WHAT IS DEATH? January 17, 2022

The Day I Ate A Sandwich, Cracked A Joke, and Lost On Jeopardy! Again

A first-hand account of game shows in the time of COVID.

Watching Jeopardy! on October 29, 2021, I was feeling good. Super champion Matt Amodio finished his epic 38-win run a few weeks ago on television, and Tyler Rhode recently dethroned follow-up champ Jonathan Fisher and was on his 3rd consecutive game. There’s not going to be a second super champion this soon, I thought to myself. I guess I have a pretty good chance of winning.

Insert the It’s Always Sunny title card that says “Cory Plays Jeopardy! Against A Super Champion.”

Way way back in the 1990s…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved game shows. I remember in Kindergarten watching red-letter puzzles on Wheel of Fortune. My earliest memory is the word “Antarctica” in the Jeopardy! clue font (the unique and strong Korinna). Most of my game show intake was a combination of network broadcasts (Family Feud with Ray Combs, The Price is Right) and cable reruns (Tic Tac DoughThe Joker’s WildPress Your Luck). But soon, a brand-new cable channel made its way to my household cable box: The Game Show Network.

Of course, I ate up every morsel of content I could, from classic panel shows like What’s My Line to weird endeavors of games like Burt Luddin’s Love Buffet. But the most fascinating thing to me was the commercial that would play that explained that a new game show was looking for contestants: it was like Jeopardy! but it was for kids! And they were looking for kids between the ages of 10 and 13! I was between the ages of 10 and 13! I called the number myself and signed up for the audition. When a call came into the house, my parents found out that I was invited to audition for the show.

I showed up for the audition, passed the test, did a mock game, took a cool Jeopardy! ballpoint pen, and went home. A few months later, Sony called back, inviting a parent and me to fly to Los Angeles to appear on what they were calling Jep! and I was jazzed. I don’t recall a whole lot about the logistics, but I think they put us up in a hotel and gave my dad a per diem. The entire day was a blur. I remember pulling a ping pong ball out of a bucket to get into the second podium. I remember pretending to punch the crane camera every time it came my way because I saw Alex Trebek do that once during real Jeopardy!. I remember not knowing what to wager for whatever they called Final Jeopardy!. I remember losing. I remember being happy with my prizes. But mostly, I remember stealing a bag of Twizzlers from the green room. I also remember not doing anything fun afterward. 

Since then, I was determined to get back on the show—the actual show, the mothership, Jeopardy!. Every few years, I’d check the eligibility rules to make sure I could compete. (For a very long time, the rules said you couldn’t be on if you were ever on a version of Jeopardy! hosted by Alex Trebek, which would mean I was eligible.) I’d also take the Jeopardy! online test as often as I could. Digging through my emails, apparently, I signed up for the College test in 2007. I registered for tests in 2009, 2011, and 2015. I was invited to an audition in 2015 in Boston but couldn’t make it due to work obligations. I took the test in 2016, 2019, and 2020. Nothing clicked. In between all these tests, life moved on. In 2007, I snuck onto a Filipino game show and won $200. In 2013, I made it onto another trivia game show, The Chase, and split a massive $180,000 jackpot between a trivia dream team: Jonathan Corbblah, Heather Hurley, and me. And as in high esteem as I hold The Chase, it still requires a little bit of mental massaging to bring up. “You know, it’s the one where the team goes up against the super-smart guy?” (It’s easier now that it’s on primetime TV, but still.)

And then there was COVID.

In January 2020, Jeopardy! introduced their Anytime test, allowing year-round casting of contestants without needing to wait for (and possibly forget to register for) an annual test. In March 2020, that idea proved to be prescient: rolling remote casting of a game show that was about to endure a nationwide lockdown and a seemingly endless barrage of coronavirus trials and tribulations. Jeopardy! persevered through the lockdown, as well as host Alex Trebek’s health issues, and in September 2020, I took the Jeopardy! Anytime test. 

After I took the test (hopefully coincidentally), the entire Jeopardy! universe went through a catastrophic transformation. Host Alex Trebek died in November. A cavalcade of stars hosted the show in a public audition pseudo-process. Mike Richards’ planned coup of the hosting podium was probably formulating. Personally, I tried to get on a few more game shows: Let’s Make A Deal almost had me on but then called me to say that someone on the show knows me. (I don’t know anyone working on the show, but they can’t tell me who’s ben giving them tritle feedback about me.) Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel almost calls me back, but they tell me they’re only casting locally to Los Angeles. 

