Spoiler Alert: I was a contestant on Jeopardy! on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. In this post, I’m going to share more about what that experience was like, and will include specifics about the show. So… if you haven’t watched yet, and it’s on your DVR or something, then bookmark this page and come back after! (If you missed it and don’t have it on a DVR, um… I don’t know of a way you can watch it. Sorry.)
Before I forget, a couple news articles came out before my episode aired. The one in the Detroit Free Press was written from information about me that Jeopardy! had provided, but I was actually interviewed for the MLive article, which was a fun little bonus.
Anyway. In my last post, I took you through the audition process, and the steps that came after I was offered the chance to be on the show. That post ended after I told the story of how this all came together. Now, it’s time for…
Jeopardy! tapes five episodes in a day. I had to be there at 7:15am. Because there’s always a returning champion, they need ten contestants for those episodes, and they also book standbys, in case something happens and someone can’t show up. I think there were 11 of us that arrived this day. (Before committing to participate, I asked Lauri, one of the producers, if there was any chance I would fly in from Michigan, only to find out I was a standby. She assured me that I would be a contestant.)
There’s a lot of waiting around, and because of social distancing requirements, we first waited around on the second level of a parking garage that had been turned into a holding area. Then we moved into the Wheel of Fortune studio, where we spread out throughout their studio audience area. This was our home base for the day. I’m a huge fan of that show, so that was a bizarre and fun part of this experience. The make-up chairs were only a few feet away from the wheel, which was covered with a big tarp. We were told not to touch anything on the Wheel set.
We were each given black bags that had a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes in them, and an n95 mask to wear (as opposed to whatever mask we had arrived with). One by one, we went down and showed our clothes options to the wardrobe team, who picked what they wanted us to wear. We also had about an hour of briefings: all the official rules, tips, COVID protocols, legal requirements, and more.
I was seated towards one end of the Wheel of Fortune audience, and shortly before the briefings started, Matt Amodio showed up and took a seat at the other end. Matt was on a huge streak, and what I knew at the time was that he had won the final 18 days of the last season, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings (more stats on him later). He’s an incredible player, and his arrival meant that he was still the returning champion. Holy crap. My heart sank a little bit. He’d be hard to beat.
You can’t go anywhere unescorted on a studio lot. Since we couldn’t take our masks off indoors, we were occasionally escorted out to an alley between two buildings, where we could space out and eat and drink snacks. The only time I took off my mask indoors was when I had makeup applied (and rules dictated that I could not talk during that process), and when I stepped onto the actual Jeopardy! stage.
Eventually we were all taken over to the stage, and rehearsals began. Each contestant had two roughly five-minute rehearsals to try out the buzzer, get used to being on stage, and play a mock game. We brought our black bags, and were instructed to use our hand sanitizer every time we stepped on or off the stage. We also had been given powder puffs by the makeup artists, and once we were behind the podiums, they’d tell us where to apply the powder on our faces (so they didn’t have to get close to us), meaning that, in essence, I did my own makeup touch-ups.
Being on that stage was both familiar and surreal. I was so familiar with it, from watching the show all my life, but now I was seeing it from a different vantage point – seeing how the cameras were set up, watching the crew doing their jobs, getting a peek behind the curtain.
We practiced ringing in. Home viewers don’t see that there are rows of lights on either side of the game board that light up when the host finishes reading the answer, and you can’t ring in until they turn on. Being quick on the buzzer is critical. A producer was monitoring our buzzing attempts and during rehearsals (and commercial breaks during tapings), she would advise contestants whether they were jumping the gun and ringing in early (which locks the contestant out for 1/2 a second), or habitually ringing in late. I was impressed with the production’s desire to see everyone succeed.
But alas, it’s a game, and not everyone will succeed. In fact, two out of the three players on every show lose. And now it was time to start taping the day’s shows. They didn’t announce the contestants for each show until right before it starts taping, so I sat holding my breath when they called the first two contestants. I didn’t want to go first. I wanted someone else to go, and beat Matt Amodio. My name wasn’t called, and I exhaled in relief.
The taping began for the first show (which aired on Monday), and Matt’s staggering accomplishments were revealed when he was introduced:
- This was his 34th show, and by that point he had won $1,267,801. Wowsa!
- He had won 33 consecutive games so far, and had just surpassed James Holzhauer’s 32-game streak to become second-highest of all time on that list, after Ken Jennings (who won 74 games in a row).
- Matt was the third-highest money winner in regular game play (which excludes tournaments), after Ken and James. (Ken won roughly $2.5 million. James won roughly $2.4 million, meaning his average daily winnings were significantly higher than Matt’s, although I’d bet Matt isn’t complaining about his $1.2 million.)
I sat in that audience seat and watched Matt dominate that first game, and obliterate his opponents. He won $83,000 – his highest one-day total. He was impressive to watch, and it was thoroughly intimidating.
The same thing happened in the second taping of the day, with Matt winning $50,000 more, bringing his total to $1,400,801. We were lambs being led to our slaughter.
Then they announced the contestants for the third game, and I was up.
After 19 Years of Auditioning… It Was My Moment To Play Jeopardy! on National Television!
I took my spot behind the podium, touched up my makeup, and did a buzzer test. And before I knew it, the theme music was playing, the announcer was announcing us, and Mayim Bialik (whom I love) was walking onstage. [Fun Fact: Johnny Gilbert, who is 93 years old and has worked in television since the 1950s (!), records the intros at another time. During the taping, Sarah, from the Clue Crew, fills in.]
