Our founder and senior quizmaster, Noah Tarnow, shares his history with the quizziest quiz show of them all.
Even in the loony-bin pantheon of American television, TV quiz shows are especially weird. It’s nothing but watching complete strangers playing a trivia game – performing no physical activity, producing no heated rivalries, rarely having even the barest trace of a colorful personality. You just watch, lamely trying to simulate the competitive spirit while sitting on your futon eating Pringles and shouting out names of Roman generals.
But despite being the apotheosis of TV quiz shows, Jeopardy! is especially bizarre. There is, of course, that “answer in the form of a question” stipulation, supposedly a suggestion of J! creator Merv Griffin’s wife when the program was originally developed in the 1960s. Quiz shows were still under a cloud from the scandals of the ’50s (look it up, or watch the Robert Redford movie), so she figured they’d avoid suspicion by openly “giving” the players the answers. That logic is strange enough, but stranger is how hard the show is. I recall an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D. in which the teen genius went on some fictional game show for absolute brainiacs, and I remember wondering why anyone would be entertained by watching people smarter than they could ever hope to be answering questions they could never hope to understand. (Doogie lost, by the way – on purpose, since every one of his friends, families, and colleagues was clamoring for a stake of his potential winnings.) Jeopardy! is the closest we come in the real, non-NPH world to this showcase of intellect, and the fact that it’s so mysteriously popular should be some comfort to the American educational system.
And since Jeopardy! is so clearly an intellectual cut above your standard game show fare, it accords the egghead contestants some degree of glory. So when I was chosen to compete on the show in my mid-twenties, after nearly two decades of rabid fandom, I was more than a little proud. In the months leading up to the event, every time I could cram it into a conversation, I casually dropped that I was gonna be on “Jeopardy!” Which was tantamount to saying, I’m smarter than you are! You can’t do that with Family Feud. I had been chosen to play in the pop culture hall of great minds, and as silly and goofy as the process was going to be, it was a tremendous honor. It was, to use a cliché with rare sincerity, a dream come true.
I got the call on a Friday morning; Bill from Jeopardy! was checking in to update my contestant eligibility (I had passed a New York City audition the previous spring – I was one of the 9% of the room who knew what R&B group Beyoncé had been in, as well as what party ruled Mexico for 70 years.) After confirming that I indeed wasn’t married to a senior producer at ABC, Bill told me that I was their man, and that I should fly out to L.A. one month hence. It felt great – I was going to join the Hall of Legends, those Jeopardy! heroes we all know and love, like… um… well, this was before Jennings and Holzhauer, before widespread U.S. trivia culture (pub quizzes were nearly unknown on these shores). But even if we don’t remember the names of the J! champs of yesteryear, they were heroes. And they took home a lot of cash. So in bragging about my impending Jeopardy!-hood, I might have been setting myself up to be a dork, or a braggart, but it was about as impressive as a dork/braggart could be, not to mention lucrative.
And lucrative would be nice. I’m no millionaire, even less so at the time, and contrary to general expectations, you travel on your own dime when you go to compete on Jeopardy! I’m not familiar with practices lo these decades later, but when I was a contestant, they offered a discount rate at the local Radisson, they shuttled you to the studio, you got a lovely pastry tray, but that’s it. Television is a business, and if you want to be a champion, you have to prove it to them that you’re willing to pay for it, literally.
And I certainly wanted to be a champion. So I bought my plane ticket, and I prepared to make that money back. It wouldn’t be easy, I knew, and I began what could only be described as a training regimen. I had never been an athlete growing up—I couldn’t even compete in Dungeons & Dragons—so I pressed myself to get off the track of least resistance for once and make this happen. I made a point of watching Jeopardy! every night, clicking along with my $3.95 retractable Bic, studying Daily Double betting strategy, wondering how best to keep Alex Trebek’s peculiar charm from addling my concentration. And I started understanding my strengths and my weaknesses: I was a wizard with American history, geography, and wordplay. I needed help on sports (naturally), science, and the Bible (don’t we all?). Particularly heartening was when I watched an episode in which the Final Jeopardy question was on “Presidential Elections” – possibly my strongest topic. All three contestants were stumped, but it came to me in a flash. (Last winning ticket consisting of two sitting U.S. Senators? This was before Obama-Biden, remember; answer below.)
