I Didn’t Want to Win Money. I Avoid Competition. So How Did I End Up on Jeopardy? (Part II)

This is part two of a two-part essay. The first part is here.

The first, and maybe most important thing, is that the game show mentality is intense and fucked up. I was wary of it going into taping, but naively I assumed that because Jeopardy! was somehow a more intellectual game, the game-show creepiness would be in the background. I didn’t go into this blind, you know – I’ve watched Requiem for a Dream, I’d read The Hunger Games right before my trip, and so I was understandably wary of any artificial construct of winning and losing in front of a live studio audience.

Maybe the most terrifying thing about the Game Show Experience, though, is that even if you go into it eyes wide open, you’ll still fall into pretty much every available emotional pitfall. There’s no way not to, because that’s the way it’s engineered. It’s not until you’re kicked out of the studio, consolation prize in hand, that you realize: everyone was there to see you lose. We’re not in an arena fighting to the death, of course – but the assembled masses, both in the studio and watching from home, were going to be watching to see two out of three of us fail in every episode.

Because: that’s the point of game shows. You lose. Even Ken Jennings, the most celebrated player of Jeopardy! ever, had to walk out a loser. You can look back on your time in the studio with pride or in humiliation, but it happens fast, it’s over quickly, and you are expertly managed, the entire time, by people who have carefully orchestrated your movements so any messy emotions you might have are conveniently dumped out the back door. The very room that you spend learning every minute detail of the process, as well as every amusing anecdote to go through Maggie’s head, is also the one you will leave in defeat (with a Jeopardy! tote bag, baseball cap, and maybe a few pens).

So as I’m telling this, I’m acutely aware of how choreographed it was. We recorded our Hometown Howdies before taping the show so that the cameras wouldn’t see us dejected. After spending about four hours prepping for taping, we barely spoke to anyone as we walked out the door. There’s this intense sense of heightened glory when you walk into the studio, confident you’ll win, or at least go out in a blaze of glory, and then you walk out alone, covered in stage makeup, wearing two sweaters because it was freezing in the studio, and stand under a huge poster of Alex Trebek, waiting for your family, feeling like an idiot.

***

My photograph with Alex! Taken before taping.
My photograph with Alex! Taken before taping.

Call is at 7 a.m., and of course not only did I get in late on a flight the day before, but I was up talking to my family, prepping for the day, and then unable to sleep because I was so anxious and excited, so I stumbled blearily into the lobby having slept very little. Not ideal test-taking conditions, of course. We all quickly identified each other in the lobby – wearing suits and skirts, walking around with jitters, carrying wardrobe changes with us.

The first thing I felt, very clearly, was that all of these people were pretty awesome. In varying degrees, for sure, but awesome. The casting directors really knew what they were doing. In our group we had a sarcastic stay-at-home mom (the lovely Hannah Spector), a radio personality (the equally lovely John Erler), a recently married kid from Utah or Colorado (can’t remember which), a doctor from Queens, and other people I can’t quite sum up in a few short phrases. It was clear we’d been chosen not just for our trivia knowledge but also for our personalities. It was easy, and really fun, to talk to my co-contestants. Like in the callback, it was a blast, except this time it was actually happening.

The crew who received us at the studio were the same people who had conducted our auditions. They are some of the nicest people I’ve ever interacted with – funny, encouraging, energetic, and warm all in one go. As soon as we were with them, the entire day turned into a big, fun, party-like atmosphere. Sure, it was 7 a.m., but we’re in LA! You’re about to go try to win some money! Big smiles! Jeopardy! is hard! Hilarious stories about Ken Jennings! Taping disaster stories! Life on set! Exclamation points!!

As Maggie entertained us with literally the most engrossing one-woman monologue I’ve ever encountered (seriously, she was the most fun woman ever, and I want to be her friend, except that would be weird), we worked on what we’d say for our “Hometown Howdies,” a short advertisement you run in your hometown market to get locals excited about watching. They pulled each of us back to makeup. (I was impressed how my makeup artist managed to erase a zit apparently effortlessly. The powers of concealer, which I never use, were very apparent.)

They also sat with each of us and went over what we’d talk about when asked about our lives during the taping. During the audition, when I was a little more desperate to be chosen, I’d told them stuff I really shouldn’t have, and as a result, they knew I’d played bagpipes in high school – good God, I will never escape this piece of trivia, as long as I live. Three different talking points about each contestant get put on the card for the interview segment. You can try to get to talk about what you want to talk about – your blog, your company, your cool hobby. Probably instead you will talk about the most embarrassing thing in your life, though. This was definitely borne out in my case. I requested that they ask me about my work. Glenn said well, we’ll try, but Alex makes his own decisions.

