1. He’s nice. I guess.
2. I passed the test.
3. No way.
4. No; that stricken-deer-in-the-headlights look was my impression of Dan Quayle.
5. Except for garnet, amethyst, bloodstone, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, sardonyx, sapphire, opal, topaz, and turquoise, no.
6. Hey, money isn’t everything.
7. A washer and dryer by Sanyo, the greatest name in cheap car stereos, and a year’s supply of laxatives.
8. No, and neither did most of my friends.
9. Hey, they’re brown or white. And you can fluff them with a fork. Sort of.
10. Yes. Right after I go to my reunion and forget the names of my best friends in high school.
1. Answer: He’s nice. I guess.
Question: What is Alex Trebek really like?
Of all the questions since my appearance on Jeopardy! on June 16th, this has been the most frequently asked. The truth is that except for a couple of minutes of chit-chat for the cameras at the end of the show, contestants don’t get any closer to Alex than viewers do.
Five Jeopardy! episodes are taped each day, twice a week, so that by February when I taped my appearance, they were nearly five months ahead. Alex was off the set changing clothes during breaks between episodes, but in the commercial breaks he chatted with the audience. He mentioned then that he makes it a policy not to meet with contestants either before or after their appearances. The production staff of the show seems genuinely to like Alex; one producer told me that he is a home handyman, which causes them shudders every time they think of him climbing around on his roof.
2. Answer: I passed the test.
Question: How did you get on the show?
There really is a test; two, in fact. Getting on Jeopardy! had been a dream of mine since the 60’s, when the show began in New York with the endearingly pompous Art Fleming. The current version is produced in Los Angeles, and my wife Jenny was born in southern California, so I now have relatives there and we visit every couple of years. Fortunately for me, in 1993 our summer visit coincided with auditions for the show, so I called them up and arranged to take the test.
The initial screening is a 50-question written test, hosted by Alex (on video), based on $800 to $1,000 questions from past shows. Out of about 80 entrants, I was one of eleven who passed. Next was the actual audition. On the set of the show we were asked to write down three interesting facts about ourselves. Naturally I told them about my hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina, which has the world’s largest water tower in the shape of a peach.
Next we were given practice buzzers and the staff asked us questions — first about ourselves, then more Jeopardy! questions. We were being evaluated on three things: how quickly we could hit the buzzer, how well we answered the questions, and how bright ’n’ perky we could be on camera. Bright ’n’ perky I am not, so I had to hope for the best in the other two.
At this point no contestant knows the result. About 2,000 each year get this far, and about 400 will eventually be called. I did not hear for six months. In mid-January 1994 a producer called and asked me to come in February. Since they called about three days after the big earthquake, I assumed they must have been working with the Visit California Now! people.
3. ANSWER: No way.
Q: They paid for your trip, didn’t they?
The pages and pages of legal documents I signed before appearing made it abundantly clear that travel to Jeopardy! was at my own risk and expense. So it was red-eye flights all the way for me.
4. ANSWER: No; that stricken-deer-in-the-headlights look was my impression of Dan Quayle.
Q: Were you nervous?
I was much more nervous watching the shows being taped before mine than I was during my taping. I was extremely impressed with the professionalism of the three producers who worked with us. They talked us through the entire process step-by-step until we were comfortable, and we had one final practice round on the set. Just before each episode was taped, two of our pool of 13 were called to get ready for the next episode. Once the cameras roll, there’s simply no time to be nervous, and no turning back. The show goes by very quickly once you’re on the set.
5. ANSWER: Except for garnet, amethyst, bloodstone, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, sardonyx, sapphire, opal, topaz, and turquoise, no.
Q: Did you study?
I’m a rationalist and don’t believe in signs and omens. But I did buy a world almanac to do a last-minute run-through of U.S. geography and Shakespeare, something actually recommended by Alex in his book about the show. When I opened the almanac on the flight out, the book fell open to a listing of birthstones. Next, when I drove to San Diego to meet my son Todd (Wake Forest University ’92) for a visit, I passed through the streets in his neighborhood: Garnet, Opal, Sapphire…whoa! I stayed up late one night trying to come up with a mnemonic for GABDEP RSSOTT, the birthstones in order. Naturally, that category never came up.
What I did do was play video games. Buzzing in at just the right time is a large part of success on the show. When I got to a score of 44,079 on Spectre I thought I was ready. I’m convinced that video games helped me more than anything else I did. Certainly more than memorizing birthstones.
6. ANSWER: Hey, money isn’t everything.
Q: Did you win any money?
Alas, no. One of my opponents was a formidable three-time champ. Roger was a demon on the buzzer and killer on trivia. He and I both answered a lot of questions, but I missed a couple more than he did, one for $800, and one (ouch!) a Double Jeopardy! on which I had calamitously bet $2,500. The last question was mine, a Double Jeopardy! I had $4,200, Roger $9,000. The category was Decorative Arts, not one of my strengths, but I wagered $3,000 and correctly answered a question about Delft pottery. So by the end I had a chance of winning. However, Final Jeopardy! was my undoing. I bet everything but missed the question, which had to do with the XYZ Affair in American history. Roger got it right, and the rest is history.
7. ANSWER: A washer and dryer by Sanyo, the greatest name in cheap car stereos, and a year’s supply of laxatives.
Q: Didn’t you win anything?
Actually I was glad to be in third place (OK, first would have been better). Second prize was a trip from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Rose, who won it, lives in Laurel, Maryland, and works in DC.
The washer/dryer, on which I will have to pay income tax, has been delivered but I haven’t hooked it up as of this writing. I’m still waiting for the laxatives.
UPDATE 2009: the washer and dryer did in fact arrive later that year and lasted over 10 years before finally giving out. Not bad.
8. ANSWER: No, and neither did most of my friends.
Q: Did you see the show?
We regularly play trivia games with a few other couples, so we planned a big party for the night of the show. So did God, apparently, because a storm roared through Winston-Salem the night of June 16th and left much of the city without power for several hours. Care to guess which TV game show was cut off with 10 minutes to go? You got it.
WXII was kind enough to give me a tape of the program, which I’ve played for that night’s party guests. Every time my five-year-old son John watches it he helpfully points out which questions I am going to miss.
9. ANSWER: Hey, they’re brown or white. And you can fluff them with a fork. Sort of.
Q: EGGS! How could you!?
Actually this is not a very popular question, except for certain members of my household who shall remain nameless. Look, next time I’ll know they’re asking about rice, OK?
And that the Volga River flows into the Caspian Sea, not the Black.
And that Wiley Post did fly around the world. Solo.
10. ANSWER: Yes.Right after I go to my reunion and forget the names of my best friends in high school.
Q: Are you going to try again?
It’s a funny thing about fulfilling a life-long dream: what do you do next?
Although I was disappointed not to have done better, I was pleased that I had played a scrappy and dramatic game. And we certainly can use the new washer. All in all, being on Jeopardy! after dreaming about it for so many years was a complete delight. I have no desire to go back.
I’m not disappointed at how I did, but the instant I realized that I had missed Final Jeopardy! I was hit with an almost physical sense of loss. I had looked forward for over twenty years to being on the show, and now for the rest of my life I won’t have that to look forward to.
But I will have the tape, and John’s voice reminding me of the ones I missed.