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I Never Mentioned ‘Jeopardy!’?

March 31st, 2015 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

A search of this blog would seem to indicate I never have broached my appearance on the game show Jeopardy! In 1988. Just the other day, but still fairly fresh in my mind.

I can still reconstruct where things went wrong.

I had not thought of it for a while, maybe even a year, but my memory was jogged when someone sent me five minutes of video from the sitcom Cheers, Season 8, Episode 14, in which the Cliff Clavin character comes up with a memorable “question” in Final Jeopardy.

But come with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when I took the 50-question test, survived the “can I operate the buzzer and phrase my answers in the form of a question?” tryout and made my way to Culver City in May or June of 1988 for a date with Alex Trebek … and destiny!

I had always been a Jeopardy! fan. Going back to its days in New York in the 1960s, when I never missed it during summer vacations.

A fast-paced trivia game … I love that concept. I bought the board (home) version of the game and made my mother and aunt play with me. (They were very patient.)

Jeopardy! went away for most of nine years, in 1975, before it was revived, in Los Angeles, with Trebek as host, in 1984. And I began to plot how I would get on the show.

A bit on the testing process. You make an appointment, go down to the studio and you and about 50 other people are put in a school-room style setting and handed a piece of paper with 50 questions on it covering a variety of topics (history, literature, music, politics, geography) and given something like 10 minutes to complete it. This is to test your overall knowledge as well as your ability to think under pressure.

The thing to do is answer the questions you know and come back for the others. You are credited for the ones you get right, so you may as well guess. Then they call time, and you go into the next room while the tests are quickly graded.

While you wait, you talk to the others about questions you missed. Lots of, “Oh, of course!”

The testers emerge, call out 12 to 15 names and thank everyone else for coming. I think they might have allowed them to keep a Jeopardy! pen or pencil. That’s it, if you don’t pass the written test.

The survivors then smirk at each other and are taken to the darkened set of the show.

You play the game holding a metal clicker for “ringing in” and a portion of a board, operated by hand, is set up.

The 12-15 people come out and the Jeopardy! staff checks to make sure they can play the game. It is surprising how many people blurt out an answer without first being recognized by the host. Or how many people freeze up when calling for a category and price.

So, you do the mock show, and it certainly helps if you get a couple of things right, and you go home. And wait. You don’t actually know where you stand, and you may never hear from the show. (That’s how it was done a quarter-century ago, anyway.)

I got a call after a month or so, and not long after I was among the 11 people (one champion and 10 new contestants) in the green room getting ready for a week’s worth of taping in one day — three shows in the morning, two in the afternoon, and you have to bring extra clothes, in case you are part of multiple episodes.

Sitting in the green room, sizing up the opposition, reminded me of the scene in Spartacus where gladiators are waiting to go “on” … and are studying each other. Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode, actually.

So, I was called to appear in the first game of the day, and the other person chosen was an older woman who did not worry me — as opposed to a few others, who seemed scary smart, just from hearing them talk.

I was surprised that I was not particularly nervous. I remember whispering with the other two contestants just before we went on stage — and at that time, you’re just standing behind a little wall, and you walk about 10-15 feet to get to your lectern. (Oh, and to get everyone’s heads at about the same level, some contestants are given little platforms to stand on.) Johnny Gilbert pronounced my name right, and Alex made his first appearance.

I started fairly well. I believe I was leading at the first commercial. One of the categories was “sports”, which was a break for me, but I suffered a $1,000 swing (this was the old $100-through-$500 board) when I missed the $500 question. It read something like: “The team with the greatest margin of victory in a Super Bowl.”

Earlier that year, I had covered the the Washington-Denver Super Bowl in San Diego, and I had a recollection of writing that the 42-10 Washington victory “was the biggest.” And I rang in and said “Who are the Redskins?”


It was the Chicago Bears, who had beaten the New England Patriots 46-10 two years earlier. I should have known that.

In Double Jeopardy, I didn’t like three of the six categories. The other three I was fine with. But the female challenger was in last place, and allowed to begin the proceedings, and for the next five or six minutes, as the two women dominated the three categories I did not like (English literature, etc.) … it might have seemed as if I had suffered a stroke. I didn’t move a muscle. I didn’t successfully ring in for a long stretch. Many of the questions, I just did not know.

But then the three categories I liked were all that was left, and I began a comeback. One of the categories was “Presidents” and another was “European cities”. I might have run the latter category, and then we were in Presidents, the last category on the board. I might have banged out the $200, $400 and $600 questions. If I wasn’t in the lead, I was close. Oh, and one of the Daily Doubles was out there.

I called out “Presidents for $800, please” … and the answer was something like: “He was a former congressman, senator, secretary of state and the 15th president.” And it was the last bit that gave it away. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president, and who preceded him? James Buchanan. Of course!

