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).
Trebek is alone in his ease on the set. Much of the fun of the Jeopardy! Power Players' Tournament comes in watching the contestants—so familiar and comfortable in their own public personas—get nervous. When each contestant is asked about their hopes and predictions for the game, the most common response is that they want to avoid looking like a complete idiot. (Thomas Friedman calls it the journalistic Hunger Games: "I just want to be there at the end."). But Jeopardy! is something like a cross between a game of chance and an IQ test: You either have the knowledge, and the speed to buzz in first, or you don't. "How do you prepare for knowledge?" asks Lewis Black. The implied answer is that it's impossible, and he's right, but that doesn't mean that some contestants haven't tried. Robert Gibbs cops to practicing with the Jeopardy! app on his smartphone. CNN's Lizzie O'Leary watched each episode from the preceding week, a number soundly beaten by Dana Perino, who has faithfully watched Jeopardy! since the third grade.
There's a Fort Knox-ian level of security at the Jeopardy! Power Players' Tournament; journalists covering the event aren't even permitted to go to the bathroom without an escort. As we are strictly and repeatedly informed that we cannot reveal anything about the actual games, it's fortunate that the rehearsal rounds—in which Clue Crew member Jimmy McGuire steps in as a kind of Bizarro-Trebek to teach new contestants the ropes—prove so interesting. Chris Matthews of Hardball proves to be the real-world equivalent of the irascible Sean Connery in Saturday Night Live's string of Celebrity Jeopardy! parodies. He fumbles with his buzzer, teases his fellow contestants, and replies to a Final Jeopardy! clue about dwarf planets with the question "What is a midgit?" [sic] and a Cheshire-cat grin. The Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page profiles the charity he's playing for—the American Institute for Stuttering—by explaining his own problems with stuttering. Thomas Friedman, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes, is repeatedly reminded to phrase his answers in the form of a question.
As the day goes on, and the inescapable Jeopardy! theme lodges itself in my mind like a railroad spike, I begin to wonder how Trebek has maintained the schedule for over 6,000 episodes, for 28 years. It's been a little over 12 consecutive hours of Jeopardy!, and I'm already exhausted. But if Trebek is just as tired after taping five consecutive episodes, it doesn't show. When questioned behind the scenes about the audience's reaction to his Spammer anecdote, Trebek is chipper, but puzzled: "The coyote ate Spammer. It didn't bother Willie." It's a fittingly logical response from a man who has spent nearly 30 years with the answer to every question.
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