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The Anniversary of My Fifteen Minutes

Well, thirty minutes, if you want to get technical. The length of a standard television game show.

Yes, we’ve reached that day again, the anniversary of my real claim to fame, an appearance on the popular television quiz show Jeopardy!

Being on Jeopardy is just a great experience. You are nervous, you have no idea what to expect. But – and it sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget – the people who run Jeopardy do this for a living. The professionalism and efficiency is off the charts.

I’m always asked is how I got on. The answer is simple: I tried out. The first part of the tryout is an online quiz – fifty questions. The difficulty level was fairly high, the equivalent of $1200 or $1600 questions during the game. You never find out your score; you either get an email back in a few days with Step Two instructions, or you don’t.

Step Two is a half-day in-person tryout. I was lucky, they were in New York, scheduled in a hotel literally across the street from my office. You arrive and the Jeopardy crew is efficiently working the room. They want to get to know everybody as quickly as possible, trying to find out who will be able handle the bright lights. It’s an exercise in speed-networking; there are 100 contestants against maybe six people from Jeopardy.

You take another test, another fifty questions. Other than the answers being written, it is like the game show; questions read by Alex with the text on a screen. They come fast, and are as difficult as your average $2000 question. Again, you never see your score.

There is then a simulated game, you and two other candidates face about fifteen questions, with buzzers and all. At this point, they are openly filming you; they care if you get the questions right, but also seem mostly interested in how you stand up to the camera.

Then a bit more speed networking, and they send you on your way. You are now “in the pool.” They will either call you or they won’t. A few months later, I got the call.

You go to Los Angeles on your own dime; my filming was in January, so easy sell to get me from NYC to SoCal. My then-fiancée, parents and brother joined; we made a weekend out of it. Just because you made the trip, you are not guaranteed to be on Jeopardy. I think this is just the team there being overly cautious, but the whole enterprise is at your own risk.

On my day in the studio, they were filming five episodes – so it’s gotta run like clockwork. No, you don’t hang out with Alex Trebek. He has his own dressing room, behind where he walks on stage. Contestants have their green room, well-stocked with pastries and coffee, off to the right (viewers’ perspective). They put makeup on you, do your hair – chat you up to help you get comfortable. They go through the rules down to minute details. For example, if your electric pen doesn’t work for Final Jeopardy, there is a plain old index card with a plain old pen, helpfully placed on your podium.

But this whole time you still don’t know if you are going on. There are say twelve people there and only ten slots on the show (two per game plus the returning champion). When your name gets called, you have about ten minutes before you go on stage. If you are the fifth filming of the day – like me –you are nervous as all hell.

I’m also always asked how I prepared. There is no way to study the material for Jeopardy. It would take years; I had six weeks once I knew my filming date. Don’t read the encyclopedia. If you haven’t already memorized all the Presidents, State Capitols and Shakespearean plays – well, you have no business getting this far. You do need to study the strategy for Final Jeopardy wagers and probably also want a plan in advance for Daily Doubles.

The game moves fast, much faster than at home. There are no breaks, it’s question to question to question, around the board and back. When the home audience gets a commercial break, you get a break. You get more makeup, the lights are bright so you are probably sweating a bit. Alex does the chat with the contestants – these are longer in person, they edit them for the show. Before you know it, it’s Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy and you won or you lost. You take a deep breath, you are exhausted. And that’s it – once you’ve been a contestant, you can never be on again (under current rules at least).

For a bit of fun, I’m going to do a quick run through of some of the questions from my game. If you go to my player page at Jeopardy Archive, I answered 11 right, 0 wrong. Unfortunately, when you get the big one at the end wrong, it’s unlikely you get invited back. My opponents were Brian (returning champ) and KC – both super nice.

  • Question 2: United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez' father-in-law was this man who died in 1993

The second question and my first time buzzing in. I didn’t “know” the answer, but it was a $400 question, so it’s will be fairly easy. How many people can you name involved with the UFW? Correct question: Who is Cesar Chavez. Result: $400 to me (total score: $400)

  • Question 5: Jefferson Davis’ [father-in-law] was this US President

Remember how fast the game is. Even if you know the Presidents backwards and forward, there is not enough time to use logic and figure out a question like this. Six years older and wiser, I’m frustrated to have missed this one. Correct question: Who is Zachary Taylor. Result: Triple Stumper.

  • Question 16: In 2010 she got engaged to a choreographer she met on the set of "Black Swan"

Yup, I got quiet there for a while. I was trying to buzz in on “plump”, “equine” and “neutron” (category: Same First and Last Letter), but apparently I needed “Celebrity Facts” to get my timing on. Fortunately, I’d just seen this movie. Correct question: Who is Natalie Portman. Result: $200 to me, total score $600.

