SHOW TIME: PLAYING THE GAME
They try to keep the game running as close to real-time as possible, which means “commercial breaks” are maybe five minutes, tops. Every time the show cuts to commercial, the production team comes out to talk to the contestants. Maybe it’s encouragement (shake it off, keep calm, there’s way more game left, don’t worry) or a technical issue (make sure you’re looking over here, or doing X, Y, or Z), or getting your sweaty face powdered down. They bring out water for everyone at every break, and make sure the players are generally doing all right and not about to keel over. And during the break just before Final Jeopardy!, the contestants are given scratch paper and as much time as they need to figure out their FJ wagers.
Before and after the games, announcer Johnny Gilbert answers questions and chats with the audience. During the breaks throughout each show, Alex Trebek does the same. We got to find out about Alex’s adventures in finding a water leak at his house, his thoughts on the SNL and Conan bits about him and the show, and a lot of other topics. And some people were amazed that Johnny Gilbert does the “This … is … JEOPARDY!” live at the start of every show.
Sometimes during the breaks, Alex would re-read a clue if he’d flubbed a word, so they could dub it over in editing. And sometimes the break would be a little longer, if the judges needed to go over responses. But in general, each half-hour show took around 45 minutes to film.
On one hand, I was really, really glad to be able to watch two shows before it was my turn to play. I got to see how everything was done before I got thrown in there. On the other hand, it’s kind of torture when categories or clues come up in those games that are right in your wheelhouse. I mean, the game right before mine had a Final Jeopardy! category of Video Games. I would have bet everything on that one! (And got it right. Pokemon!)
I was called up for the third show of the day, the one right before our lunch break. We went back to the dressing room, used the restrooms, got our makeup freshened up, and spruced up our hair if necessary. Shawn, who I was sitting next to in our holding area (and who would have also gotten the video game answer right) turned out to be my fellow competitor. Because he’s something like six-foot-two or -three, I got to ride the platform up almost a foot so we’d be close to the same height.
We wrote our names on our monitors, made sure the signaling devices were working, and then we played some Jeopardy!
I’ll be the first to admit, my first segment suuuuuucked. The guys started out with a bad category for me, so I didn’t even ring in for the first few clues. Then I gave a couple of total wrong answers and a total guess (the shoe brand Clarks). I’ll be honest, I was feeling a little panic at not answering anything. There was also at least one time where I knew that I knew the right answer (Manolo Blahnik), but a wrong answer came to mind, and I knew it was wrong, but it wouldn’t go away. (I was thinking, “I know it isn’t Christian Louboutin,” but my brain had plucked that card out of the mental Rolodex and was holding it up so I couldn’t see anything else.)
Side note here: my one and only goal in playing was to make it to Final Jeopardy!—all I wanted was a positive dollar amount at the end of the Double Jeopardy! round, so I could play the entire game. I went in assuming I’d take third place and go home with the $1,000 consolation prize; I just wanted to be able to make it to the end. So ending the first segment in the negative was … not pleasant.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that they break the first round up into two 15-question halves. I was able to take that break and get a drink of water, shake off the stench of failure, and collect my fool self. And of course, as I was doing that, the representatives from the judges came over to let me know that I’d be losing more money when we came back from the break, because I’d said “Doctor Marten” instead of “Doc Martens.” One of the exact flubs that we were warned about! During that same break, Alex came over to stand next to each of us for a moment, so we’ll all have a souvenir photo of the two of us together. I restrained myself from trying to put my head on his shoulder.
You’d think that losing even more money would have put me even deeper into a funk, but I was totally, totally OK with it. I don’t know why or how, but for some weird reason, I was in a MUCH better place coming back from that first commercial break. Maybe it was the idea that I’d already gently pooped the bed with a few wrong answers, so it’s not like I could screw up TOO much more. Maybe it was being able to do my dorky little Q&A with Alex, where—I don’t know if you can tell this when watching at home—the man makes fantastic eye contact, and seems to really care about what you’re talking about, and he just seems so darned kind that it’s soothing as heck. It probably also helped that I was on such solid ground talking about doodling dorky holidays for my old web comic.