I started feeling like I really could win this. And I started finally understanding why those hockey meatheads in my high school got so excited about slapping a piece of rubber into a fishing net. At last I understood that mean competitive streak that figures so prominently in American culture. I spent more time at the gym (“more” being a relative term), letting the adrenaline build up inside of me, vowing to give no quarter when I was in the pit of trivia battle. At every free moment, I whipped out my copy of The World Almanac and harangued my friends into quizzing me with a factoid or two, smartphones and Wikipedia being then unknown to us. This would be my moment of glory, I told myself; in the indigo glow of the Jeopardy! studio, I would emerge a great warrior.
Hubris sucks. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles—fresh with the glow of confidence, cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in the rented convertible of an alpha-male—my nervous energy had congealed into not so much arrogance, but a sense of destiny. I would win because I was supposed to win; I’d been generally fortunate so far in my life, and something this important would be no different. As I say, hubris really sucks.
On the morning of my game, I arrived at Sony Pictures Studios dressed camera-ready, carrying with me two changes of clothing in case… scratch that—for when… I became a returning champion. At the time, Jeopardy! taped five games a day; the champion coming back “tomorrow” is a lie for the benefit of the TV audience who would be watching these games in dinnertime installments three months hence. I tried to size up my competition in the green room—they all looked smart, they all looked prepared. But some looked hungrier than others did, and I remembered my training, I felt how badly I wanted it. I had the fire of a champion burning within me, and that would make all the difference.
In the green room, the preternaturally personable contestant handlers walked us through the process. Your standard forms to fill out and sign, introductions to the makeup lady, the pastry table. I barely processed anything; it all melted away around me, vaporized by the heat of my impending glory. We were also talked to about our story—that little tidbit that we share with Alex during the show’s often-excruciating interview segment. This was tough for me—I have always led a disorganized, bizarre, and not very TV-soundbite-ready life. I wanted to talk about the avant-garde stand-up comedy career I had recently left behind. Maggie, the impossibly friendly contestant coordinator, preferred to go a weaker option: how when I went to see the first Spider-Man film the previous spring, I dressed in my homemade Wall Crawler outfit and got harassed by tourists. Sure, I said, whatever—winning was all that mattered now, and I was not to be distracted by some story no one pays attention to anyway. But I failed to notice that more mercenary notions were in play: Spider-Man was a Sony film, and here we were in Sony Studios, a “coincidence” Alex mentioned on air. Worse still, in an effort to keep proceedings moving along, Trebek cut me off mid-story, making me look like both a tool and a bad speaker, and he even spent the commercial breaks calling me “Spider-Man.” My opinion has since softened, and of course I have no interest in speaking ill of the dead, but it all left me with a less-than-glowing view on Trebek, the man. And yes, I’m sure there’s plenty of sour grapes here, considering that I blew it in the game.
And good lord, did I blow it. When it was time for me to compete, my opponents were Marc, a friendly and efficiently crafty bank executive from Miami who was playing as a two-time champion, and Valerie, a spacey high school chemistry teacher from Austin. I felt strong and confident, assured that Marc was vulnerable (he’d managed to win twice without ever getting Final Jeopardy correct) and that Valerie would crack under the pressure like a week-old cashew. (If this assumption strikes you as sexist, I hope you take some comfort in the knowledge that I’ve since come to the conclusion that you are correct.)
And the game began. Do not let it be said that I did not play well. After a slow start, once I got the hang of that god-forsaken buzzer, once I overcame the desire to unjustly vent my frustrations on Trebek, I was dynamite. I sailed through a category on “American Road Signs,” and did surprisingly well on “The Bible.” But the categories were not on my side. Almost no pop culture, and not a single question on the presidents. A lot of dumb stuff like “People Named Larry.” But I survived regardless. I even recovered nicely after miffing a Daily Double. (For the rest of my life, I will never forget that Mexico is bordered by the United States, Guatemala, and Belize, dammit, Belize.)