  • Question 17: Alice Cooper's Phoenix eatery has dishes named for ballplayers & is named this, like the Hall of Fame site

  • Question 20: Angelina Jolie's uncle, Chip Taylor, wrote this song that says, "You make my heart sing"

The game right before mine featured categories like “State / Prison”, “Airline Lingo”, “Geography” and “Which Sporting Venue.” Somehow, I knew enough about Celebrities to stay competitive. Correct questions: What is Cooperstown; What is Wild Thing. Result: both to me, total score $1800.

  • Question 26: A jardiniere is a decorative stand for holding these

How did I miss this one? At the time in my life, half my day was spent speaking French. Correct question: What are plants. Result: Triple Stumper. On to Double Jeopardy. My $1800 was good for second place. It was a tough round.

In Double Jeopardy, my opponents went first for my weak spots, knocking out “Classical Composers” and “Poetic Title Verbs” without me making an attempt. But then, we got to “Compound Words”:

  • Question 11: A student's may be 3-ring or spiral bound

  • Question 12: Common name for the patella

Two easy ones – I finally get my timing and grab them. Correct questions: What is a notebook; What is a kneecap. Both to me, total score $3000.

A famous, now closed, Detroit chop house

  • Question 15: It's the 9-letter name for a type of restaurant that specializes in steak & other meat on the bone

Wow, you really want to say steakhouse, and it’s a compound word. But I take my time, make a quick letter count and get the right spot just in time. Correct answer: What is a chophouse. $2000 to me, total score $5000.

  • Question 16: He plays novelist Hank Moody, a New Yorker transplanted to L.A., on "Californication"

You wouldn’t think Cable TV would be friendly territory, but I obviously knew this answer about one of my then-favorite shows. Alas, too slow again. Correct question: Who is David Duchovny. $400 to Brian.

  • Question 18 (video): (I'm Joel McHale.) When you're not watching "Community", you can catch me on this show on E! that satirizes other shows (though sometimes they do the job themselves) "Hint, hint. It's not the Kardashians."

It’s starting to get late early – I need to be more active. So, to use a technical Jeopardy term, I guessed. No idea how I got this question about a show I’d clearly never seen. Correct question: What is “The Soup”. $1200 to me, total score $6200. But now we get to my wheelhouse: “It’s a Coup d’Etat.”

  • Question 21: After his murder, the conspirators did not gain control, as power was passed on to the Second Triumvirate

  • Question 22: Carl Henrik Anckarsvard was the leader of the coup that overthrew King Gustav IV of this country

If life was about naming coups, it would be too easy for me. I’m going to buzz in automatically, focus just on the timing. If I can get in, I’ll know these. Correct questions: Who was Julius Caesar; What is Sweden. $1200 to me, total score $7400.

  • Question 23: In 1921 Reza Pahlavi helped with a coup that eventually brought his son to power in this country

Alas, I wasn’t fast enough to get in on a question that’s really too easy to be in the $1200 slot. Correct question: What is Iran. Result: $1200 to KC. And it’s especially unfortunate miss because:

  • Question 24, Daily Double: This S. American president was the leader of an unsuccessful coup in 1992 & was the target of a coup in 2002

One of life’s great unknowns – what would I have wagered if I had been able to keep control of the board? I would have been in second place, with $8600, about $1000 behind KC, $3000 ahead of Brian. In my alternate world where I’m better with the buzzer, I think I put up a big number, maybe everything. Correct question: Who is Hugo Chavez. Result: KC loses $2000 (guessed Fujimori, which isn’t a bad guess).

  • Question 29: In Pakistan Nawaz Sharif tried to dismiss this military leader in 1999 but was overthrown by him instead

The game moves away from Coups for a while and I again have trouble getting in. But I get the big money here. Correct question: Who is Pervez Musharraf. Result: $2000 to me, total score $9400.

I’m unable to get in on an easy $2000 question to close out the round. Unfortunately, that would have moved me into first. Alas, we go into Final Jeopardy as:

  • KC: $11,200

  • Nick: $9,400

  • Brian: $8,600

Very close game. True Jeopardy dorks (as I was at the time) recognize this as Stratton’s Dilemma. I have to compare the probability of two scenarios: KC having a Singleton Miss vs. a Triple Stumper. If the former is more likely, bet big; if the latter, bet small.

It’s a tough category – how many “Biographers” can you name? But I didn’t travel across the country to lose by betting too little.

  • Final Jeopardy: As many mourned, this minister wrote in a letter, "Washington is gone! Millions are gasping to read... about him"

Of the hundreds of Final Jeopardies I’ve seen, this is one of the most obscure. I’ve never met anybody who knew the answer, and in the months following my appearance, I asked a lot of people. That being said – Julia Collins (one of the greatest Jeopardy champions ever) correctly answered a similar question about three years after I was on. But as for me and my opponents, nobody even took a good guess. Correct question: Who is Mason Weems. Result: Brian bets small, winning his second of four games. He was later demolished by Roger Craig in the Tournament of Champions.

Thanks for following me down memory lane. Stupid Mason Weems.

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