ken on cape cod

My JEOPARDY! Experience

By Kenneth E. DeBusk
Alex   Alex

  Alex Trebek, in his own style, read the Final Jeopardy answer for the category "Authors":  "He was one of President Reaganís advisors, a Nobel laureate, and wrote a book titled ĎThereís No Such Thing As A Free Lunchí."

   The three of us had 30 seconds to write with a light pen on a television monitor (no easy task, by the way) the question matching that answer. My two opponents were close enough that anyone could win, and of course, only the winner got to keep the cash. I had taken the lead by a few hundred dollars on the very last question of Double Jeopardy, and now had $8,900. The crew stressed before we started taping that it was only play money until one person had the most at the end, so I bet it all. After Alex checked the other two questions, I would have either $17,800, or I would go home from Los Angeles to Michigan with only the consolation prizes, and a credit card charged to the max.

   One of the common misconceptions is that they pay all your expenses to play. Others include the "fact" that you are given the questions and/or answers before the show and the person with the best memory combined with the fastest buzzer reflexes will win. I got nothing free while I was there except a bagel and some coffee while the crew briefed all the contestants and lunch. It was a nice catered lunch, with the representative of ABCís Standards and Practices Department sitting at the contestantís table, never saying a word, but making sure the crew didnít mingle with us off the set. Security is tight on the set.

   Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I was bornÖ. Oh, you donít want to know that much? OK, letís fast forward. Ever since watching the original 1960s Jeopardy with Art Fleming, I had wanted to be on that show. In late 1990, I saw the announcement, with a telephone number, at the end of the show that open try-outs would be held in New Jersey; after two days I finally got through on the telephone and grabbed one of the last three try-out openings.

   During that week in New Jersey, they tried out over 1,000 people for the show, in groups of 100-125. We were seated in a ballroom with two large televisions in the front, and were told that Alex himself would read to us from tape, and we would complete a "fill in the blank" test based on what he said. The questions ranged from ancient history to opera to sports to French literature, etc., much like you would see categories on the show, with one question from each category. There were 50 questions, and we were never told what the passing number was, only that they would be graded while we waited, and we would be given the news, either good or bad, within 30 minutes. All 125 of us were nervously fidgeting and making small talk about how much we wanted to pass and how hard the test was. (Was the baseball question Hank Aaron? Was the Greek god Mercury?) When one of the contestant coordinators came back in and announced that three of us had made the grade. Two names were read off that werenít mine, and I knew that it was now or never. The third name was mine! We three were asked to stay on, while the others were dismissed with thanks and an invitation to try again next time. The three of us were taken into a small room, placed standing in a line, each with a small bell in our hand and cardboard Jeopardy props leaning on a table against the wall. This was just as important as knowing facts: could you work under group pressure, speak well and clearly and smile when appropriate? One of us literally froze up, and couldnít ring the bell or say a word, but the other two were told we had made it.

   Unfortunately, that wasnít the end. When they did try-outs, they always selected more than were really needed, to allow for "cold feet", sickness, inability to appear when summoned, etc. We were told there was no guarantee that we would be called to appear on the show. One of the most memorable moments of this whole experience was, while driving back to the main highway to return home, still on cloud nine, I watched a deer, frightened by gunshots, jump over a fence, onto my car, almost totaling said car. I had to get a ride back to town in a wrecker, rent a car, and leave my car for extensive repairs, returning the following month after repairs were complete.

   My work at the time involved a lot of travel, and some of my work was done at odd hours. When I got home my wife just smiled and handed me a piece of paper with a telephone number, and the word "Jeopardy" written on it. They had called and wanted me to come to Los Angeles for taping! I hardly slept that night. The next morning I then had to wait the long hours for the 8:00 opening (11:00 Michigan time) of the LA office. "Could you come out for taping?" I was asked. "You realize that even after you get here, you might not be selected as an on-air contestant." I never said yes faster in my life. My wife and I debated about both of us going, but decided that we couldnít afford it. Since it was my dream, I was destined to go out there alone. My one credit card, with a $1,000 limit, was immediately maxed out when I booked the cheapest airfare I could, a hotel room, and a small rental car for the four days I would be there.

   The day of the taping all the contestants were fed doughnuts and bagels, coffee and soft drinks. Two names would be chosen at random for each game and we would wait in the "green room" and watch the taping of prior shows until called. There were two extras there, but the contestant coordinators said they would try to make sure the out-of-town people were called before the locals, since they could come back again later for their chance. Two weeks of shows are taped over two days. On Monday, the first week is taped, and on Tuesday, the second week. On each day, Monday and Tuesday are taped before lunch, with Wednesday through Friday taped in the afternoon. I was lucky enough to be selected for the first weekís Tuesday show, and was hustled into the ready room, to be briefed on the rules of the game, have my make-up applied, and start sweating like I had never sweated before! The music started. The mellifluous tones of the announcer: "Now entering the studio are todayís contestantsÖ" I walked on like I owned the place, taking the center position, getting my first look at the set and the enormous answer board. A few seconds later, in strides Alex Trebek, and at that moment, my lifelong dream came true. A quick scan of the categories revealed some I liked, and some I didnít. It took a while to get the hang of using the buzzer and the fact that you canít buzz until after Alex stops reading the answer. If you buzz early, you are locked out for a quarter second and someone else might get in while you canít. If you are successful, then the other two are locked out, and Alex will say, "Ken?" I was expected to have the right question, always mindful of that format. I made some mistakes, and made a fool of myself on silly things that I really knew, such as the fact that a male duck is a drake, not a gander, as I replied. Oh well, it was still early, and I only lost $200. The lead seesawed between the three of us. An interesting sidelight was that the make-up man came in every commercial break and powdered my bald head so I wouldnít shine on camera! Did you know the question for the answer I gave at the beginning? Did you say, "Who is Milton Friedman?" If so, you won!

