First-person

Answer: Scarlett, weather and a blur

sshive@herald-leader.comDecember 28, 2008 

  • ON TV

    'Jeopardy!'

    The show airs at 7:30 p.m. weekdays on WKYT (Channel 27). Scott Shive's episode will air Dec. 30.

    BE ON THE SHOW

    If you're interested in trying out, the online tests for adults are scheduled for Jan. 27 to 29 and one for Kids Week will be Jan. 13, according to Jeopardy! contestant coordinator Maggie Speak. Go to www.jeopardy.com for details and to register. Speak said there are no Brain Bus events scheduled for the Lexington area.

  • RESOURCES

    There are many Web sites devoted to Jeopardy!. Here are a few that proved helpful to me.

    Jeopardy.com: The official site so you get everything from the horse's mouth. www.Jeopardy.com.

    J! Archive: An amazing, fan-compiled archive of every question, score, contestant, etc., from just about every episode, with the questions arranged on an interactive game board. The seasons since 1997 are the most complete. www.j-archive.com.

    "Math for Jeopardy! Players": A useful analysis of Final Jeopardy! betting strategies from Slate.com. http://fray.slate.com/id/86351.

    So You Want to Be a Jeopardy! Contestant: An in-depth perspective from former contestant Karl Coryat. Includes links to several other sites. www.pisspoor.com/jep.html.

    Jeopardy! on Wikipedia: Take everything here with a grain of salt, but it's a great primer on the show. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeopardy!.

Here's what I remember about being on Jeopardy!: There were categories about weather and Scarlett Johansson, Alex Trebek had missed a spot shaving, and my interview after the first commercial break was about growing up in Black Gnat, Ky. Beyond that, much of what happened when I taped the show Nov. 4 is a fog.

Of course, I remember whether I won or lost, but I can't tell you that. So when my episode airs Tuesday, you can watch to see how I finished and I'll watch to fill in the blanks on the rest of the game.

Other than wanting to know how I did, most of my friends and family want to know how I got on Jeopardy!. Here's how it all transpired.

How did you get on 'Jeopardy!'?

Contestants wind up on Jeopardy! through the show's online test or via traveling Jeopardy! Brain Bus events. I happened to see an episode in December 2007 when there was an advertisement for the online test, which would be given in January. On a whim I registered.

After the test, I didn't think I did well, but in April I got an e-mail inviting me to an in-person audition in Cleveland. (The e-mail initially got yanked by my spam filter, but I saw it a couple of days later. Whew!)

At the audition I met some Jeopardy! crew members (but not Alex) and lots of very nervous fellow Jeopar-nerds. After a while we settled down for a little Jeopardy! 101 lesson, another 50-question test and a short mock game so the contestant coordinators could see how telegenic we were. Highlight: I won a Jeopardy! travel mug by knowing that a few weeks earlier Larissa Kelly became the most successful female contestant ever by winning more than $222,000.

After a few fun hours, the audition was over with a caution from contestant coordinator Robert James: Out of about 1,500 people in the contestant pool, only about 400 make it onto the show.

If we passed this round of tryouts, we would remain in the contestant pool for 18 months. Don't call us, we'll call you.

And they did.

In late September, my phone rang about dinnertime. It was a 310 area code. Wrong number, I thought. Straight to voice mail. About an hour later, I checked my messages.

"Hi, Scott, this is Robert from Jeopardy!."

I almost dropped the phone.

When I called back, Robert asked, "What are you doing on Election Day?"

Um, voting.

"Could you come to L.A. to tape Jeopardy!?"

Well, heck, yeah, I'll come to L.A. and tape Jeopardy!!

How did you prepare?

My first step to prepare was to do some Internet research (there are a wealth of fan sites and blogs about Jeopardy!) and talk to the three people I know who have been on the show, two of them my colleagues at the Herald-Leader.

A trend emerged: Lots of former contestants had studied the World Almanac.

So I immediately started reading the 1,008-page, surprisingly interesting book.

I was convinced the almanac was a reliable textbook when a factoid I read the night before my in-person audition (the deepest gorge in the nation, Hells Canyon, in Oregon and Idaho, is formed by the Snake River) showed up on the test there.

After I got The Call, my preparation became more focused and diligent.

