JULY 13, 2009
Well folks, now that my 2 days in the national television spotlight are officially over, I can safely talk a little about the experience of appearing on Jeopardy. So, without further ado, here’s a copy of the article that I wrote for the Sony Website immediately upon returning to St. Louis at the end of March. I hope you enjoy reading about the experience as much as I enjoyed going through it…
JAY-Z, JEOPARDY, AND ME…
AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE JEOPARDY EXPERIENCE
Right now I’m sitting in a gigantic holding room that looks a little like the world’s most mundane airport terminal, and I’m thinking about salaries. Down by my feet, there’s a canvas messenger bag with a few holes in it and an “I’m an Illini Blood Donor” pin attached to the front flap; and inside the bag there’s a copy of Best Life magazine (which, by the way, mysteriously arrives in my mailbox every month – despite the fact that I’ve never subscribed to the publication and it’s target audience has a median age at least a decade older than my own). Why is this important? Well, a few minutes ago, I happened to read an article in that Best Life magazine that informed me that Jay-Z made approximately 86 million dollars last year. In my head, I do a little quick math – and determine this means that Mr. Z makes around 170 bucks a minute. That’s a nice salary; but at least now I’ve got a reference point
to know what it feels like to be Jay-Z. Last week, I spent around three hours on the Jeopardy Sound Stage at the Sony Studios in Los Angeles – and in those three hours, I made a little over $30,000, which breaks down to right around 170 bucks a minute. Of course, Jay-Z still makes that salary while he’s sleeping, and he’s married to Beyoncé, and right now I’m getting paid 12 dollars a day to perform my civic duty as a juror. Still, last week I happened to correctly respond “Who is Beyoncé?” on national television, and Shawn Carter’s never been a Jeopardy champion – so I’m feeling pretty good about myself. Plus, Alex Trebek tickled me in front of a live studio audience, which I think it’s safe to say is something that can legitimately be deemed priceless.
But, perhaps I’m putting Descartes before the horse, so maybe I should rewind to the beginning of my Jeopardy story:
In January of 2008, I took a special late night trip into my office at Saint Louis University, where I knew I could work without distraction, and for the third time in my life I took the online Jeopardy contestant quiz. I remember feeling fairly certain at the time that Salem was indeed the capital of Oregon, but I was less sure about my other 49 answers. Still, after taking the test, I had faint hopes that I had performed well enough to move on to the next stage of auditions. I crossed my fingers, walked down the hall for a cup of coffee, and turned my attention back to grading a stack of essays.
As the months went by, and life continued with its endless bevy of complications, I forgot, however, for the most part, that I had even taken the test. And when I happened to catch the show on television, I could only assume that this year again wasn’t my turn – and nervously admit to myself that I wasn’t entirely certain that there wasn’t, in fact, some place called Oregon City that I had quite forgotten in the fifteen years since I’d last taken a state capitals test. By the way, remembering this experience reminds me that one of the hardest things about trying to be a contestant on Jeopardy is the uncertainty of waiting. At no point during the process do you ever actually know the producers of the show’s timeline – and so every time you advance to the next level of competition, the call always comes as a surprise.
And when did my first surprise occur? Well, towards the end of May (2008), I spent a week in Cleveland – a city, by the way, which is not the capital of Ohio – where I ran my third marathon. While I was there, and because I refuse to pay for internet service on my phone, I happened to go a week without checking my email. This, however, could have been a disastrous example of why embracing luddite philosophies in the twenty-first century is not the best idea.! You see, by the time I did eventually check my email on the following Tuesday, I found in my inbox a message from one of the casting producers, Corina, that informed me I had been selected to attend a second round of in-person auditions in Chicago, and likewise informed me that I had only 48 hours to RSVP my slot. Unfortunately, the email was around a week old. So I sent a desperate, pleading response in hopes that my slot was still open – and luckily, it was.
Three weeks later, after dropping my dog off with my parents downstate, I made a frenzied, coffee-fueled drive up Interstate 57 towards the Dan Ryan Expressway, and by 9:00 I was shaking hands with a large, exuberant dude named Tony, who snapped a picture of my unshaven face and underdressed torso (I had no idea we were supposed to wear a suit!) in a conference room on the third floor of the Downtown Westin. A few moments later, we were ushered into a separate room, and contestant-wrangler Robert was telling us about the day’s audition process. There were a few peremptory practice questions for the whole group to get warmed up – and I remember correctly responding “What is a Loch Ness Monster Truck?” on a Before and After clue (which is something I certainly would have purchased if I had won a few more games during the real deal), and then we were given a 50-question written test in order to ascertain whether or not we had actually taken our own online quiz. On that test, I remember correctly answering that Dennis Kucinich was the presidential candidate from Cleveland (again, not the capital of Ohio), and incorrectly answering that a certain Indian kitchen tool was the “magic curry maker machine.” While the former was factual, I’m actually somewhat convinced that it was a handful of goofy answers like the latter that propelled me into the first mock-game, and ultimately onto the show – because they were indicative of the whimsical spirit I might bring to a telecast. After my performance, a number of fellow auditioners assured me that I was definitely going to be called – which left me feeling somewhat confident – and I returned to St. Louis with a game plan: I was going to study.
