I had always wanted to be on a game show, specifically Jeopardy! I thought it would be a fun and easy way to make a lot of money. I was wrong.
My first mistake was wearing a sweater that had the same pattern as the backdrop. Also, not wearing my retainer in junior high. (Via J! Archive)
I had a good day job, but it didn't quite cover the cost of living in the beautiful resort town where the job was located. Also, it was becoming clearer everyday that our baby would someday need braces.
A reasonable person would get another job, or ask for a raise. I thought: Jeopardy!
Why? Because although my day job didn't pay enough, the job was compiling trivia books. In other words, I absorbed potential Jeopardy! fodder all day, every day. It was a no-brainer. How could I not make it onto Jeopardy! and then not lose at Jeopardy!? I even thought that if the show found out what I did for a living, they wouldn't let me on it, like I was that much of a ringer.
I got on Jeopardy!
So, I took the online Jeopardy! contestant knowledge test. I did well enough to get an audition (a second knowledge test, and then a mock game of Jeopardy! in a hotel conference room to gauge if you're a lively enough person to be on TV). And then, 10 agonizing months later, the producers of Jeopardy! called me and told me to report to their studios in January 2009, because I was going to be on Jeopardy! I jumped up and down and then vomited, because that's a thing I do. My wife and I flew to Los Angeles, stayed in the hotel where the Jeopardy! Contestant Shuttle Bus would pick me up very early on the appointed day. After a silent bus ride with a dozen or so other nervous and/or super-focused silent people, we arrived at the studio where they shoot Jeopardy!
First, they put us through a rehearsal on the Jeopardy! stage to learn how to use the buzzer, fit us for mic packs, and see if any of us needed a little stool to stand on behind the podium. (Number of people who needed a stool that day: just me, thanks.) The set is much smaller than it looks on TV, and for how gleamingly metallic and futuristic it seems, it was surprisingly dingy. The podiums were scratched up, the floors were scuffed, and everything was made of plastic. They remodeled a month after I was on the show, due to the widespread adoption of unforgiving HDTV.
Then, we all went to the green room to wait for our episode. Between stomachaches and nervous laughing fits, there was only one real topic of conversation. At least six people brought up that famous episode of Cheers, where know-it-all Cliff Clavin goes on Jeopardy!, gets categories that seem handpicked for him, racks up a huge lead, and then blows it. “I'd like to get categories like he did," I heard many different people say, “but I wouldn't choke like he did." Discussing this was both an act of bonding among contestants, and also a way of warding off the Evil Eye, if you will – to invoke the thing that terrifies you is to rob it of its power.
After about six hours of waiting, I was picked to go tape my episode. I would be competing against a renaissance faire performer named Diane, and Daniel, the returning champion who won his episode even though he had the flu. The studio lights went down, announcer Johnny Gilbert read off our names (“Brian Boone, a writer from Ashland, Oregon." That's meeee!) and the mustache-free-era Alex Trebek gallantly trotted out onto the stage.
I killed on Jeopardy!
In his first round, Cliff Clavin got a “dream board" of categories like “Beer," “Bar Trivia," and “Celibacy." My categories included “The Play's the Thing," “Record of the Year Grammys," and “Sushi." This was my dream board. I have a degree in theater, I had just finished writing a book of music trivia, and, uh, I liked sushi a lot, I guess? When he got his dream board, Cliff shouted, “I'm feeling lucky today!" I didn't do that, but if you caught this episode, you could faintly hear a joyous, involuntary “hoot!" from the studio audience. That was my wife, because everything was coming up Brian Boone.
Cliff Clavin initially destroyed his competition. So did I. I went through entire categories, just peeling off the answers.
What is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who is Henry Mancini?
What is wasabi?
At the first commercial break I had $5,000 and a solid lead. I even killed at the “meet the contestants" portion, by which I mean I got a laugh when Alex Trebek and I talked about a play I wrote, and I quoted the nasty review it got.
The game resumed and I resumed crushing it. In "Sushi," I uncovered the first Daily Double. Now, this is one of the few things you can actually strategize in a game that's mostly luck and speed. The strategy I'd worked out beforehand was if I landed on a Daily Double, I'd make it a “true Daily Double" and wager it all. The idea to “go big or go home" especially made sense at this moment, because I was breezing through the game. How could I lose? Easy money!
Anago is the salt water type of this fish. Unagi is the fresh water.
“What is tuna?"
The audience groaned. Trebek condescendingly said, “I'm sorry, no," and Daniel swooped in and got it. (The answer, or “question," was “eel.") That left me with a score of $0, but I worked my way back up and by the end of the first round I had both $6,400 and the lead, although it was a narrow one.
Look at us, playing our silly little game in defiance of a tornado. (Via YouTube)
I choked on Jeopardy!
