The following is the second in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.
Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”
Part II: The Mecca of Nerds
We arrived at the studio gate bright and early. In fact, I was amazed by how quickly we got there from the hotel. Maybe it had something to do with having taken surface streets and not the expressways, but LA traffic was reasonable and flowed much more smoothly than it does here in Chicago. Security at the gate was fairly tight, but once we were inside and had parked the car, there seemed to be no security at all, frankly. We actually walked most of the way back into the depths of the lot, to the temporary-looking prefab double-wide trailer home that serves as the Jeopardy! offices, before someone informed us that we were supposed to wait near the front gate for an escort to take me to the studio. Okay, we’ll walk back. Most of the other prospectives were waiting by the time we returned. Everyone was trying to look nonchalant and cool. We engaged in terse small talk about the weather, which was hot for 8 a.m., and after the nice stroll back and forth I had worked up a sweat. So much for cool. We all casually eyed each other, sizing up the competition, wondering silently which of us was the returning champion from the previous week.
Then a shuttle bus arrived and took us to the studio that I’d already passed twice, a big featureless soundstage that looked just like every other on the lot except for the little Jeopardy! sign by the door. We were taken into the Green Room, not actually green, which from the inside looked like a perfectly normal room but was in fact a free-standing box, ceiling, carpeting, fire sprinklers and all, tucked behind the tiers of the audience seating. The walls of the Green Room were covered with photos of celebrities who had played in the annual charity tournaments. (My favourite: Cheech Marin.) There were several comfortable couches and chairs, a table full of pastries, juice and coffee, a couple of dressing rooms and two makeup stations. They had us fill out the information forms and sign the contracts—yet again—and admonished us not to leave the room without permission, and not to talk to anyone we didn’t know if we went outside for a smoke break (for all we knew we’d be talking to a writer!).
Then they took us into the set itself to meet the director and producers, and to do the myriad preparatory items: a run-through of how the buttons and light-pen writing pads work, taping little “hometown howdies” (“Hi, I’m Kevin Forsyth, watch me play Jeopardy! on WILX, TV-10!”), what monitor to look at for video clips, stuff like that. The most important thing we learned, if you don’t count being able to write your name legibly on the pad, is this: the buttons are programmed to be inactive until Alex finishes reading the answer. If you ring in early there’s a half-second lockout, which is why you often see contestants clicking their buttons as if they’re in a full-blown panic. They jumped the gun and are desperately trying to catch the first instant their button reactivates.
(While I was doing all of this, my girlfriend was wandering the studio lot. She met up with a group of SFX wizards who happened to be doing post-production on the latest mega-blockbuster, Godzilla.)
Let’s take a look around the studio, much as it looked that day except without the people running around setting stuff up and the loosely-knit pack of nerds standing awestruck. The official website has a 3D interactive movie that allows you to see a full 360-degree view of the Jeopardy! set. You can even check out some of the rigging up near the ceiling. (The set has been redecorated since 1997, but the basic layout is the same as ever.)
We’ll start at Alex’s podium. Alex is of average height, but even so he has a riser back there to make him look taller. The wall behind, through which he walks, looks like it opens by magic but is really pushed by hidden stagehands, just like the doors on Star Trek.
Proceeding left (i.e., counter-clockwise), we next see the Big Board. On either side of the Board are four panels, arranged vertically. You never see this on TV because they go from a close-up of the answer to a shot of the contestant who rings in, but at the center of each panel is a bright white pinlight that goes on the instant the buttons are activated. This is your visual cue to know when Alex is done reading, and is controlled by some judge offstage. (Truth is, like all incandescent lights they take a split second to become bright, so a contestant is better off listening closely to how Alex phrases things and anticipating the lights.)
Next is a wall of 12 panels, three of which are open holes. These are for the contestant cameras, usually only two (a wide shot and a close-up). At the very top of this wall, rarely seen on TV, are three scoreboards so contestants can check their scores. This is where they’re looking when a Daily Double comes up and they’re trying to figure out what to wager; putting the scores up high is a good way to make them look thoughtful. Next is a large screen for the audience, basically showing exactly what they’d see if they stayed home. Then there’s the rostrum where Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, sits.
Then, of course, the audience, with a couple of long desks in front for the producers, judges, etc. The front two rows of the audience, far audience right (far left in this view), is where the prospective contestants sit. The two big monitors in front of the boom camera are for the contestants to watch video clips.
Zoom out while facing the Big Board to see the three contestant podia at the bottom edge of the frame. Just to the left of them is a short flight of steps, marked in bright yellow tape stripes, that one uses to go from the studio floor to the stage. (As the show began, the three contestants stood in single file at the base of these steps and were prodded onstage one at a time by a producer. Nowadays, the show starts with the contestants already standing at their podia.) The day I was there, there were no stripes. One of the contestants, lost in a haze of wonder and nervousness, walked right off the stage, tripped on the steps, and fell flat on her face. The producers rushed her some ice and made sure she wasn’t badly hurt, a lawyer slipped in there at some point and got her autograph on a release, and makeup was later able to cover the bump on her forehead so she wouldn’t look on TV like she’d just been mugged. And pretty quickly, a gaffer was out there with a roll of bright yellow tape, unobtrusively marking the steps.
What surprised me most about the set were the podia. I had always just assumed that they contained nothing more than a couple of cords running down into the floor, one for the button, one for the lightpen pad. Turns out each one of those boxes has a full-size PC tower under there, plus some sort of networking controller, a few black boxes for the button system, a rat’s nest of cables, the works. They’re literally stuffed full—I mean, FULL—of computer equipment.
What didn’t surprise me, though, and what is belied by the VR movie as much as by TV, is the sheer gimcrackery of the set. On TV the Jeopardy! set looks elegant, solid, and glamourous. Truth is, everything’s built of plywood and plaster, and painted with faux wood and marble grains that look great on TV but up close just look like paint on plywood. The stage floor that gleams so brightly on TV is dingy and permanently scuffed by years of grips in work boots dragging heavy power cables across it. And the dividers that pop out of the podia between the contestants during the final round? They’re lifted by hand and held up with old battered two-by-fours shoved underneath, cut to length and labelled something like “For dividers—do not cut or throw away” in permanent marker. Ah, the magic of television.
Part III: Showtime!
Part IV: December 10, 1997
Part V: Aftermath