When the phone rang while I was fixing dinner on a snowy weeknight in December, I ignored it. My husband looked at the phone and reported that the caller was “Sony Pictures.”
“Can you answer it for me?” I asked, holding up my hands that were covered in flour. “Wouldn’t want to miss my big break,” I joked, sure it was some kind of spam call.
I had completely forgotten that four months prior I had tried out for “Jeopardy!,” which holds the Guinness World Records® record for the most Emmy® Awards won by a TV game show, which is produced by Sony Pictures.
After wiping off my hands and taking the call, a contestant coordinator flabbergasted me by telling me that I was headed to sunny California in a few weeks to appear as a contestant on an episode of the 34th season of “Jeopardy!” (And yes, the official name of the show includes the exclamation point.)
Little did I know the adventure was just beginning.
My taping date was Alex Trebek’s first day back after a month off to recover from brain surgery for a subdural hematoma. That definitely added to the excitement and drama of the day, which would involve taping five shows, or a week’s worth of episodes.
I received approximately a month’s notice before my air date, and my first step was to make travel plans to get to Southern California. Contestants are responsible for getting to Culver City, where the Sony studios are located and where “Jeopardy!” episodes tape two days a week from around August to May.
Then, in the midst of holiday celebrations, I had to figure everything else out — from what to wear to strategy. Before I knew it, I was on a plane with my husband and daughter (and a fair amount of self-doubt and fear of public humiliation).
The day of the show began by being picked up in front of my hotel early in the morning with a van, full of contestants who had already been retrieved from another hotel, which was apparently the more popular of the two options offered. There were 13 contestants. (Not everyone would tape a show that day.) Some talked animatedly while others were very quiet. One clutched a copy of the “World Almanac.” I had used the same to review facts, but did not think I needed to bring it with me. I wondered if I should have, but realized my hands were full, literally.
We all had clothes with us as the instructions said to bring three different outfits. One contestant brought a suitcase, some had clothes shoved in a plastic bag, most people had a garment bag. Included in our pre-show documents were clothing recommendations — among them: no all-white tops, no olive colored tops, and avoid clothing with busy patterns. (I’m surprised at how many people on this show ignore that last suggestion).
A fellow contestant started asking questions of each contestant in his search to determine which among us was the returning champ. It turned out to be Tristan, who was humble and self-effacing.
I was surprised to see that, at age 41, I was the second oldest of all the contestants. I was also the only one who had children at home. There was a large group of millennials, with some grad students, some teachers, a nanny, and a reporter.
A short walk took us to the studio and then inside a relatively small conference room/green room. It’s a rather sparse space, and the most obvious feature was a long conference table on which tax forms with our names awaited our signature. There was also a couch, a couple chairs, some donuts, and water.
As we sat down to complete our paper work, the activity level picked up quickly. Contestant coordinators not only double checked our signatures and documents, but they also reviewed an index card that contained five items about us that were possible conversation starters with Alex. They had picked these from a multi-page questionnaire we had filled out that asked about previous travels, current hobbies, and future aspirations.
From the five possible items, Alex decides which one to discuss; contestants don’t know his choice in advance. The coordinators told me that their favorite item on my card was an encounter I had with a psychic, but they felt that Alex would most likely ask me about getting to interview astronauts on the International Space Station.
“He loves talking about space exploration,” they said.
I was excited to talk about either.
Women were asked to come not wearing makeup, as we would have time in the makeup chair. My makeup artist didn’t do any eyeliner or mascara. As a devotee of eye makeup, I freaked out just a little. I hadn’t brought any with me. I asked for mascara and she told me she typically didn’t use it on contestants because of issues with it running when people sweat on stage from the lights and nerves. I pleaded, and received a scant coat, for which I was grateful.
While I was in the makeup chair, gregarious producer Maggie Speak reviewed the rules of the game, peppered with anecdotes amassed from her two decades on the job and lots of jokes that kept everyone laughing and loose. (Remember, energy is important!) She noted that there were no longer ties in the game and that there are now tiebreakers. That had only happened one time, a few months prior, but that episode had not yet aired and no one had seen one. She said that it was crazy and over in a flash. We also heard from a lawyer in charge of compliance regarding some of the rules. The quiz show scandals of the 1950s, and the protections in place to ensure they never happen again, were mentioned more than once.
The whirlwind of activity shifted to the stage where contestants were photographed, did a “hometown howdy” (a quick video that local stations can use to promote a contestant’s upcoming appearance), and play a practice game. The latter was really just answering a few questions. It was quick, and not a lot of time to get over the shock of being on the stage of the show, figuring out where to look and get used to the buzzer. I was shaking, but I’m pretty sure that’s because they keep the studio really, really cold.
It’s hard to tell when watching the show at home, but the studio audience is pretty sizable. We were taken back to the green room and the studio audience of approximately 200 people were shown to their seats. Contestants are allowed to bring a few guests, and my husband and teen daughter accompanied me to California. They had to travel to the studio separately and were given strict instructions to not communicate or even make eye contact with contestants.
The categories of the five shows are fixed in the morning. To keep things fair, contestant names are written on a piece of paper and selected randomly before each game to make sure that categories and questions they get are completely random.
That also means that you have no idea when you’ll get to play the game. Contestants sit in the audience, separate from the other viewers, and watch each taping until their name is picked.
