This is Jeopardy
I’ve always been fascinated with Jeopardy. A lot of questions run through my mind while watching the show: Am I smart enough to compete? Would I dare go all-out during a Daily Double? Why am I getting so many questions wrong during Kid’s Week?
I’m probably never going to be on Jeopardy. Luckily though, I can live vicariously through Austinite John Erler, one of the Master Pancake comedians and a KOOP DJ who will be competing on this Thursday’s episode.
Before his big Jeopardy debut, we chatted with Erler to get the scoop on some of my burning questions about the long-running game show.
CultureMap: First, how long have you been trying to get on Jeopardy?
John Erler: My first try was twenty years ago, just out of college. I flew to L.A. to take the Jeopardy test in person — there was no online test back then — and also to be in the studio audience of The Price is Right. I did terribly on the Jeopardy test. Some people in the room got asked back to play a mock round but I was not one of them.
As for The Price is Right, I'll never know if they called my name or not because halfway through the taping, I had to go to the bathroom really bad and they wouldn't let me back into the studio when I was done. This was 1991. True story.
CM: What was the audition process like for Jeopardy?
JE: Well, once they had instituted a yearly online exam, it took me three tries but I finally passed it back in 2010. Then I got invited to a regional contestant roundup in New Orleans with hundreds of other people.
They get everyone together and they allow everyone in the room to play a little mock version of the game in front of the rest of the uber-nerds there. This is both to judge your ability to play the game under pressure and also to interview you to find out if there's anything interesting about you for TV.
I was lucky enough to do pretty well in that phase. I had scribbled down as my profession that I was a "movie mocker." When the contestant coordinator started interviewing me, she said, "Hello, John! It says here on your info sheet that you're a movie... a movie.. I can’t tell if this says movie MAKER or movie MOCKER?" I said, "Don't worry. Those are actually the same thing in German." Which was a linguistic joke of such geeky proportions that the other hopefuls in the room thought I was hysterical.
Only a room full of fellow Jeopardy devotees would have showered as much nerd love on that joke as it got that day. It was a great way to start my interview and I think I sealed the deal right there. Though ultimately it took them another year and four months before I got the call to come out to L.A. for the show.
CM: Is the buzzer as stressful as it seems? It seems really stressful to me.
JE: The buzzer is crucial. You can't buzz in until Alex finishes reading the question. How do they determine when he finishes reading the question? There is a little man living behind the Jeopardy board whose sole job is to flip a switch at the exact moment he perceives that Alex has finished reading the question. This switch then turns on a light, which the contestants can see, and enables them to ring in with their buzzer.
If you ring in too early, you are punished by not being able to buzz in again for a fraction of an instant. But if you ring in too late, then you're obviously out of luck. You could, in theory, know every single answer to every question on the board, but still do terribly if you can’t figure out when to ring in properly.
CM: I have to ask: What was Alex Trebek like?
JE: So boss! He's in his 70s, and when I was there he was limping around from a leg injury, but he was still sharp and funny and on top if it all. He has such a mastery of everything. People don't realize how hard it is to have to not only read the questions but be the first judge of whether something is right or not. He handles so many things with amazing aplomb.
Once during my time there, there was a spelling error in one of the categories on the board. They had misspelled "their" as "thier" and Trebek was the only one on set who caught it. He called for them to stop taping, pointed out the error, had it fixed and moved on.
My girlfriend Joanne, who was in the audience, thought he was talking to me a lot. I think he was intrigued by the idea of me being a professional movie mocker. Once during a break he asked me if we ever made fun of old black-and-white movies because there were a ton of them ripe for the picking.
I told him that we had once done Casablanca. He then started quoting obscure lines from it by memory. I laughed knowingly, even though I had no idea what the context of those lines were. I felt like a fool.
CM: Did you spend a lot of time making your upper torso look good for TV?
JE: I didn't have time. I got the call from Jeopardy a month before my taping so there was no time to buff up. Plus, all my energy went towards buffing up my mind.
CM: Do you have any tips for those who want to be on Jeopardy?
JE: Perseverance is key. It took me 20 years and four times taking the test. Even so, I’m actually luckier than many. Some people never pass the online test. Some pass it multiple times but get stuck on the interview portion. They're looking for smart people, but also people with some kind of life outside of trivia or with some kind of interesting hook.
Anyway, just keep trying. Don't give up. You may have to study harder. Or maybe you just have to accumulate 20 more years of life experiences. It's different for everyone.
CM: When and where can people watch you on Jeopardy?
JE: In Austin, they can watch on KXAN, the NBC affiliate, at 4:30pm on Thursday, March 15th. I’ll also be having a watch party that anybody can come to. The Alamo Drafthouse was gracious enough to let me have it at The Village where folks can get together to have a drink and see it on the big screen. I’ll be there, and Owen Egerton will emcee it. As a warm-up, we’ll watch the Cheers episode where Cliff goes on Jeopardy. The whole thing is basically free, but you need to buy a $5 food/beverage voucher to reserve a space.
CM: Finally, what other game shows would you like to conquer?
JE: There's pretty much just three game shows left that have stood the test of time: Jeopardy, The Price is Right, and Wheel of Fortune. I'd like to get on all three before I'm done with this world. That’s my goal.