I’m not going to say much about the actual game, since it aired on TV. I was trying to buzz in an awful lot, but Matt was so quick on that buzzer that it was hard to compete. This wasn’t a surprise, as he had 35 shows under his belt. I was told in the first commercial break that I was anticipating the lights a little too much and ringing in early, so I tried to adjust, but based on my performance on the rest of the show, I don’t think I got the hang of it. I knew so many of the responses, but Matt kept beating me to the punch.
The judges’ ruling about my flower-cutting response came after about 10 minutes of research and consultation during the first commercial break. The judges, which came from a third-party company whose sole purpose was to ensure fair play, are thorough and active contestant advocates. They stopped production twice during my taping to research and confirm responses, and they did the same during the other tapings I saw, too.
The taping flew by. In the blink of an eye it was time for Final Jeopardy, and I was squarely in distant third place. Matt couldn’t be caught, and I wouldn’t even be able to catch Casey to get second place. So I wagered nothing. Despite explicit directions, given multiple times throughout the day, to include a dollar sign when writing your wager, I forgot, and they cleared my screen and made me write that zero again, with a dollar sign in front of it.
All three of us got Final Jeopardy wrong. It was a tough category and question. Matt still won the game, winning $16,600 and bringing his total to $1,417,401. Casey won $2,000 for getting second place, and I won $1,000 for my third place – which, after I pay taxes, basically covers my expenses for this adventure. They also gave me, afterwards, a Jeopardy! tote and a Jeopardy! hat (which is too small for my giant head).
After Mayim ended the show we had to banter for about a minute, so they had enough footage to roll under the credits, and all of us, including Mayim, commiserated about the obscurity of that Final Jeopardy question. Matt started talking about how, after the correct answer was revealed, he should have known it, and rattled off all this extra info about that period in French history. I said, “Gee Matt, it’s too bad that these aren’t essay questions!” and that made everyone laugh, including Matt, Mayim, and the crew.
Mayim, by the way, was a warm and friendly presence on the set. She was calm and confident, and genuinely cared about the contestants, joking around with us during commercial breaks. She put me at ease – and I needed it, because I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that I was very nervous, up until the start of the show. When the theme music started playing, I was became laser-focused on playing the game.
I also have nothing bad to say about Matt. He kicked my butt, just like he kicked the butts of 71 other contestants (and counting). We talked a couple times throughout the day, and he was kind, friendly, curious, and humble. There was no ego or cockiness, and when he seems, on the show, to be surprised by his own success, I believe it to be genuine. I asked him, after our show, if this is getting easier for him. “It’s getting harder,” he responded. “The pressure just builds and builds.” I couldn’t beat him, but I will continue to root for him.
My time on Jeopardy! was over. I signed some after-show documents, and stuck around for the final two tapings, which I can’t talk about, since they haven’t aired.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed at the outcome. It wasn’t the performance I was hoping for, and I’d like to think I might’ve done better if I hadn’t played against one of the greatest players that show has ever seen. But I’ll never know. This was my shot, and I did as best as I could.
I considered, as I left the studio, not telling anyone about any of this. Very few people knew that I was taping the show, and I could keep it that way. Why promote a game show appearance where I did so poorly?
I quickly dismissed the idea. I knew I had to own every single moment of this experience. I wanted this so badly, for so long, and I had made that known over the years. I’m so lucky to have so many friends and family, from all parts of my life, that would be excited to watch the show and cheer me on, no matter the outcome. Being selected to be a contestant is a major accomplishment in and of itself, and I’m proud of that. Trying to mitigate my embarrassment by not letting others in my life know about the show would’ve been selfish and hurtful. Plus, it wouldn’t work. Jeopardy! is a hugely popular show. Friends watch it. They would see me. I’d have to explain everything after the fact, which would be awful.
I’m happy to be a part of history, even though it’s not the story I would’ve written. Matt Amodio has already become a Jeopardy! legend, and it’s a nice consolation prize (nicer than an ill-fitting hat) to play a very minor part in his story, as one of the opponents he vanquished along the way. Plus, I was there a few days before another big Jeopardy! news story broke: that Mike Richards was fired from producing the show. It turned out that my day on set was the final tape day that Mike Richards was a part of. (For the record, while Mike was just offstage the whole day, monitoring the action, I didn’t meet him.)
I’m writing this before the show airs, and I suspect that watching myself on TV might stir up some of the sadness I felt leaving Sony Studios that day. But just the fact that I’m on this show means that I made a longtime dream come true. It’s a reminder to keep going after the things I want, and to keep challenging myself with new experiences. I’d rather have the opportunity to play and bomb with millions and millions watching than sit at home kicking myself for not trying.
Most of all, as cliche as this sounds, this experience speaks to the power of dreams, and the satisfaction, joy, and pride that’s felt when they come true. This dream took 19 years of auditioning and rejection before I had the chance to get clobbered on national television, but I’m so proud I was able to make it a reality. I’m proud to have been a Jeopardy! contestant. I’m proud to add this chapter to the story of my life.
And now that it’s behind me, I can focus on my next game show goal: to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Keep it up, David!
PS: My episode of Jeopardy! ended up airing on what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. I miss you so much, Grandma Millie!
Follow me! I’m @keepitupdavid on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! There’s also a “Sign Me Up” box on this page (at the top of the right-hand column) where you can subscribe to receive new posts via email!