So, when I returned home, I ordered half a dozen books off of Amazon: Chuck Forrest’s Secrets of the Jeopardy Champions, Bob Harris’s Prisoner of Trebekistan, E. D. Hirsch’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, etc. – and determined that I would spend a few hours a day making flash cards. Yet, before I had gotten too far in the process, I began to question the value of this exercise. After all, at the time I had a looming Ph.D. qualifying exam on 100 works of Nineteenth Century American Literature, a college-advice book in progress, a produced musical I was working on selling to community theater groups, and a handful of television pilots nearly completed with a contact in Hollywood who was giving great feedback. Was it wise to devote so much time to Jeopardy? Don’t only a few of the auditioners ultimately make it on the show? Even if I were to be cast, was there any guarantee that I would earn enough money to justify the expenditure of my time? And finally, in my audition, did I cross the line of seriousness and drift over into a mockery of a highly-revered cultural institution? Thus, in the shape of a few weeks, I went from being quite convinced that I was going to make it onto the show and was going to win a million dollars to being more or less disillusioned with my possibility of being cast. I set the books aside, decided there was a more direct path to monetary gain in Los Angeles, and developed a contingency plan that went something like this: if, and only if, Jeopardy did eventually call, I would drop everything for three weeks and study like Don Draper. That is, I would study like a Mad Man.
As time passed, this practical decision began to seem more and more reasonable. My college-advice project was gaining national steam, my teaching vocation and television-writing avocation were progressing nicely, and not once had someone asked me whether people in Malaysia use the dinar or the dirham as their unit of currency. And then, right around my 29th birthday in February (which, those of you who have seen the show realize never actually occurred), I got “the call” from Robert. For thirty seconds I jumped up and down; I sent a dozen jumbled, incoherent text messages all at once; and then I ran into the bathroom to throw up – realizing that I had no idea whether people in Malaysia buy their beer with dirhams or dinars.
That night, I walked down to Walgreens and purchased 2000 index cards. I had exactly 21 days to study before I boarded a plane for Los Angeles, and there was a whole lot that I intended on knowing by the time I reached California. On Thursday, March 19th, I shaved my playoff beard (I don’t really follow hockey, but I love the concept of the playoff beard) and splurged on a $220 pair of grown-up dress shoes. On Friday, March 20th, I loaded my 2000 completed index cards into my $220 shoe box, and I headed back to Mattoon for 36 hours of intense quizzing with my mother and my band’s former lead guitar player Myles (who would, by the way, be an excellent contestant on College Jeopardy, and might be the only person in the world who could challenge Mark McGrath or Chuck Klosterman at Rock and Roll Jeopardy) – and we reviewed “the entirety” of world capitals, European River Systems, world currencies (in Malaysia they use the ringgit), American Literature, Norse mythology, human anatomy, opera, British Literature, classical music, world history, Russian Literature, the periodic table, famous scientists, world explorers, American Presidents and Vice-Presidents, and American history. In between, my dad asked me random questions about sports figures and James Bond movies. In retrospect, I wish I would have paid more attention to the stuff about James Bond – but more on that later.
Anyway, by the time I arrived at LAX on Sunday afternoon and picked up my rental car, I had learned a whole lot of stuff that will ensure I never again lose a game of Trivial Pursuit. With that information safely locked away, I figured I would just enjoy myself in Los Angeles, and on Wednesday, when I was scheduled to tape, I’d let the chips fall where they may.
Luckily for me, my college roommate and his wife moved to Southern California a couple of years ago – and so the guarantee of third place prize money meant that at the very least, I was going to get to spend an awesome week of vacation with my friends for free. Sunday night we grilled out and took a tour of downtown Orange – where they live. I spent Monday at Laguna Beach. Tuesday, I took a tour of the Warner Brothers studios, and then picked up my friend Carlin from the airport before heading back to stay at the recommended Jeopardy Radisson in Culver City – it seemed like a good idea to not try to fight traffic on the 405 on Wednesday morning. And then, before I knew it – it was game time.
