It was nagging at me; there was some kind of anniversary this past week, and it coincided with St. Paddy's, and what the hell was it? An assignment that I'm working on for the other gig (I'll pimp myself, yes I will: I'm "interviewing" A.J. Jacobs) shook off the cobwebs. Last week marked the 5 year anniversary of my 30 minutes of fame: March 17, 2000. The day I lost on Jeopardy! (sic - you have to include the !, as you do when referencing certain Broadway musicals.)
The real story has not been told. Until now.
I was a pretty good Trivial Pursuit player. And I was a Jeopardy! watcher (not a fan; the fans know the Jeopardy! contestants like Dukies might know their Blue Devil hoops players - I could tell you that the blind guy was a Five-Day winner, but that was about it). 7:00 would roll around and I'd be on the couch watching. And answering. Correctly, more often than not. Always in the form of a question. "What is the Siegfried Line? Who is Carl Perkins? What is Djibouti? Who were the Knights Templar? What is Deuteronomy?" And so forth. It occured to Beth that maybe I ought to try out for the show. And so I did. Called the Contestant Hotline, left my info, and waited.
A few weeks later, I got a call back. Was I still interested in trying out? Directions were given. Some things were to be mailed for me to read and sign. I was to report to the Jeopardy! studio in Culver City, where I was to take a Test, and if I passed The Test, I was to participate in a mock version of the game with two other contestants, presumably to see if I had star quality.
The audition was a nervewracking affair. There were some 75 people there. We were seated in a large room, and the tests were handed out. 50 questions, 50 different categories. I finished ahead of some people, behind others. I passed. 65 didn't. They were escorted out. The "screen test" was pretty quick, lasting about 5 minutes. When it was done, we were told that we were now eligible to appear as a contestant, but there was no guarantee that we'd actually appear, due to the shooting schedule. So it was back to San Diego. Nothing to do but wait, and train. Yeah, I got a copy of the Jeopardy! PC game, and put in a couple of hours a night. My strengths: movies, literature, music, history. Weaknesses: art, math, some science (by "some", I mean anything other than astronomy and zoology).
Shortly thereafter, I got the call. I was going to be on the show.
Taping day. Beth and my buddy Tim in the studio audience. I'm in the "green room". On a given day, five shows - one week's worth - are taped. I'm tagged to be a contestant on show # 5. Meaning there's nothing to do but wait. And watch. And what I'm watching is troubling. I'm watching a woman named Robin steamroll her way through shows 1, 2, 3, and 4. She's a ringer - the announcer says that her job is "professional fact checker", and she cooly dispatches her opponents with the steely precision of a Delta Force sniper. "What is Cameroon? Who was Lord Cardigan? What is an archipelago? What is the topgallant sail? Let's make it a true Daily Double, Alex." The green roomers fear and hate her. They march off, two by two, to meet their fates.
Then it's my turn. I'm trying not to sweat. Everything happens quickly - the questions, er, answers come flying, fast and furious. I get a few right ("What is Freebie and The Bean? What is the University of Nebraska?") and a few wrong ("Who are the Molly Maguires? What is a lab rat?"). Robin has it dialed in; what you the viewer can't see is the row of lights that run down the side of the bank of monitors that display the categories and the answers. When Alex asks the question, there's a brief pause, and the lights flash, indicating that you can buzz in and answer the question. Buzz in too soon, and your buzzer is "locked out" for two seconds, meaning that you're shit out of luck. Robin's done this four times; she has the timing down, and it's her game to lose. She's a "lock" going into Final Jeopardy; she's won enough that the other contestant and I can't bet enough to beat her. She's going to be a Five Day Winner. Second and Third are still up for grabs.
Now, back in Tha Day, Jeopardy! offered Second and Third Place prizes. The show is slated to air on St. Patrick's Day, 2000; the second place prize is a trip to Dublin, to stay at what Johnny Gilbert refers to as "a Merv Griffin Resort". The Third Place prize: a complete home entertainment system. 32 inch TV, stereo receiver w/24 disc CD changer, and speakers "valued at over $1500!" Mental bifurcation. Two things flash through my mind: a bunch of elderly Irishmen trying to manuever their walkers around a shuffleboard court, and me sitting on the couch, beer in hand, basking in the cathode glory of that 32 inch screen, watching a muted football game with a soundtrack of 24 CD's worth of Random Play in the background. Decision made. The Final Jeopardy question: "In 1999, a group of Shakespearean actors banded together to help save this murderer's childhood home from demolition." My answer - well, I get it right, but it stays in my head. I don't answer.
So there's my story; as I write, I'm on the couch, watching My Name Is Earl on that same TV. Soy un perdidor, perhaps, but Robin Carroll went on to make Jeopardy! history - one might say that she was the Ken Jennings of her day, and I'm cool with that. Although I do feel a slight pang of regret when I hear the question "Who is John Wilkes Booth?"