For the second half of the Jeopardy! round, and for the entirety of the Double Jeopardy! round, I finally got into a zone where I was able to shake the nerves and just concentrate on playing the game, and as a part of that, I don’t remember quite a lot of what happened. I know I said at least one or two more wrong answers, but again: you have to speed-read the question, formulate an answer, listen to Alex finish the clue, wait for the lights to go on, and then hammer on your signaling device; sometimes the wrong things just hurl themselves out of your mouth. But I also clearly got quite a few answers right, since I was in the lead at the end of the first round. Also, just a funny note: BILDUNGSROMAN was the last category we went to, and as you may guess from hearing me select it, I was uncertain about how to say it. Because it’s a word that I’ve maybe, MAYBE, seen once before in my life, and if so, it would have been written down. Maybe. I certainly had no idea what on earth it meant. (I looked it up afterward—it’s a novel about one’s formative years or coming of age—and now it’s a term I’ll never forget.)
Throughout the game, there were a TON of questions that I knew the answers to, but the guys rang in first. That’s probably the most frustrating thing of all—your brain is screaming, “FIREFLY! YOU KNOW THIS! YAY!” You see the lights come on, you think your timing is perfect, you punch the button on your signaling device, but out of the corner of your eye you see the red lights come on at the front of your neighbor’s podium. Crushing! Sadly, I didn’t catch any of the Daily Doubles, which would have helped boost my score. (Yes, avoiding those wrong answers in the first part of the game would have also boosted my score by a couple thousand dollars, but what’s done is done.) But generally, any question that someone answered, at least two of us and most of the time all three of us were hammering on our buttons; I just never really got the groove with the timing.
I made it to Final Jeopardy! in second place, which was hilarious, because when studying up on FJ wagering, second place was always the hardest bet for me to figure out. You’re torn between shooting for first and protecting yourself against the person in third. Our category of Familiar Phrases helped me decide which of those two ways to go: Shawn, the guy in third place, was a high school English teacher. I had to assume he’d get it right, so I wagered to protect my lead on him: just enough that if we both got it right, I’d beat him by a dollar. (I felt generally good about a words-based category; it wasn’t the home run of Video Games, but it wasn’t the terrifying German Geography from the first episode of the day.)
Well, our Final Jeopardy! turned out to be a triple-stumper; none of us got it right. I’m delighted to have made it halfway there, and to have Alex acknowledge that I got the closest. I will never again forget the phrase “lunatic fringe,” but it was one of those phrases I just had never heard of—so much for “familiar” phrases. (A couple of months after filming, I was listening to an ’80s music station, and a song by Red Rider called “Lunatic Fringe” came on. The tune was vaguely familiar, like I’d heard it a couple of times way back when it came out in 1981. So I guess I HAD heard the phrase before, but only as a song title. 35 years ago. So I don’t feel bad about that.)
I did end up keeping the second-place spot, which was better than I thought I’d do! And if Matt had wagered more, I could have eked out a small win. If I’d wagered far less, I could have won as well. But I made the decision I thought was the smart one at the time, so I’m satisfied. (It helps that Alex came up to us after the game, did all of the customary hand-shaking, and told us [to paraphrase]: “When I was reading over the games this morning, I saw this Final Jeopardy! and thought, nobody is going to get this one.”)
So I didn’t win, but I met my goal: I made it to Final Jeopardy! in the positive. I even exceeded my goal, because I really did expect to take third place. I figured I’d get boards full of my worst categories (like a bunch of bible stuff, or ancient history that needed specific dates). But—and I can’t say for sure until after I’ve watched the episode, because so many of the clues are now a big blur—I don’t think anything came up from any of the areas I studied. No presidents, or mountain ranges, or anything from the periodic table, or anything else from my list of most-used categories. But I did get categories about Motown lyrics, and drones, and a few other areas that are more amenable to a pop culture junkie.
