I can finally post this! Hooray! A WEEK OF JEOPARDY IN ONE DAY, FROM MY PERSPECTIVE:
I’m writing this one a couple weeks after the fact. It feels like it’s taken that long just to rest & recover from our little adventure.
I flew to LA on Monday, November 18th to see Arthur play some more Jeopardy. Last week we thought we couldn’t afford it, as TWO cross-country round-trip flights would make him barely break even if he came in third in the first game. (We shouldn’t have been so pessimistic, when he’d been studying and practicing for weeks.) This week, well, we suddenly could, even if we’re not going to see any of his winnings for months and months.
His flight sold out just a little while after Jeopardy bought his seat. I got another one on another airline for around the same time. Various misadventures meant I landed an hour late, but Arthur was waiting for me at the gate, and his mom picked us up and took us back to her house in the ‘burbs. We went to bed almost immediately, since we’d have to get up early to drive back to Culver City and the studio.
We didn’t get up early enough. Arthur’s mom’s friend, who I’m sure is very nice, offered to drive us. Which was very nice of him. We were nicely 20 minutes late, but as the “returning champion” Arthur didn’t have to do all the morning orientation stuff so it wasn’t a giant deal, though we were very stressed the whole way over thinking they might somehow boot him off the show. I spent the next hour & a half in a nearby coffee shop, waiting for them to start letting in audience members, hanging out with Arthur’s mom and her friend. Who was very nice. I told him he really didn’t need to drive us tomorrow if Arthur needed to come back, we could definitely find our own way, but he insisted because he’s a great guy. Arthur’s mom also insisted. I drank a “chocolate chai latte” which is a mistake I will never make again.
We drove back to the Sony lot and parked in the designated garage. A security guard scanned our driver’s licenses and we were directed to sit on some green benches in a special “audience zone” inside the parking garage. I’m guessing this is to keep us from wandering around the lot, but it was kind of dark and exhaust-fumey and uncomfortable. We endured. I made awkward small talk with a nice older woman who was there to support a contestant family member as well. It was hard not to brag about how great Arthur is, but I managed to keep the conversation general.
Eventually they set up a folding table and handed out wristbands or special “Contestant Guest” stickers to everyone. Arthur’s mom came to see him last week, so she was already a pro at this. They led everyone who needed a bathroom to a bathroom trailer. Then we were finally ready to head into the lot for reals. There was a bottleneck halfway to the studio building where everyone had to get their bag cursorily examined and walk through a metal detector, but that went smoothly. We lined up outside a studio that looked like every other studio (basically an anonymous warehouse) except there was a huge Jeopardy poster/mural on the wall with a 30-foot Alex Trebek looking benevolently down on us. We all got our pictures taken with him while we waited.
After a few minutes they let us file in, “Contestant Guests” first. Inside was a set of three podiums and a cardboard stand-up Trebek where guests could get their photos taken. Behind that was a glass display case full of Emmys. Behind THAT was a wall that was the back of the movie-theater-style seating inside the studio itself. Contestant Guests entered from the right side of the house, general rabble from the left. The two seating areas were separated by the recessed doorway through which, I imagine, they drive the cameras.
We were seated on the same side as the contestants, but weren’t allowed to talk, wave, gesture, or even really make eye contact with them. The studio is super strict about this, as well as making sure everyone’s phones are off and nobody looks at them during the show. As we came in, three soon-to-be contestants were up at the podiums, practicing using the buzzer. (I’m glad they let people practice – otherwise the returning champ would have a huge unfair advantage!) I could see Arthur sitting across the aisle but couldn’t do anything other than elbow his mom and point as subtly as possible. He was soon called up to prepare for the first game. I started quietly having a nervous breakdown. I held hands with Arthur’s mom, who was also nervous but handling it way better than me.
