Wednesday, September 12, 2007

15 Minutes of Fame by Judson Knight

If 15 minutes of fame is the standard, then I suppose I should count myself fortunate, because I received half again that much—22 minutes, which is the length of a Jeopardy game minus the commercials.

You may have seen me, if you happened to be watching on Wednesday, June 27. That was me in the middle—“A literary agent and writer from Madison, Georgia”—up against two formidable competitors, Joe, a lawyer, and Cathy, a law professor and the returning champ. By the end of the half-hour, Cathy had emerged as champ yet again—she went on to win five games total—and Joe put in a good showing for second place. And third place? You guessed it.

Like a lot of things in life, my Jeopardy experience involved a great deal of preparation that culminated in a very short real-life exercise. The event, in fact, had been five years in the making.

For years, Deidre had been telling me that I should try out for the show, and in 2002 she signed me up for an open audition in Atlanta. I spent a little time reading up on the things one should know, but there’s not really much you can do to prepare, because you either know the information or you don’t. And anyway, the audition took place just a few days after the birth of our second child, so I had bigger things on my mind.

Given my state of distraction, as well as the difficulty of the test—50 questions, each on a different topic—I didn’t have very high hopes. And chances were indeed slim: out of more than 100 people in the room that day, only two passed the test. I, however, was one of them.

After they excused the rest of the group, the contestant coordinators invited the other person and me to play a mock game of Jeopardy. Then they bade us farewell, telling us that we might receive a call to appear on the show.

The call never came in, so in March 2006, when I took an online test for potential Jeopardy contestants, I had even lower expectations than before. Once again, I passed the test, and received an invitation to audition in Orlando in June. So I flew down there, took yet another written test, participated in another mock game, and again was told that they would call me.

And they did, in January 2007, with an invitation to compete on March 5 and 6.

On weeks when they’re taping, they do five shows a day (a week’s worth) over the span of two days, and I could be selected for any of those games. So I flew out to L.A.—contestants have to pay all their expenses, by the way—and on the first day found myself with the other potential contestants at Sony Pictures Entertainment (the old MGM lot) in Culver City.

What followed was an excruciating ordeal, one I would liken to jury duty, with a great deal of added tension because each participant knows that at any time, he or she may hear the fateful words, “You’re up next.”

Throughout that day, we remained sequestered from everyone else—the show’s crew (all except for our handlers, the contestant coordinators), as well as the people who had come to watch the taping.

The soundstage is much smaller than it appears on TV—I’d compare it to an elementary-school gymnasium—which only heightens the surreal feeling when Alex Trebek himself emerges onto the stage just a few feet away.

After they began taping, they took breaks equal in length to the commercial pauses on the actual show, and during this time Alex had his picture taken with each of the contestants participating in that particular game. Between shows, he answered questions from the audience—that is, from the “civilians,” not from us potential competitors—and then went backstage to change. Though they tape several shows in a day, these air over a period of many days, and so as to create the proper illusion for the folks back home, both Alex and the returning champ change clothes between games.

Back in the green room, which was literally green, tension remained high. The place was cramped, and everyone was nervous, waiting for his or her moment of truth. Mine didn’t come until the next day, by which time exhaustion and fatigue had set in.

Many months later, watching the show on TV, that exhaustion was apparent to both Deidre and me. I started off strong in the game, but fell back as time wore on, almost as though I’d expended all my energy simply in preparing for that moment. (My two opponents, by contrast, came in on Tuesday, fresh and rested.)

By then I’d come to recognize the single greatest challenge of the game, which is “buzzing in” on time—that is, activating the button that allows a contestant to ring in and answer a given question. If you do it too soon, you are locked out for 0.2 seconds, an eternity in Jeopardy time, but if you’re not lightning-quick enough, you’re likely to find yourself shut out by an opponent who is faster than you.

That’s what happened to me again and again. Worse, because ringing in on time is so difficult, I did it a couple times when I didn’t actually know the correct answer, which resulted in my losing points. My best opportunities came when the other two simply didn’t have the answer, which tended to be on the most academic and non-“trivial” questions.

In fact, having watched literally hundreds of shows and tested myself against the most successful Jeopardy champions, I’d say that the particular set of questions in my game were among the hardest—again, for my particular skill set—that I’d ever seen. Compounding the problem were a number of highly unrevealing category names (e.g., “No Matter What You’ve Heard”), as well as a technical malfunction in the airing of the video clue.

Still, I did answer my Daily Double correctly, and by the time we came to Final Jeopardy, I wasn’t far behind the other two. Seeing that the category was Literature, I thought that this would be my opportunity to surge ahead, because if I got the answer right and they got it wrong, I would win.

Unfortunately, though, all three of us got the answer to the question, which concerned the Iliad, and that was that. According to the scoreboard, I had won $13,000, but that didn’t mean anything: in Jeopardy, only the winner gets to keep the money, with awards of $2,000 and $1,000 for second and third place respectively.

If I had it to do over again—and a non-winning contestant cannot return to the show unless the host retires—I would have spent all my time playing video games so as to prepare for that all-important buzzer. More than that, though, I would take my focus off of winning, and just concentrate on having a good time.

Naturally, we learn much more from our defeats than from our victories. One of the most important things I came away appreciating was the value of the love and support that come from the people who truly care—Deidre in particular. When I called her that day from the Sony lot to tell her the bad news, she didn’t for a moment count the cost, but only told me how proud she and our daughters were that I’d come as far as I had.

Many months later, as we watched the show with friends here in Madison, I had to admit that I hadn’t done nearly as badly as I’d thought. But by then I was on to other things: Jeopardy is, after all, just a game.


Blogger Sharona Nelson said...

I did the Jeopardy thing back in 1999, came in second, but at least I fulfilled a dream I'd had since high school.

I had the same problems you did with the buzzer. I knew most of the answers, but either rang in too soon, or late. I guess by the time I was old enough to know enough stuff, my reflexes were shot.

At least you were paid a little cash--second place was an overpriced, crappy vacation I did not want, so I refused it. I would have been thrilled with $2000. :-)

Thanks for sharing your experience. I enjoyed my trip down memory lane.

Sharona Nelson

Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 5:15:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm mad I missed seeing you on Jeopardy! It always looks so tricky - the buzzer thing - sometimes I think I can see the frustration on the faces of the souls up there. Anyhow, congrats. Now... if you get a chance with Pat & Vanna... let us know ahead of time...
Deanna Kent-McDonald

Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 9:00:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Cindy Procter-King said...

What a cool story. My husband auditioned for the Golf Channel's Fore Inventors Only reality show last winter, and he and his partner made it to the second auditions, but only one of the three judges wanted to pass their invention through to the "field testing," because it was too "niche" (it's a golf bag specially designed to carry on a motorcyle). And unfortunately, whoever put together the audition show decided to showcase my husband and his partner for maybe 2 seconds and neither of those seconds even showed them speaking. At any rate, through their experience I can easily understand the tension and anxiety you went through, because I know how it was for them. But what an experience! Cripes, I think editor/agent appointments are tough. No matter how well prepared I am, I always get nervous. I've been in front of a TV camera twice in my life, for about 30 seconds each, and I know I sounded like a moron both times. So my hat is off to anyone who can say 3 words or hit a buzzer in time with TV cameras all over the place.


Friday, September 14, 2007 at 1:06:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Ellen said...

My husband and I watched you! When they announced your name and what you did, I knew instantly who you were and we cheered you on. Regardless of the final outcome, we thought you did a great job. Well held! :)

Friday, September 14, 2007 at 8:32:00 PM EDT  

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