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Jeopardy! Celebrates 50 Years

March 24, 2014 | by Elizabeth Wason

“This! Is! Jeopardy!” Johnny Gilbert has introduced every episode live for the past 30 years, alongside Alex Trebek, who’s hosted Jeopardy! for the same three decades. The show began 50 years ago, when Merv Griffin and his wife set out to create a reputable quiz show in the wake of a series of American game show scandals. They decided to give players the answers up front, which is why Jeopardy! contestants respond to each clue by giving the correct question.

It’s not easy to get on the show. Thousands of armchair intellectuals take the online tryout test, fewer score an in-person audition, and only 400 contestants actually play each year. “I took the online test about seven or eight times, and I only auditioned twice,” says Sarah McNitt (M.S. ’05), a recent five-time champion.

Even after a successful audition, prospective contestants aren’t guaranteed to play. They float in the contestant pool for up to eighteen months, ready to fly to Los Angeles on their own dime to tape the show. Jeopardy! doesn’t provide airfare for contestants, except for returning champions, who still foot the bill for lodging.

Of course, LSA has sent its share of Wolverines to Jeopardy! as contestants. Craig Barker (’00) won the 1997 College Championship as a first-year student, the youngest player in that year’s tournament. “I got at least one question right based on something I had learned in History Professor Kali Israel's seminar on post-war Britain,” he says. Barker played on the show twice more after that. “It is one of those things that I am proud of, but I am equally proud of the fact that I helped U-M win the 1998 and 2000 College Bowl Championships.”

Mike Shapiro (’02) overlapped with Barker on the U-M College Bowl team, but Shapiro played on Jeopardy! about a decade after graduating from LSA. His studying skills were a little rusty, but he managed to win the game twice. “I studied a lot of general knowledge—kind of an overall liberal arts education—and learned as much as I could,” Shapiro says. “It was fun. It reminded me how much the thirst for knowledge drives my own philosophy.”

Behind the Scenes at Studio 10 

Jeopardy! tapes five episodes (a full week’s worth) in a single afternoon, so champions often end up playing multiple games back-to-back. McNitt admits, “It’s mentally exhausting to play the game, and it can get physically exhausting to stand while doing it.” The episodes are taped more or less in real time, with players pausing for commercial breaks. During the breaks, players get makeup touch-ups, a quick glass of water, and maybe some buzzer coaching from a show producer. As Shapiro puts it, commercial breaks are a time to either regroup or freak out.

Jeopardy infographic

Because shows are broadcast throughout the week, Trebek changes his suit between tapings. Same goes for returning champions—Jeopardy! advises players to bring three outfits, in case they appear on multiple episodes. For McNitt, three changes of clothing weren’t enough. “After I won my first game, I hurriedly changed my clothes and absentmindedly threw my wadded-up dress in the bottom of my garment bag,” she says. “After I won the third game, I realized I needed to recycle something for the fourth game and had to hunt for the dress again. I threw it on and almost walked back out of the dressing room before I realized it was inside out.”

And what of Trebek’s mustache? Given that the show hasn’t changed its format over the decades, his suddenly naked upper lip begs mention. McNitt isn’t swayed. “I think it’s funny that he is so closely associated with a mustache that he hasn’t had in 13 years,” she says. “Is anyone else so closely associated with a mustache they don’t have?”

Barker shrugs, “I’m mustache agnostic.”

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