But then I get a call from Culver City, California.

Jeopardy! invited me to take a second test. In July 2021, a few days before my 34th birthday, I hopped on a Zoom call and took another 50-question Jeopardy! test. I felt really good with my results. Officially, there’s no publicly-known passing grade, but common knowledge indicates 70% is passing. I must have passed the test because two weeks later, I was invited to a Game Play audition. This is the final step in the audition process: another Zoom call, and this one was more involved. Fifteen people, split into five groups of 3, played mock games of Jeopardy! with an ever-refreshing board of $200, $400, and $600-level clues. A clicky ballpoint pen stood in for buzzers, and the contestant coordinator called on different players to respond. Then, after a short interview, we’re all told we’re in the contestant pool. If they want us, they’ll call us; if they don’t contact us in 18 months, try again. Remembering all the feedback I wrote about in my guide on how to get on a game show, I did my best to stand out; if the bright blue hair didn’t help enough, maybe the high-quality microphone, blue fill light, and Trebek Funko Pop would help.

Time marched on. August rolled by without a word from anyone. September, too. On the last day of September, my job downsized me without warning. Depressed, panicked, and unsure of what to do with myself, I started applying for jobs. The very next day, I got a call from Culver City. It’s Jeopardy! and they’re calling to make sure my information is up to date. They ask if I’ve ever been on a game show. I told them, “Well, a very long time ago, I was on a game show called Jep!, it was a kid’s version of Jeopardy!.” The lovely lady on the other end of the phone paused, then said that she was going to talk to the legal department about that.

Seeing how my luck had been going that week, I was less than optimistic.

Let’s go to work.

My negativity was for naught. The Monday after, I get The Call™. Jeopardy! would like me to come to the show and tape on November 2. I said “yes,” not knowing how I was going to afford to get there. My partner was initially hesitant but otherwise excited; she knew how much I love Jeopardy!. I started calling in every favor I had in order to do this as cheaply as possible: I asked my Mom if she would buy my plane ticket (she does; I picked the cheapest possible flight that didn’t require me to check in a bag); I asked a couple of LA friends if it’s possible if I can crash with them (both my best friend from high school and a friend in my game show circles both said yes; my game show friend lived closer to the studio and had an actual bed). I asked Ben Ingram, 2014 Tournament of Champions winner, for advice on what to do to study. He told me to brush up on my Pavlovs.

My partner and I went shopping and chose four configurations of clothes. My favorite was option 1, and my partner’s favorite was option 3.

My days were split between studying for Jeopardy!, applying for jobs, trying not to be sad, and continuing to be a human being. Unlike when I was a kid, who thought I could do anything with just my god-given ability and my annoying Main Character charm, I try my best to prepare for my appearance. Jeopardy! doesn’t send you anything about game material or strategy, so I study Keith Williams’ The Final Wager videos to learn how to wager appropriately during Final Jeopardy!; the Jeopardy! games for Wii and DS were constantly by my side to practice material and buzzer speed; cards from Jeopardy! home games were strewn throughout the house, in my car, in every pocket of every jacket I had. PlayShow Jeopardy! was attempted (The app is so sketchy it didn’t help much of anything; do not pay money for PlayShow Jeopardy!). 

I overly worry about logistics; I book a flight, I book a rental car, I fill out a litany of forms: An interview sheet that asks me for five fun facts along with other questions like “What are you going to do with any money you win?” and “Are there any interesting facts about your heritage?”; a publicity sheet that asks about our local Jeopardy! channel; release forms; COVID waivers; and tax forms. Contestant coordinators send me a dress code sheet—they request I wear “jewel tones” and not busy patterns, requiring me to go buy new clothes.

I take two different COVID-19 tests to make sure I have the required test results in hand before I get on the plane. I have to go to the studio the day before taping in order to take another test. (I was negative, so I could play.) I take the opportunity to see some friends, try out the creepy Amazon self-checkout grocery store, do some thrifting, visit a game show prop museum, have a nice California dinner of tacos in Huntington Beach before trying my best to sleep before the big day.

The view from the 2nd floor of the Sony Pictures parking garage.

