Monday, March 30, 2009

Jeopardy: Another day, another dollar? Game Four!

Part of an ongoing series. Written before this episode aired.
Contains spoilers of tonight's episode.

It was January 28th now. Happy birthday to my brother and to Rakim. Early to rise. Repeated Tuesday's breakfast routine, including listening to some Ennio Morricone to start the day right. There was a whole new crew of people with garment bags in the lobby, in addition to Heather and John returning from yesterday. On board the bus, we returners answered questions about the game. This continued while we gathered in the waiting area in the Sony parking structure and waited for more folks to arrive. I was slightly embarrassed to be in the middle of repeating something funny Glenn had said on Tuesday (that you should be sure to add a verb when writing your Final Jeopardy question -- you don't want to be the guy who wrote "WHO THOMAS EDISON" on TV), when Mr. Kagan himself arrived.

In the green room I was sent straight into makeup as Inta had been the day before while Maggie once again held court and got everybody up to speed. We went through our morning rehearsal, and I was delighted that the crew was warming up the screens on the game board using the following clip from Animaniacs, which had been one of the study songs on my iPod:

Back in the green room, the challengers were named. Anne from Stow, MA (shoutout to Whitney Davidson), a new contestant, and John from Kansas City, were called out. John was the contestant I'd spent the most time chatting with, who admitted he was itching to go up against me in a game. We all shook hands and headed out.

Fourth Hometown Howdy: "Hey, Twin Cities, this is Fred Beukema from Minneapolis, and I'm the returning champion on Jeopardy. By the time you see this, we might even have another Senator!"

If only that were true.

Today's was a tough board, and both Anne and John were solid on the buzzer. I committed the cardinal Jeopardy sin of flat-out guessing on a question, in Military Abbreviations. The answer was what the tactical abbreviation C2 stood for, and, influenced by being in the middle of Battlestar Galactica, I asked "What is Condition 2?" Ooh, sorry, they were looking for command & control. Command & control.

This is the game in which I started swearing under my breath when I got Daily Doubles. There came a point where it seemed like every time I got one, it was in a category I didn't like. In any case, I really hope the mic didn't pick that up. In the oblique "famous people as aerobics instructors" category, I knew that Indiana University was the tease-out clue, but I wasn't connecting the Kinsey Institute with IU, and all I could come up with was Bobby Knight.

[Hindsight addendum — Just watched the show when it aired, and here's a piece of advice for any future Jeopardy contestants: do not be afraid of a True Daily Double if it's in a category you like. I could have done some real damage in that "THE" Nation category. But given that I was not seeing clues I liked in recent DDs, I was staying conservative.]

Overall, this game felt like a question of survival more than anything, and I could feel it slipping away from me. I knew this had the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so in Double Jeopardy took it an opportunity to shake off what had happened so far and focus on my buzzer timing. I had been trying to anticipate the Go! Lights, but was locking myself out more often than not. So I stared very intently at each clue as it was read, keeping the Lights in my peripheral vision, and let video game reflexes run the buzzer. It helped, and at the end of regular play, I had managed to eke out a lead.

I'm very happy that I managed to do that, but it was not enough to shut Anne or John out. It would all come down to Final Jeopardy. The category was revealed, and while I don't remember the exact name, I'm pretty sure it was "Painters." Now, let me draw your attention back to this unfortunate bit of foreshadowing from a few weeks ago, my Jeopardy studying to-do list. The circled items, unfortunately, represent things I didn't get around to before heading out:
Art. Blerg. If I could have safely done so, I would have bet very little or nothing. But the others were close enough that I'd have to bet enough to cover either one of them doubling their score.

Anyway, the clue boiled down to "On March 30th, 1746 in Spain, and 1853 in the Netherlands, these two painters were born." So I started thinking of painters. The Spaniard was surprisingly easy, as Goya (pictured, left) was the only big one who fit the time period. At this point, I think there was smoke coming out of my ears. Now, the Dutchman... Hm. Well, there's Rembrandt. I don't think that's right, he's older. Same with Vermeer. Bosch is way too old. De Kooning is too late... and so on. All of this missing the obvious 19th Century Dutch painter. You know, the one who did most of his work in France and cut his ear off and was played by Kirk Douglas in that movie and painted Starry Night, which is on one of the credit cards that was in my wallet in the green room at that exact moment. Running out of time, I went with Rembrandt (pictured, upper right).

John got Van Gogh, if I remember correctly, which meant I now knew I was wrong, and had to hope Anne got one or the other wrong. She didn't, so I knew I'd narrowly lost a very tough game. In the only bit of post-game chatter I recall, Alex commented on this being a hard game and how the writers expected Goya to be the harder part of the FJ clue. I likened my brain to a car refusing to turn over on a cold morning.