Alex Trebek, that is.

It’s little things like that that make the stress levels backstage get higher and higher. Maggie, Glenn, and everyone else is there to keep you energetic and enthusiastic and distract you from the horrifying fact that you are about to compete for money on television. But it’s hard not to be thrown off. Maybe it’s even designed to throw you off. That’s the nature of competitive environments, after all. If the Olympics weren’t terrifying, it would be easier to get a gold medal.

And then we went out to the set.

***

The reason I avoid competition is because I care about winning too much. I used to be good at winning things, when I was maybe nine or ten. Then something happened. Losses became more frequent – unsurprisingly, life gets harder – and because I so rarely had dealt with loss, I didn’t know how to handle it. I should clarify – I don’t mean real loss, like losing a loved one, or losing your job. I mean the most trivial kind of loss – losing at a pub quiz. Losing at darts. Losing at Scrabble. Dumb, stupid contests, especially contests that required mental agility. I wanted to be the best in the room, and when I couldn’t, I hated it. I could not not take it personally. So I began to avoid it entirely. Rather than put myself in a situation where I had to win or lose, I’d bow out entirely. Let someone else argue the points that need to be argued. Let someone else play the game. I can’t do this.

What I’m saying is, when I was faced with a tough situation, I got the fuck out. I took Yoda’s advice and didn’t try. Because if you sit out the game, you can’t be a failure. That was the terrifying part of Jeopardy! I was avoiding all along – that it was a game someone had to lose.

Here is the awful truth: games just aren’t fair. Competition hurts people’s feelings, and I can’t live with it. The right person doesn’t always win, and I don’t want to see it. Getting a medal doesn’t make you a better person, and not getting one doesn’t make you worse. But it all seems that way. We reward winners and punish losers, even though we don’t always know the stakes of the games at hand, or what really went down, or what the rules even are. I’m so uncomfortable with it, it makes me sick, and it’s not because I’m bad at games. Because I’m not bad, it’s just that I’m not perfect. I want to win, so badly, I disgust myself. And I judge people so harshly for losing that I’m intolerable. I say I don’t believe in the game because I do believe in the game, the big game, the larger game, scored by how much money you make, how many questions you get right, what kind of neighborhood you live in, how many kids end up in juvie, how long you stay married, what kind of car you drive. I wish I didn’t because it destroys me, but I can’t help it.

The night I found out I was going to be taped, I turned up Kristen Chenowith and Lea Michele’s version of “Maybe This Time” and sang and danced around my apartment.

Everybody
Loves a winner
So nobody loved me [“¦]

All the odds are
They’re in my favor
Something’s bound to begin
It’s gonna happen
Happen sometime
Maybe this time, I’ll win

The evergreen appeal of the song is not just that everyone can relate to it – because who hasn’t been a loser at some point? – but also that the idea that maybe you’ll win reinforces the idea that there is a game to be won, at all. Losing should teach you the game doesn’t matter, but in the desperation of the song, it seduces you with the allure of winning.

***

The studio is a lot more high-tech than I was expecting to be. It was actually this strangely beautiful place, hung with expensive cloth, lit in soft hues of red, purple, and of course, blue. Everything was incredibly shiny – the floor, the screens, the cameras. I don’t know how to stress in the strongest terms that it is completely overwhelming. I’ve never been on a set before in my life, and suddenly I was with a group of people, all nervous and excited, dropped into a world shaded electric blue and neon pink, with bright lights, electronic moving parts, and a whole crew of people devoted to making it work. It was magical and incredible, yes, but also hyper-real and destabilizing.

Our first trip to the studio was to acquaint ourselves with all of the gadgetry and procedures we’d be doing on stage. It’s the exact opposite of the airline safety skit, because the entire time, you are thinking to yourself, this is not a drill. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. You also get a chance to record your Hometown Howdy. As I said last week, mine was less than dignified: “See if I make a fool of myself on Jeopardy!“ (They loved it, but were like: Are you sure you want to say that?)

