BACKSTAGE AT ‘JEOPARDY!’ : Tune in for the nervous hopefuls, the hard-working researchers, the well-dressed host and the amazing winners on the smart set’s favorite game show.
IT IS MID-MORNING on a tape day, and the atmosphere in the “Jeopardy!” contestant room at Hollywood Center Studios is dawn-before-battle tense.
Susanne Thurber, the show’s contestant coordinator, skillfully begins talking her 14 charges off the ledge. In soothing, maternal tones, she invites the prospective players, most of them middle-aged men in business suits, to have a muffin or a bagel. The would-be players make nervous jokes. “I hereby promise to name my first child Merv,” one says with mock solemnity, alluding to “Jeopardy!” creator Merv Griffin, who developed the quiz in which players provide the questions, not the answers.
The edgy chatter stops and the candidates are as still as jacklighted deer while Thurber advises them on how to behave if they are picked to appear on one of the five shows--a week’s worth--that will be taped today.
“No swearing if you can help it. We had a lovely lady the other day who kept saying ‘Dammit.’ We can bloop it out, but people are usually very good lip-readers.”
Thurber warns the contestants not to think of the dollar amounts they will accumulate during the game as money in the bank. “They’re really points. They call them dollars, but the only person who is going to go home with any money is the person who wins.”
Most of the people in the contestant room are locals. But a few have come from as far away as Atlanta and Baltimore. The out-of-towners have invested their own money to fly here (though on rare occasions a local TV station foots the bill), and they will pay for their own motel rooms tonight if they are asked to return tomorrow. “Jeopardy!” offers would-be contestants no material inducements beyond the odd bagel and, of course, the chance to win money. As five-time winner Sandra Gore says: “I went on ‘Jeopardy!’ because I wanted to win cash. I didn’t want to go home with a ceramic Dalmatian and parting gifts.”
Thurber guides the players-to-be through a stack of paper work that has evolved in response to the quiz-show scandals of the ‘50s and the litigiousness of the ‘80s. Candidates swear, among other things, that they are not related to or conspiring with anyone connected with the show. If they are members of the Screen Actors Guild or other acting guilds, they declare in writing that they aren’t making more than $5,200 a year at it. They promise not to run for public office until after their shows, if any, have aired. They promise not to sue.
Most of the people in this room will lose on “Jeopardy!” They don’t realize that yet, but Thurber does. Part Mom, part psychiatric nurse, she gives their egos a preliminary boost. “We see 15,000 potential contestants a year, and only 400 get to sit in this room. It’s something you should all be proud of.
“It’s a game,” Thurber says, trying once again to reduce the palpable anxiety in the room. “You should play it like a game and not as if it were a life-threatening thing.
“Have a good time,” she says as she leads her charges downstairs to the studio.
IF GAME SHOWS were universities, “Jeopardy!” would be Harvard. As a video commodity, it is the second-most popu lar syndicated series in the country, trailing, but gaining on, Griffin’s other wildly successful game show, “Wheel of Fortune.” An estimated 25 million viewers tune in nightly, their numbers peaking during the show’s annual two-week Teen Tournament, which will air in Los Angeles starting tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 13. The annual Tournament of Champions, during which the year’s top money winners compete for $100,000, and the Seniors Tournament, for players over 50, also draw big audiences.
As a cultural phenomenon, “Jeopardy!” stands alone. Since the demise of “General Electric College Bowl” in 1970, it is the only game show that a person with a Phi Beta Kappa key can appear on without a detailed explanation to his or her friends. In a nation that mistrusts its grinds and eggheads, it is the sole public forum for Americans who can do the intellectual equivalent of a slam-dunk.
“Jeopardy!” draws a diverse set of fans. Billy Crystal, Laker forward James Worthy, Frank Sinatra and Madonna tune in, along with virtually everyone who ever bragged about his or her SAT scores. The original “Jeopardy!"-- hosted by Art Fleming, aided by the mellifluous Don Pardo--ran from 1963 to 1975 and was briefly revived in 1978-79. The new “Jeopardy!” premiered in 1984 with debonair French-Canadian Alex Trebek as host.
In the current game, three contestants vie to win cash by answering questions on subjects ranging from World Geography to Famous Fish. In the first round, called Jeopardy, the players are presented with 30 clues in six categories. Each clue is worth $100 to $500. The players press high-tech buzzers to indicate that they are ready to respond to clues revealed on an enormous electronic game board. The first person to buzz may answer, framing his or her response in the form of a question. A sample clue and response, in the category Four-Letter Words: You can do it to a curfew or a ballerina / What is lift ? Correct responses add dollars to the player’s total, wrong responses reduce it.
