Behind the scenes at the celebrity rounds of the iconic game show
As the Jeopardy! crew pauses for a commercial break, Alex Trebek—the blisteringly intelligent host of the long-running syndicated game show—steps forward, as is his custom, to answer questions from the audience. Looking over the crowd, he leans over to address an adorable, bespectacled little girl, who asks the Jeopardy! host if he has any pets. Just one dog, he says: Willie. He pauses thoughtfully before explaining that he used to have another dog named Spammer—"but unfortunately, we have coyotes in southern California."
There's a collective gasp from the audience—did he really just say that?—and a series of nervous giggles. But Trebek, eternally unflappable, doesn't miss a beat. He walks back to the set, taking his place as the lights come up. The Applause sign blinks, and the unmistakable Jeopardy! theme music—one of the most iconic tunes in television history—signals the start of yet another game.
This is Jeopardy!.
More specifically, this is the Jeopardy! Power Players' Tournament, in which 15 celebrity contestants play the game show, with their winnings going to the charity of their choice. It takes the combined effort of around 100 people to produce an episode of Jeopardy!, and the team behind the show is an exceptionally well-oiled machine, filming the five episodes of the tournament—which air from Monday to Friday this week—on a single Saturday. (To maintain the illusion of time passing, Trebek changes his suit in between each game. When questioned, he concedes that he owns about a hundred.) This is the last filming day of Jeopardy!'s 46-week production schedule, until the filming of the series' 29th consecutive season next fall.
The Jeopardy! Power Players' Tournament is filming in DAR Constitution Hall, located at 1776 D Street Northwest in Washington, D.C. The Hall was originally built in the 1930s as a convention space by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but has more recently hosted shows by performers like Robin Williams and Whitney Houston. Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!'s underachieving sister game show, has also filmed in this location, but the breadth and depth of the building's history make it uniquely suited to Jeopardy! —a game show whose breadth and depth far outclasses anything else in the genre.
It would be hard to top the attention-grabbing "IBM Challenge" from last year—in which Jeopardy!'s two all-time best players were soundly defeated by a computer called Watson—but the show has assembled an impressive and eclectic group of Power Players this year: commentators like Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace, former White House Press Secretaries Robert Gibbs and Dana Perino, legendary basketballer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and comedian Lewis Black. But it's clear from the moment he walks onto the stage that despite the 15 celebrities playing the game, Alex Trebek is the star of this show. The host is both funnier and stranger than one might expect from his TV persona, alternating between quick-witted barbs (when asked whether he prefers blondes or brunettes: "at this stage of my life, gray") and loopy, rambling candor (turning back to the crowd, after confessing to a young audience member that he doesn't have a favorite comic book: "I know it's going to be a disappointment. I can see it now. He'll be 17 years old, doing drugs...").
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Alex Trebek is, without question, the greatest game show host of all time, which is why the recent news that he's been "thinking of retiring"—two years from now—was met with responses that bordered on apocalyptic. His voice is crisp and modulated, and he never stutters. When he answers questions, his eyes tend to drift away from you as he's talking, as if his brain is some vast supercomputer that takes time to search. Trebek is perfectly comfortable in himself on the set of his show. One has the sense that this is what he was born to do, and it's hard to imagine who could replace him (though all-time Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings is the odds-on favorite).