My Jeopardy Experience

1 Apr

jeopardyPart I: Jeopardy

As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be on Jeopardy.

I recall watching the show as a teenager and getting questions (er, answers) correct that were far above my pay grade. There was something pure about this minimalist show wherein all you had to do was answer trivia questions. There was no guessing the price of a can of pinto beans or being able to fill in letters to clichéd phrases. The only real oddity about Jeopardy was the whole “answer in the form of a question” thing. At first it seemed pointless, a completely unnecessary trait. Then I understood that this was the point. Answering in the form of a question didn’t add any new layer of difficulty (though I’ve seen people screw up this way), but it made Jeopardy stand out from all the other shows.

I tried out years ago in Chicago and didn’t make it past the first round (a fifty question test which you supposedly have to get thirty-five correct on to continue). I’ve been to two auditions since. In the first I fared about the same as I did in Chicago. The second one, however, I aced. The test, the mock game, the interview. All of it I nailed.

But just because you do well at an audition, doesn’t mean you necessarily get the part. Every year 4,000 qualify for 400 contestant positions. I was hoping my winning personality and knowledge of the Bard would push the odds more in my favor. 

That was in March of 2011. I was told that I would be in the contestant pool with the other 3,999 nerdlingers for approximately eighteen months. My quick math placed that as September of 2012. So I waited by my phone, watched the show, and tried to beef up on topics I was bad at (biology, fashion, pop music, animals, geology, reality tv).

My philosophy on waiting for a call like this is simple: if they don’t call it doesn’t matter. It’s not like I am losing anything by not getting on Jeopardy. My life will go on as normal. Maybe it will even be better: maybe I won’t embarrass myself by getting a Final Jeopardy on the baseball incorrect and pull my Clavin.

***

I don’t answer unknown phone numbers.  Usually they are people trying to sell me something or have me give them free money for their supposed charity. But the area code was “310,” which meant Cali. Which meant either Jeopardy or the Screenwriting Gods.

Things I learned from that phone call:

1.            I had to pay for my own flight/hotel.

2.            The date they set for me was non-negotiable. Sorry if that was my wedding. Make a choice.

3.            I was not allowed to talk about being on Jeopardy either before or after my appearance.  Once they knew when my show was going to air (anywhere from three to six months post-taping) I could start informing people.

***

Part II: Double Jeopardy

I stepped off the plane on the evening of Monday October 8. It was the day after my birthday. I planned on having dinner with Max, one of my screenwriting buddies, and then retire to my hotel near the studio. I was debating on how much I was going to drink that night. On the one hand, I had to be at the studio the next morning at eight, and wanted to have my wits about me. On the other, I probably wasn’t going to sleep without a couple of whiskies.

Let me point out two things before I continue: 1) Since I couldn’t tell anyone about my upcoming appearance, Max thought I was there to pitch a script or two; 2) Max is batshit crazy.

Max picked me up at LAX. I wanted to put my garment bag in his trunk. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, bro,” he said. “Probably won’t fit.”

“Pop it, we’ll see.”

“Just hang it in the back, k, bro?”

The car was a hotbox of ganj. There was a tangible, almost predatory quality to the fumes. My eyes watered, my skin itched, my lungs felt heavy like a weight had been placed on my chest. As we drove off I tried rolling down the window. “Don’t do that, bro. It won’t go back up.” I explained that the herbal aroma was a bit overpowering. “You’ll get used to it. Here, try this shit.” He passed me a half smoked blunt. I told him that I didn’t partake of the green anymore.

“Pussy.” I agreed with his assessment. Throughout the night and following morning, Max claimed that I was a pussy because of my hesitancy to indulge in: marijuana, tequila, a Martini sampler, cocaine, someone who may have been Lindsey Lohan but was probably not, crash a party, enter certain neighborhoods (which then made me a “racist pussy”), drive his car, swim in the ocean. Of course being hesitant does not mean I did not—in the end— partake.

The tequila shots were at a place called The Scorpion, where Max knew the bartender. (He knew a lot of bartenders.) He asked me who I was meeting with the next day. I made up a couple of fake production companies that sounded real. I also said that I didn’t want to be out too late, that the meetings were in the morning, and that I wanted to be on top of my game.

