In Happy Pursuit of Jeopardy!

Alex Trebek and Brendan DuBois

[Introduction: Brendan DuBois is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of more than 25 novels and 190 short stories, some of which have appeared in Playboy, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Asimov’s.  His 1999 novel, Resurrection Day, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long Form Alternate History.]

By Brendan DuBois: We few walked forward in awe in the dim light, looking agape at the huge display before us, acting like we were the hominids in 2001: A Space Odyssey, seeing the alien shape before us, seeing yet not comprehending.

But this object wasn’t a shiny black monolith.

It was real and large and well-lit, and it represented the dream place for so many millions of people.

It was the Jeopardy! gameshow display screen one saw all the time on television, in real life, just yards away, here inside the cool Sony studios.   Six rows across with the categories, columns of five numbers under each.  To the right of the large display was Alex Trebek’s podium, and nearby were the three contestant stations. 

There were sixteen of us here, and before the end of the day, all of us but one would have our thirty minutes of fame — or infamy — in this very special place.

But how did I get here?

It started in March 2012, when I registered for the on-line Jeopardy! test.  This would be my second try, which consisted of fifty questions with just several seconds to come up with an answer for each.  I took the test, thought I did okay, and promptly forgot about it.  I’ve been a fan of trivia for years, but never in any organized fashion or league

A month later, on April 24th, I got an email from Sony that started thus:  “Congratulations!  We were happy to confirm your appointment to participate in the full audition for Jeopardy!

To this day I was pretty sure my neighbors heard me yell out.

What next?

I went to Boston on May 9th to participate in another 50-question test, an interview, and a mock game against 20 other potential candidates.   I had dressed like a prep school professor prior to arriving.  I had on a blue Oxford shirt, red bowtie, blue blazer, khaki slacks and brown shoes.  I also made it a point to sit in the first row.

Before things got underway, we learned about the incredible odds it takes to get on Jeopardy!   At that time, about 100,000 people take the test.  Out of that amount, only 2,000 pass the test such that they’re invited to an audition like this one (ours was the third audition of the day, the first two having taken place earlier).  From those 2,000 invited to audition, only 400 to 500 were chosen for the contestant pool.

And I thought the odds against first-time authors was tough!

When the testing was over, the interview completed, and the mock game played — I remember not being particularly good — we were told about the odds facing us, and were told that “The Call” would start on June 1st, and other calls would continue for the next eighteen months.  But I made sure I stood out, especially at the end, when I was the only potential contestant to shake hands with the three people from the gameshow.

In other words, don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Of course, on June 1st, I got what’s known in Jeopardy! circle as The Call.

And from there, I entered into Gameshow Bizzaro World.

That summer seemed to fly by, until one warm July morning, I was waiting in the lobby of the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel in Culver City, with a garment bag carrying three changes of clothing, waiting for the shuttle bus to take me and the other contestants to the Sony studio.

Why so many clothes?  Because Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, three in the morning and two in the afternoon, and if one was lucky enough to become a champ, you had thirty minutes to change into a new outfit, and to be ready to hear Alex Trebek utter that lie, “Yesterday’s champ…”

The shuttle bus parked in the Sony lot, we surrendered our cellphones, went through a metal detector — in 2012, how sadly prophetic — and we were shepherded into a crowded room that was called the Green Room.  There, we were lectured, briefed, and had stacks of paperwork to sign.  Stacks and stacks.  We then introduced ourselves and we ran the gamut from high school teachers to stay-at-home moms to college students. 

Then, after the briefings and such, we were led out as a group — and another rule was that we were always under escort, always — and went past a trophy case filled with Emmy Awards, and a cardboard cut-out of Alex Trebek.

I gave Alex a pat on the head for luck, and those nearby gave me a good laugh.

Then, into the studio.

It was like being in some sacred place, for we all talked in whispers and low voices.  For me and others, this was when it struck that this was all real, that we were actually here, and that one way or another, by the end of the day, we would have played Jeopardy! for real.

To the left were rows of seats for the audience members (not yet there) and a separate, smaller section that we contestants would sit in as the show was taped.  Fun fact:  the next time you watch Jeopardy! and the camera pans to the audience, you can clearly see the smaller section set aside for the contestants.