When long-time announcer Johnny Gilbert began announcing the first game and Alex Trebek walked out, that was the first time that I’d seen him. He does not interact with contestants before taping begins. During the game, at the first commercial break, he quickly takes a photo with each contestant and communication is limited to just hello. I did get to tell him I was glad he was on the mend, which received a quick thank you. He and Gilbert answered audience questions during commercials and between tapings.
I watched the first three games. Then it was time for lunch at the Sony commissary, where Glenn encouraged us not to get a turkey sandwich because the tryptophan would make us less energetic. He was kidding. Kind of.
The other contestants were mostly quiet, with a bit of small talk. Then it was back to the studio, a quick makeup touch up, and a return to our seats in the audience. Two more names were selected, including mine.
I was shown to the podium, which they are able to adjust a bit for height, so they put it up as far as it would go for my five-foot tall frame.
A crew member said, “Remember, between 8 and 9 million people are watching. Have fun!”
The next thing I knew, I heard Gilbert say my name and then thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m standing really close to Alex Trebek!”
The categories for the first round were not ones I anticipated. They were “The Census,” “Black,” “White,” “Asian,” “His Panic,” and “We’re All Americans.” I was a bit surprised, but before I could think more about it, the game was underway.
I quickly learned that the game of “Jeopardy!” is all about the buzzer.
You cannot ring in before Alex finishes reading the clue, which is indicated by lights on the side of the board. It’s up to each person to figure out what approach works best — listening to Alex, watching the lights, trying to read the clue before he finishes. If you buzz in too early, you are blocked for a fraction of a second. That’s why people keep trying to ring in — something the coordinators very strongly encourage.
It took a little time for me to find a rhythm. I finally buzzed in and promptly missed the first question I answered. I was thinking “The Gobi Desert is in Mongolia. That must be it.” And I said, “What is the Mongolian Desert.” I fully intended to say Gobi. I thought one thing and said another. And there was no way to indicate to the millions of viewers that I did, in fact, know that question.
I started to beat myself up, but the game was moving so fast, I didn’t have time to dwell. A few moments and a few questions later, we were at the first commercial break. Finally, a chance to catch my breath, but just for a moment.
The show resumed with Alex doing the brief contest chats. To my surprise, he asked me about neither the psychic nor the astronauts. Instead, he wanted to hear about the time I was on the sideline of an NFL game in high school and accidentally got tackled when a play went out of bounds.
“Weird, didn’t think he’d ask me about that,” I thought, as we bantered back and forth. Turns out that the conversations are often edited for the final version of the show, as was the case with mine.
When the game resumed, I managed to get some questions correct, including America Ferrera, New Kids on the Block, and Black & Decker. I ended the first round in last place, however, and it wasn’t the start I had hoped for.
My less-than-stellar play did mean I got to go first at the start of Double Jeopardy!, and I was thrilled to see Broadway Musicals as a category. I opted for that. I knew the answer was “Hamilton,” a show created by Lin-Manuel Miranda that I absolutely adore. I’ve seen it in Chicago three times. My daughter mentioned that morning before I left the hotel that it was an auspicious day for taping because it was Miranda’s birthday. When I rang in, though, all I thought was “It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s birthday.” The name of the show had flown out of my head. Thankfully, it flew back in at the last possible second as I said, “What is Hamilton?” as quickly as possible.
From there, I improved. I was ringing in better and getting questions right. Proving that luck is a big part of the game, I got the $2,000 question in the Stamps category correct because the answer was Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, a former president of the University of Notre Dame, which I attended for both undergraduate and law school.
Turns out that none of us playing the game was very good at the Western Novels category. I had a few guesses, but at that point I was tied for the lead and didn’t feel comfortable enough to risk it.
The Final Jeopardy category was revealed: African American Firsts.
I didn’t feel overly comfortable with that, especially because we were told that it would start with “What” instead of “Who.” I’m better at knowing people than things. I bet enough to make sure the guy behind me wouldn’t beat me, thinking that getting second place would at least cover the cost of our trip.
Turns out that it was an easy question about which government agency recently named a building after mathematician Katherine Johnson. The book and movie “Hidden Figures” was all about her. It was “What is NASA?”
And then it hit me — that question was why Alex had not asked me about interviewing the astronauts on the International Space Station.
It was a ridiculously easy question. I should have bet it all, but I didn’t. The returning champion with whom I was tied at the end of the Double Jeopardy round, however, did.
I ended up in second place.
I was proud that I hadn’t completely embarrassed myself (though I’ll never live down the Gobi Desert) but disappointed that I would never have “champ” attached to my name. And I’ll be honest, the money would have been nice. I didn’t have any illusion that I would end up like Ken Jennings, the most successful regular season contestant. He won 74 shows and earned more than $2.5 million dollar. Behind him is North Shore native Julia Collins. She amassed earnings of $428,000 with her 20 wins. But one win would have been nice.
Instead, I got $2,000 and some inappropriate comments about my physique and my lack of intelligence on social media. Apparently, that’s pretty much par for the course for all female contestants. But I also got a few new friends, having connected with some of the contestants in my group after we taped, a chance to show my daughter that her mom is perhaps a smidge smarter than she typically thinks, and the chance to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”