“This is old news to you, Amy…”

On the day of the taping, I woke up early and struggled to get my clothes steamed. I debated for about 20 minutes as to whether or not I should shower. (I did.) I found a place on the way to the studio to grab breakfast. (Del Taco.) I ate my subpar burrito in the foggy parking lot before heading toward the studio. I didn’t want to be too early, so I drove close to the studio and parked outside some houses. I texted my partner to let her know I was about to go in; then, I drove to the studio and parked. The call time was 7:30 AM.

Every Jeopardy! contestant received a bag with an N95 mask, hand sanitizer, and alcohol wipes. Staff told us we needed to carry this bag everywhere we went. Not unlike Full Metal Jacket: “This is my PPE. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” We were told to stick our name tags on it. I managed to compress it enough to shove it in my pocket. We file into the Wheel of Fortune studio, dark and desolate. This is our staging area: we put our things down in the audience seating, we were briefed on rules and legal things, we were told to put our phones away after I sneak this picture of the Wheel of Fortune set with the lights off. Presumably, this is the setup for the human sacrifices on the Wheel set. (I’m kidding.) 

This is what the Wheel of Fortune set looks like with the lights off. 

It was at this contestant briefing that we are introduced to Amy Schneider, who at the start of the day has won over a million dollars in 28 wins. Murmurs of excitement and defeat washed over everyone. I took a deep breath and carried on.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t go in expecting to win. I told my partner repeatedly: “I’m going to do my best, but I’m just happy to be on the show.” And that was genuine; being invited to be on Jeopardy!, in my opinion, is an incredible honor and a validation of my trivia skills. A win, if I could earn one, would just be a feather in my cap. If I take down a millionaire super-champion? Pretty plumy feather.

The rest of the morning was dedicated to getting us ready to go. We all got our hair and makeup done and signed more forms. Wardrobe asked me to change because my maroon shirt was wrinkled. I changed into a blue sweater, and we are shuffled next door to the Alex Trebek Stage to do some rehearsals, including taping our Hometown Howdies. I was told to change back into my maroon shirt because I was blending too much into the background of the set. During one of the two warmups, I was paired with Amy and a nice woman named Clark. Clark floored me with her buzzer speed. I did not want to go up against Amy and Clark. Other than my opponents’ terrifying buzzer speed, I felt terrific about my buzzer performance. I tried to listen to the host’s cadence (in the warmups, the host was Clue Crew member Jimmy McGuire, repping his Pittsburgh pride with a Steelers lanyard) and buzz in on the last syllable. I also tried to watch the lights that appear on the side of the board that let you know when to buzz in, like how the video games work. 

These tickets were framed at the wall of the Wheel of Fortune studio. Surprisingly, these are tickets for when I taped my episode of Wheel of Fortune. Was this kismet?

We were given the opportunity to get some fresh air and eat snacks we were told to bring. I chit-chatted with Emma because she was closest to my line of sight. Jenni brought a bunch of yummy-looking snacks. I later learned she’s got a couple of kids, which now makes sense because moms have the best snacks.

Walking onto the set feels like walking onto the Field of Dreams. It’s the battlefield of minds, the arena of knowledge. It’s all too familiar but brand new all at the same time. There’s no audience for these games—the other contestants of the day were seated in the galley. We were socially distant, so chit-chat is less intimate than whispering. The production team has intense COVID-19 protocols in place: apparently, a father-and-son team is in charge of sanitizing. When contestants left their audience seats to go to makeup, one of the sanitizers wiped down everything: where they were sitting, the railings they may have touched. They have bottles of cleaner attached to holsters on their belts. The same procedure happened on the stage: the buzzer was sanitized, the touch pen, the podium top. No surface didn’t get Lysol’d for our protection. The COVID-19 compliance officer was double-masked before it was cool. He also gave us a hot tip to stop wearing cloth masks and wear KN95s or N95s, and this was months before omicron. Outside of my own home, Sony Pictures Studios felt like the place I was least likely to get COVID-19. 

I can’t speak for other contestants, but I’ve never been really intimidated by a studio audience—in the throes of the game, I don’t even really realize they’re there. I know the big audience is watching through the cameras, and so I focused my energy on the game and the cameras, and anyone watching in the room was an added bonus. Other than the added COVID routines, I didn’t see a difference between how Jep! transpired and how Jeopardy! occurred—which makes sense, as most of the staff from Jeopardy! worked on Jep!, so the good habits and clockwork-like efficiency of everything was oddly familiar.

