My 22 Minutes of Fame

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

In 1997 I appeared on Jeopardy! as a contestant. Two years later I finally got around to writing about the experience, an act that is expressly forbidden by the contract I signed. So it goes.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”

It all started so innocently. Just a simple e-mail to stating my desire to take part in a Jeopardy! contestant search in Chicago. So simple to do, I thought nothing would come of it. They probably get many thousands writing in. Then a few weeks later, the invitation arrived in the mail. Come to this hotel, to such-and-such suite. Be there at 11 a.m. sharp. Late arrivals will not be admitted. Bring this invitation and a photo i.d. Do not fold, spindle, mutilate, pass Go, or collect $200.

I arrived at the hotel with a few minutes to spare but quickly panicked as the hotel had no clear signs telling of the locations of the conference suites, no employees were in evidence, and the escalators were scattered about so that it was impossible to take a direct path to what turned out to be a fifth-floor suite. I made it just in time, and along with about 200 other people was ushered into a large room of the type usually rented by management seminars and self-help gurus.

A couple of producers introduced themselves, and we were given a long information form to fill out. Among the questions were: “Tell 5 interesting facts or anecdotes about yourself.” Obviously this was to be fodder for the famous “contestant chat,” which put me into hypercritical mode. I had been living my whole life in the same town where I was born, working a job that was a self-esteem vacuum, and aside from dating the coolest woman I’ve ever met, what I was doing at that exact moment suddenly seemed like the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me. Thus by the time I got to #3 I was exaggerating, and by #5 I was writing outright bullshit.

Then came the test. It turned out to be a video exam. They played a tape of Alex Trebek reading “answers,” the words appearing on screen, white-on-blue just like on TV. Each one would pause for eight seconds, then Alex would go on to read the next one. We had to fill in the blanks, though fortunately we just had to write the pertinent words and could omit the “what is…” “who is…” phrasing that is the trademark of the show. There were 50 questions. We had to get 35 of them right, or the producers would show us to the door, and our info sheets to the circular file. The whole thing took less than 15 minutes. Then they took our responses and left us to fret while they graded them.

Some time later they returned and read a list of 14 names. Mine was on it. (They never told us how many we got right. Estimating from the number of guesses I made, and the few guesses I later confirmed as correct, I figure I got about 42.) They took our pictures with a Polaroid camera, asked us to talk about ourselves for a couple of minutes apiece, and had us participate, in threes, in a mock version of the game, complete with random categories and ring-in buttons “just like the real thing.” As we did this the producers made little notes in their rapidly burgeoning files on us. The purpose of all of this was to cull the completely irredeemable geeks and potential sufferers of Cindy-Brady-red-camera-light syndrome from the pack. Then they informed us that we were officially entered in the candidate pool for the upcoming season of Jeopardy!. At any time in the next 12 months, about one-half of us would be receiving an invitation to attend a taping at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California.

Note that I didn’t say “an invitation to compete.” More on that later.

I was incredibly surprised to get a call, less than two months after the contestant search, from somebody at Sony. Could I be in Los Angeles on the last Monday and Tuesday of September? You betcha, I said. Great, he said, we’ll mail you the information, be sure to fill it all out and send it back right away. A few days later the packet arrived. Another copy of the information form, several pages of instructions on where to go, what to bring along, how many guests can come. A reiteration that Jeopardy! does not provide airfare nor accommodations, though they did offer a supposedly discount rate on a nice hotel near the airport.

Then came the contract. A total of 21 long, numbered paragraphs. I knew for certain that they were covering all their bases as well as all their asses when I read the following clause:

I hereby grant to Producer, its successors, licensees, and assignees, the non-exclusive but irrevocable; perpetual and worldwide right and license to photograph me and/or use my likeness, voice, name, biographical material and any remarks I may make in connection with the production, distribution, exhibition, advertising and other exploitation of the program throughout the universe by any method and in all media, now known or hereafter devised.

I figured, one, if I want to be on the show I have to sign it regardless of what it says, and two, any contract that implicitly includes 3D holographic projection on Neptune in the year 3001 appeals to me. So I signed it, with a flourish. I was going to California, to test my knowledge of eclectic esoterica against the biggest brains in North America. In other words, as another prospective contestant later put it, I was about to make a hadj to the Mecca of Nerds.

Part II: The Mecca of Nerds

Part III: Showtime!
Part IV: December 10, 1997
Part V: Aftermath

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