In the second round, Double Jeopardy, the 30 clues are somewhat harder and are worth more, $200 to $1,000. Both rounds include hidden Daily Doubles, which afford players the opportunity to increase their winnings by betting some or all of their money on the likelihood that they will answer one clue correctly. To win, contestants must wager shrewdly as well as recall facts. “That’s why it’s called ‘Jeopardy!’ not ‘Questions & Answers,’ ” says David Shear, a three-time winner.
Finally, the players face Final Jeopardy. They are told the last category, The Civil War, say, or Fruits and Vegetables. They then wager all, part or none of their winnings on their ability to get the last question right. Occasionally, a contestant who is out in front will bungle his or her bet and lose by a single miscalculated dollar, giving new meaning to the phrase the agony of defeat. The player who ends up with the most money wins--an average of $10,000 a game--and may appear as often as five times if undefeated. The others go home with “parting gifts” and the knowledge that they have lost in front of millions of people, including Madonna and Mom. Worst of all, the shows are rerun from time to time. As Shear says, “It gets on my nerves. I keep losing.”
AT A “Jeopardy!” contestant search in Hollywood, 90 hopefuls showed up on a recent Tuesday morning. Three obstacles stood between them and an appearance on “Jeopardy!”: a written quiz, a practice game and a personal interview. The written test consists of 50 questions and is revised every three months. Each question is shown on a television monitor while Alex Trebek’s voice is heard reading it aloud. What building, applicants might be asked, appears on the back of an American $20 bill? What’s the name of the small blue creatures that star on a Saturday morning TV program? They have 10 seconds to respond, and answers don’t have to be phrased in the form of questions. According to a “Jeopardy!” press kit, 70%--or 35 right--is a passing grade. A show spokesman says the test knocks out 80% of all comers. Today, 14 are left standing.
After the unsuccessful test-takers leave, the survivors play a mock “Jeopardy!” game in the empty studio, hitting hotel desk bells instead of buzzers. Suddenly, the name of the game has changed from Being Smart to Being Fast, Personable and Smart.
“Our show is not the one where you have to dress like ducks or chickens, or spin a wheel like some show we know, but we are looking for people with high energy,” counsels staffer Glenn Kagan, who stands in for Trebek during the practice games. “This is no time to be quiet, shy and retiring,” Thurber urges. “Play as if you were going to get the big bucks today.” As they play the game, several of the plainer prospects blossom in the simulated spotlight, beating their opponents to the bell and answering authoritatively in question form. A few others seem to have trouble ringing and thinking at the same time.
At the end of the practice games, half of those who passed the written test are dismissed. Thurber is especially gentle with this group, who have had their expectations raised, then dashed. “Come back and try again after three months,” she says.
The seven victors in the gamesmanship phase of the competition are asked to stand and give short speeches about themselves. Attorneys, teachers, actors and other people who speak regularly in public are at a distinct advantage. New Yorker Bob Verini, a 37-year-old actor /director who won the 1987 Tournament of Champions, recalls: “I was able to play the kind of person I thought they were looking for. I tried to be upbeat, articulate but not stuffy, pleasant and kind of jokey but not a wise guy.”
Less than two hours after they arrived, the seven finalists leave the studio with vague assurances that “Jeopardy!” may call them in the future. They are all smiling.
AT 48, ALEX Trebek, the salt-and-pepper-haired host of “Jeopardy!” could be an unusually handsome professor of, say, philosophy, which was his major at the University of Ottawa. Elegantly dressed by Mr. Guy of Beverly Hills, Trebek adds a well-read-man-in-his-library presence to the throbbing electronic “Jeopardy!” set. And Trebek is more than just another pretty suit. He once took a version of the show’s written test and scored a respectable 43--86%.
Trebek has been a quizmaster in the United States since 1973, when friend and fellow Canadian Alan Thicke recommended him as host for the short-lived “The Wizard of Odds.” Trebek had spent the previous 12 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., doing news and special events in both English and French (his Canadian shows included a series devoted to figure-skating). As host of both “Jeopardy!” and “Classic Concentration,” which he also produces, Trebek is said to make almost $1 million a year.
Every day that programs are taped--there are 46 such sessions a season--Trebek studies all the questions and answers that might appear on the five shows to be produced that day. He reads the material for accuracy and nuance and verifies pronunciations--occasionally, he needs to perfect the spin on a word like ichthyophagous.