Contestants who are playing in the first taped game of the day go back to the Wheel of Fortune studio to get their hair and makeup touched up; the rest of us talk amongst ourselves. We trade nervous looks when Amy wins big. We gas each other up after Amy snipes us off one by one. Those who tape their episodes give us feedback on what to expect; reconnaissance in a familiar foe. We realize that this week if Amy continues her dominance, she’ll break Jamie Holzhauer’s record of consecutive wins and move her up to 3rd all-time. I do quick math—Thursday’s game ties him, Friday’s game beats him. 

“I really think you can do it.”

After three games, we broke for lunch. We were ushered outside back to the Sony Pictures parking garage and lined up. Several meal options were available. I chose and subsequently annihilated a fried chicken sandwich with salad and fruit. I think there was a cookie too. If I were to rank this chicken sandwich amongst fast-food chicken sandwiches, the ranking looks like this, from best to worst: Popeye’s, Jollibee, Sony Pictures’ Commissary, Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s. 

We chit-chatted amongst ourselves. David, who played in Monday’s game, leaned in and told me, “You know, man, you killed it in rehearsals. I really think you can do it.” The “it” is the unspoken goal of the day: unseat the super-champion. I thank him kindly and secretly hope I don’t disappoint him. Steve joins in—I don’t remember what he said because I get absolutely lost in the velvety smoothness of his voice. Everyone was crazy friendly. We have a group chat going to this day. In between bites, I thought about Final Jeopardy!—the material had been hard this week. Unless I get pitched something right down my expertise strike zone, I planned on playing exceptionally conservatively.

The day was starting to get to me. I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, so most of my day consisted of closing my eyes wherever I was sitting. I took my shoes off in the cold concrete parking garage, closed my eyes, and leaned back, trying to recharge whatever energy I could muster. I should not have eaten my entire lunch, and I would’ve liked more caffeine. We went back inside, and the coordinators announced the next three players: Amy, Clark Dawson, and Cory Anotado.

Well, shit.

I’m surprisingly calm about the whole thing. I’ve been cracking wise and being energetic all day, and now isn’t any different. A group of outstanding and talented hair and makeup people got close to my unmasked face, and I nervously tried my best not to breathe on them. We are led back outside to the cafeteria/parking lot, and we’re allowed to get a drink. I grabbed a bottled latte and downed it in minutes. We’re then led to the stage. It’s showtime.

“Oh, cool. Pots for $800.”

During the draw, I pull podium 3. I stood behind my podium. The stage manager had a little remote that raised the floor under us. We’re all supposed to look relatively the same height, and the automatic apple boxes built into the stage was the most exciting California amusement park ride I’d have all week. Due to COVID, the Jeopardy! team had one fewer camera person focused on the contestants, so the player on Podium 2 had to pre-record their introductory mugging of the camera. I got to do my stupid faces live to tape. I learned that during the tape day, Sarah Whitcomb Foss records the player intros live for timing, then the legend Johnny Gilbert records his intros later, and then those get placed into the show during post-production.

During the game, I tried to lock into Ken’s cadence to get a jump on Amy’s 30 games of experience. It wasn’t working. During the first break, a contestant coordinator came out to let me know I was buzzing in too early. I decided from there to abandon listening to Ken and focus on the lights. Unfortunately, by that point, the pop culture and cooking categories were gone, so I’d need to hope that my breadth of knowledge covered the rest of the stuff. I get the griddle clue right; Ken lets me know that I have control of the board. Unfortunately, I wasn’t listening, so I let out an instinctual, “Huh?” He reiterates, and then I say, “Oh, cool. Pots for $800.” They edit out my inattention. During the game interview, I neglected to say the phrase “Highwire Deck,” but I wonder if they’d edit that out anyway. I feel incredibly terrible not to come up with Daniel Kaluuya in my head, but saying something is better than saying nothing. After the Jeopardy! round, I was in a suboptimal position: last place and $9,000 behind.

I really pick up the pace in the Double Jeopardy! round. I entirely blame my mother-in-law for giving me too much Nirvana knowledge, but at least I named a Nirvana album. Neither Daily Double I would’ve known, so I’m partially happy I didn’t grab those. I try to hunt for a DD in a category I’m suitable for (Modern Art), but nothing doing. I got a couple of $2000 clues right, and by the end of the game, my newfound knowledge of Final Jeopardy! betting strategies were learned for naught—Amy had a lock game by having more than twice my score, but I had a lock game for second place by having more than twice Clark’s score.

