Four-year-old me loved Jeopardy!. In 1986, my parents and I moved to London, where we resided for the next three years. During that period, in the days when American entertainment was a rarity on Thatcherite television, my grandparents would ship over videotaped episodes of Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and—of all things—Jeopardy!.
Cut to April 2012. I’m 28 and spending a long Saturday inside DAR Constitution Hall, watching Jeopardy! in production. Specifically, it’s the “Power Players Week” in which “D.C. celebrities” will compete for charity.
It’s just after 10 a.m. and I’m walking across the stage toward the bank of seats on the left side of the concert hall the producers have reserved for reporters. Several of my colleagues are on stage mingling with the first batch of contestants—Chris Matthews, the blustery Hardball host; Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary; and Lizzie O’Leary, the smart-alecky aviation correspondent at CNN—and I deign to join in the interviews. As I’m standing in the queue to interview Gibbs, I feel a hand press against my back.
“You can’t be on stage,” a man’s voice says. The voice and the hand belong to Phil Zimmerman, the show’s senior publicist and—this day at least—top cop.
“Why not?” I ask. Plenty of other reporters are up here interviewing the contestants. Then I notice all the equipment also mingling around the stage.
All the reporters are being accompanied by cameramen. Television interviews get priority on the tv show. Zimmerman doesn’t give a whit about the printed word. With his hand still against the small of my back, Zimmerman gives me a gentle push as I begin to walk offstage and toward the tiny press pen he’s created off to the side. I take a few steps, and Zimmerman’s hand is still there, guiding me to where my pesky notepad and voice recorder won’t bother him. I tell him he doesn’t need to push me. A few more steps, and Zimmerman’s hand is still there. I don’t think he’s feeling me up; he’s probably just an asshole. I tell him gruffly to remove the hand and he finally obliges as I’m in front of the stairs leading to my seat.
The first game is not a template in broadcasting excellence for Matthews, who needs two tries to get the name of his charity right. (It’s his old high school in Philadelphia.) Luckily, there’s someone else on stage who can deliver a self-deprecating retort to thin Matthews’ embarrassment.
“I have so many senior moments, you can’t even imagine,” states Alex Trebek, who has been hosting Jeopardy! for 28 years. That’s as long as I’ve been alive.
Nine-year-old me loved Jeopardy!. In the early 1990s, when we visited my great aunt and uncle’s house in Lenox, Mass., we would often watch Jeopardy! after dinner. No one barked the answers back at the tv faster than my great-uncle Ray. Aunt Shirley’s cooking wasn’t worth a damn, but we all loved watching Jeopardy! with Ray. He even tried out for the show once, but didn’t make it past the second round.
Back at Constitution Hall, we’re nearing the end of the practice game for the second batch of contestants: former White House press secretary Dana Perino, CNBC anchor David Faber and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Thing is, each group of contestants gets a warm-up game to, one supposes, ease them into the buzzer-clicking habits they’ll need to win actual moolah for their charities once the real game begins. But these are also the only questions on which we’re granted to report. Fair enough, but it’s kind of bullshit that these rounds aren’t even being conducted by Trebek. Rather, it’s this fellow named Jimmy, who’s a member of the show’s “Clue Crew” and the emcee for the day.
That’s right. Jeopardy! issues press embargoes and frets about spoilers. After all, the show is packing an entire week’s worth of episodes into one long production.
Thusly, the following is not a spoiler. In fake Final Jeopardy, the clue calls on the contestants to identify a North American landmark that is 277 miles long, as much as 18 miles wide and more than six million years old. “What is the Grand Canyon?” write Faber and Perino (whose signature displayed on the front of her podium is quite graceful). Abdul-Jabbar guesses the Potomac River. I’m sure some appreciate the local shout-out, but it’s a good thing this is a practice round.
But here’s a spoiler alert: Over the course of the day, Trebek will change into a different suit for each episode. In order of filming, he will wear navy, ash, solid charcoal, gray and pinstriped charcoal ensembles. When us lowly print reporters get our chance to talk with Trebek around lunchtime, he states that all told, his wardrobe includes more than 100 suits.