During breaks in the taping, he fields questions from the “Jeopardy!” studio audience. Women want to know his marital status. No, he is not married now. A six-year previous marriage produced no children, although he has an adult stepdaughter named Nicky who works as a runner on the show. He lives, with his mother, in a house in the Hollywood Hills that he helped design and build. And, no, he does not alphabetize his herbs and spices, as one magazine reported, although he does hang his light-colored clothes on light hangers and his dark clothes on dark ones.
Trebek is easy with his audience. “At birth,” he tells a recent group, “Canadian babies are taught to say eh at the end of every sentence.” But when the cameras roll, he is all business (“Let’s go to work,” he urges players), except for the occasional, often self-deprecating quip.
It has to be that way, Trebek says. “On ‘Classic Concentration,’ you can kid around and use up 5 or 10 or 15 seconds, and you are not materially impeding the progress of a player toward the solution of a puzzle. Whereas, on ‘Jeopardy!’ we’re trying to cover 61 clues, and we’ve got to move it. And there are three contestants. If one has $2,000, another one has $2,000 and the third one has $100, and I decide I’m going to waste 15 seconds by telling a joke, the one who has $100 is gonna say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Butt out, Trebek. I want to earn some money to catch up with these others.’ So I can’t do that. You’ve got to be serious, and you’ve got be very fair.”
Trebek is modest about his role. “The stars of the show are the players--not the host--and the material.
“JEOPARDY!"gobbles up information. With 61 questions and answers per show, hundreds of fresh facts are needed each week to test the mettle of the players in the studio and millions who play along at home. The man who feeds the fact monster is the show’s editorial associate producer, Harry Eisenberg.
Eisenberg, a soft-spoken native of Brooklyn who says he sometimes writes “Jeopardy!” clues in his dreams, supervises a research staff of 13. Five days a week, staff members are expected to produce a daily quota of three categories with six clues and answers (five will appear on the show, one is a backup). Although any staffer can create a category, the work tends to be divided, with five developing most of the categories and the others doing the requisite research and proofreading.
“They are free to write anything they want, but they’ve got to keep the bases covered,” Eisenberg says of his staff. The bases, he explains, are five broad areas: academic subjects, life style (including religion, fashion and food), pop culture, wordplay and people.
Although the staff denies playing favorites and keeps no-no lists of well-worn categories, many observers are convinced that there are certain pet subjects that frequently pop up on “Jeopardy!” “They love royalty!” says veteran player Shear, a 40-year-old former journalist from West Los Angeles, who won $24,402 on the show in 1986. “Whenever you see Royalty, you know it’s bad news. You know you’re going to put the wrong number after the king or queen. They love the Nobel Prize! They love the Caspian Sea! They love Leadville, Colo., ‘the highest city in the United States!’ ”
Other former contestants add landlocked nations and Alexander the Great to the catalogue of recurring motifs.
Eisenberg, who has been with the show almost five years, has a practiced sense of what makes for good “Jeopardy!” material. He once taught American history at a community college in Maryland (he also sold photocopiers), and he says preparing material for the show is similar to making up a good test. A clue is never used on “Jeopardy!” with the hope that no one will get the answer, he says. But, he adds, “you want to reach the point where you can separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Ideally, only one contestant out of three knows the answer.”
Questions are pretested, “round-tabled,” by a group of at least five staff members. The staff tries to make sure that each question is “pinned,” its term for a clue that elicits a single, unambiguous response. Material is also tested for obscurity. Eisenberg doesn’t mind hard, but he doesn’t like esoteric. “If nobody knows an answer except the writer, we throw the question out.”
Although “Jeopardy!” categories are summed up in a word or two and the “answers” posed to the players are never longer than seven short lines, they are a major factor in the pleasurable buzz that fans get from the show. Like successful sonneteers and good headline writers, “Jeopardy!” staffers exercise their creativity within the constraints of an odd little form. Eisenberg affectionately cites such classic categories as Kings Named Ed and Famous Pigs.
Each of the show’s researchers has areas of special interest and expertise, as well as a basic enthusiasm for pop culture. Kathy Easterling comes up with much of the material dealing with Shakespeare, royalty, actors and their roles, dance and celebrity weddings. Perhaps her finest hour was Those Darn Etruscans, a category she created for the third “Jeopardy!” Tournament of Champions in 1986.
One of her questions had the distinction of tripping up the legendary Charles (Chuck) Forrest, generally acknowledged to be the Alexander the Great of “Jeopardy!” players. Forrest, then a baby-faced law student of 25, won five daily games in 1986. He took his $72,800 and moved on to the tournament. During that competition, he handily beat his opponents to the buzzer to respond to the Easterling clue: “ ‘Fufluns’ was the Etruscan counterpart of this Greco-Roman god of grape-guzzling.” “Who,” responded Forrest, “was Dionysius?” Later, even his mother said Chuck should have known better--the name was Dionysus. (Forrest won the tournament anyway, adding $100,000--the tournament limit--to his winnings.)