And Final Jeopardy arrived. I had $6,800, an extremely healthy second place, behind Marc, with $10,200, but ahead of Valerie, who had $5,600. The category was “Island Nations,” which meant zero to me.
And this is where my brain—my supposedly impressive brain, my formidable tactical skill, the warrior’s fire that burned within me—failed completely. My theory was, the only way I can win is if Marc gets it wrong and I get it right. Fair enough. So I bid $4,000, enough to put me over the champ if he tapped out. But somehow, I completely overlooked Valerie, and I completely failed to notice that a mere $500 would’ve put me out of her reach. I don’t know what happened—maybe I was blinded by nerves and excitement, maybe I had neglected betting strategy in my training, maybe it was indeed sexism, maybe I’m just an idiot. But I went ahead with a $4,000 bet, ignorant of the disaster that awaited. “It’s in God’s hands at this point,” I told myself, unwisely. While I can be the religious type (note my success on Bible questions), I’m secular enough to realize, now, that God probably doesn’t care who wins on Jeopardy!
And the Final Jeopardy answer is (I’m paraphrasing here; I had things to do at the time other than take notes)… “In the spring of 2002, so-and-so of the U.S. State Department said that this was ‘the first new nation of the new millennium.’”
Damn! How the hell would I know? A new country? Isn’t that an early-’90s issue? Besides, after that damn Mexico thing, how many geography questions do we need? Why couldn’t I get just one presidential question? I was so close to writing a joke answer—if you’re gonna lose, lose memorably—when I decided to take a guess. I wrote down “What is East Timor?” (That electric pen, by the way, is an unbelievable pain.) It didn’t sound right; I felt like everyone was talking about East Timor three years earlier. But I believed it had gained independence at some point recently, and I was pretty sure it was an island nation. So I gave it a shot.
The music ended. Alex gave some typical patter, then turned to Valerie to see her response. “What is East Timor?” she had written. For a second, I thought I detected his face taking on his standard sympathy expression. But no, it was a fake: “That’s right. What did you wager?”
Valerie had wagered all of it. Every penny—$5,600. And that’s when I knew. I knew I had blown it.
The rest was academic. My correct answer was revealed, my bet uncovered – “Ooh, not enough.” Marc had written “What is ?” and bet a lot. So I beat Marc; my strategy was correct, but incomplete. Valerie—ditzy, spacey Valerie, by my sexist estimation—was the new Jeopardy! champion. From my left, I could hear her emit a shocked gasp. Me too, sister. (Tangent: Fifteen years later, I got a random message on Twitter from a high school student who said he saw me lose on Jeopardy! When I asked how, he told me Valerie was his teacher, and every year she shows her class the footage of her victory. This kid looked me up out of curiosity/masochism, I suppose.)
God clearly does not take a hand in Jeopardy! games, because I have never prayed for anything harder than I prayed at that moment for a time machine. But it was done; I was done. I had come in second. Maggie sent me home with $2,000, and the unceasing desire to boot myself in the ass for the rest of eternity (no home game, alas). After taxes, after paying for my plane ticket, hotel, and rental car, I had about $500, and the more mild, slightly suppressed desire to boot myself in the ass for the rest of eternity. I got the final question right, after all—it wouldn’t have been nearly so awful if I just hadn’t known it. It’s knowing that I could’ve won Jeopardy!; I could’ve fulfilled a dream, and really, how often does that actually happen?
By the way, at the time, the last winning presidential ticket that featured two sitting U.S. senators was JFK and Lyndon Johnson, in 1960. Not that it’s vital information, but let the record state that I did know that. And I knew all about “American Road Signs.” And I got Final Jeopardy correct. And I was there, in Los Angeles, actually playing, not sitting on my damn futon or punking out like Doogie Howser. It might all be some weird, silly game, and I might have ultimately failed, but for one moment, I was in there, fighting like a warrior.