History for $100: Behind the Scenes of Jeopardy!

by Vicki Santillano

History for $100: Behind the Scenes of Jeopardy!

At this point in my life, I can say without hesitation or sadness that I’ll never be on Jeopardy!. I can barely manage an adequate performance at local trivia nights, so I can only imagine the choking and sputtering that’d occur if I had to face the big blue board or Alex Trebek’s steely gaze. Though I’ve accepted my lack of qualifying smarts, I still wonder what it’s like to be a contestant on such a respected show. So imagine my surprise and delight when I found out that someone I know, Quinn Conway, was actually on the show last year! I decided to consult him about the experience, one that I and the majority of people out there will never have: getting a firsthand, behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s favorite game shows. What fascinating tidbits do contestants learn?


It takes more than book smarts to get on the show.
To qualify for Jeopardy!, you have to do well on the online test first. If your score’s high enough, you’re invited to take a follow-up fifty-question test (covering fifty different categories) in person at auditions held in big cities around the country. But acing both tests still isn’t enough to get you in front of Trebek—you also need to win over the contestant coordinators with your personality.


After the test, hopefuls undergo an interview and participate in a mock game. According to Quinn, who was on during the twenty-fifth season, these next steps are designed to “make sure [you’re] somewhat telegenic” and not a nervous mess. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you can’t string a sentence together in conversation, handlers assume you won’t fare well in front of the cameras and cross you off the list.


A week’s worth of episodes are taped in one day.
Show handlers tell contestants to bring a few outfits, because it’s possible that they’ll tape multiple episodes if they win. What separates one night’s winner from the next night’s returning champion is a quick hustle in and out of the green room for a wardrobe change. That makes the lucky few who win multiple games in a row—like Ken Jennings, who had an astounding seventy-four-episode winning streak in 2004—even more impressive. But it’s also tough on the contestants who have to wait all day, their nerves no doubt growing more frazzled by the minute. If you get chosen at random for the last taped episode, as Quinn was, you’re there for eight whole hours.


Show handlers keep you calm; show “detectives” keep you on lockdown.
Since Jeopardy! tapes five episodes each on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, all the contestants hang out with each other for a long time before they actually play. Not surprisingly, tension runs high backstage. “When I arrived that morning, everybody was tense and a bit standoffish,” Quinn says. It’s hard not to feel intimidated in a room full of so much brainpower and prestige. But even though everyone’s nerves were close to the skin, Quinn says that the employees worked hard to keep people cool. “The contestant coordinators are there to loosen everyone up and get the nerds to stop hyperventilating about being on TV, so they did a good job lightening up the atmosphere by cracking jokes and explaining how Alex Trebek made his fateful decision to lose his mustache,” he shares.


But that doesn’t mean the atmosphere itself is free and inviting. To prevent any attempts to cheat, the show allows contestants only in specific areas and forbids them to talk to anyone else on the show (writers, Trebek, etc.) or their loved ones in the audience. “There’s a surprising amount of security,” Quinn remembers, “and there are actual ‘detectives’ hired to supervise the set and make sure nothing untoward or Charles Van Doren–esque goes on.”


Figuring out the buzzer is even harder than figuring out the answers.
Jeopardy! aficionados will tell you that the most challenging, frustrating part of being on the show is dealing with the buzzer. Contestants can’t buzz in until designated lights go off on the side of the board, and they’re activated right after Trebek finishes reading the answer aloud. “To buzz first consistently, you have to anticipate the exact moment the light will come on and buzz in before you actually see it,” Quinn explains. If you act too quickly, you get locked out of buzzing in for a fraction of a second. That may not sound like a lot, but that’s all it takes for someone else to buzz in. As Trebek himself puts it in The Jeopardy! Book, “If a player hesitates for a moment … that one-hundredth of a second might be all the time it takes for an opponent to beat him to the punch.”


The trick to mastering the buzzer is oft debated within the Jeopardy! community. Some side with Quinn about anticipating the light, whereas others think listening to Trebek’s voice is key. Either way, the buzzer has probably brought down way more contestants than a lack of knowledge or a suddenly blank mind, to the point that many include buzzer practice in their preparation for the big event. They study almanacs, review frequent topics (like former presidents and Shakespeare), and find devices that mimic the weight and feel of the buzzer. The Jeopardy! pen given out at auditions is commonly used, but Ken Jennings preferred his baby’s Fisher-Price ring-stack toy. “I looked and felt like an idiot,” he writes on his blog, “but I think it helped.”


It’s over before you know it.
Quinn says the episode takes around forty minutes to tape but feels much shorter when you’re behind the podium. Every account I’ve read of being on the show mentions how quickly it all goes, especially toward the end; it must be surreal to watch it again months later. In Quinn’s case, it was a little cringe-worthy: “I made the mistake of watching it in HD, and I’m pretty sure the makeup artist was still doing ‘standard-def makeup,’ because 1080p made me look like Tammy Faye Baker,” he jokes.


Otherwise, he’s happy that he was able to go on the show, and he had fun while it lasted. Unfortunately, he’s disqualified from ever returning because of his employment at Sony Pictures, which makes Jeopardy!. But all hope isn’t lost: “I’m still qualified to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and American Gladiators,” Quinn says. Former Jeopardy! contestants competing in the Gauntlet? Sounds like America’s next hit reality TV show.