I signed for my $2000 consolation prize and Melissa and I smiled at each other. I grabbed my stuff from the green room, as did John, and we joined my family and friend Pete in the audience. We decided to stick around and at least watch the games taped before lunch, especially since Heather was likely to be up, and we wanted to cheer her on.

Everybody loses on Jeopardy eventually, even if it's Ken Jennings in his 75th consecutive game. While it's easy to be philosophical, it doesn't make finally bouncing out any more fun. This isn't really about the money, or the competition, or the fact that Alex seemed excited that I was winning (just before the last game started, I overheard him chatting with someone behind the game board, and the only words I recognized were "Beukema Week." Aw.). Actually, it was all those things, too. But most of all, I just wanted to keep playing. The game is fun. I want more, just as Bob Harris said he did.

Now, here's the thing. As Alex explained at the beginning of today's show, with three wins I became the first person to qualify for the next Tournament of Champions in 2010. The top 13 players between now & then, by number of wins, will join two College Tournament winners in the competition.

It's going to be a long year.

Next Jeopardy blog: Leftovers!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Jeopardy: Game Three!

Part of an ongoing series. Written before this episode aired.
Contains spoilers of tonight's episode.

Hometown Howdy: "Hey Twin Cities, this is Fred Beukema from Minneapolis. Circle me, Bert: I'm the returning champion on Jeopardy." Other than Melissa, nobody in the studio had any idea what I was talking about. A couple of the coordinators asked me about it when they came to stand by the lecterns during the first commercial break.

In my interview bit with Alex, I talked about my time writing headlines for the Onion back when I was a senior in high school & first-year in college. This is the headline I specifically referenced.

Also, after lunch, I mentioned to Tony, the contestant coordinator who handles getting the biographical information to Trebek, that Alex had been mispronouncing my name all day. Tony said something, and Alex got it perfectly, but unfortunately, Johnny Gilbert had now picked up his previous pronunciation. Gilbert re-recorded my intro during the first commercial break.

First off: yes, I know lamprey. But my brain wasn't releasing information to me at that moment.

Meg and Peter had me on the run. My buzzer timing felt off pretty consistently, and one or the other of them was beating me on the buzzer as often as (or more than) I was beating both of them. Categories that I loved, and was excited to play (mythological couples, especially, all of which I knew) passed me by, mostly answered by others. I'm relieved I got the volcano one right, as I was feeling iffy on that. I think I'd happened to read something about Hawaiian volcanoes in the prior weeks of January.

Other than a brief lead at the first commercial break, I think I was perpetually behind in this game. By the end of Double Jeopardy, I was in second but within range of Peter. Trebek revealed the Final Jeopardy category: "19th Century Construction," and Peter tipped his hand: "oh, man," he said, only nominally under his breath. I knew that my winning would depend on him getting this wrong. For my FJ wager, I'd have to assume that he would. I bet to prevent Meg overtaking me if she doubled her score.

Thankfully for me, his worry about the category was borne out. Although the Suez Canal did float through my mind as a 19th-Century construction project on the Sinai Peninsula, canals don't usually get names that sound like titles of artwork. The only major, modern construction project that fit the name was the Statue of Liberty.

This was the end of the day's taping, so as I got off stage, I signed the paperwork for each game's winnings. Three games, $69k. Wow. Neat! I don't think it had hit me yet. Looking up at Melissa, it looked like it had hit her. Stopping back in the green room to gather my things, Heather and John mentioned they'd come up with a new nickname: "the Twin City Terror." Sounds like a serial killer, but it made me laugh.

As we stepped, blinking, out of the building into the sun, I was congratulated by various audience members. Hugs and congrats from Melissa's family and from my college buddy Pete, who lives in LA and I was only now able to say hi to, although he'd been in the audience all day. This was the first I'd been able to interact with Melissa since leaving the hotel in the morning. She was mostly speechless, other than the occasional "wow!" Hadn't hit me yet, although I was chuckling from time to time.

Upon returning to the hotel, I called my parents and brother to share the news. It still hadn't hit me, although the chuckling had expanded into full-on jags of periodic laughter. That night Melissa and her family and I went to a nice Italian place in Santa Monica to celebrate (I'm glad I didn't know their slogan was "Life is a combination of magic and pasta" until just now: barf).

We went to bed earlyish again, and I had to check myself: I wanted to win two more now, get to the five episodes that used to mean retirement from the game, a car, and an automatic invitation to the Tournament of Champions. That way lies madness. Game at a time, I recited, play the game that's in front of you, and don't think of outcomes or expectations.

