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I Lost on Jeopardy, Baby - 11/08/2020

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

It has been a momentous week, what with Election Day and then the call that Joe Biden will be our next President. As a Biden supporter, I am thrilled, especially with the fact that we will have a woman in the second highest office in the land for the first time. As a little girl I often asked my parents why women weren't ever President; they always said it would happen "some day." We haven't quite made it to President yet, but I have a feeling it won't be long.

But enough about politics. The other momentous event that happened this week was that Alex Trebek, long-time, beloved host of the game show, "Jeopardy," passed away today after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. For Jeopardy fans, the game will never be the same.

I don't remember a time when I didn't watch Jeopardy, at least casually. Who could resist trying to answer those questions, even when they seemed impossible? I always said I would like to be a contestant, but I knew that it would be very hard for me. Not only were the questions difficult, but the need to buzz in at just the right moment added a layer of difficulty that no other show had. One thing I knew I would enjoy, though, would be meeting the suave, handsome, witty Trebek. He always seemed to know the right thing to say, and he had the sexiest voice, in daytime TV at least.

I was lucky enough to get cast on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in late 2002, and flew to New York to tape the show with then-host Meredith Vieira. She was warm and wonderful, and I won $64,000. It wasn't a million, but it was still a lot of money, and my husband at the time and I used part of it to fulfill one of my bucket list items: we took a month-long trip around the world. While visiting Cairo, Dubai, Delhi, Bangkok and Sydney, we rode camels to the Great Pyramids at Giza, toured the Taj Mahal in Agra, and climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge in a literal and figurative high point of the trip. I didn't expect to have a chance to be on another game show after this. But during a long relationship with a man who never missed Jeopardy, I started watching the show almost every day, and realized I really was pretty good at it. It had been long enough after Millionaire that I could get cast again, so I took the online test offered once a year in 2017. Not only did I pass, but I was selected at random from the pool of successful test-takers to do an audition for the show. I aced my audition, passing yet another written test, winning a mock game (no buzzer issues), and impressing with the written answers to questions such as "What would you do with the money?" The producer called me within two weeks, and I became one of the 800 selected to appear on Jeopardy, out of the 80,000 who apply annually.

The show tapes in Los Angeles, and unlike Millionaire, they don't fly you there or pay for a hotel room. I'd already had to travel to LA from Tucson for my audition, when I drove; this time I decided to fly. The trip wasn't cheap, but I was well-rested when I got to the set at 8 a.m. on the day of our taping. Eight shows a day are taped, and you don't know which one you will be on. And if you win, you may have to come back for a second day, or more. The first thing we did was go to the green room and get our wardrobe checked by production. I wore a dusty pink blazer and a white t-shirt, with black pants and comfortable shoes (you don't get to sit down during the taping, which takes about 45 minutes to an hour). They approved, and chose a couple of outfits just in case I won and had to come back. They fixed my makeup a little, straightened my hair, and I was good to go.

In the first game of the day, one of the three contestants did not score high enough to make final jeopardy. I prayed that this wouldn't happen to me. I was very nervous, unlike with Millionaire. Jeopardy is a much harder game - it's fast, there are no multiple choice answers, no lifelines. It's just you against the competition, who all want to win as badly as you do. And of course, that buzzer. Before we went on, we got the chance to try it out. You have to press at the exact second that Alex stops reading the question, and if you are early, you are blocked for a quarter of a second, which is more than enough time for your competitors to buzz in. I was concerned, not only about my timing but also about the joints in my fingers, which hurt all the time even when I'm not pressing a buzzer over 45 minutes. I did not have a good feeling going in. And then the next game went up, and the guy who won was fantastic. I remember thinking, "I don't want to play this guy," when they called my name for the third game. The player who had won, and who I would be facing, was Austin Rogers, who would go on to become a Jeopardy legend, but I didn't know that at the time.

We were ushered into the chilly studio where an audience of about 100 people awaited us. The first thing I noticed was the huge Jeopardy board, the one that Alex reads from on the show. It must have been 20' by 30', and it dominated the studio. Production assigned us to our podium (I was the first one on the right), and then proceeded to raise me up about a foot on a small platform, to make me appear taller. "Don't move around," said the PA, "You could fall off." No kidding. As if I didn't have enough to worry about, now I had to be concerned with falling, which I'm prone to do anyway. My feeling of dread increased.

And then, there he was. Alex Trebek, tall, impossibly thin and handsome, in a light blue shirt and a darker tie that accented his eyes. He came over and was introduced to us briefly, as we each had our photo taken with him. I was intimidated by him, which surprised me. I've met many TV and movie stars during my acting career, but I was more nervous than I had ever been, except for maybe the time when Eric McCormack (Will, on "Will and Grace") came to one of my theatre performances in LA and I blurted out "I love you!" when I realzied who he was. My confidence was not high going into the taping.

The first round started off quickly, and I did well. Then Alex came over to interview us, and he said, "It says here you quit your job to become an actress. WHY?" in a tone that seemed to imply that only a complete idiot would do something like that. Taken aback, I replied, "Well, I had an accident and had to quit my job, and I was looking for something to do, and I'd always wanted to do that, so that's what I did." I expect my answer convinced him that I WAS an idiot. The other competitor, in addition to Austin, was a man named Pasha (like my first pug) who, like Austin, appeared to be in his early 30s (in other words, 30 years younger than me, with no sore thumb joints and better reflexes). I recovered from my unease with Alex, and I was leading at the end of round one. However, in round two, my thumb started really bothering me, and I began having a lot of trouble buzzing in. I was still in the game at final jeopardy, but because I missed the question and Austin got it right, he won with only $14,000. I went home with $1000, barely enough to cover the costs of my trip to LA.

The best moment of the show for me was when I got all the answers right in the "Shakespeare" category (called "running the category"). The audience burst into applause, and Alex said, "The actress knows her Shakespeare." The applause was edited out in the taped version. And my favorite moment with Alex came after I answered a question but not in the form of a question, and he paused and prompted me to fix it. Afterward, during a commercial break, Alex called to me, "Jennie, how long has Jeopardy been on TV?" "32 years, Alex," I replied. "And what do you know about the answers?" "That they have to be in the form of a question, Alex," I responded, laughing. It was the only light moment in what turned out to be, for me, the hardest intellectual challenge I have ever faced. And because you can only be on the show once, I won't have another chance to do better.

So I'm sad today to learn of Alex's death at 80 years of age. I remember when I met him that his hands were ice-cold, which is often indicative of disease; I believe he was diagnosed about a year later. He was a cool, graceful man who handled his cancer with dignity. I can hardly imagine Jeopardy without him. However, I expect Ken Jennings, the winningest contestant of all time, may be called on to fill Alex's shoes. I think he would do a good job. Who knows? The next host might even be my nemesis from my episode, Austin Rogers. I find Ken to be a much more charming personality. Now, when I think of my day on Jeopardy, I remember how crushed I was after the taping. Then I hear Weird Al Jankovic's parody in my head: "I lost on Jeopardy, baby,ooh-ooh-ooh" (to the tune of "Our Love's in Jeopardy") and I smile. It was a once in a lifetime moment and I'll cherish my memories. God speed, Alex Trebek, and well done.

#GameShow #WhoWantstobeaMillionaire #MeredithVieira #Jeopardy #AlexTrebek #KenJennings #AustinRogers #WeirdAlJankovic #ILostButI'mNotBitter

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