Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jeopardy: From Sony Pictures Studios, this! is!

Part of an ongoing series.

The stage is big and blue and cold. I was happy to find that the individual panels of the game board are bigger and closer to the podium than they seem on TV. That said, I was still glad I'd recently had my glasses prescription updated. They taught us how to use the light pen for writing our names and playing Final Jeopardy (write big and slow). We went through a full game in real-time with Glenn as host and with contestants rotating in and out to give everyone a feel for the flow and the signaling device (keep your thumb on the button and eliminate any wind-up motions when you ring in; I liked bracing the bottom of the buzzer against the desk).

When a clue is revealed, Alex reads it, and when he's done, a guy at the production table flips a switch that activates the signaling devices as well as a series of small white lights running up either side of the game board. These are the so-called "Go! Lights." If you ring in before that guy flips that switch, you're locked out for a crucial quarter of a second, and someone will beat you if they know the response. Bob Harris practiced, and advocates, Jedi Mastery of the Go! Lights: anticipate Trebek's last syllable, pause imperceptibly, then ring in. Ignore the lights, in other words, and feel the timing. I found during practice that this usually made me ring in too early, that a couple decades of video gaming had my reflexes to the point that I was better off watching for the lights to ignite.

To the left of the game board is a big flatscreen TV (you can see its corner in the photo above), on which they play video clues. Above this is a hole in the wall behind which are the two cameras that point at the players head-on. Above that is the scoreboard. When you see someone looking up and slightly to their left during a Daily Double, they're checking out the scores. It's a good idea not too look at the scores too often during gameplay; the more you're thinking about the scores, the less you're playing the game.

(If you're a visual learner, check out these photos from the set during the 2004 Tournament of Champions. The details have changed a little, but the relative positioning of everything is the same.)

Here's roughly how a game goes down: the contestants will be mic'd and marched out to the lecterns. Each contestant will record short and long Hometown Howdies. A guy with a handheld camera will tape some goofy little promotional bit that may or may not be used. Johnny Gilbert will announce the show number and taping and air dates. The music and CG intro will play and Johnny will introduce the players, including the returning champ's winnings (they ask new players to applaud the champ), and then Alex (applauding for the host is a good idea, too). Alex will say a few words, then get the game started with the champ selecting first. After about 15 questions is the first commercial break, during which time Alex will stand with the new players for a souvenir photo to be mailed later (as much as 90 days after taping, which is when they send prize checks). During breaks in general, Alex will re-record clues to correct for pronunciation as necessary, and then chat with the audience. The contestant coordinators will come out at this time to bring water bottles to the players and hang around in case you need to puke or contest a ruling on a question. Also, the makeup artist will come to see if you've gotten shiny.

During the third commercial break, just before Final Jeopardy, you make your wager based on the scores and how you feel about the category. They give you scratch paper and a marker to do math, and will apparently stop the show if you need more time to crunch numbers. If you write something with the light pen but want to change something, they will reset it for you. Once you're satisfied, you lock it in with a button on the screen. Once everybody's ready, they will change the screen for Final Jeopardy response input, and tell you whether the response will start with Who or What, so you can write that during the break. I guess they got tired of having to disqualify people for not answering in the form of a question during FJ. At this time, Glenn will remind everyone that when they're answering, they should add a verb, so they won't end up with "Who George Washington?" on TV.

Back from commercial, and then a 10-second Closed Captioning ad, most likely for eggs. Then Alex reveals the clue, and the Think Music probably starts. If for some reason the music cart doesn't play, the stage manager will yell out ten-second intervals (I was glad to not have to witness this option, as it sounds stressful). If your pen doesn't work, you're to use the Sharpie to write on a card in front of you that's got WHO pre-scrawled on one side and WHAT pre-scrawled on the other. Thirty seconds, and the Think Music, are over. Responses and wagers are revealed, a champion is crowned, Alex shakes hands (unless, as the week before we taped, he's still too injured from dropping a jackhammer on his foot. Yes, really.), and while commercials roll, the contestants are lined up by Alex for awkward chitchat during the credits.

Rinse, repeat. Five times a day (usually), two days a week, a couple weeks a month.

So. They ran us through a fake version of all of that in real time, and then a more relaxed run-through without all the rigmarole to get everyone comfy with the game. Between auditions and rehearsals, it seems, they burn a lot of practice questions.

Now, three hours after we got on the bus at the hotel, we were led from the studio. Upon our return to the greenroom, two contestants were announced to face Inta, our returning champion from Ontario. I was not one of them, so I joined the rest of the pool in the audience, scrupulously avoiding making contact with my family and friends in the audience. The auditorium seats about 130 or so. The podiums on stage are angled so contestants can only see the half of the seating reserved for tourists and others who are just there to see a game. Friends and family are seated in a section roughly at 9 O'Clock for the players, with the contestant pool quarantined in the front section adjacent.

Watching the March 9th episode was a trip. Playing along with the show from this perspective is exciting in a way watching at home isn’t, but also nerve-wracking as you watch some categories fly by that you wish you’d gotten and some you’re glad you didn’t. I tapped my thumb on my knee, trying to keep my buzzer timing down. Peter from Philadelphia and I muttered answers under our breath, very quietly.

The game was good. All three players were competitive, though Barry from had a rough time with the Daily Doubles he uncovered. There was at least one stoppage at the uncovering of a Daily Double, at which time they turned the contestants around so they wouldn't be exposed to revealed information while The Powers That Be could fiddle with the gameboard software, which had hit a slight glitch. At the end of the episode, Dana from Georgia had won. Alex announced that she would have a couple weeks to relax while the show went to Vegas for the Tournament of Champions. The contestant pool chuckled bitterly, as we knew better.

Robert approached the front of the risers and announced that Beth and I would be facing off against Dana in the next game. So we were hustled off to the green room for bathroom breaks and makeup touch-up while Dana did a quick change. Ten minutes later, we were led back to take our places on the stage.


Next Jeopardy blog, to be published on or after March 25th: My game.


M. Molly said...

SO interesting, Fred! My one regret about not having a TV is missing my old ritual of competing nightly against my partner to prove I was the smarter. I do love the jeopardy.

LRM said...

This is really fun to read. Thanks for the blow by blow.

Peggy W said...

Can't wait for March 25. I'm enjoying your blog!