Goodbye, Alex

Fifteen years ago, I was one of the untold thousands who got to hear you tell them their answer was wrong

Yes, the mid-’00s vibes are strong with that facial hair arrangement.

On an early October weekend in 2005, I went to Los Angeles to appear on that most hallowed of game shows, JEOPARDY!. I got my picture taken with Alex Trebek. (That’s it above.) I was threatened by Kenneth Starr’s niece. And somewhere in there, I won. Twice! It was, at least based on the winning, quite the time. Based on the threatened-by-Kenneth-Starr’s-niece part, it was still quite the time, though a bit more perplexing.

My appearance was the realization of my girlfriend’s years-long exhortation that I try out for the show. Whenever we watched the show, she would say something. “You should go on there.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because people win money.”

This questioning reached its zenith during the Ken Jennings Era, those 74 days when America was rapt in the mild-mannered sway of the Mormon software engineer. “Also,” she would add, “because you know everything.”

This is patently untrue. My girlfriend (now my wife) is much much much smarter than I am. I’m one of those Trivial Pursuit People; I might not have deep knowledge of any one subject, but I do have the kind of broad (and shallow, and also quite possibly diminishing) recall that lends itself more to game shows than to, say, career success. So one day, after Ken Jennings had lost and there was no way I would ever have to face him, I checked the JEOPARDY! website to find that there would be contestant auditions in New York later that month. (JEOPARDY! is the trademarked name of the show. Has to be written like that. Does it make me feel like a tool writing it that way every time? YES!)

I emailed the show, and was soon informed that I had been “selected for an appointment.” The “appointment” turned out to be a cattle-call test in a Times Square hotel conference room — just one of the fifteen testing sessions the show would conduct over their three days in New York. Multiply that by the number of cities and college campuses where JEOPARDY! trawls for contestants and you begin to get a sense of what a national institution this game show is, what a bucket-list item it is for so many people. There were close to a hundred people in my room alone, all races and ages, and a lot of quiet chatter about favorite JEOPARDY! moments. Many of them seemed to have strategies for finding Daily Doubles.

In preparation for the test, the show’s emissaries beamed some sample JEOPARDY! questions onto a screen, at which point the energy in the room got … strange. People began shouting out answers, and a steady burble of low-level nervous laughter emerged that sounded like the direct inverse of whatever nonchalance it was meant to convey. It felt like the Gifted & Talented summer camp I shamefully attended at age 11, only with the added dimension of mounting frenzy. One man sitting in front of me was bouncing his knees up and down so fast I fully expected him to lift off, borne away by his whirlygigging arms and legs and shouting out Avogadro’s Number as he disappeared over the horizon.

The screening test consists of 50 JEOPARDY!-style questions (which is to say, in the form of an answer) of general-knowledge material: current events, poetry, history, literature. After looking over our completed tests, they called out 10 names; those of us who made the cut stayed, and everyone else filed out of the room. As we completed paperwork, I asked the guy next to me what day it was, which then turned into a nervous riff about how I hoped they wouldn’t ask me anything from the category of “Today’s Date.” He laughed and said that he and a friend were joking about getting the category “Hungarian Nouns.” The guy sitting in front of us then turned around and said, “Hey, I speak Hungarian!” I thought this was banter, so I said “but only the verbs, so you’re screwed.” But these were JEOPARDY! people, so instead the two men started speaking to each other in Hungarian.

This, more than anything else that happened during the experience, sums up what JEOPARDY! is all about: it’s a home for the aggressively curious. Sometimes that comes across as curiosity, and sometimes it just comes across as aggression. (To wit: Kenneth Starr’s niece and Avogadro’s Number Man.)

After the 10 of us went through more of a conventional audition—holding a fake buzzer and answering some questions from the producers—the casting people told us that JEOPARDY! may or may not be contacting us within the next twelve months. I didn’t expect any such contact, especially after Hungarian Nouns Guy showed up on my TV in August. Nonetheless, the next month, soon after I got the call inviting me to Los Angeles. My girlfriend (who was by then my brand-new wife), upon hearing the answering-machine message, let out a sound I can only describe as a hoot. “You’re going on JEOPARDY!,” she yelled. “Hoot!”

When word got around that I was going to be on the show, I was again reminded of the kind of legacy the show really has. “It’s always been my dream since I was a wee lass in Buffalo,” one friend emailed me. “Whatever you do, don’t bet everything on a Daily Double.” I heard this advice a lot; whether or not the caveat has its roots in Cliff Claven’s JEOPARDY! meltdown on Cheers is still unclear.