I was apparently also visibly disturbed, because during the commercial break between rounds, one of the contestant coordinators came over to chat me up. These game show “fluffers" try to keep you perky and TV-ready, rather than quiet, introspective, and turning a ghastly white because you got what golfers call “the yips" after a major gameplay error. The fluffers do this by asking you personal questions to distract you. Also, a makeup woman put more makeup on me because I'd turned a ghastly white.
The next round began, and once more the categories seemed handpicked by the universe for me “Movie Taglines." “Before They Were President." Unfortunately, one of the categories was handpicked by the universe for Diane, the renaissance faire worker. It was “The Tudors." The clues were about kings and knights, but reinforced with clips from The Tudors, that Showtime series that predated and wasn't as good as Game of Thrones. Since Diane was in third place when the round began, she got to pick first, picked “The Tudors," and went five-for-five.
She got the traditional Jeopardy! round of applause for running a whole category, but this did not kill my resolve. There were still all of the other categories left on the board, including two Daily Doubles.
I would like to say that I learned my lesson, and that if I landed on another Daily Double, I would not recklessly bet my entire winnings again. But I got another Daily Double. And because it was in a category in which I thought I was quite strong (“Before They Were President"), I did a really dumb thing and I made it a true Daily Double. Again. I'm sorry.
He was Ben Franklin's successor as minister to France.
You know it's Thomas Jefferson. Heck, I knew it was Thomas Jefferson. But I answered “James Monroe," a president most notable for being so short he would've needed a stool on Jeopardy! At the beginning of this round, I'd had $6,400. By the Daily Double, I'd had $4,000. And now, once more, I had $0.
Pictured: me. (Via YouTube)
I kind of gave up at that point. The fire was out, extinguished by feeling sick and embarrassed about being too overconfident and getting knocked down a peg during a nationally televised bucket list item. I was too slow to get to the buzzer first on even the questions I did know, but I did manage to ring in some more, get a couple right, and near the end of the game, selected the punishing and obscure sounding “Asian Geography" for $1,200.
Oh look, the other Daily Double.
I wanted to make sure I was around for Final Jeopardy!—because nothing is more depressing on Jeopardy! than an empty podium during “Final Jeopardy!". So, I stuck to my true Daily Double strategy (why quit now?) and wagered all of my $400.
“You want to be around for Final Jeopardy!, huh?" Trebek actually asked.
( Via MemeCrunch)
[Side note: During commercial breaks, Trebek takes questions from the studio audience. There was a school group there that day, and a kid asked him if he liked the new president, Barack Obama. “He seems like a very nice man," Trebek said, “but I'm worried he's going to raise my taxes."]
I lost on Jeopardy!
The clue wanted the name of a region in China, so I guessed Manchuria. Finally, I'd gotten a Daily Double correct, albeit the third and final and most financially useless one. But a few moments later, I'd eked my way into Final Jeopardy! with a take of $800. However, Daniel had $9,400, and Diane had $15,800, so me winning was mathematically impossible, which is the worst kind of impossible, because it involves math.
We all got the final clue right; the category was “TV Characters" and it was about a baby being born in 10,000 B.C., so the correct reply was Pebbles Flintstone. Diane won, and she erupted in a display of both excitement and grand relief. (My wife was sitting next to Diane's college-bound son in the audience, perfectly explaining her reaction.) Then we all stood on the stage and talked to Trebek so they had footage to roll the credits over. When the director yelled, “All Clear!" to indicate taping was done, Trebek broke into a near sprint and was gone. Diane was in the middle of a sentence to him.
I went home and everyone I knew asked me how I did…except that I couldn't tell them, because you have to sign a form saying you won't, to protect the sanctity of competition or something. Also it was nice not to have to tell the story of messing up on Jeopardy! over and over again. Everyone would get to see it go down on TV soon enough. Right before my episode aired, I received my “parting gifts." Gone are the days of a case of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat. On Jeopardy!, you get a small appearance fee (which covered hotel, airfare, and the iPod I bought right after my flameout in a bout of retail therapy), as well as a Jeopardy! picture frame for the photo they give you of yourself and Alex Trebek.
Alex Trebek looks a lot like my dad, which brings the embarrassment of failure to a very deep and obvious place. (Via Brian Boone)
Then it aired on TV, and people were very kind and very cool. Except for my brother, who was super brother-y. After it was over, he called me and sang into the phone, “you lost on Jeopardy! / baby/ ooooooooooooo."
But, at the end of the day, Jeopardy! is primarily watched and enjoyed by old people. I know this because of the many older ladies who approached me on the street in the week after my episode aired. This exchange occurred like five times:
“Excuse me, young man, were you on the TV the other night?" I would reply in the affirmative, and they'd say, “Good for you for doing that. I never could make it onto that show, that's for sure, and if I did, I'd freeze up!" Then they would add, “And you looked so handsome!"
Am I proud that I got to do something that very few people get the privilege to do, and do I realize that it's a cool thing just to make it onto Jeopardy! in the first place? Of course. There are just easier ways out there to make money.