There are platforms on hydraulics behind each podium, so the contestants look about the same heights. So yeah, in addition to being concerned about the buzzer, figuring out how to write your name on your touchpad, answering questions, and dealing with the general anxiety of being on camera, you are also making sure you don’t fall off of a 2’ x 1’ platform that is an indeterminate height from the ground.

I can’t remember anything else about being behind the podiums because I was entirely focused on the buzzer. The buzzer is nervewracking. It goes without saying that the buzzer is the difference between winning and losing. Wagering, as I said last week, is a quick way to make your numbers go up; but especially in Double Jeopardy!, being quick on the buzzer can make your score go up so fast, it’s literally astonishing. They had us do some practice games with the buzzer, with easier questions, to get us into the rhythm. What I started doing – because the questions were easy! – was buzzing in as soon as I could, regardless of whether or not I knew the answer. (I owned “Celebrity Siblings.”) This bit me in the ass later, because in real Jeopardy!, the questions are harder, but it’s not the worst strategy ever.

One thing that threw me off immediately was that the question did not expand to fill the entire grid of questions; it was instead projected on another monitor to the left of the grid. This monitor is kind of hard to read! It’s not impossible, but it’s not like, easy. It’s hard to pick out details, especially for visual clues.

They signal that you can start buzzing with lights that go off on the side of the grid (you can’t see them on TV). If you buzz too early you get locked out for a split second, which is enough to lock you out. Most of the time, in practice, I managed to formulate the answer in the split seconds between buzzing and when they called my name. They give you all kinds of tips for buzzer, like: maybe hold it in your non-dominant hand. Maybe cross your arms. Don’t move your hand around too much, it looks weird on camera. Maybe use your forefinger instead of your thumb. And then you get about a minute, total, to practice with it before you’re on.

Remember when Watson, the computer, won against the humans playing it? That’s because Jeopardy! plays upon all the things that are hard for humans and super-easy for computers. Computers do not get stressed out by a movie set or think about the best way to hit a buzzer or forget the capital of Bulgaria in the heat of the moment. Humans do. Jeopardy! is a hard game.

***

The moment at which the whole thing became real for me, however, was not so much when we were on the empty studio, impressive as it was. It was when Alex Trebek walked on stage, two hours later. I think the question everyone asks me – right after “Did you win???” – is “What was Alex Trebek like?” So like, Alex Trebek is a guy, a normal guy. Apparently he really likes home improvement, and the staff gives him a gift certificate to Home Depot every year. He’s not like, the nice guy on set, though. He was kind of snobby and standoffish. I don’t begrudge him that – it’s not really his job to be super nice, it’s his job to ask questions and keep the audience engaged. I wasn’t deflated to learn he wasn’t very nice, is what I’m saying. Rather, it confirmed my increasing cynicism around celebrity, which is a whole different topic. In short, I worship the man for making knowing things fun, so I don’t care what he’s actually like. But you could argue that he’s kind of a pill, and I wouldn’t disagree. He looks a lot older in person, and walks with a slight limp, which they’re very careful not to show on television.

And then all of a sudden, it started. My parents and visitors reported to the studio hours after we’d been there, and they must have been prepped heavily not to talk to us too much, because even my extremely gregarious mother only gave me a quick wave before ushering into her seat. We sat way off to the right of the audience, and then they started calling our names to go on stage.

It was around now that I began to feel my adrenaline flagging. Now the prep was all over and it was actually happening, I could feel it all beginning to crash down on me. I was tired and strung out. I hadn’t slept enough, I was in a new environment with weird food. I’d been on a plane the whole day before. My main thought, as I sat down, was that I needed to get on the show fast, or else I was going to be tired after hours of stress, and then I’d really be a fucking mess.

That being said, I am really grateful I didn’t get called first, because I got a chance to see the game live before I went on stage. It was intense, and so hard to see the awesome people I’d met lose or make mistakes. The first game was also a heartbreaker. It was a very close game up to the end, and the player with the right answer, who should have won the game, was disqualified because his handwriting was bad – seriously! When I went backstage for my prep and saw Reid’s defeated face, I saw all of a sudden the arc from how you feel at the beginning of taping to how you feel at the end. I did not know what he was feeling, because I was fresh-faced and enthusiastic and ready to go on. Our moods were so obviously incongruous. It was confusing, and unsettling, as I was about to go up next.

Yes – right after the spelling/handwriting confusion, where Jessamine won again, I was called up with Patrick, a chemist from Massachusetts. Patrick and I drew lots to see who would stand at which podium, and I was irrationally happy to be all the way at the end, at spot three, because spot two, obviously, would be were the rigged loser would stand. (I don’t even know what I was thinking anymore. Rationale had flown out the window long ago.)