“Bullshit. No one does morning meetings anymore. You’re just getting old, bro.”

After The Scorpion we drove to The Fitzgerald House which, having been established in 1947, was one of L.A.’s oldest drinking establishments. They have a thing there called the Martini Runner— five small-ish martini-type drinks. There was one with absinthe, another that tasted like peppermint schnapps. As we drank and talked, Max was busy texting certain other persons.

Around eleven we pulled up in front of a house. He asked me if I had any money. I gave him fifty bucks without asking what it was for. He knocked on the door and a large black man answered. Max greeted him like they knew each other without actually being friends.

Inside was a small bar and a few tables. Max told me to have a seat. He went up to what looked like a coat check room and passed some money to the woman on the other side. She handed him a couple of objects. Max returned and placed on the table: a jewel case (Joshua Tree) and a bag of cocaine.

“I don’t…um…” I began.

“Well, you are tonight.” He began to expertly layout lines on the jewel case. “Why don’t you go get us a couple of Coronas, k?”

Cocaine, it should be noted, is always both the best and the worst idea when presented.  On the worst  idea side: in less than twelve hours, I was to be filmed before a live studio audience where I would be answering trivia questions. This would then be seen by my friends and family. What if I began to sweat and sniff and lick my lips and grind my teeth? I would become an internet meme. My fifteen minutes of fame would be “Coked-up Trivia Nerd Shits Himself in the Form of a Question.”

On the best idea side: cocaine would of course make Jeopardy so much easier. I was going to totally kick ass. No brainer there.

After this, the night took over. We crashed a party in Pasadena, then met up with a couple of Max’s friends at the Loco Lounge, where we had Blue Hawaiians and more tequila shots. That’s where we saw the girl who looked like Lindsey Lohan.

“You should go talk to her, Jake,” Max said.

“Why?”

“Cuz she looks like Lindsey Lohan, that’s why.”

“I’m not really interested in Lindsey Lohan, sorry.”

“Really? Who isn’t. She’s hot!” He turned to his friends. “You guys would do Lilo right?” They both nodded in agreement. I was dumbfounded by this strange western coast. I asked for the bag back and made my way to the bathroom to reload.

***

We never did get to the ocean. Even Max thought it was a bad idea about two minutes after he proposed it. Instead we just drove the night away. The windows were down, the breeze in our hair. The night’s abundance coursing through our systems. I had forgotten why I had touched down in this town. I was prepared for just about anything. Just about.

Max turned to me. “Bro, you ever done crystal?”

“What, you mean meth?”

“Yeah.”

“No. And I’m not going to tonight.”  The last thing I needed to become that night was a tweeker.

“You are such a lame ass pussy, you know that, bro?”

“Max, I’m already fucked up. There is nothing I can do that would fuck me up any more than I am already fucked up.”

“Look, I know this guy who can hook us up with…”

That’s when I lost it. “Max. Look, I’m not here to pitch anything. I’m going on Jeopardy tomorrow. Jeopardy!! Do you understand that? I cannot do crystal meth the night before I go on motherfucking Jeopardy.

However fast we were going, suddenly we were stopped. Some nice tree-lined street in a quiet neighborhood. “You’re going on Jeopardy tomorrow?” I nodded. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?”

“They said I wasn’t supposed to.”

“Why did you let me do all…this…to you tonight? Are you a fucking moron? If I knew you were going on Jeopardy tomorrow I would have restricted us to lite beer and trivia night at Mojito Joe’s. Oh my God oh my God oh my God!! What have I done?  I’ve ruined your life. There is no way you are going to win tomorrow. You’re going to embarrass yourself on live TV.” He began to cry. It was all rather pathetic.

“It’s not live. They can edit it.”

“Doesn’t fucking matter, bro. I’m a horrible person. I have destroyed another human being’s life.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Max. I should have said something sooner.”

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god.” Tears were streaking down his face. “Quick, what’s the capital of Burundi?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t think they’ll ask that.”

“How do you know? How do you KNOW!?!?!”

“Have you ever watched the show, Max?”

“Who is the current Secretary of Labor?”

“Hilda Solis.”

“Um, I don’t know. Is that right?”

“Yeah, Max. It is.”