The Final Jeopardy! category was one of my weaknesses—literature. I knew Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables. That was the extent of my knowledge. I wrote a big fat $0 as my wager and leaned back and relaxed. Suppose I could make a stupid meme happen? Even better. The Final Jeopardy! clue asked for an object. I spent 15 seconds trying to think of any eligible object. “Loaf of bread” kept floating into my head. I knew it was wrong. It’s meme time, baby. 

I’m not the only Podium 3 player who shrugged and gave an incorrect response.

Amy won again. I do NOT get my $11,200. I would like it very much. Wheel of Fortune would’ve given me my $11,200. Michael Davies, I would like my extra $9,200, please. (This is a joke.) 

At the end of the show, while the credits were rolling, Ken congratulated Amy again. I interrupted—”Ken, I just wanna say this. I promised my wife I’d tell the host of Jeopardy! that she is a huge fan of the Big Bang Theory.” Everyone, especially Ken, busted out laughing. We hung around on stage for a bit longer while the credits rolled, chit-chatting, cracking jokes. Ken asked if I was from BuzzerBlog. Senpai noticed me! 

Amy got to leave and sit down—and that’s more than fair, she’s so far thrashed 8 Jeopardy! chumps, she’s earned a seat. Clark and I stayed on stage while Ken did some pickups. We were then whisked back to the Wheel of Fortune stage to sign some paperwork to get us our money. We were given a reusable Jeopardy! shopping bag, and a Jeopardy! hat. We were told we could either stay and watch the last game or go home. I wasn’t in any rush, so I went back to the Alex Trebek Studio to watch the last match and cheer on Rachel and Luis (and Amy!) in solidarity.

“My brain’s done for a while now.”

All five games were taped and in the can. Everyone who stuck around headed back to the Wheel stage to gather our things. I gave everyone hanging around some Plinko stickers. I gave the contestant coordinator team holographic Cory face stickers. I wanted to give Clark a Plinko pin, but she split. I got into my rental car and called my partner to tell her the news. Apparently, I misremember how bad I did in the Jeopardy! round—she thought I was going to do much worse than I did. I headed back to my friend’s place, and we grabbed dinner at Versailles Cuban Food, then had a late-night escape room experience at Questroom. (We did their most challenging room and got out with 10 minutes to spare.) On the way home, we drove by Television City. That’ll be my next destination in my game show journey, I reckon.

I woke up the next day, refreshed. I thanked my hosts for giving me a comfortable and quiet place to sleep. I headed out to kill some time and walked around at a mall right near Beverly Hills. I had fancy soup dumplings. I bought overpriced greeting cards. I made it to LAX right on time. I ordered a thing of chicken fingers and fries. I ate them on the plane while watching Taskmaster. My partner and her dad picked me up from the airport. I decompress. My air date would be in January, so I have to keep this secret for two months.

“Cory could be one of the most annoying #jeopardy contestants I’ve ever seen”

Leading up to my airdate, I was super excited to tell the world that I had at least a pleasant 22 minutes of fame. I held a virtual watch party, and dozens of friends and family showed up to watch with me. Twitter was full of mostly love, with a spattering of downers here and there. But the love and support I saw were OVERWHELMING. I feel like I’ve gained new friends who appreciate me for who I am. 

This was my fifth game show as a contestant: Jeopardy!, The Chase, Wowowee, Wheel of Fortune and Jep!. What’s next? Well, I have a year to cool off—most game shows won’t let you go on their shows if you’ve been on a show in the past year. If I had a wish list of shows to try to get on, the top three would be The Price is Right, Press Your Luck and Pyramid. In the meantime, I’ll probably be cashing in my newfound fame for when we revive the 24-Hour Game Show Marathon, hopefully this June.

I was featured in my college’s alumni news sectionABC6 Action News, and Baltimore’s 98Rock. Most of this weekend was just being thankful that I could make a ton of people smile and enjoy watching Jeopardy!. I don’t have any regrets, really—putting on that display with only a month to really prepare is way better than I thought I’d ever do. Looking at the big picture via J-Archive’s recap and the official Jeopardy! box score shows that I played as good as I really could do, and I can’t invent a time machine to learn more stuff. I did my best, made some new friends, and became a footnote in history. I couldn’t ask for much more than that.