Contrary to what some people think, Jeopardy! doesn't give contestants the categories ahead of time, so I had a lot of material to brush up on. For the month between The Call and The Show, I read the almanac every day and reviewed college study guides to bone up on specific areas like mythology, the Bible and history.

Everything I read online suggested that it's pointless to cram on a topic you know very little about (for me, it was sports) because you have way too much ground to cover in such a short time.

I also changed my TV viewing habits: I watched or recorded Jeopardy! every night, always standing in front of the television with a click pen in my hand so I could play along.

I practiced not buzzing in (or clicking my pen) until after Alex finished reading the question. My friends who had been on the show said that the key to doing well is zeroing in on the right millisecond to buzz in, so you can buzz first.

The buzzer is timed to Alex's reading of the question. As soon as he finishes, a crew member off-camera hits a button to activate the buzzers. If you buzz in before Alex finishes the question, you're locked out for a fraction of a second — enough time to kill your chances. You must be One With the Buzzer.

Any behind-the-scenes secrets?

Jeopardy! usually tapes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only. But they tape five shows each day. That makes for a very fast-paced day. Winners get only 10 minutes to change between shows. Their rationale: If Alex can do it, so can you.

Jeopardy! doesn't pay your way to Los Angeles. Contestants must pay all travel expenses. But ...

■ Everyone who appears on the show gets money. The winner gets whatever his or her final total is. The second-place winner gets $2,000, and third-place gets $1,000.

■ The little stories contestants tell after the first commercial break are prepared in advance. I dreaded this part of the game the most.

■ The Jeopardy! set is tiny compared to what it looks like on TV. The floor is sparkling, but the contestant consoles are worn from the hundreds of people who stand behind them day after day. It's also very cold — to keep Alex and the contestants cool under the bright lights and to keep the audience engaged. We were told that studio audiences who are chilly are more responsive than warm ones.

■ The score readout for contestants is inconveniently perched above a high wall to the left of the game board. When you see a contestant look up before making a wager on a Daily Double, he or she is looking at that readout.

■ Alex doesn't read the questions from a monitor. He has a giant piece of paper on his lectern that has all the clues. When you see him writing, he's marking off questions as they are called.

■ The group of contestants I was with had several Kentucky connections. I was the only person still living in the commonwealth, but there was a woman who grew up in Middlesboro, a woman who graduated from Berea College and a man whose girlfriend's father is from Louisville.

What about the day of the show?

It was Nov. 4, Election Day. The rest of the country was worried about the fate of our nation, and I was anxious about my buzzer reaction time — well, that and the fate of our nation.

When I got to the studio at 8 a.m., I met the 11 other contestants who would appear that day, including a sportswriter, a traffic court judge, a coal miner, and the five-time returning champion, an intimidating-looking teacher.

About 11:45 or so — after several hours of signing contracts, playing a few practice games, getting our makeup done, etc. — an on-set lawyer (yes, they have one) drew the names of contestants to challenge the returning champion. Whew! Not me. I would get to sit in the audience and watch the first game — and luckily, get a sense of how the real show would operate.

Jeopardy! is taped pretty much in real time, so after about 45 minutes, the first show wrapped up: The teacher had won again, extending his reign to six shows.

"Scott and Emily, you're up!"

Suddenly, the calm cool of being in the audience ended and everything became frantic.

My fellow contestants and I were whisked back to the green room, where we got a bathroom break and fresh makeup. The returning champ got a few minutes to change clothes. Crew members were talking across one another, giving us instructions. Departing contestants were gathering their things to leave. It was chaos. But amid all the hubbub, I found a quiet minute or two to calm down, say a prayer and think about what I was getting ready to do.

Then I was on the Jeopardy! stage, positioned at the middle console. I wrote "SCOTT" on the screen, practiced smiling, and tested my buzzer and microphone. Before I knew it, the newfangled version of the Jeopardy! theme song began to play.

"This. Is. Jeopardy!," Johnny Gilbert announced from his off-camera director's chair.

"Please welcome today's contestants. ... A features editor from Lexington, Kentucky, Scott Shive. ... And here's your host, Aleeeeex Treeeeebek."

Reach assistant features editor Scott Shive at (859) 231-1412 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1412.

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