I’ve always been a wizard at Jeopardy – from the safety of my couch.
I have a mind for minutiae, and a reputation for cleaning up handily in family games of Trivial Pursuit. I love any kind of quiz or knowledge test, and I’ve long viewed Jeopardy! as the biggest stage of all for this kind of stuff: the Big Leagues, The Great White Way, the Coliseum, the Brainiac Olympics. So it was thrilling and instructive to finally get to enter the arena myself and play on the show.
Tomorrow, Tuesday March 20th, you can see how I did. But one thing I can share with you now about playing on TV versus playing on your couch:
It’s very different. (Surprise.)
When you play Jeopardy! on your couch, you answer every question and rack up amazing Coryat scores again and again;on TV, you play against two other living, breathing Jeopardy! nerds with itchy buzzer fingers who’ve been waiting and playing and preparing just as long and hard as you have. In other words: on your couch, you are an unchallenged master; on TV, not so much.
When you play on your couch, no one sees you but your spouse, roommate, or cat. You can be unshaven, unbathed, unclothed even – no one will care. When you play on TV, you’re on TV. Which means you’re going to have to watch it, possibly even in Hi-Def. Which means you’ll be staring at that lazy eye, those extra ten pounds, that funny thing your lip does when you pronounce the letter “G”…things that exist only in your head, really, but will almost certainly make you squirm watching it. What makes this easier is that Jeopardy! has a crack team of make-up artists on hand to make sure you look ten times better than you’ve ever looked in real life.
On TV, you have to contend with the actual signaling device; on your couch you don’t have to signal at all. The infamous “buzzer problems” are a real phenomenon, but not because the devices are in any way faulty: they just have a weight and a feel all their own, and take some getting used to. While I was preparing for the show, I trained using a clickable ball-point pen. This proved to be highly inadequate, the equivalent of training on a moped to drive a Mack truck.
On your couch, you get to see your living room; on TV, you get to see Los Angeles, which if you don’t already live there is a nice fringe benefit. I did live there for a while several years ago, so I didn’t do any Hollywood sightseeing myself. But I did enjoy a beautiful run along the beach in Santa Monica, and even got in a little celebrity spotting. (Yes, Goran Visnjic, I saw you downing that burger at Jack in the Box.)
When you play on TV, the great thing is that everyone in America can see how smart you are! The problem is that everyone in America can also see how smart you aren’t. Your family and friends might tune in to see you dominate the buzzer, go big on Daily Doubles, and ace Final Jeopardy again and again, winning and winning until you’re haloed in glory, the next Ken Jennings or Roger Craig…or they may all surround their TVs and watch you stand there frozen like a deer in the headlights. You never know what board you’re going to get, nor which competitors. Here’s the thing: no one who gets on Jeopardy! is dumb – you jump through too many hoops to get there for any competitor to be an idiot. But you just can’t know how you’ll play your actual game until you’re standing there playing it, and there are no second chances unless you win. So even though you’re super-sharp, you could end up looking not-so-bright on TV. That’s the risk. On your couch, no one will ever know you had a bad game except that spouse/roommate/cat. It’s much more comfortable there, definitely.
But here’s the thing: when you play on your couch, you’re a Jeopardy! fan; when you play on TV, you’re Jeopardy! family. To the more cynical of you, that may sound silly, but bear with me: the shuttle drivers, the show runners, the contestant wranglers, the stage manager, the other contestants themselves – being on the show means spending time surrounded by a bunch of really smart, really funny, really decent human beings who love something you also love. On your couch, you don’t get to meet sly, droll Robert, who teases out your personal anecdotes; you don’t spend hours with whiskey-voiced, hilarious Maggie, who almost never comes up for air in her epic contestant-preparation aria. (It’s about 1/3 important info you need to know, 1/3 cheerleading to boost your energy, and 1/3 stand-up act to calm your nerves. Maybe it’s natural, maybe she mainlines Red Bull – either way, she’s a marvel.) You don’t get to watch Johnny Gilbert at the mic, or see Kelly from the Clue Crew live and in person, or make small talk with Alex Trebek. When you’ve played on TV, you see everything going on behind the scenes, and when you watch again you can picture it all, just outside the camera’s view. When you’ve played on TV, you never look at Jeopardy! the same way again.
So yeah, there’s my challenge to you: are you willing to play both ways? If you’ve played on your couch, put yourself out there and try playing on TV. Sure you’d have to put some clothes on, bathe, and shave; sure you’ll have to look at your weird face on TV; and sure, you may be a disaster on the buzzer and find yourself playing against Roger Craig 3.0 and America may end up thinking you’re an idiot — but it’s worth it! Jeopardy!’s awesome, and if you get on Jeopardy!, you get to be a little bit more awesome by being a part of it.
For these two weeks, I’ll see my Jeopardy! “class” enter the arena and play in the Big League. For these two weeks, I’ll get to watch two ways, on TV and on my couch: as the fan I’ve always been, and as someone cheering on people I got to know, however briefly. That’s pretty awesome all by itself.