Updated 11/8/2020: RIP Alex! YouTube videos are gone – apparently one of the COVID work-from-home catchup tasks for SONY must have been takedown notices – but thanks to my cousin Mark, I have the originals. Contact me if you want a share! You can also see the details at J! Archive.
For those who aren’t up for reading the lengthy recap, here’s an executive summary of the questions that seem to crop up the most. Feel free to ask others in the comments!
- How do you get on Jeopardy?
They now offer an online screening test for those who can’t get to California or to a city where the crew is traveling. It’s 50 questions, 15 seconds to fill in each blank (you don’t need to frame it in the form of a question). Sign up to get notified of future tests. If you pass the test (they don’t tell you and there’s no confirmation of this, but the consensus on the board is you have to have at least 35 correct), you may randomly be chosen for an audition. If you get the audition, you may get The Call. If they don’t call, try, try again!
- Did you study? How can you study when the questions could be about anything at all?
I studied a lot. “Jeopardy scope” (what they might reasonably ask) is smaller than you might think, but it could still take a lifetime to cover. My favorite tool was SuperMemo on my Palm.
- Did you get to hang out with Alex?
No, there is an iron wall between the contestants and anyone who is involved with knowing the questions. Aside from posing for a photo with each of us, the only time we interacted was when the cameras were rolling. But he is miked all day, so you get a pretty good sense of his personality.
- Do they tell you what the categories are?
No, see #3. Because of the quiz show scandals, they are very careful to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
- Do they try to match up people to particular categories/games? No, see above, and in fact nobody knows who the 2 new contestants are going to be for each show until moments before. They are randomly drawn after the previous game ends. As a contestant, you have no idea which show you’ll be on!
- Do they pay your expenses?
No, but you will win at least $1,000 (3rd place; 2nd place gets $2,000.) Don’t forget taxes, though (California takes 7% off the top, then you also have to pay the IRS and your state). We turned it into an actual vacation so didn’t end up in the black, but it was well-worth it for the adventure of a lifetime and a California vacation! Some people indicate you can subtract your expenses, but I’m not sure that flies legally unless you consider yourself doing Jeopardy as a “business.”
- Did you feel very competitive with the other contestants?
No—everyone was funny and interesting and enjoyable to hang out with. We really bonded. Of course I still wanted to win, but it felt very collegial.
- Why did you get ruled wrong for leaving out a word (“The Boy in the Bubble”) when they accept Yeats for William Butler Yeats?
The rule is that you can use just a last name as long as it’s unambiguous. There is only one famous Yeats. If it were Smith, they’d ask for a first name. But with titles you need to include every syllable. Same with proper names too—poor Wolf Blitzer lost most of the few bucks he had when they reviewed tape and discovered he’d said “Julia Childs” instead of “Child.”
- Didn’t you know “Code Pink”?
Not only did I know it, but watching the game when it aired, I expected to see myself buzz in and get it. Your brain works differently when you are up there!
- Was there something wrong with your buzzer or your buzzer technique?
Actually, although my timing may have been off, I was doing exactly what you’re supposed to do. They tell you to keep mashing the button until Alex calls on someone, even if your light doesn’t go on. (You can’t hold it down—that doesn’t work.) You usually don’t see so much buzzer motion because most people can rest their hand behind the podium and just move their thumb. But short people like me are hoisted into the air on an elevated platform so our heads are at the same height as the other two contestants’. As a result, I would have had to bend down to rest my hand, so I had to hold it up.
- Can’t you buzz in as soon as you know the answer?
No. There’s someone backstage who unlocks the buzzer when Alex stops talking. If you buzz in too soon, you get locked out for some fractions of a second—long enough for someone else to buzz in. I felt pretty good about my timing practicing at home, but it fell apart to a certain extent in the studio. (I did well in rehearsal, but Phil and Chris were both crazy fast!) There are lights you’re supposed to be able to use for cues, but that didn’t work for me.
- You didn’t think the FJ answer was just “area code,” did you?
Talk about your brain behaving differently up there—I never would have believed I’d forget to re-read the question, but I was so rattled by the wagering that I did forget. If I had re-read it, I would have put “cell phone area code.” But I don’t think I would have been given it, because it was specifically Telecommunications TERMINOLOGY.
- What the heck is an overlay?
It’s a new type of area code that covers the same geographic area as a previous one. In New York, 917 was the new code given to cell phones (but also to pagers, and possibly land lines) after they ran out of numbers.