Then we were all set up with microphones, and we did a test run, playing the game for a few minutes each, so we’d all have a feel of being there on the soundstage — still a surreal experience, trust me — and getting the feel of being there.

But it’s not real.  Not yet.  The lights were dim, there were a lot of technicians and other personnel wandering around, and the seats for the audience were empty.

Then it was my turn up at the podium, and I held the buzzer in my moist hands.  This was the key to Jeopardy!, and one can see it on every show.  No matter how smart one might be, the deal was to learn how to “buzz in” when Alex finished reading the clue.  Buzz in too quickly, and one was “frozen out”… that’s why you see contestants frantically punch the buzzers during the show.

Another thing you don’t see was that on either side of the huge clue board were rows of white lightbulbs, that light up when your buzzer goes “live” and you can signal without being locked out.  But there’s a rhythm to the game, where players judge the best time when Alex stopped talking.

Even doing the test run didn’t quite feel real.

The real feeling would come later, after we were in the green room for a while, and the contestant coordinator called out the two names that would go up against the returning champion.

I felt relief, because who wanted to go first?

We march out and whoah, now it was real.

The seats were filled and as we sat down, other contestant coordinators call out, “Don’t look to the left, don’t look to the left.”   Decades after the game show scandals of the 1950s, game producers were still paranoid after contestants having any contact with the audience or anyone else.

We few, we happy few, we band of Jeopardy! contestants huddled together and then Alex Trebek came out to thunderous applause, and now it felt real.  Johnny Gilbert, partially-hidden to the left, announced this show like so many hundreds of shows prior, and off we went.

I watched along, ballpoint pen in hand, as the previous two-time Jeopardy! winner stomped her two new opponents.  The time for final Jeopardy! came and I knew the answer, and felt a bit cocky.  Yeah, I got this.   Then we were hustled back to the Green Room and I felt some sympathy for the two contestants who were now heading home after their loss.  All this effort and time to play, and they were done before 11 a.m., ready to fly back home.

Then we were trooped back out, the second game got underway, and  the same thing happened at the end.  The “Final Jeopardy!” clue was read and bam, the answer came right away to me.

A little flicker of hope started to come forth.

Maybe it was all right.  Maybe I could win after all.

One more time, and once again — thankfully — I wasn’t chosen.  I got to see the third game get taped, and I played along, clicking my ballpoint pen, and then it came time for the third “Final Jeopardy!”

It was a blank to me.

Not a clue.

Hoo boy.

Now it was time for lunch, and we were brought over to the Sony cafeteria, and that’s when I had my first celebrity sighting.  I was standing in front of the deli portion of the large dining hall, deciding on my sandwich choices, and I glanced to my right there was Seth Rogen, doing the same.

I let him be, and went to sit with the remaining contestants.

A funny observation that I made, while eating and joking with the six other contestants.  As friendly as we were, it was like something out of the gladiator training school in Spartacus.  Once we were in the ring, all friendship would leave, and we would try to emerge the winner.  But here we were friends.

The fourth game was picked, and I was left behind again, so I knew the fifth game was going to be mine.

Back up into the audience with the other two survivors — one of whom was a “spare” from Los Angeles and who would go home today with the guarantee that he would return in a few weeks to tape his own show — and we watched the game unfold, me with pen in hand.

“Final Jeopardy!” comes up and… arrghh.

I didn’t know the answer.

So far, in four games, I’d only gotten two “Final Jeopardy!” answers correct.

Not a good win-loss ratio.

Back to the Green Room, and my make-up was refreshed.  Out to the studio, heart thumping, palms moist.

This was real, this was real, this was real.

A soundman put the microphone device on me, and I nodded and smiled at my two opponents:  Erica, the returning champ, and Stephanie,  a newbie like me.  I took the third podium and wiped my palms on my pants, and waited.

The music started, Johnny Gilbert said his usual phrase, but this time, my name was spoken, and God bless him, he said it right!  Then Alex strolled out and after a brief welcome, off we went.

I picked up the buzzer — or in official terms, the signaling device — and quickly decided, we’ve been here all day, let’s have some fun.

The categories were revealed, and the game began, and —

It’s fast.

It’s wicked fast.

It’s fast, fast, fast.

I joined in, getting some answers right, a few others wrong.

And before I knew it, the first round was over.

I had $2,200, Erica was ahead with $3,200, and Stephanie was third with $400.

