The INSIDER Summary:
• “Jeopardy!” is one of the longest-running game shows in history.
• A lot of behind-the-scenes action never makes it to air.
• INSIDER interviewed a 16-time contestant to learn what it’s really like to compete.
“Jeopardy!” has been on air since 1984, with host Alex Trebek at the helm for more than 6,000 episodes. But there’s a lot about the quiz show that TV audiences still don’t know.
So INSIDER spoke with Roger Craig — who appeared on 16 episodes and broke the record for most money won in a single game — to learn more about the show behind the scenes. Here’s what he had to say:
1. The audition process is intense.
It starts with timed online tests, open to anyone and administered either once or twice a year. Then, the top performers (usually a few thousand people, according to Craig) are invited to in-person auditions. Once there, they take another 50-question test and play a mock game, complete with the funny personal anecdote section. Each year, about 400 from that in-person group are selected to compete on the show.
Craig said that the producers seem to favour certain characteristics (besides knowledge, of course).
“What do they want, more than anything? People who follow directions, people who speak up,” he said. “And the main thing is to have fun with it. All the really big winners kind of have that same mentality. Just stay loose, have fun.”
2. You can only audition once every 18 months.
If you make it to the in-person audition, your name is placed into a pool of potential contestants that may be called up at any point during the next year and a half. And as long as your name is in that current pool, you’re not allowed to audition again. Craig auditioned for the show three times — a process that took six years. That’s dedication.
3. The producers have a sneaky way of telling contestants that they made it.
When Craig found out that he’d finally made the show, the producers didn’t tell him outright.
“The first thing they do on the phone is [ask] like, ‘Are you running for public office? Do you know anyone that is involved with the production of the show?’ All the disqualifying things,” Craig explained. “And then they ask, ‘Have you ever been on any game shows?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And then the next question was, ‘Would you like to be?'”
4. Contestants don’t get much face time with Alex Trebek.
That’s because Trebek reads all of the day’s clues and answers first thing in the morning. Producers keep him separated from the contestants to ensure fairness.
The first time the competitors actually see Trebek is when he walks onto set for the start of taping. For a first timer, it can be quite the shock.
“He walks out [for] my very first episode, and I’m like, ‘Wow, That’s Alex Trebek!'” Craig said. “And even though I know he’s going to be there, it’s like, woah.”
5. Those funny personal anecdotes are smoothed out by editors.
Alas, nothing on TV is really real. Craig said that the middle segment of the show — during which Trebek asks the contestants to recount a lighthearted personal anecdote — are often edited for length. He’s watched episodes and noticed subtle splicing himself.
(Side note: He also relayed that picking the anecdote might be the hardest part of the being a contestant. As he put it: “What would you talk about, knowing that all [your] funniest stories probably aren’t fit for television?”)
6. They tape multiple episodes per day.
On TV, there’s just one episode of “Jeopardy!” per weeknight. In reality, the production stuffs the whole week’s worth of action into one workday.
As a contestant, Craig found the marathon taping exhausting — but also exhilarating.
“The first time I ever went there I had never played “Jeopardy!”, and by the end of that day I had won five games. I won $195,000. And then I had to go back to my hotel room and come back the next day to try to do it all over again,” he said. “That is something that you can’t prepare for. It’s hard to sleep!”
7. The credits chats are as awkward as you’d expect.
Once the competition wraps up, the cameras keep rolling just long enough for the credits to roll. During that time, Trebek and the contestants stand in the middle of the stage for a brief chat.
“That’s the only time that you really get to talk to [Trebek],” Craig said. “He’s just kind of, like, searching for something to come up with. He’ll bring up one of the clues. He’ll want to talk about that. Or the wagers on daily doubles.”
In short: Making small talk with Alex Trebek is just as stiff and weird as making small talk with any stranger you just met.
8. And playing against Ken Jennings is just as terrifying as you’d think.
Ken Jennings is famous for his historic 74-game, $2,520,700 winning streak back in 2004.
And when you watch videos of him competing, it’s easy to see why he dominated the competition. (One notable example: This video of Jennings annihilating a category in which contestants had to read a clue about a person, figure out that person’s name, translate their initials into roman numerals, then translate the roman numerals into regular numbers. You know — just in case things were getting too easy on the show.)
Craig couldn’t help feeling a little awestruck when he played Jennings in the Battle of the Decades “Jeopardy!” tournament two years ago.
“On some of [the categories] he’s so fast,” Craig recalled. “It was like, ‘Wow. I’ll let you have that one.'”
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