At this point in my Jeopardy experience, time both slows down and speeds up – but here’s what I can tell you about the morning preparations prior to taping: it becomes quickly apparent that everybody there is smart. Really smart. The contestant group that shows up for Jeopardy every Tuesday and Wednesday is filled with the type of people who could naturally dominate local trivia contests – and on top of that, they’ve spent the last month studying the things they don’t know about Spanish Court Painters and the Canadian Football League. It’s humbling. And yet, at the same time, it’s inspiring – because every contestant I met was at least twice as nice as he or she was smart, and that’s pretty rare. The Jeopardy casting crew does a great job of selecting people at the auditions who would make great Big Brothers and Big Sisters – although they also might make your kid read Proust or Erasmus instead of watching Blue’s Clues. And then there was makeup. And then I tripped on the steps leading up to the stage. And then we were holding the signaling device and playing practice games. And perhaps here would be a good place to take a little more in depth look at…
…the signaling device. If there was one thing I was certain about going into the competition, it was the knowledge that I would be good at using the signaling device. I’ve got a stack full of varsity letters from high school athletics in my parents’ garage back home, I’ve got super quick hand-eye coordination, and I’m absolutely great at bar games like darts, shuffleboard, and beer pong. But…I wasn’t good. I was horrible – perhaps because I didn’t spend enough time playing video games at home as a child. In fact, I’m not certain that I successfully buzzed in on more than a dozen contested clues in my entire two games of Jeopardy – because I was so amped up, and so eager, that I almost always buzzed in too early and locked myself out for that critical split-second that makes all the difference between the game’s winners and losers. It was like I kept pulling up to the gate at my apartment complex, hitting the buzzer to let myself in, and instead of waiting for the window of opportunity to actually open, sped my car into the slowly opening aperture at 30 miles an hour, bouncing myself back across Forest Park and onto the freeway.
That being said, you won’t ever find me complaining about my experience on Wednesday, March 25th, 2009. In the morning, I woke up in Los Angeles. Around lunchtime, I won more than $30,000. And by the night’s end, I was in a circle of my friends, chanting along with Asher Roth’s song “I Love College,” taking turns dancing like a crazy person as people gleefully shouted “Do Something Crazy! Do Something Crazy!” It was a good day – and it all happened awfully fast.
Unlike most contestants, I spent absolutely zero time waiting in the audience, watching other people play the game. About five seconds after the entire group was ushered back to the green room and we had all practiced our hometown howdies, my name was called to be one of the two folks who had the opportunity to challenge returning champion Chris Fernandez on the Monday show. And thus, before I knew what had hit me, I was shadow-boxing in the wings, mumbling DMX lyrics under my breath – waiting to walk onto the stage where in a few short minutes Alex Trebek would appear and Johnny Gilbert would tell all the ladies and gentlemen – THIS IS JEOPARDY!!!
I wish, at this point, I was capable of conveying how unbelievably nervous I was during that first game. In my mind, I had constructed this wall, without even really knowing it, that delineated any type of win as a monumental accomplishment, and any type of loss as a complete and dismal failure. So imagine my horror when the Single Jeopardy categories were revealed, it turned out the board was James Bond themed, and I realized I had given much more of my attention during my study breaks over the previous weekend to watching college basketball than I had to listening to my dad talk about George Lazenby. And I kid you not – after I had already nervously answered two clues incorrectly, after I was so frustrated with my incapacity to use the buzzer that I was about to slam my head into the podium, I somehow tripped into a Daily Double with negative money in my Jeopardy account, and knowing that it was the right play, I wagered a thousand dollars; but here’s the crazy part:
THE PREVIOUS SATURDAY AFTERNOON:
My Father: “And then there was the one unauthorized James Bond movie, where Sean Connery made a comeback…”
Me: “Yeah?” (as I humor him, and watch Villanova rip UCLA to shreds)
My Father: “Never Say Never Again. They’ll probably ask you about that. You should remember that. I’m sure they’ll ask you about that.”
Me: “Okay. I’ve got it locked away.” (as I think to myself, “What are the odds that my dad can predict a specific question that I will be asked? Why do people always propose scenarios like that?,” and then I turn my attention back to the game)
Alex Trebek: “And it’s…a Daily Double…”
Me: “I’ll wager a thousand, Alex.”
Alex Trebek: “In this last Sean Connery film as James Bond…”
Me: (“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. What the hell was that thing called? I can’t remember what that thing was called. Say something, you idiot!) – …silence…
Alex Trebek: “And that was Never Say Never Again.”
So…that pretty much sums up my Single Jeopardy experience. By the second commercial break, I had amassed a whopping total of negative $1200 (that’s right – I now owed Jeopardy an average American’s weekly pay). And I was in the process of humiliating myself on national television – AWESOME.