A part of the game many viewers do not completely grasp is the skill of ringing in. Some contestants never quite get it right, and viewers can sometimes see the exasperation of the person behind the podium as they are beaten to the punch — or buzz too soon.

That was my problem here. A contestant is allowed to ring in when Alex has finished reading the answer — which pretty much coincides with when the lights around the question go out. (Back in the New York era, contestants could buzz in the moment the question was revealed; had that been the case in 1988, I would have rung in long before Alex was done reading.)

Anyway, if you ring in early, your buzzer is frozen out for one second. And getting there first, at the right time, is often a matter of a split second. It is a skill, absolutely.

I saw the video of my show perhaps twice; I had a VHS copy … but I lost track of it years ago.

On viewing it, I could see myself pushing the button on the buzzer. My right arm moves slightly but perceptibly.

Alas, I was too soon, and was frozen out. In the eternity of one second, the champion rang in. “Who was James Buchanan?” she said. I knew it; she knew it; but I false-started in my eagerness.

Had I gotten that answer, I certainly would have been in the lead. As it turned out, the last clue on the board was a Daily Double. I knew the answer but, because a Daily Double is answered only by the person who controls the board, I had to stand and listen as Alex read: “He was the only president with a PhD.”

Said the champion: “Who was Woodrow Wilson?”

I knew that one, too.

So, I went into Final Jeopardy second, with something like $6,400. (Which in today’s 200-400-600-800-1,000/400-800-1,200-1,600-2,000 game — would be closer to $14,000.

The final category was, I think, “Science and inventions”.

I didn’t bet all my cash because I wanted to make sure I finished at least second, if I got it right. (Back then, the runner-up gift sometimes was interesting.) But I bet enough to win, if the champion didn’t get Final Jeopardy. That was all I could do.

The clue: “It began appearing in train stations and public parks in London in the late 1890s and was known as the ‘chamber of silence’.” Or something like that.

The famous music began. Dum-dee-dum-dumdum-dum-dee-dum … You hear it in the studio, too.

I didn’t know the answer immediately. I thought about the era, a decade of inventions, and where this invention was found — in public places. Chamber, silence, public places, invention, 1890s …

I was pretty sure I knew the answer, and I wrote it on a little TV screen that is recessed into the lectern, which then can be seen on the front of your podium.

The other challenger, who was in third place, got it wrong. I had it right: “What is a telephone booth?”

My wager took me to $10,000 on the dot. The champion, however, also got it right, and she wagered enough to beat me. And that was that.

My runner-up prize? A trip to Florida. (Which I later found out could be taken only in June, when Florida is hideous, and I also would have had to pay income tax on it … so I turned it down, but did accept the Snap-On tool set.)

As I left the stage, my first reaction was … “I didn’t embarrass myself.” That pleased me. I thought about the game, and I did not recall any sort of major gaffe; I didn’t stutter; I was never reproved by Alex. I was a contender to the end. I had led. I got Final Jeopardy.

But within 10-15 minutes, I began to obsess about that critical moment … the second-to-last clue, about Buchanan. When I rang in a fraction of a second too soon. A fraction later, and I win the game.

I watched the next game, now sitting in the audience, and I would have won. Without question. The challengers were weak and the champion had a bad game.

I could have left there with $20,000-plus in winnings. A down payment for a house!

As I drove east on Interstate 10, it began to annoy me more and more, and somewhere around San Gabriel I remember shouting, inside my car. “Damn! Damn, damn, damn!”

The show appeared later in the year; I want to say in October.

And that is my memory of Jeopardy!

I had not done anything memorable, like fictional contestant Cliff Clavin and his “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen” answer. (Oh, and note on the video a moment at the 3:15 mark, when Cliff’s answer can be seen before it should have been revealed.)

But it sure would have been nice to have won a couple of times.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 James // Apr 2, 2015 at 7:36 AM

    I tried out for Jeopardy several times in similar conditions to yours – down at the studio, but the entire test was on the set. We were given a sheet a paper with 50 blanks on it and the questions were given on overhead monitors just as they were done on the show with Alex reading them.

    After that, it was the same – answer sheets taken off for grading, while the candidates compared answers, etc., and then on to the practice game for those of us that managed to advance.

    Nowadays the initial testing is done online and has been for the last five, maybe ten years. The first year they went to online testing, I was invited to take the drive to Culver City for the next stage, which is very much like the old audition process – 50 question test then a practice game, but it’s all done in a hotel conference room instead of at the studio.

    The one thing I don’t care for about the current system is that you have no idea how well you did (and you only ever find out if you passed. No scores are ever given) unless you get contacted to come down for the next step in the process. If I recall correctly, the first year or two of online testing you at least found out if you had passed. The last three or four years I’ve heard nothing, so you never really know if you’re still in contention or not.

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