Mostly, though, I was having a blast and just wanted to keep playing the game, regardless of winning.

Next Jeopardy blog, to be published after Monday's game: A new day of taping, and game four!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jeopardy: Game Two!

Part of an ongoing series. Written before this episode aired.
Contains spoilers of tonight's episode.

My second Hometown Howdy, less thought-out than the previous game's, will not be shown on the Jeopardy website:
"Hey Twin Cities, this is Fred Beukema from Minneapolis. Let's see if I can make it a twin win as the returning champion on Jeopardy."

Kinda dumb. Ken Jennings is lucky they only had to record one Howdy back in his day.

I remember less about my show with Mark and Sonia than my first. I don't think I could name for you any categories or questions from this game, except the Final Jeopardy, which I misremembered as being from the previous game. I'm sure when I see this one on TV, it'll all come rushing back. The image I do remember from this episode is of being in a buzzer battle with Sonia, and being happily surprised when the red lights on the backside of my lectern would light up.

I hadn't really dealt with my bunched right sock during the break, so once again, my toes went numb on and off throughout the game.

And once again, I was lucky to get myself into a lock game going into FJ. Today's response (again, pictured) wasn't as immediate as the previous one. My first instinct was to wonder if there was some Pope from the era in question who had actually spoken out about indulgences. That didn't sound right, and the obvious answer popped out of the soup between my ears.

Holy cow: now I was a two time Jeopardy champion! This was beyond any expectations I had for myself when I went out to the show, and it was a lot of fun.

Now it was lunchtime, and the remaining contestants were cheerfully competitive. They had come up with a nickname for me (“The Hammer”) and jokingly (?) took out contracts with each other to take me down. We were sequestered with the contestant coordinators in the Sony canteen for lunch, which was delicious. The grill had a lot of options, made to order. My turkey burger was delicious, but I wasn't really hungry. We chatted about where we were from, our jobs, stories we'd heard from previous contestants, and about our phobias. Several claustropobes and acrophobes in the group, if I remember correctly. I mentioned I'd been working on some water tower projects, which have the unique distinction of having tight, enclosed spaces sitting at the top of 100ft+ drops. Yeesh.

Peter, Meg, Heather and John, the remaining contestants, had all seemed particularly formidable in the rehearsals, and this was reinforced by our brief after-lunch practice. My adrenaline was starting to wane and I was losing on the buzzer more often. Upon our return to the green room, I learned the last show of the day would be against Meg and Peter, who had learned that morning that they had a mutual friend. Heather and John would be back the next day, along with a new batch of contestants.

In the meantime, I prepared myself for what I expected to be a rough game.

Next Jeopardy blog, to be published after Friday's game: Game Three!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jeopardy: The Big Show

Part of an ongoing series. Please note that this entry was written before the episode aired.

First, we recorded our Hometown Howdies (NOTE! This link will expire on Monday, 3/30). I’d heard that KARE 11 in the Twin Cities never, ever uses them, so I knew content was fairly unimportant. The weekend prior, on the Filmspotting podcast, hosts Adam & Matty had recited a scene from Purple Rain for their Massacre Theater segment. Thus:

“Hey Twin Cities, this is Fred Beukema from Minneapolis. Now that I’ve purified myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, I’m ready to take on Jeopardy.”

Everybody says this, because it’s true, but Alex Trebek is as nice and as dryly goofy in person as he is on TV. As a contestant, you don’t get much chance to interact with him beyond what’s shown on the show. As far as we can tell, he lives in the corner of the studio behind the game board. The moment when he walked out to start the game ranks as one of the more surreal in my life. “Hey, I know that guy! That’s Alex Trebek. Wait, he’s talking to us…”

I don’t think it will (have) be(en) shown, but the moment the categories were announced, a smile spread over my face. The first category was The Sopranos, which was a favorite show of mine over the near-decade that it intermittently ran. Also in the first set was a Before & After category, which I find challenging but fun. This was going to be enjoyable.

When the episode airs, I plan to keep track of two numbers: (1) how many times I was able to get a question on a rebound after someone else got it wrong and (2) how many times I was saved from giving an incorrect response by someone else beating me on the buzzer. My memory is foggy, but I recall benefiting from both.

The game itself is fast, addictive, and fun. Play accordingly. I had to immediately laugh off any incorrect response or any longer stretch of getting beaten on the buzzer. Otherwise all I could expect would be a tail-spin. I was still pretty nervous, and I think that nervousness gave me an edge on the buzzer, although I found that the toes of my right foot went slightly numb during the game due to a slightly bunched sock, which was distracting.

