From the Archives: That Time I Was on Jeopardy!

One legend, and one nervous dork.

I originally posted this on a long-gone blog sometime in either 2013 or 2014, and I copied the original file before it went into the ether. At the time, it was near-mandatory that if you’d been a Jeopardy contestant and had a blog, you had to write about your experience. And why not? It’s still a fun time to remember, even if it all happened more than a decade ago. And it’s still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

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I’ve been watching Jeopardy since its reboot in the early 80s. On some nights my parents and I would sit in front of the TV with pads of paper and pencils, adding up our own scores along with the contestants on the show. You weren’t supposed to yell out the Final Jeopardy answer until the Think Music was over and everyone had a chance to come up with something. You could say we were into it.

I liked to picture myself on the show, but I couldn’t see myself trooping all the way out to California to audition. Nor did I have a particular knack for keeping up with the traveling auditions. But I read Brainiac, Ken Jennings’s trivia history/account of his legendary Jeopardy run, and the way he described the show made me interested in trying to be on it all over again. And then Jeopardy started offering the online test, and I was out of excuses.

I was lucky enough to pass the test and score in-person auditions twice. My second audition was in May 2010. Trying out multiple times isn’t unusual. Vijay Balse, a recent Tournament of Champions winner, auditioned six times before he got on the show, a fact that gave me great comfort when I was called for Audition #2.

Even before I went into the audition, I had a fun experience while waiting in the hotel lobby. I glanced up from the book I was reading to see former presidential candidate, then-Massachusetts senator, and future Secretary of State John Kerry walk by. I immediately texted Bill with the news.

Boy, I bet he will be tough to audition against, Bill texted back.

Ha ha. However, whatever Kerry was doing in the St. Regis that morning, he wasn’t trying his hand at Jeopardy. But doesn’t he seem like just the kind of person who’s probably got millions of facts crowding his brain? I bet he would be tough to audition against. And think of the personal stories he could tell Alex. So, John, it says here you were a presidential candidate in 2004?


During the audition, you take another written test so they can make sure you didn’t have Ken Jennings feeding you answers when you took the online test. You also play a mock game of Jeopardy so they can make sure you’ll speak clearly, answer in the form of a question, keep the game moving, and not yell Shit! whenever you miss something. Finally you’ll chat with the contestant coordinators so they can get a sense of your personality.

I knew from my previous experience that the audition is a heck of a lot of fun. (Really, it is. In fact, one of my first thoughts when I learned I was going to be on the show was Well, shoot; I guess I can’t go to another audition.) Even if I never made it on the show, getting a little bit of the Jeopardy experience every couple of years wasn’t a bad gig at all. I’d win a door prize, get a spiffy Jeopardy pen, and have a good story to tell for a few weeks.

The thing about the auditions is that the coordinators will never tell you if they’re really going to ask you to be on the show. They’ll simply claim that everyone at the audition is in the pool and could be called at any point in the next 18 months, so don’t even think about taking the next year’s online test. People who you bragged to about your audition will be a little underwhelmed by all this.

Them: So how was your audition? When are you going to be on?

Me: Oh, they could call me any time in the next 18 months. I’m totally in the pool!

Them: Oh …

When another round of online tests and auditions took place in the winter of 2011, I assumed I hadn’t made the cut and would have to take the online test yet again in 2012. The thought of getting The Call from Jeopardy fell completely off my radar.

On a Friday night in September 2011, while Bill and I were in Barnes & Noble after our usual Friday night dinner date, I noticed I had a voice mail on my cell phone. The call was from Culver City, California.

Who the heck do I know in Culver City who’s got my cell number? I muttered as I pulled up the voice mail.

It was Maggie Speak, the woman who’d headed my Jeopardy audition, asking me to call her back.

She didn’t say We want you on the show in her message, but I knew damn well that Jeopardy people don’t call you just to ask what the weather’s like over on the East Coast. It was incredibly hard not to run around the store screaming.

I finally talked to Maggie on Monday afternoon; after a couple of missed connections I got her on my cell while Bill was driving us both home from work. After some friendly chat about the recent East Coast earthquake, she confirmed that Jeopardy did indeed want me on the show. Bill and I got home and called our parents with the news, and I marveled at the feeling that I’d made the Nerd Olympic Team at long last.

I had a month to get ready, so I made iPhone flashcards of standard Jeopardy fare like US presidents, world capitals, and Shakespeare and ran through them whenever I had a spare moment. I’d watch Jeopardy every night (in addition to any Game Show Network reruns I happened to catch) while standing up and holding a mock buzzer, and Bill kept track of my score and coached me on Final Jeopardy wagering.

I may or may not have spent slow periods at work obsessively going through the J! Archive site and drilling myself on all the questions. I may or may not have had a mini-nervous breakdown any time a new country emerged in Eastern Europe or Africa and I despaired at having yet another new country and capital to memorize. If the motto of the Olympics is Faster, Higher, Stronger, my motto for that entire month was Oh Crap, That Could Come Up.

