My 22 Minutes of Fame, part III

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the third 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

Part III: Showtime!

We returned to the Green Room, where makeup artists prepped us for television lighting and we changed into our dress clothes. Beyond the sound-proofed walls, and our awareness, an audience was led into the studio, one consisting about half-and-half of retirees and white-polo-uniform-shirt-wearing school kids, plus of course the few dozen guests of the folks in the Green Room. Then they pulled two of our names out of a hat (not me) and sent them to get fitted for wireless mikes and to mentally prepare to go up against the returning champ. The rest of us were then paraded into the set and seated in the aforementioned rows of audience seats, making sure to be on our best behaviour and refraining from talking to the people we knew in the stands. Just a smile and a wave, please. With everyone staring and the simmering nervousness in the room, I felt more like we were condemned murderers than contestants.

Or perhaps I should continue to say “prospective contestants.” See, the way the show works is this. They tape 5 episodes, one full week, in a day—three before lunch, two after—and only tape two days a week, so in fact the returning champion, winning on a Friday episode and coming back the following Monday, had really been waiting since the previous Tuesday to defend his title. Now, the producers have no idea until an episode ends just how many new contestants they’ll need: usually 2, but if there’s a winners tie then only 1, and if someone becomes a Five Day Champion that person is sent home and they’ll need to fill all 3 spaces. (The Five Day Champion rule has since been abolished.) So until they actually pull your name from the hat and say “you’re on the next episode, come with us,” there’s no guarantee whatsoever, even after all the rigmarole you’ve gone through, that you’ll actually be on the show. A person could potentially sit through two whole days of taping without ever having their name called. I’m not sure what the producers would do with you then.

Johnny Gilbert, the guy who reads “Now entering the studio are today’s contestants…” and all the Rice-a-Roni hoo-ha at the end, was up in the audience with a cordless mike, putting the crowd at ease and in a good mood as only a professional raconteur can. He was wearing a gold satin jacket, embroidered with the Jeopardy! logo on the back and left breast, and a fine silver toupee. Like seeing a radio d.j. introduce your favourite band, it was weird to watch this unfamiliar, slightly paunchy, overly tanned, nearly 70-year-old dude, while hearing that voice we all know so well. Johnny reiterated the audience rules (no shouting, clap for the applause sign) to a group that had probably already heard them a few times before, and then we settled down for the first episode.

Of course, Jeopardy! is not a live show. They keep a buffer of at least a couple of months in the can, just in case. Though it was the last week in September, the episodes being taped would not air until the second week in December. Even knowing this, I was a little nonplussed when Alex Trebek finally appeared and his first words to the camera were, “Two and a half weeks to go before Christmas. Have you done your shopping yet?”

A show goes by pretty fast, even during the taping. They don’t stop the tape during most of the commercial breaks, so that two minute “pause that refreshes” is the exact same duration as the pause in the studio. They blank out the Big Board, bring the contestants a sip of water, and Johnny goes up into the audience to ease the tension and answer questions from the peanut gallery. The only time the tape stops during a normal show is between the Double Jeopardy! round and the final round, when the contestants are given unlimited time (and scraps of paper) to calculate their wagers before writing them on their light-pen pads.

Except when there’s a goof, and there was a big goof in this first episode. Two categories in adjacent columns were City TV and Driving. This guy from NYC ran them together and asked for City Driving for $300. The controller heard the City part and punched the button for City TV, revealing a Daily Double. Stop tape! Did he say City Driving? Playback. Sure enough. The judges debated for a while—quite a while, as if this had never happened before, which I can’t imagine—before deciding that he should request City TV for the same amount, but the Daily Double would be moved to somewhere else on the board. They reset the board, rewound the tape, and just as if nothing ever happened, Alex prompted the guy to request a category. Watching the tape, it’s seamless. There’s a tiny, subtle shift in mood due to the delay, but unless you know where it is you’d never notice it.

The delay to figure all this out and reset everything took around 15 minutes. During this time Johnny Gilbert answered audience questions as usual. Someone asked a question about Alex Trebek that Johnny didn’t know the answer to, so he turned around and called out to Alex, who was sitting in a high director’s chair down on the studio floor, reading a magazine.

A question frequently asked by people who find out I was on the show is, “What’s Alex really like?” Here’s the answer: he’s a robot. For all I know they had the Animatronic Alex there that day. Alex looked up from his magazine as if startled from a reverie—or a powersave mode—and gazed up at Johnny with a look that seemed to say, “How dare you involve me with the hoi polloi?” Johnny coaxed a reply from Alex, but I don’t recall that he answered the woman’s question, whatever it was, with more than a nod or single syllable.

The first episode passed in a blur, I was so nervous. I found myself wishing it had been my turn at the podium—there was a category of Astronaut Lingo I could have swept even with major head trauma—and the Final question was a piece of cake. The old champ got beaten and two new contestants were picked. Again, not me. The tension level for me remained steady—my chances of being picked were slowly rising but my comfort level was too, so it all balanced out. They took the trio backstage and swapped mikes around (the mikes correspond to each podium, so the new champ had to give back mike #3 and take mike #1). Meanwhile, I chatted with the prospective next to me, a young woman from New York with an ebullient, egoistic personality—quite obviously an aspiring actress. She psyched me out by mentioning that she and her roommate had stayed up late the night before, cramming Shakespeare—and then offhandedly quoted verbatim a few lines in one of his many plays from which I’d have trouble naming three characters (even though it might have been Troilus and Cressida).

Then, the second game. If not for having a tape of it, I’d remember not a thing, as all three contestants were infinitely dull and even the categories sucked. Once again, the champ was usurped.

And then, they called my name. And that of the actress beside me. We ran through the prep routine and before I knew it, I was standing first in line at the base of those newly-striped steps. Just before tape rolled, the actress put her good-luck charm, a little stuffed reindeer, on my shoulder, feigning best wishes to me. I politely shrugged it off, knowing a witch’s hex when I saw one. And then the music began.

Part IV: December 10, 1997

Part V: Aftermath

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