   Lunch, now on to day two. Iím the defending champion and the heat is really on. Wednesdayís show goes much like Tuesdayís, with everyone taking a turn at the lead, everyone making a fool of himself at least once by giving stupid answers, and all three of us wanting to be standing at the end. I led at the end of Double Jeopardy, but again, all were close, and it was anyoneís game. The final category was "Actresses". Oh, no! Not my best subject. Why couldnít it have been science, mathematics, classical music, or any other category except that one? Alex read the quote from the actress in question: "How transitory your life is. One day you awake and youíre a building." That evil music started, and my mind went in circles, never stopping on one name for more than a nanosecond, knowing that all of them were wrong. The thirty seconds are up, and all Iíve written is "Who is ?" Once again, Iíve bet it all, knowing that I now have the third place prizes, and yesterdayís $17,800. The other two knew that itís Helen Hayes, with Alex chiming in with his somewhat supercilious comment of the day: "The first lady of the American theatre." I have won the Centrum vitamins, the Paul Mitchell hair care cornucopia for that bald head, the Ronco macaroni, the Icy Hot muscle balm, the Armitron watches, and a lifetime supply of carpet cleaning solution and a one day rental of a steam machine in which to use it. Oh yes, the pair of graphite tennis rackets, which I will never use, and I declined so I wouldnít have to pay income tax on them.

   We taped in February, the show aired in March, and I didnít get the check until July! They had told us it would take several months to process. The day of the broadcast, the two young boys from next door came running over excitedly after it finished. The eight-year-old asked for my autograph to take to school the next day, and the five-year-old asked me for a dollar! That morning I had been interviewed on long distance telephone by the radio station in my home town in Florida, but didnít reveal whether I had won or lost, since that was one of the conditions in the game rules. You can only tell your family, and stress to them that they canít tell anyone.

   To answer a few questions everyone always asks me: Yes, Alex seemed to be a very nice person. I must qualify that by saying he only talked to us as much as you can see on the screen and during the commercials. I was able to send my copy of his book on Jeopardy back to his dressing room for an autograph. The winnings are now invested as equity in my home. Was I nervous--not really, it all happens in real time, there isnít any time to be nervous, itís that fast paced. The autograph, the home equity, and the many fond memories are whatís left, together with the photocopy of the check that I carry in my shirt pocket and will show anyone who mentions the word "Jeopardy" in my presence. If you want to know more, e-mail me (, I donít mind at all and I might spur some of the local Mensans to aspire to be a contestant some day, just like I was. Who knows, if you promised to bring a bottle of burgundy over, I might invite you to watch the tape. It ranks right up there among the top three days in my life, the other two being the day I was discharged from the U.S. Air Force and my wedding day. To that I might add another now, the day I got my bachelorís degree 28 years after I started in 1970. Believe in your dreams, they can come true, and when they do, you will remember them forever.

Ken's Check

NEW! Video of day one!

This article was first printed in 'Nova', the magazine of Western Michigan Mensa, July, 1999

"Image Copyright © 2004 American
                          Mensa Limited. The Mensa logo is a registered
                          trademark of Mensa International Limited and
                          American Mensa Limited, all rights reserved.
                          Mensa does not hold any opinion or have, or
                          express, any political or religious

Mensa logo image above is Copyright © 2004 American Mensa Limited.  The Mensa logo is a registered trademark of Mensa International Limited and American Mensa Limited, all rights reserved.  Mensa does not hold any opinion or have, or express, any political or religious views.

At some point in the indefinite future, I will find the VHS tape of my appearance on Jeopardy! and extract a few video clips from it to link here. Please do not hold your breath waiting for it, though, since I'm fairly positive you won't look good blue!

I hope you enjoyed the once-through of the Jeopardy theme. I thought about looping it, but knew I would be annoyed at that, so I didn't. If you're interested in hearing the Jeopardy theme as if Mozart had written it, download it by right-clicking here.

For an excellent article on the history and inner workings of the show, click here.


If you have good comments or suggestions, email me here.

If you have bad comments, remember what your mother taught you: "If you can't say something good, don't say anything."

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Last updated 24-Nov-07 (as if anyone really cares except me).

Copyright © 1999-2007 Kenneth E. DeBusk

OK, I should not do it, but I'm going to put a political cartoon on this page. It's funny and it's apropos :)