We were ushered back to makeup for a final touch-up. I adjusted my sweaters, debated over my choice of earrings, fiddled with the good-luck necklace my mom had made me wear. I was tense but excited. I went in thinking I was going to be a superstar, and terrified I might not be. But I’d made it this far, right? Maybe this time I’ll win. The makeup artist wished me luck and I was whisked on stage, miked, and positioned. It was just happening. Before I knew it, the lights were up, the cameras were on, that guy (not Alex Trebek) was saying, “This is”¦. Jeopardy!“ and Alex Trebek was on stage, like RIGHT THERE.

It started off pretty well. I got the first question, in the category “Historical Bobbleheads.” I was using the strategy I started with in practice – just ringing in and answering, regardless of whether or not I knew the answer. It failed me on my third question, when I saw two figures I thought were Marx and Engels and who were in fact Lee and Grant. From then on I started to have a little trouble ringing in – there was a category with all author names in which I knew every single answer, but only managed to successfully ring in once. I began to realize not just how hard some of the questions were, but how good my opponents were. And what I kept thinking was, I just need a little more time – a bit more time to become acquainted with the buzzer, to catch up my score, to read the questions thoroughly.

Time is something you do not have in Jeopardy!. And winning is not my strong suit.

Then we paused for the first commercial break and the contestant interview. I can see a world in which the interview might be nerve-wracking, but actually, I like that kind of thing. Alex, of course, went straight for the bagpipes. I really didn’t want to talk about on national television, (and I even made a face), but I tried to make it as light as possible, and threw in a bagpipe joke for good measure (“How do you get 12 bagpipers in tune? Shoot eleven of them.”).

It wasn’t until we got to Double Jeopardy! that I began to see how bad my situation was. And honestly, I began to choke. You can see the scores from the podiums, and I was not doing well. I was trying to stay on top of the questions, but my attention kept drifting to how badly I was doing, so I couldn’t stay focused on what was happening in front of me. Even so, I managed to stumble over a Daily Double – in which I used my strategy, got the question wrong, and lost half my money. I let at least one question float right by because I was so nervous I couldn’t concentrate. I began to realize that I was going to lose, which was a future I had envisioned, but it was still crushing. When the last category was all Latin legal terms, I knew I was lost – Latin and the law being two subjects I’ve always meant to study and never gotten around to.

When Double Jeopardy! was over, my opponents had almost $20,000 each, and I was around $3,000. It was not great. But the category was “Fictional Women,” and I thought I could have a shot to at least get the question right. In a blur, I wrote down my wager – everything – and waited for the question. When I saw it, my heart sank, because I didn’t have a clue. (It asked: When seeing her dead, her brother remarks that she is full of water. This rankles deeply, because I really should have known it. The answer is Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course.) At that point I was so frazzled I didn’t even have the sense to write something funny or even remotely relevant in the box. (I should have written “Threve.” I SHOULD HAVE WRITTEN “THREVE.” I THINK THAT EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE.) I wrote down the first woman’s name I could think of – “Stella.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you lose Jeopardy!.

Patrick was the only one of us to get the right answer, and pumped his fists in celebration. He and Jessamine talked about how they had been worthy adversaries for each other as we were chatting comfortably for the credits reel. I was standing next to Alex Trebek and had lost a lot of my composure. In that moment, the most important thing was trying to prove to Alex that I had some clue about literature, or something. I told him I had been thinking of Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire, for no reason whatsoever, except that she was a person, with a name I could remember. He said, “Of course! Stellaaaaa!” And I was like: Well, at least Alex Trebek doesn’t think I’m a total idiot, though he must think I’m babbling like a crazy person right now.

***

After taping.
After taping. Courtesy Tanya Saraiya.

When I did finally lose, and I walked out the door, I felt absolutely awful. You’re in this place with this pumped-up mentality to win, and then you don’t, and all of a sudden you can just walk out and leave after your entire trip has been about getting all the way to this studio and being a part of this. It’s a weird, awful feeling, made worse by the joy of your competitors. Needless to say, losing is very difficult to experience, especially on that level, with those stakes.

The first notion I had that everything was okay was when my family greeted me excitedly backstage, full of enthusiasm after my performance. I was tired and cranky, and I said, “But I lost!” And they said, “But it was really hard!”