Technicians swarmed over us to make sure everything was right, water was offered and greedily consumed, and then the floor manager said it was time, and Alex came out, and it was time for the contestant interviews.  This was when I got a bit tongue-tied, knowing millions would eventually see this bit of dialogue.   We talked about my writing career and then I noticed something:  despite being impeccably dressed and groomed, Alex’s fingernails were bruised.

How?

And it came to me, knowing that one of his cherished hobbies was home improvement and working around the house.

Now, the game resumed.

Fast, fast, fast.

Bing!

The category was “North Dakota” and I got the Daily Double.

Here’s another insight.  If you’re watching at home, look at the contestants when they hit a Daily Double.  They usually look up and to the right.  Why?  Because they can’t see each other’s scores listed on front of the podium.  Up in the rafters three scoreboards were present, showing the current score.  So when the contestants look up, they’re checking their own score and that of their competition.

Erica was in a commanding lead, with $5,800, and I had $4,000.  Stephanie was in third with $1,800.

But I didn’t have the guts to make it a True Daily Double.  I bet $1,500.

Alex read out the clue.  “This largest city in North Dakota was named for a pioneer in the shipment of goods by express.”

Argh!

My mind whirred along like a timepiece gone crazy.  I lowered my head, looked away from the board.  Think, think, think.  I let out a breath of air, audible on camera.  Names of cities floated through my head and I thought of trains and shipping and companies and Pinkerton and Union Pacific and Wells Fargo and –-

Yes!

I raised my head, look to Alex.  “What is Fargo?”

“Yes!” he called out.

The game resumed.

And just as quickly, this round ended, and the scores were thus:

The returning champion Erica, $5,800; me, $4,500, and the newly energized Stephanie, at $3,800.

During this pause, Alex came out once again, and we two new contestants had our photos taken with him, and then, it was “Double Jeopardy!”, and we were off to the races.

Not much time to think, just play, read, push the buzzer, answer when you could

I got another Daily Double correct because of my slight knowledge of Shakespeare, and the scores ran up and down — at one time I was in third place — but when the final buzzer rang out, ending this round, I looked up to the rafters.

Me:  $14,500.

Stephanie:  $11,400.

Erica:  $10,600.

I’m in the lead.

Holy moley, I’m in the lead.

Not much time to rejoice at that, for it was time for “Final Jeopardy!”

The category?

“Toys & Games.”

Toys?  Games? 

If it has anything to do with video games — which I don’t play — I’m doomed.

Since I have no kids, if it’s anything to do with current toys, I’m doomed.

What the heck.

I was in the lead.  I bet to win.

Some very confident Jeopardy! players in the past have bet so that if they do win, they win by a dollar.

I’m an English major.

I bet so if I do win, I’ll have a comfortable $200 margin.

And since I was in the lead, I was going to bet to win.

Some more hustle and bustle from the soundstage crew and technicians, and we were back in action.

At his podium Alex said, “It’s not fun and game, it’s toys and games, as the category for our final today.  And here is the clue” — bing! — “when Milton Bradley released this home game in 1966, competitors accused it of ‘selling sex in a box.’  Thirty seconds.  Good luck, players.”

The famous theme song kicked in — yes, we can hear it on the sound stage — and I thought games, sex, bodies —

Twister.

Of course.

I scrawled down “twister” and waited, breathing hard.

Could it be?  For real? 

Alex went to the third-place contestant, Erica — the returning champion — and she wrote down “twister.”

The correct answer.

I kept my face as bland as possible.

But a tiny voice inside of me said I won, I won, I won!

Next was the second-place contestant, Stephanie.  She also got the answer correct.

I won, I won, I won.

Now Alex came to me, my answer was displayed, and I muttered “unbelievable”, and Alex says, “Hey folks, we have a new champion on ‘Jeopardy!’, Brendan DuBois, with $23,000 he’ll get to take home.  He’ll enjoy the weekend and he’ll be back to play on Monday.  I hope you will too!  Till then, so long.”

Oh, what a day.

Probably one of the happiest of my life.

That night I did not sleep a wink.

And I went home to New Hampshire, and returned to Los Angeles for taping on Tuesday, and…

On my second game, I got my proverbial butt kicked, coming in third place.