Johnny Gilbert, the 1,000-year-old immortal mummy who announces the show, came out and gave a quick talk about how we’re not allowed to make noise or even whisper answers to ourselves because the mics they use to pick up audience applause are always live. One of the Clue Crew was there and he made her stand up and wave. She had recently run an Iron Man Triathlon. We applauded. The crew started counting down. Twenty seconds. The contestants were already at their podiums. Arthur was on the far left, as befitted the returning champ. Johnny Gilbert assumed his position at the back of the studio.
Showtime. “THIS! IIIISSSS JEOPARDY,” said Johnny, sounding like a much younger man who was much more excited than he could possibly be after saying this 10 times a week for 30 years. We clapped. Arthur was introduced last, before Trebek, and the crowd oohed and aahed at his $100,000 running total. Other contestants and family members of other contestants started to look more nervous. We clapped.
Alex Trebek paced out from behind the facade, smiling. The music played. We clapped some more. The crew handed out little cards to the audience telling us when the episodes taped today would air. I realized these were several weeks after his first four – there must be tournaments in between, though I didn’t know which ones at the time. (Answer: A week of the Tournament of the Decades: 80s, and then two weeks of the College Tournament.)
Arthur came out swinging, but so did another contestant, a short brunette woman with a serious expression. She was really good, and started building a lead on Arthur that I wondered if he could catch. But she bet big on a Daily Double, got it wrong, and seemed to lose all her confidence and focus in one big rush. Arthur caught up, blew past her, and was so far ahead by the end I think it was a locked game – one where even if the other contestants bet everything they have on Final Jeopardy, they can’t catch the leader. (Unless the leader bets big and gets it wrong, but Arthur hadn’t spent weeks thinking about his strategy to be caught in a dumb maneuver like that.) A lot of Jeopardy, I’ve learned from Arthur, is the mind game – you can’t let yourself be thrown by a big mistake, or intimidated by a long-running champion. You have to stay focused on the clues and the buzzer, and nothing else matters. It’s a baptism by fire for every new set of contestants, since they’ve never been on the show before and never will be again, once they lose.
Each commercial break, while the tech crew bustled around and the writer-judges conferred, Trebek would come to the edge of the set and peer out into the audience, answering questions. The questions were mostly prosaic and sometimes repeated themselves from audience to audience – who’s your favorite musician, how’s your leg, when’s the last time you played hockey, do you watch sports, have you ever actually competed on Jeopardy, when are you going to retire. He gave answers that were one part informative and one part funny, working the crowd. (“Can you tell us about your personal life?” *LONG PAUSE* “No.”) In all my years of watching off and on, I never knew that part of his job is to provide live entertainment for the audience so they don’t get restless during the frequent pauses. Johnny Gilbert also came out and did this a couple of times when Trebek was busy.
Commercial breaks were also used to re-record any clues he had mispronounced or that he thought sounded bad. There was usually one, sometimes two. Even when you’re as practiced as Trebek, you’re still reading an awful lot of text that you only saw for the first time that morning. Sometimes he snarked about the way the clues were written and added his own little flourishes.
Anyway: Two more games, with only a few minutes of break in between. What they don’t tell you at home is that the show is filmed over the course of a couple days every week, and only part of the year, five shows a day. When Alex says something happened “yesterday”, what he actually means is “twenty minutes ago”. The contestants are told to bring changes of clothes to help maintain the illusion. It’s really weird to watch this simple deception in action, but of course it makes sense. The show’s continuity has to match the viewer’s continuity, and the viewer only sees one game a night. And it would be ruinously expensive to actually only film one show a day.
Anyway. Three shows down. They all started to blur together almost immediately, so I can’t remember the particulars. I was so anxious for Arthur that my memory is hazy after the first one. I do remember Trebek saying something to Arthur, who pointed at us in the audience. I cringed, waved, cringed again. “I SEE YOU, WIFEY,” Trebek called. “OH MY GOD HE LOOKED AT ME,” I whispered to Arthur’s mom. (Spoiler alert: This is the closest I got to actually meeting Alex Trebek. I did get my photo with the cardboard stand-up one in the lobby later on.)