“But how do you know you’re right? Are you Google? No. Are you that smart ass who won ninety games? No. You’re just stupid Jake who doesn’t know what the capital of Turkey is.

“Ankara.”

“What?!?”

“The capital of Turkey is Ankara.”

“No. It’s not. It’s Istanbul.”

“Pretty sure it’s Ankara.”

“Yeah, well petty sure isn’t one hundred percent sure, now is it? Is it?!”

“Max, I think it’s time you took me to my hotel.”

He wiped his tears away, and took a couple of deep breaths. “Okay, but I promised a guy I’d stop at his place first.” And we were off.

***

Part III: Final Jeopardy

I got four hours of sleep. Bad sleep. Evil sleep. Nightmares of Alex Trebeck’s old moustache. Somehow the clicker wouldn’t click. The two other contestants were laughing at me. I kept answering with lines like: “What is fellatio?” and “Who is George Fucking Bush,” and “Who the fuck cares? I’m outta here.”

In the shower certain thoughts flitted through my head: what have I done? No. Really, what have I done?!? How could I have been so weak? I should probably go to AA. Maybe move out of New York. But where? Vermont! But I’d need a car. And a license. I bet they got good weed up in Vermont. I wonder if I could meet Ben & Jerry? I wonder if they’re as cool as they seem on their ice cream cartons? Oh My God—WHAT HAVE I DONE?

Out of the shower I shaved. My face was mean, haggard, too old for a thirty-seven year old. I could still feel the blow caking my nostrils.

In the next room I dressed in one of the outfits I brought. The garment bag reeked of weed, but at least the contents had remained safe.

***

I’m sure that the nice people who run Jeopardy have seen nervous, even terribly frightened contestants before. I’m sure that they’ve encountered a few hungover members of the League of Outstanding Trivia Junkies. Not sure if they’d encountered anyone quite like me.

There were ten other contestants there. They tape five shows a day. Mine was going to be the second one. The Tuesday episode. There was a really nice woman named Monica who chaperoned us from one room to another. She explained how the game was going to work. When to buzz in. How to talk to Alex. This was what he was going to ask me during the contestant interview portion. Did I have an answer? Sure, I said, not thinking, not knowing, just being there at that point in that moment in time, knowing how awful it was all going to be.

After a while, I had no idea where I was taken or who I was with. A make-up room. A mock game. Contestant this and contestant that. A dressing room. Waiting my turn, sweating through my shirt.

I sipped my water and waited. At some point Monica came up to me. “Are you okay? You seem a bit nervous?”

“I…can I ask a strange question?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“What if I make a fool of myself out there? What if I swear or start crying or something? I mean, do they just stop the taping? What happens?”

“It’s TV, we can always cut around the freak outs.” She smiled. I thought I was in love, or maybe that was just the residual chemicals. “Now, may I ask you a strange question, Jacob?”

“Um, okay.”

“How much coke did you do last night?”

“I…what? I mean…I…don’t…”

“It’s okay. I see this all the time. I mean, not in contestants. Most of them are pretty responsible. Just in L.A. in general.”

“I had a friend. He…um…”

“Yeah. That’s generally how it begins. Hold out your hand.” I did so and she placed something small into it. “That’s a Valium. If you take it now you should be set for the game. Good luck.”

Yeah, I was definitely in love.

***

Then they told me I was on in a half hour. The Green Room. A room that was actually green. I drank some water. I shook hands with the man who would be my fellow-challenger. He was a social worker from Detroit. He had a wife and three kids. I secretly hoped he would win.

“Are you nervous?” he asked me.

“I am out of my fucking mind,” is what I wanted to say. “Nah, it’s only Jeopardy,” is what I did say. “How about you?” And I gave him a predatory smile.

***

I got two calls last week. The first was from Max. He told me he was 90-days sober. “They say I gotta ask for forgiveness or something. So, bro, I am totally sorry I ruined Jeopardy for you.” I told him it was okay and that no apologies were necessary. But he was insistent, so I forgave him and told him the next time he was in New York I’d take him to Shake Shack for a root beer float.

The second call was from sweet Monica at the Jeopardy HQ telling me that I could finally tell people I was on the show. I asked her when it was going to air.

“April 1,” she said.

How apt, I thought, hung up, and did another line.

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