Me with Alex Trebek

8 Lessons I Learned on Jeopardy!

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to appear on the world’s greatest game show, Jeopardy! — and the experience was amazing. With the show airing brand-new episodes again, I thought it was the perfect time to reflect on some of the important things I took away from my time on the show.

You’re Never the Smartest Person in the Room (And That’s Fantastic)

Throughout the entire process of auditioning for Jeopardy! and appearing on the show, I encountered brilliant people at every turn. It was both humbling and wonderful at the same time. So many of us sign up for the show because we’re weirdly good at trivia. Actually going on the show, though, makes you realize that “being weirdly good at trivia” is actually a much more common trait than you might have thought. You may be the ringer on your bar trivia team, but on Jeopardy!, everybody’s a ringer.

And, honestly, I loved it. The competition was so well-matched, and it was so much fun to get to meet and chat with all of the other trivia nerds who appeared on the show with me. Every single person who appears on the show has an equal chance of winning, because every single person selected is just that smart. It’s all down to who gets in a groove with the buzzer timing, or who lucks out with a category that’s perfect for them. (And to answer two questions that I got a LOT after the show: no, they don’t give contestants study materials to practice with ahead of time, and no, they don’t pick categories with the players in mind. The games are randomly selected, and no contestant knows beforehand what the content will be.)

The wide range of people who are chosen for the show is just the best thing. People come from all walks of life, from the occupations you’d expect (teachers, lawyers, writers), and ones you might not. One of my fellow contestants was a stand-up comedian; another was a landscaper. The woman I sat next to at my audition worked behind the meat counter at a grocery store. All were incredibly, awesomely smart.

But beyond Jeopardy!, the thing about never being the smartest person in the room still holds true in everyday life, and that’s because there are so incredibly many ways to be smart. Life’s so much better once you realize that everybody has different special strengths, and that’s a fantastic thing. The world needs all kinds.

 

The Jeopardy! game board
The Jeopardy! writers create six games for every week of shows, with one chosen at random for each episode

Everyone’s Better When They Only Play the Game on the Sidelines

Armchair quarterbacking is SUCH A THING where shows like Jeopardy! are concerned. The worst backseat drivers of the Jeopardy! world congregate on the internet, where they like to criticize not only the knowledge of each contestant but also the way they look, dress, speak, breathe, hold the buzzer, blink, smile, etc., etc., etc.

I would invite every single one of those people to try to appear on the show themselves, and see how well they’d do at buzzing in, answering accurately, speaking clearly and audibly (but not too loudly), and trying to remember that every movement you make is being recorded for national television. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t get to weigh in on how the game is played unless you’ve done it yourself. (And even then, just … don’t.)

 

You Really Do Need That Much Makeup on TV

Speaking of the whole “how you look on TV” business – the makeup artists are the unsung heroes of the Jeopardy! production staff. When I was on the show, we were asked to do our own hair (which was terrifying enough), but our makeup was done professionally on set. I remember looking at myself in the mirror after they had finished and gulping a little. In real life, that much makeup made me look borderline ridiculous.

But under the studio lights and on camera, the makeup looked flawless and way more natural. They knew EXACTLY what they were doing. I was so grateful I had just let them do what they knew was best and hadn’t made a fuss. I have major sympathy for those who are taping episodes right now, because in this COVID world, Jeopardy! contestants are asked to do their own makeup. It’s not easy at all!

(Sidenote: after I finished taping, my husband and I took a selfie showing off my new Jeopardy! hat to break the news to family and friends that I was going to be on the show. My grandma apparently took a look at the picture on Instagram and commented that I didn’t even look like myself under ALL THAT MAKEUP. So, you know, maybe wash it off immediately after you get back to the hotel, I guess?)

 

Me with my fellow contestant Beth
Reunion dinner with my friend and fellow contestant, Beth, in the summer of 2019

Your Fellow Contestants Aren’t Your Enemies – They’re Your Future Friends

The green room at Jeopardy! was honestly one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been. My fellow contestants and I may have been preparing to challenge each other on stage, but people were calm, kind, and even encouraging. The only real competition you have on stage, other than buzzing in and making wagers, is with your own brain, anyway.

