When I Was on Jeopardy!

Believe it or not, I did it for the money.

And it wasn’t much money back then, either. When I was a contestant, Single Jeopardy started at $25 and Double Jeopardy ended with $250. In these days of five-figure daily payouts and individuals who’ve earned up to $3.5 million, that sounds like chump change, but back in 1979 it represented the possibility of buying a few more months to work on what would become my first published novel.

Here’s the key: back then, you got to keep the money you earned, win or lose. Today the losers head home with only memories and the Rice-a-Roni, game show parlance for “parting gifts” listed on a crawl at the end of the show. In olden times, you got it all.

Becoming a Jeopardy! contestant in the new millennium involves endless rounds of paperwork and testing and a scouting roadshow that forever circles the country in search of hidden intelligentsia. I know highly-qualified people who’ve been attempting for years to become contestants.

But back then it meant going to a second-floor office up on Hollywood Boulevard and taking a written test. If you did well on the test, you were called back for a practice session with actual buzzers, and if you passed that hurdle, you were slated as a contestant.

Art Fleming was the host, a genial man who had been with the show from its daytime black-and-white beginnings in March 1964. He was the host when I watched with my mother, back when prize money started at $10 and Single Jeopardy invariably featured a category of “Old Testament” or “Five Syllable Words.”

That first era of Jeopardy! lasted peacefully and successfully through 1973, when a Daytime Programming hotshot at NBC began bouncing it around different timeslots, a process which eventually got it cancelled. The last of that first incarnation’s 2753 episodes aired at the beginning of 1975, after which the time slot was added to Another World, creating the first hour-long soap opera. (When Jeopardy!’s second incarnation ended, another half hour was ceded to Another World, bringing it to ninety action-packed minutes a day.) A weekly evening prime time Jeopardy! ran for thirty-nine episodes in 1974-5, and then the show went dark for three years.

When it returned in October 1978, it was as The All-New Jeopardy!, a name change I had entirely forgotten until I looked it up on Wikipedia. The show was tarted up in an attempt to add suspense, including basic structural changes. Three contestants began Single Jeopardy, but only the two highest scorers went on to Double Jeopardy. Whoever was ahead at the end of Double Jeopardy was declared the winner and went on alone to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board for a chance to earn more through an absurdly complicated mechanism.

This did not produce suspense, as it happened, or success.

The show got cancelled after only five months, which I didn’t realize at the time. All I knew was that a couple of weeks after I was told I’d be a contestant and might expect a call a few months down the line, Jeopardy! called back, all a-bustle. They were going off the air at the end of the next two-week taping cycle, and wanted all of the best contestants currently in the pipeline to participate in those final weeks.

Was I available?

Well, yes. But while flattering, this was also utterly unnerving. The idea of going on Jeopardy! was scary enough. However, if they really were gathering the best and brightest, I was in deep trouble.

I did practice a bit. I made sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself with anything obvious like state capitals, and I used a Jeopardy! board game with tiny red plastic panels that you slid up to reveal answers printed in secret agent ink on the paper beneath. For buzzing in, you used the same kind of cricket clickers we had for New Year’s Eve as kids. Fortunately I did not need to master the clicker since I was playing alone.

I am not sure in retrospect that practicing with this game was any help. I was also pretty certain of this at the time. But it did keep me busy as the show loomed on the very near horizon, and reading almanacs was incredibly tedious.

There was no online game in 1979, of course, and even home videotaping was in its infancy. The only reason I have video of the experience is that a friend of a friend had cutting-edge home VHS recording technology. It was, after all, L.A.

Art Fleming was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and the show taped in Burbank. Taping was scheduled to run through five shows on Saturday and another five on Sunday so Art could pop in and out of town.

We were instructed to bring five changes of clothing, in case we kept winning, and also to provide five interesting facts about ourselves for Art to use in small talk. This was not easy because my life was rather dull, and I don’t remember what most of them were. One that I do recall was that I had managed to delay the departure of an Amtrak train from Fort Worth in hopes that my husband and cat, arriving at the station separately, would make it on board. (I told you it wasn’t interesting.)

