At about 9:30 am a dozen orange-faced people were herded from the green room into the Jeopardy! studio, where we were instructed by the floor director where to look and how to use the electric pens. (With extra advice as needed from the contestant wranglers. Robert: “Don’t trip on the stripey step!” *trip* “Suzuki!!!”)
We individually recorded the loathsome “Hometown Howdies”: throwbacks to the stone-age days of TV where contestants recorded a shout-out to for their local hometown affiliate station. We each taped three versions:1
- Long version, where you can mention your occupation, town and even a holiday greeting, if you’re lucky enough to get to do one. Mine was, “Hi, I’m Laura Suzuki, a graphic designer from Toronto, and I have designs on winning on Jeopardy!”
- Short version: “Hi, I’m Laura Suzuki. Watch me on Jeopardy!”
And most cruelly:
- “Champion” version: “Hi, I’m returning champion Laura Suzuki. Watch me on Jeopardy!”
After the Howdies we trooped on and off the set in constantly changing threes to do short practice games as a technical run-through, our old friend Glenn playing Alex. This also helped acclimatize ourselves to the dreaded signalling device, as well as the hydraulic boxes behind the podiums that adjusted our heights. (Robert: “Don’t fall off, Suzuki!!!”) I was glad the video screens weren’t any smaller than they were: with my poor acuity it was just on the edge of being okay for me to read without squinting. One contestant’s cute dress was nixed by the floor director because the checkerboard pattern was blowing out the cameras, and she had to go to the green room to change. Too soon, at around 11 am we were herded back to our seats at one side of the auditorium (forbidden to interact with the regular audience), and the first three contestants took their places for the first real game of the day.
Current Jeopardy! set. Note stripey step just behind the three contestants. Alex is behind his dais with the floor director; Maggie is beside the left-hand contestant (who is also standing on a raised hydraulic box to make her level with the other two). (Photo from fierceandnerdy.com)
I was told part-way through the first game that I’d appear on the second show of the day (to air on New Year’s Day 2013). The other new contestant, Andrew, and I drew lots for podium position (the champion always stands at the left-most podium, nearest Alex). I drew podium 3 on the audience’s right, and so would be first to talk with Alex after the first commercial break.
After show 1 finished, show 2’s competitors were trooped back to the green room: two-time champion Paula to get de-miked and change outfits; and all three of us to get our lapel mikes and battery packs threaded under our clothes, use the bathroom, and get our makeup touched up.
Back to the set, standing on our boxes, a growing feeling of unreality settling over me. The music started; I vaguely heard Johnny Gilbert intone “A graphic designer from Toronto, Canada…” during which I desperately tried to remember which of the two cameras at the opposite side of the set I was supposed to look into.
Pretty much what you see on the TV show is what happened on set: The show is largely taped in real time (complete with all the music cues you hear on TV), including commercial break time. The audience was instructed to applaud coming in from certain breaks, but not others (notably Final Jeopardy), which is something I never noticed watching the show on TV. There is one slightly longer break to allow time for the contestants’ Final Jeopardy calculations.
During the breaks Alex answered audience questions in his trademarked friendly-yet-standoffish manner—the contestants still in the audience were not permitted to ask questions—while the on-set contestants got bottled water and pep talks by the contestant wranglers (which was good for me, as I was $1200 in the hole at the first break). During one break Alex posed with each of the contestants behind our podiums for a souvenir photo (which would be emailed to us only when the show aired. They’re nothing if not punctilious at Jeopardy!)
I was pleased that the question Alex asked me was about Jon, so I could talk about his disabilities and love of game shows (and how he loooves announcer Johnny Gilbert’s voice!)
I noticed that, close up, Alex also looked rather unnaturally orangish as well.
It was not a good show for me. There weren’t any categories that I “owned” (no music, literature or theatre, no science). My impressions? When you play it lying on your couch, it feels like a typical TV half hour. You remember your hits, note the occasional miss and often say “Yeah, I woulda got that”. When you pretend to play as a contestant (as I had been doing the past 5 weeks) it goes noticeably faster: You have no time to dwell on misses, and have periods of brain freeze where you can’t dredge up the answer in the short period you need it. But when you actually are there, playing it for real—with the lights, music and audience—the game goes FAST.
If I had any thoughts of strategizing by picking my strong or weak categories, or picking amounts by any way other than straight down the board, they went by the wayside. I found that I generally ignored the signal lights at the sides of the video screens (too much hassle to change from tunnel vision to peripheral vision), and just waited a beat after Alex’s final word before signalling in, which seemed to work reasonably well. I never knew my totals until the breaks—though I did sense I was lagging. And it was such a blur that five minutes after the show wrapped I couldn’t have told you a single category topic I played. I remember getting one answer “Who is Ben Affleck?” right; not because I actually initially knew it, but because someone else rang in first with the incorrect “Who is Matt Damon?”2
We did have a slight pause at Andrew’s Daily Double as the judges debated whether a previous answer of his was correct or not. During this time we three competitors had to turn around on our boxes and face the wall, while Maggie kept us entertained.
At one point the video board displayed a completely different clue to the one Alex read (I’m pretty sure it was the one about Michelle Obama). I vaguely heard people murmuring (staff? audience members? contestants? I have no idea). But remembering our green room briefing I rang in and managed to answer Alex’s clue correctly, which the floor director probably appreciated. (Obviously they fixed the clue in post-production.)
