Originally emailed 2/27/03 following my sound drubbing on Jeopardy…
The Short Version:
I didn’t win. I did have fun.
The Slightly Longer Version:
I was fodder for the Jeopardy mill, falling not ignobly to a true machine of a Jeopardy player who was, I feel certain, on his way to being a five-time champion. And at some point in the future I will receive a $1,000 check for my troubles. All in all, a very memorable and enjoyable experience.
The Full Version that Reveals Details You Might Want to Save for the Show’s June 17 Air Date, So Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You:
The whole weekend was great (this was, after all, a vacation as well as a Syndicated Television Trivia Ordeal!). David and I arrived late Friday and made our way to my dear friend Steven’s great new apartment just off the beach at Venice. David and I tooled around Saturday in our rented convertible, saw the sights, went to the Getty Center, got a bit of a sunburn, and then joined Paulette for our friend Jason’s thirtieth birthday party in Manhattan Beach. Sunday we were mostly bums, with a nice dinner at a funky Polynesian place off Fairfax with Paulette, our friend Daniel, and his friend Troy. Steven’s return from Acapulco on Sunday added even more fun to the mix—catching up with him was a highlight of the weekend. Monday excepted, it was a fun, relaxed, and surprisingly restful time. (Oh, I got food poisoning from a chicken sandwich at LAX on the way back—thus the day’s delay on answering all the urgent emails and phone calls about how I did on the show. I’m better now.)
Everyone at Jeopardy was incredibly nice and very, very concerned with my well-being given the gigantic leg brace sitting atop the trousers to my new suit. (Hey, if you’re going to lose, look good doing so—that’s one of many lessons I’ve learned playing rugby with the Quake! I was the best-dressed contestant that day, by a long shot.) Every 5 minutes some Jeopardy staffer would ask if I wanted a chair to play from (emphatically, no), needed to put my leg up (a good idea, actually), and if I was in any pain (“Oh, it’s really nothing—just enough to keep me sharp”). At three weeks after my ACL surgery, I was actually in pretty good shape, but to hear the Jeopardy folks you would have thought I was crossing the Sahara with a couple of bloody stumps… But of course I didn’t mind the attention, as it unnerved my 12 fellow contestants endlessly. The whole morning of coaching and makeup and “Hometown Howdy” practice kept rolling back to my injury. I even got to sit in a directors chair right offstage so as to avoid the stairs where the other contestants were sitting, cracking jokes with the assistant stage manager. If you are going to be on Jeopardy, I highly recommend being maimed to that precise degree that evokes sympathy—everyone else was treated pretty much like the carefully selected cattle we were. (Well, no cattle prods were used, but they move a lot of contestants through the Jeopardy feedlot in a year and for obvious reasons try not to get too attached to many of us.)
Having David, Paulette, and Steven in the audience was the greatest feeling— they are the kind of friends who just make you more confident by their presence, even if their confident smiles were a good façade for deeper turmoil. (Steven later reported that David was nervous enough for the both of us… Given his generally unflappable nature, the fact that he was visibly shaking through my entire match is really sweet.) I knew that they would love me even if I lost badly and just as importantly refrain from commenting on my errors until I had consumed at least one martini.
We did some practice questions, during which I actually outplayed the aforementioned Jeopardy Machine. Then I watched as he demolished his two opponents in the first match of the day; but I knew all but a handful of the questions asked, so I felt ready to go up against him. Pride goeth before a fall.
In the random draw of contestants, I was chosen for the second match of the day. Against the Machine and a Nice Gal from Atlanta. If she had been a slightly weaker player (like either in the first match) I would have had a better chance of beating the Machine. But she was smart and fast and despite the fact that I led her for most of the match, I was fighting a two-front war.
And a war on some nasty territory. The categories in the first round were in some weird TV-show schema— with names like Monk, Taken, and “ER.” The questions were not about these shows, but the overall effect was a bit confusing. I did OK, but Machine got an early lead and the round’s one Daily Double. He was just blindingly fast on the buzzer.
The second round had some killer categories (International Law and Unusual Trees) but I did well, coming within a couple grand of the Machine at one point. So when I hit the second Daily Double (he, of course, got the first) I gambled big– $5,000 of my $12,000. Damn Unusual Trees—that’s all I have to say. So left with little money, squarely in third place, I went for broke— literally. I made some quick guesses with the few questions left on the board (a got a couple, lost a couple) and bet the remainder on the Final Jeopardy category— which I will not spoil for you. I got it wrong (but don’t feel too bad about my guess, which was at least a well-founded guess), and Nice Gal got it right, and so came in a respectable second place. So I ended the competition with no money and an odd sense of pride that I had managed, as Joan Didion would put it, to play it as it lays. This is perverse, but for a second I was almost glad to have had my turn and moved on… I could tell that winning at Jeopardy was quite likely the highlight of the Machine’s life, and I was inclined to let him have it and go on to other competitions, other rewards. (Not to mention my trip to Moscow, Paris, and London that starts next week— nothing like a dream vacation to salve a loss.)
I also just wanted to sit down. By the end of the match, my leg was really shaky— standing stock still that long was quite a test. But we had to stand and banter with Alex after the match, and I must say we had quite a nice conversation, to the absolute exclusion of both my competitors. (Clearly, Alex was already bored of The Machine.) As it turns out, Alex needs his ACL done and has been putting it off for years. I extolled the virtue of modern arthroscopic techniques and urged him to get it done before he hurt it worse. He told me he knew he should, but that I was young and athletic and his recovery would not be as easy. That was the end of our banter— he had to dash off to change.
Not one but two Jeopardians brought me my crutches and helped me down off the stage, reuniting me with my friends, who seemed happy just to have me back from the war. I signed my receipt for $1,000 and took my Jeopardy home PC game (gag) and headed for the green room (not green at all, actually) to retrieve my unneeded changes of clothing. When you lose, none of the other contestants will look you in the eye. I made a point of congratulating my elders and betters from the match, and both were gracious. I told the Machine to keep winning, because I didn’t want to go down to a mere three-day winner— I’m not sure his next two victims appreciated that. I will be quite eager to watch that whole week of matches!
Bag in tow, I met my dear friends outside the soundstage and hopped on the little golf cart that was carrying us to the studio exit. Within 10 minutes, we arrived at Campanile, the charming lunch spot Paulette had selected—housed in what used to be Charlie Chaplin’s home. We had a great lunch (thanks Steven!) and I sat there, made up like a streetwalker (or at least a weatherman) getting pleasantly plastered and enjoying repeated assurances from some of my favorite people in the world that I had gone down like a champ. That and $1,000 felt pretty good, even if it was about to rain in Los Angeles, and even if at some point my family, friends and 15 million viewers would soon learn that I couldn’t come up with Cate Blanchett’s damn last name in a crunch.
That, friends, is my Jeopardy story.