(In answer to a question I’ve gotten more than once: No, the show does not give you a list of things to study. You’re on your own devising a review plan. It’s possible to identify the topics that come up a lot if you go through the J! Archive, and I really recommend doing that if you make it on the show.)

I taped on Wednesday, October 12; we flew into LA on Monday so I’d have a day to decompress before the big day. Bill had the wise idea to try to hang on to our jet lag as much as possible: our East Coast biorhythms—early to bed, early to rise (for LA)—would work well for Wednesday. It’s adorable that I actually believed I’d sleep the night before my taping.

On Wednesday morning, I was absolutely terrified. I had visions of being the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, running pell-mell from Trebek the Great and Terrible. But I finally managed to get downstairs and get on the Sony shuttle. During the ride to the studio, someone finally broke the tension by saying Boy, am I glad that Joon guy isn’t on here. Joon Pahk was nearing the end of his impressive TV run during the week of our taping; he was such a strong player that it really did seem possible that he’d be waiting in the studio for us, ready to kick all our asses.

We got to the Sony lot, and as much as I like to believe I’m not the slightest bit impressed by Hollywood, I couldn’t help but gawk at all the enormous buildings bearing the logos and pictures from various Sony productions. A giant Alex Trebek mural greeted us when Corinna led us to the Jeopardy building. The green room in the Jeopardy studio is right by a case full of all Jeopardy’s Emmy awards. We weren’t really allowed to linger anywhere, but I stole a few glances at all the gleaming statuettes and had the thought that I’m never going to be near that many Emmys ever again.

I cannot say enough nice things about the Jeopardy crew; every single person who worked with us was warm and friendly and did their best to put us at ease and keep us laughing. My fellow contestants were all good people too; I’ve heard tales about backstage jerks trying to psyche each other out, but nobody acted like that during my taping.

After a long morning of filling out tax forms, rehearsing our Alex stories, learning about every aspect of gameplay, and having our makeup done, we went out to the actual studio to rehearse, and my knees started shaking when I stepped onto the actual set for the first time. That set has changed dozens of times since I was a teenager, but it’s still the Jeopardy set. I was shocked by how tiny the audience seating area was. Bill was shocked by how chintzy the whole set looked.

We got to practice with the famous buzzers, tape our Hometown Howdies (little personalized messages local stations use to promote appearances by area residents, although I have yet to actually see one air on my Jeopardy station), and get used to being on the set. I felt like I held my own, and Maggie complimented me on my energy and on my shoes, which she kept stopping me to fuss over.

Jeopardy usually tapes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, doing five episodes each day. We didn’t see Alex Trebek prior to the taping of the first show. He doesn’t come out and shoot the breeze with the contestants; the show is meticulous about not allowing any possibility that he could influence the game in any way. I thought they might bring him out just to give us all a general Hi there—good luck! before things got rolling, but no.

So when the first show started taping and Alex emerged from his AlexCave right on Johnny Gilbert’s cue, as I had been watching him do since high school, I almost started crying. That’s when this all became really real for me.

The tapings were fascinating to watch; those of us who hadn’t been called sat in a separate section of the audience, engaging in phantom buzzer clicking whenever we knew an answer. Alex identified an incorrect clue while he was going over his notes during one taping break, and there was a minor flurry of activity when someone accidentally revealed a video clue during another break. (The techs ended up replacing that entire category.) You don’t know when you’re going to be called to play, so my nerves were waxing and waning all day. I was finally chosen to play in the last show of the day.

Something funny: Behind each contestant podium is a little platform that can be raised and lowered so that the three contestants are of relatively similar height. (This makes it easier on the camerapeople.) I got chided for looking down when I was being raised up. But c’mon, it was neat.

Alex pronounced my name exactly as I had always imagined he would—Nee-cole in the French fashion, rather than the Nih-cole everyone including me says.

Every contestant says that the game flies by incredibly fast when you’re up there. They’re not lying. When I watched the broadcast I was amazed by how much of the game I didn’t even remember.

For the first few minutes, the game was shaping up to be the colossal trainwreck I imagined in my worst nightmares. William, the returning champion, was utterly slaughtering both me and Drew. He had over $8,000 before the first break. I barely knew anything in the first couple categories (very funny, Jeopardy—I study Shakespeare and you throw “Hip-Hop Hoopsters” at me instead), and I was being locked out of the questions I did know. And I have no idea why I didn’t ring in with What is Pinto? when the clue was Horse or bean.

Before they cut to the first commercial, Alex said “Nee-cole and Drew, it’s OK for you two to buzz in too!” The contestant coordinators were a little indignant about that one afterwards, but I thought it was funny and I was disappointed it was cut from the broadcast.