There have, of course, been exceptions to this rule – contestants who have been unkind to others, even in public forums. But they are indeed exceptions. In general, the Jeopardy! community is full of truly excellent people, and I am so fortunate to have met so many of them. We’re all members of one of the best and most exclusive clubs out there.

 

No Matter What a Woman Does on TV, Men Will Still Sexualize Her

After my episodes aired, I got so many kind messages from friends, families, former teachers, even my local newspapers. But – after going on television wearing a long-sleeved crew-neck sweater and proving that I knew random facts about Ted Williams and Chobani and Grumpy Cat – I was also treated to a barrage of offensive and suggestive private messages on social media, one of which just called me a “slut” in all caps. And honestly, I was fairly lucky only to receive the messages I did. Lots of other people who have appeared on the show received messages that were even more hateful and upsetting. (Talia Lavin, another Jeopardy! alum, just wrote an insightful article about the problem for Vice.)

I don’t know why I didn’t expect it. In my heart of hearts, I know that the reasons that some men send those messages aren’t related to any thing the recipient does, says, or wears. They’re weird and pathological attempts to assert power or dominance. “Woman does impressive thing on television – time to make her feel small again!” But whatever. I deleted the messages, except for the jokey ones my husband sent to try to cheer me up. Those still make me smile.

 

It’s Always Good to Practice Old Skills

Here’s the good news: before you make your Final Jeopardy! wager, the contestant coordinators will give you paper and a pen to do the math, so you don’t have to do it in your head. The bad news: you still have to do math on paper. I did a little bit of prep for my Jeopardy! appearance – no studying, though I did play the game daily with Alexa on my Amazon Echo to practice answering questions out loud. But what I did NOT practice was adding and subtracting large numbers by hand on paper.

Honestly: when’s the last time you, an adult with a computer and smart phone, actually added or subtracted five-digit numbers on paper? Theoretically this should not have been challenging, because like all the rest of you, I learned how to do it in elementary school. Every math teacher who told us that we wouldn’t have a calculator on hand at all times has been proven wrong – except where game show contestants are concerned. I was so nervous that I’d embarrass myself by doing the math wrong that I almost had a full-on panic attack before I even GOT the Final Jeopardy! clue. Thankfully, my second-grade math skills held, and I figured the math correctly on both my episodes. (Sadly, I was only one-for-two on the actual clues. Dang it, Truman!)

 

My Jeopardy! watch party
Watching my first episode beside my husband during my watch party in July 2018

You Will Remember Little to Nothing from Your Episode

When I appeared on the show in 2018, production was taping five episodes a day, two days a week. I left my hotel room to take a shuttle to the studio before seven o’clock in the morning, and I didn’t tape my first episode until late in the afternoon. The time in between was spent filling out paperwork, getting makeup done, meeting and chatting with other contestants, rehearsing in the studio, and watching from the audience as others taped their episodes.

I still remember more about the rehearsal and even lunch at the commissary than I do about my own episodes. It takes less than a half an hour to tape an episode of Jeopardy!, so it moves just as fast in real life as it does on your television screen. It was an incredible, incredible blur. We all signed plenty of paperwork agreeing not to reveal the outcomes or the content of the shows we saw, but really, it was barely needed. I could hardly remember what had just happened when it was done!

And I do mean that. When my episode aired on television four months later, I was standing beside my husband at the watch party he helped organize for me. He had been in the audience for the show, so he knew a whole lot about the outcome, too. But when one clue appeared on the screen, I leaned over to him and whispered, “I have no idea what the answer is.” He nodded in agreement. And then, out of the blue, Lauren From Four Months Ago buzzed in and answered correctly. The brain is so strange.

 

My Jeopardy! watch party
Me on screen during my watch party, in all of my Wednesday Addams glory

If You Wear Black on National TV, Twitter Will Compare You to Wednesday Addams

It’s honestly one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

1 thought on “8 Lessons I Learned on Jeopardy!”

  1. I love this insider’s view! Years ago, I auditioned for Jeopardy (Teen Tournament, College Tournament, and regular Jeopardy). I passed the College audition, but wasn’t picked for the show. I did get a ticket for a taping and you are so right about the armchair players. I kept hitting my imaginary buzzer, as if I would be called on from the audience. But it has to be completely different when you are the contestant.

    I also think it’s awesome to have the confidence to not be intimidated by not being the smartest in the room. And I’m sorry about the harassment messages. That’s just awful.

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