So, on a Thursday I drive into Houston at an unusually early time for yours truly to board a plane bound for Columbus, Ohio and the Ohio State campus. They put me up in the downtown Hilton - Merv owns a big share in the company, apparently - and I must say, it was very cool. I've never been on a plane by myself, or in a hotel room by myself, or in general completely alone in another city. When I got in at the airport, I had to hail a taxi. Apparently, this practice is not like it is in the movies - no whistling or shouting or waving. There's a nice cab stand and you get in the line and the man at the desk loads your bags and you're on the go. How about that?
I got to the hotel, dropped off my things, and immediately took a look around for fellow contestants. I didn't spot any on the floor, so I hit the lobby - no luck, although I ran into two of the crew members, tech guys with badges. They told me that the big downtown mall was just a couple of blocks over, and the food court was eclectic, so I headed that way. Got me some munchies, headed back to the hotel. It's about here that it really sinks in that a) I'm about to be on Jeopardy! in front of 10,000 screaming Buckeyes and b) I'm in Columbus, Ohio, on a Thursday with nothing to do for two days. So I veg out for the night, and then head off to the campus in the morning. There wasn't much to do - it was a lot like A&M, huge swaths of people on a sprawling campus.
Finally, on Saturday, my parents arrive from their flight just in time to see me off. I head to the lobby at 8 AM, and I get the first glimpse of the competition. I had no idea how we would be around each other: I imagined like fifteen wolves sniffing each other's butts for signs of weakness. I decided to get on everyone's good side by being the funny man. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance.
Before I could say a word, I heard a great one-liner that made me and most of the group explode with laughter. "I'm Picasso's #1 fan, but he couldn't tell a woman from an organ monkey heffed up on Elmer's." That was the icebreaker that helped us all get along, courtesy of Tony Sima (Temple). From then on, we were all the best of buddies, and with fifteen decidedly bright college students, the banter was rampant. Arianna from Washington University wanted to be a general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Jara Dorsey was doing theater at Carnegie-Mellon, and Tony the same at Temple; Katie Orphan was skinny dipping up at Whitworth; Brian the liberal versus Matt the conservative proved to be good couch potato talk; Pat was the strong silent type, Hikma the shy one, Stacy the perky one, Jenny the cool one, Adam the Mormon one (ice fishing, buddy!), Allison the clever one, and Sarah the mature one (she was married!). I've never been in that kind of situation - thrown in to meet a bunch of people I don't know - but I can say without a doubt that before the shows actually began, we all made fast friends and I don't think I would have been angry that any one of them walked away with the grand prize.
Not that I didn't have my eye on it.
We arrived at the Schottenstein Basketball Arena (the "Schott") and went straight to the green room - which turned out to be the women's basketball locker room. But this isn't like your dark musty high school gym locker room where you got rat-tailed twice a week by that no good Jed Gustin ... *ahem* this was posh. Leather upholstery, a HUGE television, microwave, refrigerator, the works. We settled in, and began going in groups to the makeup chair. They put a lot of pancake on - she even plucked an eyebrow hair for me! (Too much information?)
We signed all of the confidentiality agreements, filled out a press release, and then they were ready for us on stage. We went out - it was all set up, but the stage lights were all off, and it just seemed kind of ... you know, empty. They had us do a highly suspect version of "The Wave" (how can you call it a Wave if you don't get to say "Woooooo!" as it passes?) for a promo shot, and then they did what they call our "Hometown Howdys." You know, where all of you College station and Houston people got to see me in your face saying something about "watch me win fifty thousand bucks on CBS Channel 5." We even got to hang out with Alex for publicity photos! He's a very nice guy, but very reserved - he'll crack a joke and then give you the polite smile of a man who has been in that spot a million times before. He asked me if I wanted to keep working at radio, and told me he had done some radio work before leaving Canada. Instant bonding! (I bet he likes smooth jazz.)
After that, we played a practice round. They were easier questions than usual ("the name of a 1969 rock concert, or Snoopy's bird pal") but during my brief time on the podium, I did pretty well, which was a nice confidence boost. And then it was back to the green room for the wait. They would call three contestants at random, they would shoot the game in 25 minutes, have a ten minute break to reset everything, and then the next round would go on. The first day they would shoot all 5 quarterfinals.
Game 1: Quarterfinals
The format for the tournament is simple.
5 quarterfinal games, 5 winners. Those winners plus the 4 runners-up with the most money advance to the semifinals (total: 9). The 6 contestants eliminated receive $2,500.
3 semifinal games, 3 winners. The 6 contestants eliminated receive $5,000.