Easterling says she, and most of her colleagues, are fact junkies. “I’m always tearing pages out of magazines or marking them up with red pen.” She keeps a notebook near her TV at home to record after-hours inspirations. Occasionally, what looks great in the notebook misses the mark on the screen. Easterling once fashioned a category, Heads, around the macabre fact that Sir Walter Raleigh’s widow carried the decapitated knight’s head around in a velvet bag. Easterling’s clue was: “It’s said this man’s wife would pull his head out of a bag and ask, ‘Have you met Sir Walter?’ ” When the clue appeared on the show, the contestants were silent. “All they had to come up with was his last name, but they were so stunned they couldn’t answer,” she says.
Accuracy is a point of honor with the “Jeopardy!” staff. Proofreading of clues goes on even during taping, when the research staff keeps a close eye on the game board. Although one show featured the category Oops, acknowledging and correcting errors that had slipped onto the show, mistakes are rare. “When we do make mistakes, usually our sources are wrong,” Eisenberg says. Such was the case when the staff identified the University of Mexico as the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere. Viewers were quick to point out that the University of Santo Domingo, founded in 1538, is more than a decade older. “We now have questions double-sourced,” Eisenberg says.
The best way to check the accuracy of “Jeopardy!” material is to go right to the source. Staffer Steve Dorfman once called Buffalo Bob to learn if it was true that Howdy Doody had 48 freckles, one for each of the 48 states then in the union; it was. Another staffer, Suzanne Stone, asked the wife of Albert Sabin to confirm that he had tested his oral polio vaccine on himself and his family before general testing was done. That, too, was true.
Just as “Jeopardy!” material is vetted for fairness and accuracy, it is also expected to be in good taste. Easterling recalls that a category was once changed from Hell to the less offensive Heaven and Hell. On rare occasions, material is deemed tasteless and nixed. Researcher Frederik Pohl IV recalls an instance involving the answer: “Rocky Mountain goat, sheep, oyster--the one that comes from the other two.” Producer George Vosburgh ruled “No way.”
ANYBODY WHO ever sat in his recliner shouting answers at the video image of Alex Trebek thinks he was born to win on “Jeopardy!” Once the couch cognoscenti make it onto a show, however, the vast majority discover the simple truth of former contestant Shear’s observation: “It’s a lot easier to play the game at home than in the studio.”
There’s the buzzer, for one thing. Operating the real thing on the set is something contestants get to do for the first time during a brief tape-day rehearsal. Learning how to work it is a major stumbling block for some. Contestants are not supposed to buzz in, signaling their readiness to answer, until Trebek finishes reading the last syllable of the question. At that moment, a neon tube that runs around the game board lights up, letting contestants know they are free to buzz. If they press before the light goes on, their buzzers are automatically incapacitated for two-tenths of a second. As Susanne Thurber tells contestants-to-be, “That’s not long, but it’s long enough for someone else to ring in or for your entire life to flash before you.” (The pens with which the contestants write their answers in Final Jeopardy also shut off automatically after the 30-second time limit.)
Chuck Forrest’s finesse with the buzzer, said to have been honed on video games, awed even the “Jeopardy!” staff. A contestant who lost big and wrote about it later described just how crucial getting the right rhythm can be: “The beeper! The dreaded beeper! Of the first eight or 10 questions that flashed before my eyes, I knew about five or six answers. But not once, not once, was I able to buzz at the right time. It was like intellectual drag-racing, but not knowing when to gun the engine.”
Many of the players who have entered the pantheon of big winners say they spent weeks, even months, preparing for their shot. In 1988, Sandra Gore was the first woman to make the finals of a Tournament of Champions (women have traditionally done better in the Seniors Tournament). Gore, a 36-year-old New Yorker, began training for the tournament after she won $53,507 on five shows and retired undefeated. Some players stop drinking or start running before tournaments. Gore worked on building her stamina. She knew she might play five games in one day, a real test of how well a player can budget his or her energy. So she taped “Jeopardy!” shows from her TV each evening, then played along, five games at a time. “I watched it standing up,” she says. She practiced buzzing in by pressing on a container of dental floss.
Contestants have gone on the show with talismans ranging from a good-luck fingernail paring to a can of sardines. In case luck was what she needed, Gore tucked a crystal charm into her purse. She also wore comfortable, flat shoes as part of her strategy, and finished third in the tournament, adding $13,000 to her previous winnings.