I did have two “Canadian moments” on the show: First, to my infinite relief, I correctly answered the Canadian question (there’s always at least one per show) with “What is the Governor General?”, prompting Alex to joke that he was glad I managed to get that one. The other involved re-spelling British-spelled words with US spellings, and of course, I would say zed instead of zee!
There were several clues which no-one answered (called triple stumpers in Jeopardy! parlance), upon which Alex cracked wise about the three of us having had too good a time at our New Year’s parties last night! Unfortunately that joke got edited out in post-production. Maybe it was deemed too snide, even for Alex. I made up enough ground to not totally humiliate myself, but alas I still finished third at the end of Double Jeopardy ($9000, to Andrew’s $10,100 and Paula’s $11,900).
Upon watching the show when it aired it seemed to me to be an episode very heavily weighted towards Americana; more so than usual. There was comparatively little pop culture, silly word play or world trivia. Lots of surprisingly dour US history, politics, geography, even in the Jeopardy round (which is supposed to be lighter in tone than in Double Jeopardy). Then and again I could just be making excuses for myself—for some reason I was even having trouble with the usually-easy-for-me Crosswords category (I did get two of those, but for the other three I totally blanked!)
People told me afterwards that I looked very calm and composed (Peter used the word “zen”). I think under the stage lights people freak out in one of two ways: either get all nervy and hyper, or hunker down and go immobile (guess which one I was!) Luckily it made me look competent (apparently) and not comatose. (Although Maggie did tell me during the first commercial break to liven up.) And rest assured, I was furiously clicking the signalling device, even if it doesn’t look like it! Remember, on Jeopardy!, everyone’s smart, but timing is crucial!
A note about the Final Jeopardy question
Category: 19th Century America. My heart sank a bit at this; more US history, and not my best century! And covers a pretty wide area, to boot. I didn’t bet much ($3000 of $9000) because I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t get it. So I wagered (a bit desperately, perhaps) for a triple stumper, with the others betting high against each other. Normally, if my brain hadn’t been in a constant fugue state of OMG OMG OMG I should’ve been able to figure out the answer for a notable 1850’s man-made US space (Central Park, duh. I was just in NYC three months ago!), but my mind just went completely blank so I just scribbled down the first US park I could think of, even though I knew damn well it wasn’t right. (I KNOW Yellowstone isn’t man-made, Alex!! Don’t lecture me about it being “god-made, not man-made”!) If I’d had room I would’ve written “I know this is wrong” below my answer, but the pens are pretty chunky and it was hard to write anything legibly, let alone an extra joke. Unfortunately for me, both Andrew and Paula got the answer correct, and yes, both bet big ($8500 each, so Andrew finished at $18,600 and Paula at $20,400.)
During the last commercial break the three competitors were told to stand on a series of tape marks on the floor for our last face-to-face with Alex during the credits. When the cameras rolled, Alex started telling us some ridiculous story apropos of absolutely nothing (I think it was about man-eating alligators or something else equally inane) and we dutifully—but animatedly—laughed along with it.
So now Paula was a three-day champion and would go on to play her fourth game; and Andrew and I signed our consolation prize forms and were hustled away from the other competitors to get our clothes bags. Our only tangible souvenirs for the experience: another pen, and a Jeopardy! carrier bag and baseball cap. The two of us were permitted to watch the third show—with the regular audience only, not with the other contestants—but after that were peremptorily kicked out of the building (along with one of show 3’s losers) to take a cab back to our hotel (on our own nickel, of course). That’s Jeopardy! for you: Effusively friendly at the start; efficiently ruthless at the end.
During the ride back Andrew was cheerful and totally pumped about his Jeopardy! experience. I wish I could say I was so stoked, but back at the hotel the accumulated stress of the past month finally got to me and I developed a splitting headache. So I ate at the hotel restaurant instead of exploring town, took a bath (staining two facecloths with orange makeup) and went to bed. At breakfast the next day I ran into some of the other contestants who were going sightseeing together, which sounded lovely; unfortunately I was flying home that day and had to be at the airport before noon.
Upon arriving at Pearson the Canada Customs agent asked me why I went to the US. When I told her, this time it elicited a satisfying response: “Jeopardy!? Get out of here! How’d you do?”
So what did I take away from my Jeopardy! experience?
- $1000 USD (which I will receive sometime after April 2013) minus California state tax and US federal tax (which together come to almost 40% of the total. Ouch.)
- A ban on appearing on any other televised game shows for a year. So no catching the Cash Cab around town! (Another favourite show of Jon’s.)
- The knowledge after the fact that I should’ve booked longer times down in NYC and especially Los Angeles than I did—hang the added expense!! The other competitors were lovely and interesting people and it would’ve been great fun kicking around with them more.
- A lot of interesting memories as well as slight PTSD whenever I see the show on TV. Actually, I kid about the last one (mostly), but I have to say that I’m a wee bit jaded about the show now: If it happens to be on I still enjoy playing along, but it’s not appointment TV for me any more. I have a slight feeling of “ehh, done that”, as well as—I have to admit—a slightly bittersweet “oh if only I could’ve done better.”
- One lucky contestant only had to do two as his local station had just dropped the show and no-one else had picked it up yet. We were told that during the previous day’s shoot a contestant took 13 takes for one of his Howdies! Though frankly, I don’t know whether that actually happened or they were just recounting an oft-told story to make us feel better. ↩
- The category for this clue was “Jack Ryan”, and the fact that this was one of my best categories shows how hard the rest of the board was!↩