TL; DR: I did not get to play Jeopardy! on my first day as a contestant. I watched other people play, and learned a great deal about the show.
Despite the appearance the producers like to present, Jeopardy! is not a live television show. It tapes in advance (in my case, four months in advance) and on a compressed schedule. Typically, they tape five episodes a day for two consecutive days. Each shooting day requires ten new contestants, since each ep has two new contestants and one returning champ. The producers, however, do not want to risk bringing in exactly ten contestants on each day, since one contestant may not show up or fall ill or otherwise become suddenly unavailable. So, on the first day of shooting, they bring in 13 people: One returning champ, ten new players from out of town, and two L.A. area locals who had previously been alternates. The two L.A. locals are guaranteed to play, while two of the ten out-of-towners will (normally) sit in the audience all day and be held over for the second day of taping. They draw the contestants for each game randomly (under the supervision of an independent attorney) before each game, so no one knows when they will play until the conclusion of the previous episode's taping. On the second day, there are again 13 people: One returning champ, eight new out-of-towners, the two carryovers from the first day, and two L.A. locals as alternates. The two carryovers are guaranteed to play (usually in the first two games) and the L.A. locals won't play unless needed.
As it turns out, having a day to sit in the audience was great. I would have enjoyed it more had I known I would not get to play that day, but it was still fascinating and valuable.
The day started with a shuttle ride from the hotel to the studio, followed by a trip through a metal detector and into the Jeopardy! green room. (N.B. The room is actually painted in a sort of pale mint green; I do not believe this is mandatory for green rooms in general, though.) We helped ourselves to some pastries and beverages, did some paperwork under the direction of Robert and Corina, and were instructed to begin thinking about our "Hometown Howdies."
"Hometown Howdies" come in two flavors: simple, and painful. The former variety, as my name for it would imply, is easy: "Hello, Lakewood! This is Nick Condon. Watch me on Jeopardy!" The latter variety requires writing and delivering some sort of joke or witticism specific to the town or region of one's origin. The result is all but universally awkward. Not my favorite part of being on the show.
Maggie then showed up and, for a loud, energetic, and entertaining hour, gave us a combination of an orientation and a pep talk. Meanwhile, we all rotated through the makeup chairs. I was informed that I would look too pale next to the well-tanned Alex, so the makeup artists adjusted my skin tone appropriately. I'm pretty sure it was the first time I've ever worn makeup of any sort.
Finally, we were brought out to the main stage. The geometry of the stage is a bit different than it looks on TV. The full-stage shots must be taken with a very wide-angle lens, because the angle between the board and the row of podiums is considerably less than 45 degrees, while it appears to be greater than 90 degrees from my perspective on the couch.
I counted six cameras: Two just to the left of the board for shooting the playing contestants (I believe one provided the view of all three contestants while the other would swing to whoever was responding), a boom camera and two cameras on dollys in front of the stage to shoot Alex and the questions, and one fixed camera, mounted high above the entryway, for shooting the whole board. Above the cameras to the left of the board are the current scores of each contestant (note the direction in which a contestant presented with a Daily Double looks before making a wager), and below them is a large monitor for the video clues. The contestant coordinators sit at a table to stage left, while the rest of the production staff (including the dispute resolution group and the guy that unlocks the buzzers) sit at a much longer table to the center and right. The audience (of about 200?) sits in banks of seats that strongly resemble those found in movie theatres.
We were brought up to the podiums for an in-person briefing on how to use the buzzers and how to write our names and Final Jeopardy! responses on the lightpen screens. The podiums look from the back much as you would expect they would. The only surprises are the platforms on which the contestants stand: They can be raised independently up to about a foot above the level of the stage. This is so that the heads of all three contestants can be made to be roughly level, which makes the job of the person who pans the camera to the responding contestant much easier. As I am 6'4" tall, and thus taller than every single other contestant in both groups, my box stayed permanently at floor level.
The contestants who are not playing sit in the second and third rows of the (stage) leftmost bank of seats; the first row is reserved for those with disabilities. This is where the non-playing folk sat during practice as well.
The practice rounds were basically a reenactment of a full Jeopardy! episode, but with much easier questions and Alex replaced by Glenn (who would do just fine as a game show host himself). Three players, including the returning champion, are invited up to the stage at the beginning of the practice game, and Maggie rotates in new players every few questions. Each player got two chances at the podium. I did very poorly in these practices, but my discussion of buzzer performance will wait for my next post.
The lineup for the first game was announced following the practice, and I was pleased to discover that I wasn't in it. I was still nervous and unsettled, and my weak performance in practice was on my mind. I could tell that I would not have played well had I been put out there.
So, it was off to the green room to cool our heels until the audience could be brought in. We were reminded not to attempt any communication with any audience member, then we were brought in to sit down in our rows. I had to spend the day not making eye contact with my parents, who were only a few seats away.
Watching the game from the seats was much like watching it from home. Instead of commercials, we listened to Alex take questions from the audience, and occasionally, redub a line that he had missed.
The first game was a well-fought battle that saw two-time champ Jericho fall to Sam. After it ended, the two players chosen for the next game (not me) were revealed and we all went back to the green room for refreshments.
As the day passed, the pattern repeated, with the contestant rows slowly becoming depopulated. Lindsey lost a heartbreaker to Sam, then Sam was dethroned by Tim.
After the third game, the audience (excepting the families of potential players) was dismissed. We went off to the commissary for a late lunch, and upon returning, we were given another round of practice. It was here that I figured out my buzzer technique, but more on that in my next post.
I was ready to play, now. I felt good about my technique, my nerves had mostly burned off, and I was ready to go. Unfortunately, I did not get chosen.
The pattern of games repeated twice more with me on the sidelines and a (mostly) new audience. The fourth game of the day saw Mary Anna put on a Jeopardy! clinic and win in an impressive lock, then she had a tough loss to Amy to end the day.
Two of us were left in the contestant pool at the end. We were told we'd play the next day for sure, and probably early in the day. So, it was back to the hotel for dinner with my parents and another trip into the contestant pool the next day.