Mark Lowenthal, the 40-year-old State Department official who won the 1988 tournament, crammed for his appearances. As a safeguard against cheating, neither “Jeopardy!” players nor staff know what categories are going to come up--they are chosen the morning of taping by staff of the Department of Broadcast Standards at ABC, which provides the service to the syndicated show. So Lowenthal took a shotgun approach. He filled a little notebook with facts and bought reference books and underlined them. He learned everything he could about the presidents, the 50 states, world geography, the Academy Awards, sports (the category he dreaded), classical music, popular music and TV (another of his scholarly weaknesses). For good measure, he memorized the periodic table of elements, the bones of the human body and the site of every Olympics since 1896.
He also taped shows and played along, not standing up like Gore but often lying in bed. He practiced with a makeshift buzzer not so much to improve his rhythm as to teach himself not to ring in unless he knew an answer or could confidently guess cor rectly. Home players constantly guess impulsively, but, as Lowenthal notes, “wrong answers are not cost-free on the show.”
In the weeks before the tournament, he was visited in the flesh by Forrest, who had graduated from the University of Michigan after his “Jeopardy!” triumph and joined the State Department. A mutual friend there arranged a meeting between the two. Forrest, who recently went to the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia as a political officer, told Lowenthal that he had studied the show and calculated that sports turned up only 5% of the time. Lowenthal sighed gratefully.
Lowenthal, who has a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, says he believes that his six weeks or so of preparation were well worth it. “What all the studying did was to give me a greater sense of confidence. It struck me as a worthwhile investment of time, given the potential payoff.” Lowenthal won a total of $149,901 on the show.
Most people who win on “Jeopardy!” are happy, for a time. It’s fun to win money on TV, in front of viewer Frank Sinatra, for an activity that does not require heavy lifting. Still, while big winners are embarrassed to say so, many feel that $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 is nice, but, as one put it, “it’s not winning the lottery.” They are not fixed for life. They might put a “Jeopardy!” windfall down on a house (one winner called his Casa “Jeopardy!”). It can pay some of a child’s college bills or allow a winner to treat himself to things he might not otherwise buy. Lowenthal says the only thing he’s bought so far is a rather expensive kaleidoscope that he found at a craft fair. “That’s about as frivolous as I get,” he says. “I’m not a high frivol.”
Bob Verini, who works part time at a Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center in New York City, took the $46,802 he won as an undefeated “Jeopardy!” champion in 1987 and founded the Manticore Theater, a theater company that produces new plays and neglected classics. “The money allowed me to take my destiny in my hands,” he says. Carlo Panno’s life was also changed by “Jeopardy!” Panno was on the resurrected Art Fleming version of “Jeopardy!” in 1978, winning $6,850 in one show, which was briefly a record. More important, he met Deborah Dean in the contestant pool. They are married, and Panno now works for “Jeopardy!” as a researcher.
Strangers come up and tell “Jeopardy!” winners how smart they are. Lowenthal was recognized recently by another passenger on a small boat during a vacation in the Coral Sea.
The losers are left with little but their “Jeopardy!” home games and other consolation prizes. Sometimes they cry; they always remember what they got wrong. Gore still finds it hard to believe that she couldn’t recall Jimmy Carter when asked in the final Final Jeopardy the names of three of the four 20th-Century presidents who ran for the office and lost (the others were Taft, Hoover and Ford). Losing on “Jeopardy!” probably isn’t as bad as satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic depicts it in a song that features the voice of Don Pardo intoning: “That’s right, Al, you lost. . . . But that’s not all. You also made yourself look like a jerk in front of millions of people and brought shame and disgrace on your family name for generations to come.”
Thurber treats the losers compassionately, always making it a point to thank contestants who have lost before they slip out of the studio. In David Shear’s view, “A psychologist could make a fortune counseling game-show contestants who have lost.”
“You have to keep it in perspective,” Lowenthal says, unwittingly quoting Thurber and the “Jeopardy!” credo.
“It’s only a game.”
BACK IN THE studio on tape day, the games are about to begin. The contestants have played their practice games and are as ready as they will ever be. The lights on the game board flash, and the familiar music begins to swell. Thurber has chosen the players who will go on first. John Lauderdale, “Jeopardy!” stage manager, shows the three contestants--one returning champion and two challengers--where to wait off-camera for their cues. Lauderdale has put a wooden booster box behind the podium of the shortest player. In the wings, Alex Trebek smoothes his gray suit jacket and adjusts his maroon tie. Suddenly Johnny Gilbert cries, “This is ‘JEOPARDY!’. . . “