AFTERMATH: THE POST-GAME
I signed even more paperwork just after my game, confirming my personal details and the amount I’d won. It was lunch break time, and I had the option of either staying for the last two games or heading back to the hotel. Of course I opted to stay for the whole thing, since now I could just watch and enjoy the process without the weight on my shoulders of not knowing when I was going to be playing. And really, how many other times am I going to have the chance to watch a game show taping?
I met up with my husband (now that I was done playing, I could make eye contact with him again) and we went to the studio commissary for lunch. I was told where the remaining contestants who hadn’t played yet would be sitting, and was encouraged to find a place to eat on the opposite side of the room. (Having played my game, I’d crossed over to the other side, and was now a person who wasn’t allowed to be in contact with those who hadn’t played yet.) The food was decent, and I repeatedly made sure with Scott that I hadn’t embarrassed myself too terribly.
We headed back to the studio, and I got to watch the final two games as an ordinary audience member, which was great. I had a couple of players I was rooting for, and it was generally just a fantastic time. There were categories I wished I’d had, and categories I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t had to face—you know, just like in every game of Jeopardy! ever.
Taping ended around 4, and I was pretty tired, and finally crashing after all of the adrenaline throughout the day. We grabbed a Lyft back to the hotel (they don’t have a shuttle, since after we play we can leave at any time), and I tried for a nap, but as tired as I was, I couldn’t shut off my brain. We had a much less eventful dinner (Olive Garden, because they do a nice gluten-free pasta), and were back at the hotel in time for a little light packing before that evening’s episode of Jeopardy! came on. Yes, that’s right, after spending the day at the Jeopardy! studio, we watched that night’s episode. It was hilarious, because we were constantly all, “OMG, the game board looks so far away from the contestants! The floor looks like it goes on for miles! Look, right now, you can see Alex glance at the stage manager for that one specific cue!”
We went to bed early, though it was a rough night of sleep (a combination of my brain beating me up for questions I’d got wrong, and my arthritic hips shouting at me that the hotel bed was too hard). We were scheduled to fly out at 8 AM, and finally made it into the air a little over an hour late. (Thanks, LAX.) And already by that next morning, the entire experience seemed like a surreal dream. (You may laugh, but in my dream reality, very often I have the memory of having come in sixth place on my season of Survivor. Never mind the fact that I would never go on Survivor, or that surely my brain should be giving me a better result than sixth place. The alternate reality of dreams is a strange place.)
I’m writing the majority of this post just a couple of days after getting home, when everything is still fresh in my mind. Though I have a couple of spots to fill in after watching the episode, since a lot of it is a blank to me right now. (How blank? Let’s talk about my categories. I know in the single Jeopardy! round, there was one about shoes, and BILDUNGSROMAN was on the right-hand end. In Double Jeopardy! I know the first one was about drones. I know that MOTOWN LYRICS was in there somewhere, as was something about numbers. Other than that, I can’t remember any of the rest!)
And speaking of those months, it’s been frustrating not being able to really talk to people about it. In between taping and air, you’re not allowed to tell people how you did, or any of the categories, or any of the clues, or any answers you got right or wrong. You can basically tell people, “I played Jeopardy!, and you can watch it on your TV on X date.” And, you know, stuff that doesn’t matter. I can tell people that the guy next to me was really tall, so they had to lift me up on a platform. I can tell them that Alex Trebek had warm hands and kind eyes. I can tell them that it was the most surreal, exhilarating, and weird experience of my life. But I can’t tell them any of the stuff they really want to know.
So now you know how it went for me. I’m so happy that I didn’t faint or vomit or even fart while playing. I met my goal of making it to Final Jeopardy!, and even exceeded my expectation of ending up in third place. I came close to winning, and could have had I made choices that wouldn’t have been the right choices to make at the time, so I’m totally okay with it. Two out of three people lose in every game, after all, and everybody loses at Jeopardy! eventually—it just takes some people multiple tries. And I beat such odds to get there, being one of the 400 chosen out of the 100,000 who tried. (What is that, 0.4%? That’s crazy!) I met some great people, and immediately became Facebook friends with a couple of them. And I had an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Now to figure out what else to put in my bucket, because I’ve tackled the largest item on that list. 🙂