What you don’t see on TV: During every commercial break, the entire staff swoops down on the contestants, bringing us water, touching up our makeup, and coaching us if we’re having issues buzzing in. I got a lot of coaching during that first break. 

But here’s the funny thing: despite all the fuss, I wasn’t frustrated or panicked at all. It was early. There were categories on the board I was bound to know better. I had faith that eventually, I’d get my footing and get into the game. This is entirely unlike how I am in everyday life, when a missing slash in an HTML tag can reduce me to a gibbering wreck.

Anyhow, we came back, I told my Hillary Clinton story(*), everyone laughed, Drew and William told their stories, and then things started to turn around. I got into the First Ladies category and knew most of them, and I had a decent score going into Double Jeopardy. During the second break, Maggie hustled over to compliment me on turning things around and then took me to get my picture taken with Alex.

[*Addendum, 10/28/2022: What was my Hillary Clinton story? Way back in the 90s, I was a volunteer at the White House. I helped sort the First Lady’s mail, which was no small undertaking. She got gigantic tubs of mail every day, as you can probably imagine. Anyhow, one night a volunteer opened a letter and let out an awful shriek. Why? Someone had sent Hillary a moldy piece of sandwich. They thought the sandwich might be poisoned and wanted Hillary to look into it. I don’t think we sorted that one into the “Letters to Pass Along to Mrs. Clinton” bin.]

Double Jeopardy went much better. “What A 19th Century Literary Character” was right in my wheelhouse and I was also glad to see the Wordplay category; I always enjoy those at home. I felt like I played really well after a lousy start, and although I wasn’t conscious of it while it was happening, everyone told me later that it was a great, tense game. Bill showed me the raw red knuckle he’d been chewing during the game.

And I even got one of the Jeopardy chestnuts I’d seen emerge during my long sessions poring over J-Archive. Some day Jeopardy will ask a question about a Finnish composer who is not Sibelius and contestant heads will explode, but it wasn’t on my day, fortunately.

[Addendum, 10/28/22: I originally wrote this assuming anyone who read it had seen my episode. Since this is no longer the case, I have to make a painful admission. I was in the lead going into Final Jeopardy, but made the rookie mistake of forgetting that if a word in the FJ clue is in quotes, it must be included in the response. Oof. That knowledge smarted for a long time, but I can kinda laugh about it now…nah, it still kind of smarts. But what can you do?]

Trust me that I’m going to be smacking myself in the head over that Famous Firsts in Final Jeopardy for the rest of my life. I have no excuse for that other than being so excited when I realized 1914 had to be World War I that the whole Yo—“First” has to be part of the response, dumbwad part completely slipped my mind and I scrawled down World War I instead of First World War. It all seems so easy when I’m playing Living Room Jeopardy. Drew, who’d actually paid attention to the clue, got it right and won.

After Final Jeopardy, we got to have the post-game chat with Alex. Mr. Trebek is still quite the badass in his early 70s; he’d chased a burglar out of his hotel room and hurt his Achilles tendon during the summer before our taping, so he’d missed some taping days for foot surgery and they’d been making those days up during my week. Poor Alex was a hurtin’ hombre by the end of my show; he had a cast on his foot and sat on a stool for most of the games but still had to do a good bit of walking and standing. He was gracious during the after-game chat, but all too quickly, he bade us goodbye and disappeared back into his AlexCave.

Bill and I were in the Sony garage’s elevator on the way to our rental car when several people around us started saying “Great game! Great game!” It took me a few seconds to realize they were talking to me. My head was still in the Ohmigawd, I was just on Jeopardy! clouds.

And just like that, my Jeopardy experience was over. Andy Warhol once said that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes and I got 22 minutes, so I think I came out ahead, right? That was the only time I’ve had a reporter call my house looking to interview me, and being serenaded by the Jeopardy Think! music on the way to my desk one morning at work was a fun way to start off the day. 

My episode aired on December 9, so I probably did more talking at parties during that holiday season than I’ve ever done in my life. When I walked into a family reunion in 2013, people who hadn’t seen me since I was a little girl knew exactly who I was because they’d seen me on the show. And when my episode ran again in 2013, I had a whole new round of being stopped in the halls at work.

Obviously, I wish things had ended differently, but I don’t regret getting to be on Jeopardy at all. And if you ever wanted to try taking the online test yourself, do it! Should you make it to an audition (which is a lot of fun itself) and on the show, let me know. I now have a pile of trivia books that’s taller than I am.

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So there you have it. To tie this into my writing career: On the plane home from LA, I thought “Well, OKthat’s a big thing off the bucket list. How can we top that, Nicole?” The answer came to me pretty quickly: I wanted to write a novel and get it published. This was in mid-October of 2011. At the end of the month, I signed up for my first NaNoWriMo. And I wrote my very first novel that November. It wasn’t a good novel and was never published, but eventually, during NaNoWriMo #6, I wrote the first draft of what became Tidepool. Everything is connected. 

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