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Thank You, Johnny
A few reflections, post-Jeopardy.
I have struggled for some time with how best to write all these things down, in large part because it feels like you need a real ego to presume any level of outside interest when you write about yourself. But I’ve made my peace with it, at least for today. Writing anything for the consumption of others is inherently going to have a touch of ego about it and it’s better to move through the world without doing that “look at me but don’t look at me” thing. So here I am.
My episode of Jeopardy! aired last night. Episode, singular. I only got the one. Perhaps I shouldn’t even call it “my episode,” as it, like its four predecessors, ultimately belonged to Tyler Rhode. Tyler was a gracious champion and a cool guy and I’m glad I got to hang around the SONY lot with him for a few days as we waited for our turns and eventually collided on stage.
I am a competitive person—perhaps to an unhealthy degree, as my competitive drive often outpaces my actual talents—and it is much easier to know how to feel when you’ve been competing against people you don’t like. That didn’t happen for me on the Jeopardy! set. Tyler and Abby, the third player in our game, were great, and in the childish part of my brain, that mostly made losing feel even worse.
It took me a while to feel anything at all, though. Comparing notes across two days1 of tapings with other players, the common thread among just about all of us was a feeling that we had blacked out, that our souls had left our bodies for a few hours. Processing any kind of emotion on that day was basically a no-go. My name was called, I got up on stage, and I competed. And then it was all over, just like that, and a few hours later I was sitting at my gate at LAX wondering where all my months of planning and practicing and hoping and dreaming had gone.
I played and flew home on a Friday. On Saturday I opted out of every possible plan presented me and instead just sat on the couch, intermittently crying and watching TV and staring into space. It was bizarre, to need to grieve and not be able to ask anyone besides my wife to share that grief, out of both contractual obligation and a desire not to spoil anything for my friends and loved ones.
Silly, maybe, to call it grief. What a charmed life you have to have led to treat “getting to accomplish a lifelong dream” as something to get sad about. And trust me: I’ve been reflecting on that charmed life thing a lot lately, too. How supported and uplifted I have gotten to feel at every step of this process, from the day I got the email that I’d advanced to a second audition through the air date of the show. The staggering number of hours my wife spent on J! Archive, playing through old games with me to help me prepare. The regular texts from my wife’s grandma, possibly the biggest Jeopardy! fan on earth, giving me pointers and making sure I’d been keeping up with the latest show news. The friends who offered to put me in touch with, like, their sister’s cousin’s babysitter’s former college roomate who had been on the show in case it would help me get ready. The game my two brothers set up for the three of us on the night before I flew to L.A., so I could get in one last practice round against people who have a lot of experience in not letting me win.
People, man. I’ve said the same thing in the past when I get asked about the best part of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail2: it wasn’t the triumph of me doing something big, because in doing anything big there is no me. You don’t get far along in your journey toward anything worthwhile without a whole lot of help. And it’s hard not to get there without feeling a tremendous sense of gratitude for, and debt to, all those people who dragged your sorry ass to the finish line.
Before Tuesday night, when I got to actually watch the episode in full, I couldn’t have told you more than three categories that came up in the entire game. It was that intense of an experience, and it moved that quickly. Everything the long-term champs always say about the buzzer timing being the key to victory is true, I found out. For a majority of the questions, all three of us were buzzing in3; across the other nine games I got to watch during my two days in LA, that was also the case. The sum total of trivial knowledge in that room on any given day is terrifying to contemplate.
It’s funny, what else you notice when you’re up there on stage and what completely escapes you.
Because of COVID, we taped without a studio audience, so the only people watching were the other contestants and the people who make the show. A few minutes before my game began, I noticed one of them walk in, and—forgetting I was on a hot mic—whispered “Is that Michael Davies? I listen to his podcast!” The whole room heard it, including Davies. (He then addressed it on said podcast4 a few days later. I wasn’t the first person to shout him out, but for integrity’s sake he can’t acknowledge the contestants in any way, it turns out.)
You might reasonably assume that contestants adjust their Final Jeopardy wagers based on their comfort level with the category. For my part, I was strictly betting based on math; from my position in second place I needed to wager enough to win if Tyler got the answer wrong but enough to stay ahead of Abby if I were wrong but she bet it all and got it right. I literally didn’t realize that the category was “Scientists” until they put the actual question up for us to answer. I am maybe not what you would call “detail-oriented.”
The lights change color dramatically during Final Jeopardy as contestants make their wagers and write their answers. We all remarked on this repeatedly from the crowd, but standing up there I didn’t see a thing. I think a meteor could’ve hit the studio and I would’ve still been standing there trying desperately to remember random facts from college astronomy class.
There aren’t many special effects that go into the show, but there is still a little Hollywood magic. For instance, you may have incorrectly assumed, as I had, that everyone who had ever appeared on Jeopardy! was the exact same height. This is not the case. There are electronic risers behind each podium that they tinker with to get everyone’s heads level. As the tallest player in my game—one small victory—I stood on the floor, but I heard from a lot of people that they were terrified of stumbling off mid-game.
It is perhaps fitting that losing on a show based around the idea of “knowing stuff” has shown me how much I still have to learn. I am learning what my brain can and cannot do under pressure. I missed one Daily Double, not because I didn’t know the word serpentine applied to both snakelike movement and a green gemstone, but because my mind went completely, terrifyingly blank, only delivering me the last four letters after what felt like an eternity. I nailed another one because my brain pulled the Syrian city called Aleppo off of some random shelf, putting Damascus away at the last second.
I am learning to cope with not feeling the pride of joining that exclusive group of people who have walked off the stage victorious. I am learning to process the hard truth that this was a “one and done” situation, that I will never get a chance to do this again. I am learning to value the experience more based on that same hard truth. I am learning to believe the thing I always implore my students to believe, that the process is just as important as the result, if not more so. And what a process it’s been. I have felt loved in every conceivable way5 over the past few weeks, and I think the only real failure would be taking that for granted.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I plan to do an “ask me anything” type thing over on Instagram later, if you’re interested in knowing about things I didn’t address here.
I’ll talk to you next week.
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I was an alternate for my first taping day, there just in case someone didn’t pass COVID protocol or missed their flight or was otherwise indisposed. They told me as soon as I arrived that everyone had made it as scheduled, so I got to spend a pretty relaxed day as a member of the audience hanging out and watching other people play.
You didn’t think I’d miss a chance to bring that up again, did you?
Our “Tony Award Winning Plays” category notwithstanding. Brutal stuff.
Men in Blazers, America’s most popular soccer show.
Including getting featured on an Instagram account called “Smokeshows of Jeopardy,” because of course that exists.