During the break between the two rounds, however, two things of great importance happened that changed the course of my first game – and will ultimately make the viewing experience for all of my friends incredibly dramatic (provided they don’t turn off their television sets out of sadness). The first is that Glenn Kagan, another of the show’s producers, helped me slow down just enough that I was miraculously able to buzz in on enough clues in the Double Jeopardy round to take control of the board. The second is that Alex Trebek tickled me. So, armed with a little more patience and the knowledge that, whatever else comes out of this experience, I would be able to tell people I had been tickled by Alex Trebek, in the next round I relaxed on the buzzer and just started answering questions. I got both Daily Doubles, and I got them both correct; and by the time we had reached Final Jeopardy, I had erased my negative score and put $16,600 into the good column, and thus I had the lead. When the Final Jeopardy category, NAPOLEON, was revealed, I felt pretty confident. In my head, during the break, I made of list of possible responses, including: Waterloo, Trafalger, Russia, Josephine, Brussels, 1815, Wellington, Nelson, St. Helena, etc. And then, when the clue was actually revealed, it was more or less a “gimme.” All three contestants wrote down the only French state in America that made any sense – “What is Louisiana?” – we all were correct, and though I tried to psyche out my friends by making a sad face after the correct response was revealed on the first contestant’s podium, in my head I was doing cartwheels, knowing I had just won a game of Jeopardy!
Between games I rushed backstage, changed my shirt, and rushed outside with Glenn while he watched me take a few satisfied drags on a cigarette and made sure nobody came up to me to reveal any answers. A few minutes later, I was back out in front of the audience, enjoying my second fifteen minutes in the limelight. In that second game, I again struggled with the buzzer – but really what my loss came down to was an incorrect answer on a Daily Double in the Double Jeopardy round where I wagered $4000. On the clue, which was about a famous speech to the U.N. in the early 1960s, I knew the correct response was either Fidel Castro or Nikita Kruschev. I think I jumped the gun a little bit, and as soon as I answered Castro I had a feeling I had gone the wrong direction (Kruschev seems much more likely to have banged his shoe on the podium), but really, what are you going to do? There’s no use crying over spilt milk, and I rebounded to correctly answer the next question – “what is sabotage?” – because there’s a high school a few miles from my hometown whose mascot happens to be the Wooden Shoes, and I remember a story from some point in my past where I learned that Dutch shoemakers once threw their wooden shoes, called sabots, into the machinery to stop production. This was also the game where I correctly responded “Who is Beyoncé?”
By the time Final Jeopardy occurred, I was in a competitive third place, but when the category showed up on the board – EUROPEAN REGIONS – I knew the smart play was for me to wager nothing. In the case of a triple stumper, I would probably win, and if either of the contestants ahead of me got the response correct, I would lose regardless of how much I wagered. Plus, European Regions? I’m not so hot there. Tuscany? Gascony? Boscany? Are any of those places real? And if they are, where the heck are they at? This only reinforced my decision to wager nothing – and…as it turns out, it gave me the opportunity to leave the show with a bang!
Now, this is something that I’m sure people are going to ask: why on earth, Joe, did you write down Dracula Tree Forest, when it’s pretty clear that if you made it that far in your reasoning, you probably could have answered Transylvania? Yeah, I could have. But what I realized, and no one else in the audience did, was that my answer didn’t matter at all – because I had wagered nothing – so something about the Beowulf way of describing natural phenomena struck me at the moment as being incredibly funny, and on an impulse I decided to write it down. As it turned out, John, who was in second, missed the correct response (by the way, watching John leave the studio in frustration made me realize how incredibly sad it is that not everyone who plays the game gets to win – because he had obviously studied extremely hard, he was expecting to do well, and you don’t get any second chances to ever appear on the show). Alyssa, who was in the lead, answered correctly, and a few minutes later I was packing up my gear and heading out to meet my friends in the studio audience. We stuck around to watch the taping of the Wednesday show, and then, at the lunch break, we headed to Santa Monica, where I spent a few minutes looking out at the Pacific (or, in Beowulf terms, the Great West American Water Ocean), and letting it sink in that I had come to California and made a success of my trip. It’s a moment I won’t soon forget. And with that…we’re back to where we started.
At some point late last night, I landed at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis with a trunk full of wrinkled clothing, a slightly darker skin complexion, and a promise that somewhere around the first of November I’ll be receiving a check for $30,801. This morning, I unpacked my new $220 pair of shoes (which will probably be the only major depreciating purchase that I make with my winnings), smiled as I sat my $220 shoe box full of index cards on the top shelf of my closet, and put on the same outfit that you’ve seen me wear on national television to go to do my civic duty as a juror. Now, I’m sitting here, waiting to be called. I can only say that the anticipation, in comparison with my wait for the call from the producers of Jeopardy, pales in comparison – but we can’t all live the life of Jay-Z all the time.