The question Art did ask caught me by surprise. Noting that I was originally from Chicago, he asked how I had happened to come to California. Prepared to discuss Amtrak and my cat, I was momentarily taken aback, then listened with fascination as my voice answered, out of thin air: “Manifest destiny.”

Contestants and their families made up the audience, and I was called for the third show. My opponents were a guy who had just smoked his opposition and a previous contestant brought back because they done him wrong. Judges had too-late determined he should have gotten something right or the other person should have gotten something wrong, so they were giving him another chance. Lovely for him, of course, and normally I am a big fan of justice. But my only thought back then was that each of them had experience that I didn’t, particularly in using that accursed buzzer.

Timing was critical with the buzzer. You had to be careful not to buzz in too soon (i.e. before the window fully opened) because then you’d have a time penalty and somebody else would definitely get in first. But if you waited too long, somebody else would get there first as well. Not a problem if you’re running a category you know cold, but something that can turn on you if you come up against a real stumper.

It was terrifying.

Not only were all these people ridiculously smart, but the equipment was unfamiliar and crucial to success, or even survival. I had voluntarily placed myself in a position where I could humiliate myself on national television in a pseudo-intellectual endeavor, a truly dreadful double-header.

I did nicely on some stuff and made horrific blunders on others. The doctor’s daughter did well on “Human Body,” and the news junky aced “Headlines,” winning money for identifying Patty Hearst and the Ayatollah Khomeini within moments of one other. The woman introduced as “a writer from Venice, California” also ran “Women Writers.” As it happened, I’d just lost a bunch of money on wrong answers when I should have known better, so when a Daily Double came up in this category, I bet everything I had left.

Six hundred smackers.

The answer was “She wrote ‘The Lottery’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.”


The Former Contestant had become a former contestant once again by having the lowest score at the end of Single Jeopardy. Shirley Jackson now gave me the jump to catch up with the Returning Champion and tie the score just before our final Double Jeopardy question was revealed. We both knew the answer, but he rang in first and told me later that he didn’t wait to see the question.

And so I was dropped off the boat as The Returning Champion sailed on to the Super Jeopardy Bonus Board. As I recall, he didn’t do very well there.

I wrote the above account of my game from memory, a set piece that has become fairly well established over the years. And I was going to let it go at that, since this was a fond reminiscence and not a term paper. But I got curious, and dug out the VHS tape from 1979.

The criminal justice system, about which I’ve written many fictional accounts, is overloaded with contradictory reports on memory, so I figured I probably had messed up a few details. I knew I had no recollection whatsoever of many categories, and there’d been a dozen. I specifically recalled wrong answers I’d given, but not much that I’d gotten right.

Superficialities first.

The set, which I recalled as cheesy, was actually even worse. It looked like the play stages I used to put together as a kid for productions of “Rapunzel” and “Rumplestiltskin” in our kind-of finished basement. But we were natty dressers.The Returning Champion and Former Contestant both wore stylish seventies polyester with longish curly hair, one white ‘fro and one unruly rebel. The Returning Champion’s white shirt, unbuttoned to reveal some manly chest hair, had a fifteen-inch lapel span. The points of those lapels looked like high-end pie servers.

As for me, I looked impossibly young and smoker-slim, wearing enormous round tortoise-shell glasses.

(A few years ago at a Sisters in Crime conference at Sony Studios, we went into the current Jeopardy! studio. It is gargantuan by comparison to the humble digs out in Burbank, and several generations of glitz more advanced. The chairs were even comfortable.)

As I watched my own competition again, it began to remind me of the description of war as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.  I remembered getting many things wrong, but in reality I barely ever was able to buzz in. The Returning Champion took the lead and played aggressively, and he totally understood how to use the buzzer.  Now and then I’d get in and run a category (I’d forgotten all about “Florida”) and they made expensive mistakes more often than I did.