Everyone broke for lunch. Contestants ate in a cafeteria somewhere on the studio lot, but because we weren’t allowed to even be in the same room as them, we had to walk a block down the road to where a coffee shop, a Subway, and a juice bar squatted at an intersection. The day was slightly overcast and in the high 60s. It was warm compared to Cleveland, but I hung onto my coat.
I got a peanut butter smoothie at the juice bar and sat in the Subway with Arthur’s mom and her friend. The woman from the first game who had started so strong was there, too, sitting with some family and/or friends. As we all got up to leave I overheard her saying that she wanted to go back in and watch the last two games of the day in case Arthur got knocked out, because it would be gratifying to see him fail.
“I completely understand the sentiment, even if I can’t agree with it,” I said. “I’m his wife.”
“Oh. I feel like a jerk now,” she said. I demurred. We all laughed a little and walked back to the studio in a big group. (Note: This was Sofi. I couldn’t remember her name until I saw her episode on Monday.)
Two more games. A different general audience filed in. I think this one might have been a school group, where the first had been a senior citizen group? Or was it the other way around? The contestants who came on now had watched Arthur handily win three games, and whether or not they allowed themselves to feel just a LITTLE intimidated, Arthur plastered ‘em. It became almost a routine – he would build a big lead and rarely had to worry much about Final Jeopardy at the end. By the end he had something like $260,000 in winnings, and Trebek had busted out a couple of teasing Ken Jennings comparisons.
I ran out just before the last game of the day because the huge smoothie was doing things to my insides. When I came back before the beginning of the game, a camera guy was camping out in the aisle next to our row of seats. “Uh oh,” I said to Arthur’s mom. She just laughed. Arthur’s anecdote for that “day” was a plug for my novel, and I didn’t know ahead of time, so my two seconds of national TV fame as an adult were me pressing my hands to my face. I texted my mom afterward to tell her what had happened.
“I hope you brushed your hair,” she sent back.
“I was all sweaty and disheveled from running back from a huge dump in the bathroom,” I told her.
“Ah, life,” she responded.
When the carnage was over, we filed out and ran into Arthur outside. We walked to the bathroom-trailer together, away from most of the audience. As soon as we were nominally alone he looked at me and started laughing hysterically. I hugged him. An old lady from the audience approached us and asked if she could have her photo taken with him, and left satisfied. The contestant wrangler called and set up arrangements to change his plane ticket to Thursday. (They had bought him one for Wednesday as a matter of course, but now he would not need it, thank you very much.)
We all walked back to his mom’s friend’s car and began the long drive home. His mom’s friend dropped us off and said his goodbyes, promising to return the next morning. We all went inside and lay down for an hour, too utterly stunned to talk or do anything much but rest.
Later we went to a restaurant where Arthur’s mom knew the staff. She explained my gluten issue to them in Chinese and for once I got to eat Chinese food without worrying about flour or soy sauce contamination. Poached fish, squid, green beans, all sorts of good stuff.
We went home and went to bed. It was 7:30 pm. Even as exhausted as he and I were, and the three-hour time difference, it was hard to get to sleep after being so amped up all day. We lay there for a long time and talked disjointedly about nothing, but eventually we drifted off.
Ah, life. If Arthur called this the best day of his life, better than his wedding and/or (one day) the birth of his first child, I would not begrudge him it. There was a clue somewhere in the middle of the day of taping, maybe the third or fourth game, that was something like “Five-Letter Words”. The clue itself was, I paraphrase, “Recess in a wall, or one’s proper place; we hope you’ve found yours.” The answer, or the question, I suppose, was “What is niche”. Arthur got that one, as he should have. He found his niche on Jeopardy, and went home beaming and shaky, having performed heroic feats of stamina and brilliance. After watching him struggle for so many years, I was so happy and proud I could just about have jumped over the house, if I weren’t also completely wiped.