Despite his deep closet, Trebek is not vain like Zimmerman, the pushy publicist. He can still crack wise after, or maybe because of, nearly three decades of hosting Jeopardy! Between rounds, Trebek steps out from his desk and approaches the edge of the stage to take questions from the audience. There are a lot of questions about Will Ferrell and Sean Connery. Trebek has nothing but kind words for Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketches, and repeatedly points out that he showed up in Ferrell’s final episode as a regular SNL cast member.
Trebek, a Canadian by birth, is also keen on U.S. history. He states his visits to Washington over the years have always included side trips to area monuments. This time, it’s Mount Vernon, the first time he’s seen George Washington’s homestead. And, over the years, he’s also become a Redskins fan. The Constitution Hall crowd adores that.
But then someone asks if he’s got a preferred NHL team.
“Montreal Canadiens,” Trebek says, unleashing a chorus of boos.
Facial hair is another popular topic, no doubt thanks to Ferrell, who continued to portray Trebek as an effete, mustachioed pushover long after the real host gave himself a clean look. “Why did you shave your mustache?” an audience member asks.
Jeopardy!, apparently, only has two or three sets of practice questions, because for the third set of contestants we’ve cycled back to the clues presented to Gibbs, Matthews and O’Leary. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, BBC’s Katty Kay and Dr. Mehmet Oz get the same questions as that first bunch. Fake Final Jeopardy comes and asks the players to name the object that in 2006 was downgraded to a dwarf.
There must be something about middle-aged men who host political roundtable shows. On his turn, Matthews wrote “midget.” Wallace writes “Tom Thumb.” Woof.
The correct response is, of course, Pluto, as in the celestial body nearly three billion miles away that until 2006 was counted as a full member of the Solar System.
Things can get weird on Jeopardy!. When he first walks to the podium, Oz writes his name as “Mehmet.” That’s what his parents called him, after all. But a few minutes later and the podium reads “Dr. Oz.” Did someone whisper in his ear that he’d be better off with his stage name?
And, oh, the things we learn when Trebek interviews the contestants. Here’s another spoiler: For more than five months now, Anderson Cooper has eaten the same Boston Market frozen turkey meal for lunch every day. Think about that the next time you’re getting your headlines from the silver fox of CNN.
But the host is a tiny oddball, too. In his chitchats with the audience, Trebek will take us to some dark places. Nine-year-old Emma Jackson asks Trebek if he owns any pets. He states he’s owned two cats, both now deceased, including a 35-pound Maine coon, which his mom feared tripping over.
Emma does not seem especially pleased to have her question answered by that somber tale.
Trebek is also unmoved by the kid who sulks after the host states he does not have a favorite comic book. “Get over it,” Trebek snarks. “I can see it now. He’ll be 17 and saying, ‘I’m on drugs because Alex never answered my question about comics.’ ”
This isn’t Jeopardy!. This is just fucking weird.
The day drags on, the audience turns over and gradually, the number of reporters whittles down to the final four. Besides Steinmetz and me, there’s Tim Mak from Politico and Scott Meslow from The Atlantic. Despite some wavering moments earlier in the afternoon, we four managed to eke it out. We are the deans of the Jeopardy! beat.
It’s been a long day, the meals provided to us in the filing area have been meager and unhealthful, but there’s still one group of contestants left to play: NBC News’ Chuck Todd, the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page and comedian Lewis Black.
When Zimmerman brings us on stage for the “press conference-style” (as he calls it) print interview with the contestants, he seems nearly saddened that all the tv cameras are gone. Pity poor Phil for having to make do with just us pen-and-pad types. But we’re pooped. After four go-rounds of asking other contestants which categories they’d most like to see and how they prepare for such a battle of smarts, we just can’t do it again. Todd, Page and Black take note of our mumbling and just begin freewheeling about grabbing a drink after the show. I wish we could all get a drink now.
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Submited at Tuesday, May 15th, 2012 at 8:59 pm on Uncategorized by natalia
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