ring in. So I have to discipline myself to look at the lights that blink on when it’s okay to ring in, to think about nothing else other than those little lights. I feel like Captain Picard in the Cardassian chamber.
I’m so focused on those lights that I don’t realize I am moving around a lot out of nervousness. When I respond, I have a tendency to lean in to the podium, as if they still had their old mic booms on them; when other people are trying to answer, I shift from foot to foot out of impatience. I’m asked, very politely, if I can stand a bit more still, ostensibly so I can stay in the camera frame, but probably also so I’m not such a distraction to everyone.
By the end of practice, though, I’m feeling a little more comfortable with the buzzer and with the idea of standing still. I’m still confident enough to take on our champion Andrew. But at this point, it’s out of my hands. Ten minutes before they begin taping, a person from an outside compliance firm (more on that in a bit) randomly draws the names of the two contestants who will face the previous game’s challenger.
My name is not drawn for the first game; I get to see how an actual game goes, and more importantly, pray very hard that someone takes down Andrew before I have to face him.
Other than the previous day’s champion, the first time any of the contestants sees Alex Trebek is when he walks out from behind the game board for the first day’s show. He doesn’t acknowledge any particular person until their individual show starts taping, and the only real interaction anyone has with him comes during the contestant interviews and after the game is over when we all line up to chat with him.
This is all by design, in order to ward off the slightest appearance of any Quiz Show-style impropriety. Basically, the contestants are not allowed to interact with anyone who isn’t a contestant coordinator unless it’s absolutely necessary (for instance, when we get our makeup done). Even during our lunch break, we’re not allowed to go to the bathroom without an escort. If we ever need to challenge a question or get a judgment from the writing staff, or — god forbid — if our eligibility is ever in doubt (for instance, if someone attempted to slip us an answer), someone from the outside compliance firm steps in to be our advocate. There are, in short, many layers between us and the show’s creators and producers.
But that means that even for those of us who have made it to the Jeopardy! stage, Alex Trebek remains, Gatsby-like, both familiar and enigmatic, the sort of person whose voice you can recall in an instant but whose inner life remains just out of reach. No wonder newspapers will report the details of his breakfast along with his thoughts about his future and what books he’s reading, as if each of those details is equally revelatory.
A few personal details pop up during the day’s tapings. He likes chardonnay, and is happy to have a chair behind his podium (for the previous 28 seasons of Jeopardy!, he had to stand the whole game). He also says that if he didn’t have the answers in front of him, he’d probably get about 60% of them right. That sort of thing.
Weirdly, during the game, he seemed to recede from view even more, at least for me. That is, outside of the contestant interview, I wasn’t consciously interacting with Alex Trebek, the person. His voice told me whether I got a question right or wrong; it confirmed that I had control of the board; when it stopped, it was time to ring in. He was more like an ancient Greek god, whose voice could be heard and whose power could be felt everywhere, but whose being remained just beyond the scope of what mere mortals could see and fully understand.
I am selected for the fourth game of the day, just after lunch. Andrew lost in a nail-biter that came down to a Final Jeopardy! question; the person who beat him lost in his second game. So I am basically facing people who are no more prepared than I am. For that, I am thankful.
From the moment they call my name, everything becomes a blur. I remember to check my teeth beforehand — I had salad for lunch — and to make sure my collar is neat. Otherwise, I only remember bits and pieces from my game.
- When I hear Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, saying my name — “A data analyst from Seattle, Washington…Darryl Campbell!” — that’s the moment that it truly feels like a dream come true.
- I have seen dozens of episodes where it’s down to the last clue in a round, and I know that Alex always says something like “And now for the last clue…” when there is one clue remaining and time enough to choose it. Still, I do not have the presence of mind to stop myself from trying to select it and thereby awkwardly talking over Alex. (“I’ll take…oh, um, yep…”)
- I’m glad I studied Shakespeare so much before the show. I’m also glad I didn’t ring in on the two that I thought were Macbeth, because they weren’t.
- I paid more attention to Stevie Wonder lyrics than I’d realized.
And, once the Double Jeopardy! round was over and it was clear that I was a few thousand dollars short of putting the game out of reach:
I was afraid of Final Jeopardy! from the moment I started preparing for the show. During the first two rounds, blanking on a clue or even an entire category is not the end of the world. But in Final Jeopardy! you can get undone both by your wager and by your answer, and in practice, I’d gotten it right less than a third of the time.
The Final Jeopardy! category this time was Transportation. Okay, I thought, planes, trains, automobiles, that sort of thing. Doable.
Then came the clue: “Susan B. Anthony said this new fad had ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’”
Oh boy. Transportation trends between, roughly, 1820 and 1910…? I didn’t think the Transcontinental Railroad qualified as a trend, and I thought that airships happened later. By this time the 30 seconds were almost up, so I thought of the only trend-related thing I could think of, which was people with new Model Ts going for a drive every weekend. I thought that my answer “the Sunday drive,” was too unspecific and “soft” of a clue (as opposed to something concrete like the Battle of El Alamein or the Han Dynasty) to be right, but I figured that I might get lucky on a “triple stumper” and I didn’t want to look like an idiot who couldn’t come up with anything.
I was wrong. About the answer (like I expected) and about the clue being a triple stumper (it wasn’t).
I came in second place.
Still, it was a second place I could feel good about. I didn’t feel like I’d committed any huge errors during the game, or felt like there was a category that I could have gotten if only I’d studied a little bit harder. Even if I had trusted my gut on clues like Holy Cross and Cuba, which ended up being triple stumpers, I would certainly also have guessed wrongly on some of the Shakespeare and Words of Wonder clues as well, so that would have been about even.
And besides. One of the interesting things about the score monitors that the contestants can see is that they are just plain numbers, without the dollar sign in front of them. So it never felt like I’d “lost” however many thousands of dollars by falling into second place. It feels more like by winning, the champion gets his or her point total transmuted into dollars by the Fairy Godmother of Game Shows. Besides, the two runners-up get nice consolation prizes and, more importantly, bragging rights.
I left after my show ended even though there was one more to tape afterwards. It was almost four o’clock by then, and in order to get back to our hotel we would need to fight through the notorious LA traffic. I said my goodbyes to the contestant coordinators, signed my exit papers, and left after snapping one or two more photographs.
And then, back into the real world, where things like the opening lines of the poem “Daffodils” or the capital of Bahrain suddenly seemed to diminish in immediate relevance, even though they were still rattling around in my head. Maybe I’d have to start going to trivia nights again in order to get one last go out of all of this cramming. Or maybe I’d just let it all fade away, since my one date with a giant electronic game board was now, officially, over.