I was astonished to discover that at the end of Single Jeopardy, I was actually in the lead by fifty bucks, with a cool $700.  I’d also forgotten betting very cautiously on an audio Daily Double that I knew instantly when I heard it. And who could have foreseen how funny it would seem today that Ted Nugent was an answer in the category “Musical Instruments?”

I most assuredly had forgotten that my last correct answer in Double Jeopardy was “Who was Dorothy Parker?” And I should have remembered that one, because as a teenager I memorized every single one of her bittersweet love poems. I once recited “Resume” as my eight lines of required weekly poetry for high school English.

I had also forgotten the significant stretches of time where I sat demurely between two guys who had those buzzers down, wondering if I would ever get to hear my voice againThey were just so damned fast.

And then I finally caught on to the buzzer myself, and made an incredible comeback in the final minutes of the game. When I got control of the board after watching The Returning Champion run “19th Century History” I went straight to “Women Writers” for $250. At $200 I got the Daily Double, and then I moved over into “Headlines” at $250. I was bouncing all over the board from the bottom up, concentrating on the categories I felt confident about, fast and furious. It really was a photo finish, and the Returning Champion and I both look stunned at the end of it, right before a commercial break.

Next up was Jane Russell for the Playtex 18-hour bra, back in an era when women’s lingerie could not be modeled on actual women in television commercials. Liquid Plumr showed disgusted homeowners bailing water out of sinks allegedly chock-a-block with useless Drano.  Other cleaning product commercials were balanced by a portent of YouTube videos to come: a Meow Mix commercial for a contest in which people would submit tapes of their own cats meowing. The cat on camera fiddled with a giant reel of professional recording tape as the rules were explained.

The All-New Jeopardy! was gone after the following week’s shows, and it would be five long years before Alex Trebek returned with the current incarnation in 1984.

How did I feel about losing? Well, I wouldn’t have minded playing again, once I actually had the hang of it. But I had accomplished the mission I set out on and I was satisfied.

I went home with $1750 and the Rice-a-Roni. There was no actual Rice-a-Roni, though I did get $25 worth of Chunky bars, which is way too many when nobody in your household likes them. I also got a little cooler from Kentucky Fried Chicken and some paint. Applesauce and canned soup, plus some quality time with The Rug Doctor. All that Rice-a-Roni brought the taxable income on my IRS paperwork from NBC up to nineteen hundred and change.

There was even a brief coda, as I learned of a game show circuit for which I had now qualified. Networks were hungry, it turned out, for bright contestants to appear on programs which could be won by a persistent parrot. There were even very specific rules about how often you could appear. Since I knew that the questions on most game shows were a lot easier than those on Jeopardy! I found this prospect fairly appealing, at least until I got to my first tryout. There I learned that I am not somebody who can jump up and down and squeal with glee as I identify the river that runs from Minnesota to New Orleans.

When the game show loot ran out, I went back to temping.

I have been fortunate to know a lot of intelligent and interesting people over the years. Several have been Jeopardy! contestants and a couple are five-time champions, which impresses the hell out of me. I even know some people who have been featured in questions.

I also now know a former Jeopardy! writer.

Fast forward a couple of decades from 1979 and my appearance during Art Fleming’s swan song. It’s the turn of the century, and I’m publishing crime fiction and becoming active in the mystery writing community. I meet Jerrilyn Farmer, also a rising mystery writer, and discover that she was a writer on Jeopardy! way back when. And guess what? Turns out she wrote all the questions in that “Women Writers” category for my show, which she remembered clearly because she was the only woman in the writers’ room and everybody thought it was a stupid category.

She also taught me that it is imperative to use an exclamation point in the name of the program, a fact which had somehow escaped my attention. You’re never too old to learn.

So am I glad I did it? Absolutely.

Would I do it again now? Not on your life.

Was the paltry payout worth it? You’d better believe it.

I worked a lot of office temp jobs back then, generally alternating three months of work and three months of writing. That Jeopardy! check bought me three months, a lifetime supply of Chunky bars, and a story that I can still drag out thirty-five years later with relative certainty that somebody will be willing to listen.

Who could ask for more?