Behind the scenes with 'Jeopardy!' runner-up
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all! We have much to be thankful for, including how many bright young people live in and around Charleston.
One of them is Will Dantzler, the 17-year-old Bishop England senior who recently scored as runner-up in the "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament. I really enjoy "Jeopardy!" and like matching my wits against the categories and contestants, most of whom have amazingly broad funds of knowledge that easily surpass mine even though there are some shows with categories right in my wheelhouse. These tend to leave me feeling a little too self-satisfied.
Usually, I'm left perplexed, wondering how I'd really do in front of the cameras and a live studio audience. (What a horrible thought.)
So whereas I don't particularly enjoy getting whupped up by a 17-year-old, it could be worse ("Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"), and I imagine the pain is eased somewhat by my knowing Will and his extended family personally. Accordingly, I tracked him down for an interview to get a behind-the-scenes feel for "Jeopardy!" and a little vicarious pleasure.
Of 75,000 contestants who passed the initial online "Jeopardy!" applicant examination, 65,000 promptly were cut. Of the 10,000 who remained, 300 were selected for a live audition in Washington, D.C., of whom 15 ultimately were chosen to compete in the Teen Tournament.
Just making it to Washington was a major accomplishment, one fraught with uncertainty and what seemed like agonizing periods of waiting. Will and his family had been watching the show as a unit for nearly six years, had become huge fans and an amazing opportunity lay waiting.
Once Will was selected, he and his mother, Mary Helen, were flown to Los Angeles in August and put up by the show, whose entire tournament would be filmed at Sony Studios over a grueling two-day period. Nondisclosure forms had to be signed, which meant that if either blabbed the results of the tournament before broadcast time, any and all winnings would be forfeited. If there should be no winnings to forfeit, the threat of a punitive lawsuit loomed ominously.
Will is a creative young man who wrote a science fiction novella when he was 12 and has been studying the bluegrass style of fiddling for years. I first met him several years ago on the shores of Lake Summit, N.C., where he accompanied me with his violin as I was trying to bang out a few tunes on the guitar.
He admits that his nerves started getting to him a little about two days before actual filming began. But he had prepared hard by going through the "Jeopardy!" archives and various online trivia resources and had done everything he could. All he needed was a really good night's sleep before filming, which was an understandably tall order.
The other contestants were equally well-prepared and, to a person, pleasant company. There may have been a little gentle gamesmanship here and there (like the fellow who told Will how well he had done in a recent geography bee), but nothing really out of line. And Alex Trebek? No sign of him or the judges until the cameras rolled.
Personal information forms had been completed prior to show time, but Alex chose not to discuss what Will might have found most interesting at the start of round one, focusing instead on Will's (or any teen's) predilection for cell phone texting. Now the whole world knows that Will and someone else once texted back and forth for four hours. Will would just as soon not have made that disclosure and was a tad embarrassed by it, but viewers couldn't tell.
He gathered himself and promptly won the first round, requiring not only a cool head, but adept use of the signaling device, which can only be keyed in after Alex finishes reading the answer, and imposes a 0.5 second delay for a "false start."
He also overcame the shock of not being able to read the answers on the display board very easily. The answers are prominently displayed, of course, on the TV screen, but are at some distance in the studio.
Round two could have gone very badly were it not for an unusually bold move by one of the contestants on a Daily Double question, which he got wrong with disastrous results, thus giving Will the green light for another win.
He met his match in the final rounds, though, against a young lady who was simply too good, too quick, too smart, too everything and a gracious winner to boot.
No complaints there. He would finish as an overall very satisfied tournament runner-up with winnings of $31,600 (before California state tax and federal deductions).
Being a certified "Jeopardy!" geek, I had to ask what Alex is really like.
"None of us really found out. There was very little personal contact time, even at the cast party after filming."
But there always appears to be a discourse of some sort at the end of the show. "It's just idle chitchat. At one point, I think he was talking about having to get out of there because he had Lakers tickets."
What goes on during commercial breaks?
"The floor is opened up for audience questions."
Alex seems so utterly professional. Does he ever make a mistake?
"Yes. If that happens, the cameras stop so they can reshoot. They don't do that for the players."
Do you keep up with any of the other contestants?
"We text each other and have a Facebook group."
Can you compete on "Jeopardy!" again?
"Not as long as Alex remains host."
Would you consider another game show?
Might this accomplishment help with your college applications?
"It should, but I'm not counting on it."
And finally, Will said he had gained a certain amount of fame with this experience, had a couple of clips on YouTube, and was being asked to friend on Facebook with a bunch of people he didn't know.
"Does that mean you're becoming a chick magnet?" I asked.
"I've always been a chick magnet," Will said.
Wow! I like that. And I bet it ain't cheap talk!
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.