So on a rainy Monday morning in mid-October, my wife drove me in our rented car to the Sony studio lot in Culver City; the other contestants were already gathered in a loose nervous knot in a parking structure. There was a college student from rural Kentucky, a limousine driver from Las Vegas, a high-school teacher from Wyoming, a librarian from Atlanta. There were many others as well, from various states and vocations, all of us accurately representing the mosaic that is American nerdity. We spent the morning going over the stories we would tell when prompted by the cheery Trebek. A good number of people, maybe not surprisingly, had stories about their cats. One contestant had a story about repeatedly being rained on, a story that he rehearsed ad annoyum in a voice that sounded like he was hawking soap flakes on a 1950s radio commercial.

JEOPARDY! tapes five episodes in a day, so on Monday and Tuesday they tape two weeks’ worth of shows — not a bad gig for Trebek, who didn’t have to come in on non-taping days. I sat through four shows that Monday, watching the Atlanta librarian tear through opera questions until the Las Vegas limo driver staged a coup. My name was called for the last show of the day. By that point, many of the previous episodes’ contestants and their families had already left, so Sony pulled audience members in off the street. By the time I stepped up to the podium, the audience was largely members of a womens’ drug-recovery group. Before the episode began, they taped the contestants’ “Hometown Howdies,” the teaser that they would play on our local stations the week our episodes aired. “Smile,” they reminded me.

“Hello Brooklyn!” I said, looking into the camera with what I hoped was a smile but turned out looking more like a Happiness Rictus. “Tune into JEOPARDY! this week and watch me try to sublet my podium so that I can have a bigger apartment.” Later, my wife told me that someone sitting next to her had turned to his companion and said “must be a New York thing.” It wasn’t one of the drug-recovery women.

The shows themselves are a bit of a blur. The first one was a breeze; I got into a good rhythm on the buzzer and landed on all the Daily Doubles, and was ahead by enough of a margin that I didn’t need to worry about the Final Jeopardy question — which was good, because I made an ass of myself. It asked which early “famous Shakespearean character” abandoned Henry VI before a battle. “Falstaff,” you shout! Sure, except I got tripped up by the chronology of the Henry plays and then overthought what exactly “famous” meant and ended up writing down “Who is Richard III?” When Alex walks up to my podium at the end of the episode you can actually see me saying to him “I was going to say Falstaff!”

The second show was…well, it was bad. Really bad. It was a terrible slogging war of attrition. Much of the second round consisted of “triple-stumpers,” questions that none of the three contestants rang in on. This resulted in much on-air silence while our podium lights blinked away; it was like watching a show called Countdown to Ignorance. As the piece de resistance, we all missed Final Jeopardy with the same wrong answer, which led Alex Trebek to browbeat us as the credits rolled. The only upside of my performance on this episode was that I beat Ken Starr’s niece, who before the show had whispered to me “You’re a nice guy — it’s too bad I’m going to have to beat you.”

The third episode was much, much better — except that after I had built a slim lead, the guy with the soap-flake salesman voice moved ahead on the last question of the round. If we both got the Final Jeopardy question right, it would have been impossible for me to catch him, so during the commercial break I did a series of increasingly byzantine and unfocused calculations. The only way for me to win, I figured, was if Soapflakes bet enough to beat me and we both lost — so I bet a number that would leave me ahead of him if he had bet the bare minimum to win. So far, so good, except we both got it right, and I was sent packing back to New York.

And that was it. No one recognized me on the street. My winnings went toward a used Volvo with a bum alternator. Other than friends and my late high-school government teacher, who was incensed that I missed a question about the Magna Carta, no one much seemed to care. There was a brief flurry of interest in my hometown newspaper, most of which was predicated on a prank my friend played by posting as a lovestruck woman on the official JEOPARDY! internet message board. The entire adventure, in fact, rapidly telescoped down to a decent anecdote. After all, this was before social media turned game-show contestants into memes—it was just JEOPARDY!, where even unparalleled dominance pays off with little more than an H&R Block commercial.

But it did give me a chance to see firsthand why Alex Trebek loomed so large during his 37 years as host of America’s wonkiest game show. He wasn’t a set of veneers in a bland suit; he didn’t gladhand and flirt his way through episodes. Instead, he lectured. He admonished. More than anything, he sympathized and strategized along with the people who stood there every night on his impossibly shiny stage, struggling to ignore the cameras and find their buzzer timing and reach deep into their neocortex for the name of that landmark or film director or palindrome. In fitting fashion for his show’s format, Alex Trebek wasn’t there to answer anything. He was there, like all of us, to question.

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