Saad is a contestant on JEOPARDY! [part 1]
(I updated the entry on July 8 to provide more detail about what you don’t get to see on TV.)
What: watch JEOPARDY!
Date: Monday, July 12
Time: check your local listings
This blog post [part 1] describes (a) the lead-up to how I ended up being a contestant on Jeopardy! and (b) my experiences at the studio in Los Angeles. After the show airs on July 12, I will post [part 2] describing my in-game thoughts. To get the [part 2] post by email, use the link on the right sidebar “Sign up to receive email notification of new posts!”
Becoming a contestant on Jeopardy! was a happy accident, because I didn’t know the online test even existed until January 2008. I had driven from Nashville to New Mexico for an internship and I was staying with my friend Guillaume while I searched for my own place to stay. His wife, Raea, told us that the online test would be open that time, so I decided to try it with them. All I remember is that the test questions went by quickly. Four months later, I received an automated email inviting me to an audition in Dallas the following month. The timing for the audition was not great, because I was presenting at a conference in Phoenix the day before and would have to fly out very early the day of the audition. Inevitably, I overslept and got to see my plane back away from the gate, but luckily I got on the next plane and was able to grab a quick lunch before getting to the audition site.
There were several parts to the audition. We started by completing interview fact sheets and being photographed with a Polaroid camera by the Jeopardy! staff. Next was another test, this time written. Finally, we stood at the front of the room, three at a time, and played a mock game. In the game portion, I struggled with the buzzer, reaching a point where I just wanted to ring in first. I remember buzzing in at least once with no notion of the correct answer, happy only to get the timing correct. After the game portion, the contestants were interviewed by the staff including one producer, Maggie. I thought I did better on this part (thanks, in big part, to having started Toastmasters three months earlier) but nothing about my game play suggested that I could compete on the actual show. On top of that, I thought I looked frazzled from my travel. I figured that I had no chance of passing this stage. They told us that we would be placed in a contestant pool for 18 months, and if we didn’t hear from them in that time, I inferred that things ended there.
So, 20 months later, in January 2010, I was back from lunch and trying to take a nap on the office futon (remember, I was a grad student at this time). My cell phone resting on my chest started ringing and when I answered the voice at the other end said it’s Glenn from Jeopardy! and I just didn’t believe it. He gave me information on the taping date in L.A. and which hotel to use, and when I still sounded skeptical, he said that he could read me the fact sheet that I’d filled out at my Dallas audition. He read the factoid “started a free food society in college” and I stopped him because he’d proven his point. My taping date was four weeks after this call and again, it was not the best timing. I was working to finish my PhD dissertation and I could not afford major distractions. But seriously, how many times do you get invited to be a Jeopardy! contestant?
In the one-month interval, I tried to fit in studying around my dissertation work. I had played quiz bowl in high school but since then my only involvement with this type of game was the occasional pub trivia in Nashville. I used my old studying method of building lists. Back in high school our coach, Ken Brandt, would give us printed lists with the important names and items starred. I didn’t have those lists but I used Wikipedia to build my own lists, using pages such as Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
At the studio (What you don’t see on tv)
Once in L.A., I reminded myself to not be overawed by the setting. The studio–how else to say it?–is cool! Seeing all the off-screen action that facilitates successfully making an episode–cool! Seeing Trebek in person after all the years of seeing him on the tv set–cool! All the contestants were given extensive time on stage during a rehearsal with a mock game, so by the time you got to play it felt natural being up there. Challengers were drawn at random, and as it turned out, I was not drawn until the last game of the day. In the first few games, the Final Jeopardy questions were on academic topics like Physics and Russian Composers, and I thought, “just watch there be a fluff question in my game.”
1) All the contestants are standing on adjustable square platforms. By moving these, all the contestants appear around the same height on tv. You have to be careful, if your platform has been raised, to not step back too far or else you’ll fall off completely.
2) For the interview, Trebek is holding a card that lists your hometown, your occupation, and three factoids, selected by the producers from a wider list that you provided beforehand. In the green room, the producers go over them with you to make sure you don’t say anything controversial. Once you’re up on stage, though, you don’t know which of those five things Trebek will ask about. I was prepared for all three of my factoids… and of course, Trebek asked me about my occupation of “nanotechnology scientist.” For you Toastmasters out there… how’s that for being put on the spot with a Table Topic?
3) It takes roughly an hour to film one episode. All the contestants are asked to bring three changes of clothing. If you win, you are rushed back to the green room to change outfits. So when the next game tapes, minutes after your previous game, it appears that you’ve returned the “next night.”
That’s it for this post. In the next one, I’ll describe the experience of being on the stage and playing the game. I will post it after the show airs on July 12. If you want an email reminder, use the link on the right sidebar, “Sign up to receive email notification of new posts!”
[Update: that post is now up!]