But I took consolation in this:  that when my obituary is written, some decades in the future, it will note that for one glorious moment I was a Jeopardy! champion.

Some weeks after my show aired in September, I sent Alex an autographed copy of my latest novel as a gift.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, I got a typewritten letter in return, a note of thanks from Alex Trebek.

I took it out some months ago, upon his passing, and carefully put it away.

It, and the memories of being at the Sony soundstage, are among my most precious memories.

8 thoughts on “In Happy Pursuit of Jeopardy!

  1. This is a very interesting reminiscence and I’m glad to see it. My brain is too slow for Jeopardy but I did spend a fun day seeing a taping in Washington and it was good o see Trebek at work.

  2. Brendan DuBois, living everyone’s dream.

    I was once on a game show, but almost sixty years ago, when I was about ten years old. It was a local show called “Music Memory”. School kids would be brought onto the show, snippets of classical music would be played, and the kids would try to guess the work.

    Like a lot of my childhood memories, the whole thing is kinda murky. No idea how I ended up on the show (maybe a teacher entered my name? I sure wouldn’t have thought to try out for it myself), vague memory of the studio being in a downtown Phoenix building. I think I did okay on my answers. I don’t think there were any prizes, aside from the miniscule glory of the thing.

    (“miniscule” as in scanning-electron-microscope miniscule)

    Googling, I see there are still radio and podcast shows titled “Music Memory”, but they seem to be more nostalgia-oriented productions, rather than game shows.

  3. I took the challenge and did in fact Win Ben Stein’s Money! back when that was a thing. But I only tied him in the final, and after taxes and airfare came out, only broke even. But hey, “Orange Mike” up there on a nationally broadcast show, with Ben discussing my singing voice and sense of style: what’s not to like?

  4. @Steven: Fun zine, thanks for the link. I’ve never tried out for any game shows myself, maybe I should consider it now that I’m vaccinated. Of course, I’m not really in your and tyg’s class: he’s a solid A level in Learned League while I’m in C.

  5. “Fun fact: the next time you watch Jeopardy! and the camera pans to the audience…” Unfortunately it’s been some months since there was a studio audience, although whoever’s handling the prerecorded applause and occasional laughter is doing a great job.

    j-archive has all answers and questions for both of the games mentioned above, broadcast 28 September and 1 October 2012 (the first is at http://www.j-archive.com/showgame.php?game_id=3980).

    (On one of my rare trips to California in July 1985, I tried out for the show but wasn’t selected (the producers were quite up front that they would be biasing contestant selection toward women). We candidates were all unprepared for the change to the rules after Alex’s first season, which had just concluded. Shows that were played according to the setup described above and still used today, with the perimeter light not seen at home and the buzzer lockout, had been taped but not yet aired. In other words, in 1984-85 it was possible to buzz in before Alex was done reading. The justification for the change. we were told, was that contestants were too frequently digging themselves into deep negative territory by buzzing in early and being wrong a few times in a row.

  6. I’d never try out for Jeopardy because I’d be unable to be quick on the buzzer. But I can get a fair number of the clues, so I kibbitz along at home.
    ” “This largest city in North Dakota was named for a pioneer in the shipment of goods by express.”
    Here’s how that would go through my head: I don’t know what the largest city in North Dakota is, but the two largest cities are Grand Forks and Fargo, and only one of those sounds like it’s named for a person. Besides, Wells Fargo was originally an express shipment company, I knew that.

  7. My friend/colleague Paul Schindler chronicled his own game-show adventures with Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and Merv Griffin’s Crosswords. (Links posted here with Paul’s kind permission.)

    I’d known Paul was a fan and occasional contestant, but don’t, I believe, had read his accounts before. Now, among other things, I’ve learned, why it’s called Jeopardy (or at least, where there’s jeopardy potentially involved).

    Note, aside from topic-relevance, there’s an one or two-degree sfnal (sf-nal?) connection: As editor of Byte.com ~ 1998-2001ish, Paul got to work with Jerry Pournelle — who was still doing his CHAOS MANOR computer column for Byte.com — including, for a while (a year?) weekly radio-like half-hour shows of mostly Paul hosting and Jerry as the guest. (Paul was my boss; I got to be on some of the episodes.) Fun times! (I still have some of the Byte.com pocket protectors we had made to hand out at Comdex, which also tells you how long ago that was…)

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