A 2-game final, with cumulative dollar amounts. The 3rd place winner receives $10,000 or their 2-game cumulative total, whichever is higher; the 2nd place winner, $25,000 or their 2-game total; and the 1st place winner, $50,000 or their total, a new Volvo S60 Turbo (leather, CD player, sunroof, the works), and a $50,000 scholarship for their school, plus a spot at the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions in May. (All contestants received an American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary - value, $25. All winnings, including the book, are subject to California state tax - 7% - plus US income tax.)
They called group after group, and my name wasn't on the list. When they called the next to last group, and it was just down to Jenny, Tony, and myself in the room, the nervousness really kicked in. That moment of truth when your stomach twists itself up into the tightest little ball possible and you just think to yourself: "Please, God, don't let me throw up on the air." Finally, our time has come. We're walking out there, and there are those 10,000 fans, only they're kind of politely applauding. They're probably tired - they've been in those seats for over four hours.
I walk out on stage, unaware of how my 12 friends prior had done. The lights go down, Johnny whispers loudly, "Can you feel it in the air?" and then ...
"From the campus of The Ohio State University, this .. is .. Jeopardy!"
Cue music, cue lights, cue audience applause.
I am stunned. Shocked. Dumbfounded. It's only the most popular game show of the 20th century (yes, even more than that one that forced Jeopardy! to double their dollar amounts to keep their title), translated into 18 languages, originally titled "What's The Question," a vast money-making machine for Sony Pictures Entertainment, and here I was. On stage. With
"...now here's your host, Alex Trebek!"
He came out and quickly explained to the viewing audience the tournament format. Turned to us (in hindsight, "everybody ready?" seems like a really dumb question) and then pointed to the board.
Well, if you thought I was freaked out up to this point, the board began generating numbers. And making those noises. You know the sound. BEEP-boop-beep-BOOP-BOP-beep-boop-boop-BOOOOP!
My jaw dropped. Realizing I might be on camera, I quickly shut it and turned to look at Jenny and Tony. Their jaws were dropped too.
This was some serious shit.
Without going into more lengthy detail about the contest itself, I will instead just post all of the answers (paraphrased unless the answer contained an important clue), pipe linked to their .. umm, questions .. for curiosity seekers:
CATEGORY: STATE FACTS
: FOOD & DRINK
: NEW VIDEO GAMES
: THE PREZ SAYS
: "M" WORDS
: GET A JOB!
So, at the end of the first round, I had a (relatively) comfortable lead. I had gotten over the TV virgin stage fright (My internal monologue still begins with "Modifying! Modifying, you twit!"). I got hammered on the Daily Double (Kentucky is a commonwealth?), but the Video Games wasn't so bad. During each commercial break, the contestant coordinators would come bring us water and chat us up, trying to relieve the nervousness. At the same time, Alex would go out into the audience and take questions. People ask him the most inane things: "How big is your house?" and "What's your favorite game show?" but one person asked him what he thought about the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy skits, to which he replied by doing a pretty decent Sean Connery impersonation: "The day is mine, Trebek!" Which got the mostly college-age crowd roaring.
What made my game particularly interesting is that all of the other players had played their game. While the winner of our game was guaranteed to continue, all three of us were wondering what the cut off score to make it to the next round was. I was also very glad that the buzzer wasn't very convoluted - there are lights that run down the side of the board, and about 1/3 of a second after Alex has finished reading the question, they light up, opening the buzzers. They tell you to click it repeatedly, but I would just hit it once when I saw the lights. Seemed to work just fine.
CATEGORY: SPANISH LITERATURE
: A TREK TO NEPAL
: EVERYBODY LOVES RAIMENT
: STUDYING ABROAD
: EARLY AMERICAN HISTORY
: ANIMAL PHRASES
Ahh, yes, the kiln/kilt incident. Do you have a set of words you always get mixed up? Kiln and kilt are mine. I always forget which is which - just for a second - but in Jeopardy! that's pretty much all you got. So when the question came up BAM "what is a kiln?" which gave Alex a double take. During the commercial break, he teased me with more Scottish brogue: "Let me just put on my kiln .. ow I'm on fire!"
And then, of course, Alex's hilariously violent response to the girl in front who totally whispered "Isabel Allende" after the question ("if you say something like that again, we will take you outside and beat you within an inch of your life.") Looking back, I'd have to say this was the hardest round I played in the tournament. I didn't know much about any of the categories, and even Animal Phrases and Everybody Loves Raiment seemed out of my grasp. Luckily, everyone else floundered, too, and I got enough big dollar questions that I had more than double Jenny and Tony by the end of the round, meaning I could bet $0 in the Final round and still win.
So, I had survived the first round - but I didn't feel like I had really done all that great. I was glad I'd get back the second day, but that night I don't think I slept more than three hours. I think there was something in the air.