An NCSU professor’s ‘Jeopardy!’ experience

CorrespondentApril 28, 2014 

“Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek (L) with Bob Kochersberger of Raleigh.

PICASA — Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions

Some of you may have seen me on “Jeopardy!” Monday night, claiming my 15 minutes of fame as around 9 million viewers watched me deal with my nerves and the hot lights of the nationally famous game show. I did not win, but being there to shake hands with Alex Trebek was pretty cool, and the experience was fascinating.

The show has been popular in my house for at least 20 years, and four or five years ago I began to take the online qualifying test given every January. I apparently did not fare well enough until January 2012, when I was invited to an in-person audition the following June. Millions of people take the online test, and about 1,500 audition.

My audition was in a hotel in New York City, so it was a fun trip in other ways. Several groups of about 20 would-be contestants were summoned. We took another knowledge test, to make sure that those who qualified online were the same people who showed up.

We also filled out lots of forms, took part in a mock game – signaling device and all – and engaged in some chit-chat with the game’s representatives. They said it could take up to 18 months to be summoned to actually play ... if they wanted us at all. Only about 350 people a year make it to the show.

At last, the call

I thought I did well on all the parts of the audition, but in December, I had still been waiting a year and a half, so I thought, “Oh, well. I’ll just try again.” To my amazement, two weeks after that I did get the call. The contestant coordinator asked if I had been convicted of a felony since I auditioned, and when I said no, he said, “Congratulations! You’re a ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant.”

At that point, things sped up. I had less than three weeks to get to Los Angeles for my taping the first week in February. Cramming was out of the question. The program records five shows on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, putting two weeks’ worth in the can in two days.

Alex Trebek changes clothes between each show, as does the returning champion, so the shows appear to have been taped on different days. The staff pays close attention to the timing of things, and everyone knew that the first show taped on Feb. 4 would be broadcast April 28.

Most contestants stayed at a nearby hotel in Culver City and were bused early on Feb. 4 to the Sony Pictures studio. We gathered in the lobby and eyed one another, wondering just how smart, quick and lucky everyone was. I was not surprised that I was the oldest contestant in the group. “Jeopardy!” targets a certain audience, and they want younger viewers. In a way, as an outlier on the age spectrum, I was lucky to be there.

‘No longer a fantasy’

At the studio we stowed our extra clothes (everyone brought three outfits) and went through a couple of hours of paperwork, pep talk and makeup. Finally we walked onto the set and gaped at how bright, colorful and real it seemed; this was no longer a fantasy. We had some practice rounds before the first two contestants, who would face returning five-time champion Julia, were picked. Selection is completely random.

I was stunned to be picked for the first game of the first day. In hindsight, I wish I had been given the chance to watch a few games before having to play, but there is no appeal on the set of “Jeopardy!” With a flurry of activity I was wired for sound, hustled to my position between two women young enough to be my daughters, and had my makeup refreshed.

The crew made sure everyone was ready to go, familiar music began, and Alex Trebek walked onto the set. The categories were revealed, Julia picked the first clue, and we were off.

The game is a blur to me. I did well in the first half, even leading at the intermission.

More than knowledge

But things went south at that point, a combination of bad luck in the categories and my own anxiety. I lost awareness of the audience and other contestants. I goofed up answers that I did know.

For years I thought “Jeopardy!” was a game of knowledge and reflexes. They are important, but it’s also a game of luck and nerves. I was a bit disappointed at first not to have done better, but the stories I now can tell my students are priceless.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com.

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