Even though the intervening months between my taping and the airdate were more than enough time to come to terms with a game show loss, I could not shake the feeling of failure that clung to me whenever I looked back on the episode. I could finally tell everyone I knew that I’d been on the show, but I’d also have to tell them that I’d lost, and I wasn’t sure if I was proud or ashamed.

Well, I am proud, and I am ashamed. I am also extremely stubborn. I decided if I was going to make a fool of myself on national television, at least I was going to own it, regardless of the emotional consequences. So publicize it I did. It required some teeth-gritting on my end to admit cheerfully to so many people that I’d lost.

And then it aired, and the first and most overwhelmingly amazing thing that happened was that almost everyone I know loved it. Even though I ended up with $0 and forgot where Finland was. They were all really happy with me for just, being on the show. My coworkers threw a party, and my friends afterwards took me to karaoke. Where I got on a stage and sang, in the wrong key, “Maybe This Time.”

It’s easy to talk yourself out of taking chances in this life, or to ignore opportunity when it randomly shows up at your door. I didn’t, this time. It was intense. Maybe I should have studied more. Maybe I should have slept through my callback. Maybe I shouldn’t have told anyone I was going to be on the show. But honestly, it was the experience of a lifetime. It’s amazing and surreal that it even happened. And though it was hard, ultimately, I am glad I didn’t bow out just because I was afraid of what might happen when it was over. Life goes on, even after losing. It’s a lesson I learn again and again.

And one other thing happened as I was leaving the stage that day – a little something to hold onto for the rest of my life. I was a little shellshocked, and going through the last motions of my carefully constructed route through the Jeopardy! experience. I had to sign a piece of paper, find my stuff, blindly grab some swag, find my family. But as I walked away, outgoing Maggie, one of the unforgettable Jeopardy! casting directors, took my arm. She held my arm tightly, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “You did not make a fool of yourself.”

You can find a question-by-question recap of my Jeopardy! episode here. Check out my Storified live-tweets from the airing, and my Hometown Howdy. The live video was taken down where I saw it, but you can probably find it if you dig around the Internet. My episode aired March 13, 2012. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments below about anything I’ve mentioned, and I’ll do my best to respond to all of them!

10 replies on “I Didn’t Want to Win Money. I Avoid Competition. So How Did I End Up on Jeopardy? (Part II)”

I really enjoyed this series. I will probably never be on TV but I’ve often imagined it to be something like what you’ve described. Actually I take that back. I was on a local news station once because I witnessed the train bombings in Madrid and another time when I competed in a debate competition against Oxford on a public access channel. Both times, they cut out everything important I had to say and aired all of my stupid mistakes. It’s not fair that popular TV often hinges on someone saying something stupid, losing control of their emotions, or failing, and that what might be embarrassing to you (bagpipes) is sometimes used against you for ratings. It sounds like you did an okay job though. Win or lose, the realizations you’ve reached through this experience are gold. Thank you for sharing your insights.

This is pretty close to how I felt on the day of my own Jeopardy! taping — the overwhelming set, the magical makeup, the terror of performing under pressure, the feeling you should know things that you don’t …

For me, the most surreal moment was when we paused for a commercial or to retape some piece of dialogue, and just for kicks Alex Trebek started speaking in the voice of Dr. Strangelove. He was absurdly good at it, and I wished I could have called everyone I knew at that precise moment so they could all hear. And then they fixed whatever was wrong and we went back to the Hunger Ga — I mean, Double Jeopardy.

These essays were awesome! Thank you for sharing!

This reflects something I’ve noticed about a lot of (American) game shows (this could be different in other places, I don’t know!). When you’re competing against other people, only one person out of, say, three or four, wins ANYTHING. It doesn’t matter how close it was. One person gets it all and everyone else gets nothing.

I noticed this especially with Food Network competitions, but Jeopardy! is also one of these. You win or you get squat.

Sure, that doesn’t mean the experience meant nothing (and I think the experience absolutely DOES mean something!), but in terms of the external reward from the system itself…it only rewards the lucky person who wins.

In the UK, the rewards for game shows are pretty much non-existant if they’re the good ones. Only Connect and University Challenge are probably the hardest ones and you just get a trophy for winning those. Paradoxically, Deal or No Deal and other really easy or skill-less game shows give you tons of money. Ridiculous. (oh apart from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but eh, not focused on questions really either, more about suspense).

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