During the first commercial break, Trebek came around to take pictures with me and Beth. When he lined up with me, he started repeating my name, like he was trying to place something. “Fred, Fred, Fred, Fred, Fred… Flintstone!” They took the picture. I want to note that he made that same concerned-looking face with every contestant we saw go through the show.

In Double Jeopardy, I was glad for the other sopranos category, this time about opera singers. My Dad is an opera/classical guy, and I’m a classical guy, so I expected at least a couple questions to be in my wheelhouse. Beverly Sills I knew because she was on the Muppet Show, and I knew her Bubbles nickname because a copy of one of her books sat on top of our piano for as far back as I could remember. And the only reason I’ve even heard of Leontyne Price was because my uncle put a song by her on a Christmas mix tape 25 years ago, which we listened to every year, and 6 years ago I scraped the same mix together on CD for my family. So I happened to have looked her up at that time.

In addition to the friendliness of the show’s staff, it’s important to know that your fellow contestants, and their families, are probably also awesome. My group cheered each other on from show to show, and the families did the same. At some point, while Melissa was nervously leaning forward during the game Sonia’s father patted her on the shoulder: “It’s gonna be ok. He’s doing well!”

Through the game, I managed to build up some momentum. I don’t remember whether I got a Daily Double in that first game or not, but I tried very hard to keep my eyes off the scores unless I was wagering. When I looked up at the pre-Final Jeopardy commercial break, I was delighted to discover I had a lock game: as long as I wagered sanely, I’d won.

Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy make me more nervous than the regular gameplay: you can’t avoid guessing on something you don’t necessarily know. I could have wagered more than I did, but I remember deciding to stick with a couple thousand (or something) in case I got a stumper. Having a lock game is the rare case in Jeopardy when you can look at your score and think of it as actual money. Lit is a bad category for me, so I decided to play it safe and only bet $2k, though I could have safely bet a bit more.

That the FJ question (pictured, right) ended up being pretty straight-forward was a nice little bonus. So now I was the Jeopardy champion, with winnings over $20k. That’s ridiculous, I thought, and imagined bills disappearing.

After Final Jeopardy, they bring the contestants to mid-stage for the awkward chitchat. I have very little recollection of what we talked to Alex about at the end of my games.

After the taping, they immediately un-mic the winner and scoot them back to the greenroom while the 2nd- and 3rd-place contestants sign their prize forms. On the way out, I snuck a glance at Melissa in the audience, who was beaming/stunned. I gave her a subtle thumbs-up before heading out of the studio.

So at this point, I'd achieved the two things I set out to do in my appearance:
1. Avoid humiliating myself.
2. Win a game.
Sweet. Everything from here on would be gravy.

Back in the green room, I made a quick stop in the bathroom before changing jacket & tie and heading back to the makeup chair. The next players had been selected, and it was Sonia and Mark. We all got wired for sound, and headed back out to play.

Next Jeopardy blog: Defending champeen!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Weeklypedia Quiz #18: Barely Legal

Trivia! The last quiz's answers will be up shortly.

1. This author, who died in 2009, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice, for the third and fourth books in a tetralogy.
2. The back of a coin is called the reverse; the front is called this.
3. Having lost one US presidential election, this candidate returned eight years later, "tanned, rested & ready."
4. During a performance of the play "Henry VIII" in 1613, cannon fire set this London landmark ablaze.
5. In "Postcards From The Edge," Meryl Streep stars as a fictionalized version of this actress/author, known primarily for an iconic science fiction role.
6. In the Godfather movies, the appearance of this fruit is often a portent of violence or death.
7. The University of California Santa Cruz's mascot is this fruitily-named mollusk.
8. This bank was originally founded in California by two American Express executives, though it is legally chartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, somewhat closer to the location its name suggests.

"Fruity Mollusk" is the name of my next improv team, by the way.

Speaking of Fruity Mollusks:

Actually, I guess the cereal isn't fruit-flavored. It's a trap!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

So, that happened...

And of course my eyes were mostly closed.

March 25th!

Photo courtesy Jeopardy! Productions, Inc.

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.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jeopardy: in which I ride a series of shuttle buses

Part of an ongoing series.

Last time, I was obsessing over Final Jeopardy betting strategy. And was on the plane heading to LA.

The night we got in, January 26th, the night before my tape date, I was reasonably nervous, but trying to stay frosty. Waiting for the shuttle at the airport, Melissa and I eyed the other folks standing at the curb, trying to guess if any were also contestants. Another couple got on the shuttle for the Radisson Los Angeles Westside (pictured), the semi-official hotel of Jeopardy. It turned out that Sonia was indeed another contestant, and had flown out from Boston with her boyfriend. She seemed nice and also frostily nervous.

As we arrived at the hotel it was getting late for us Central Timers. We ate in the hotel's bar as I flipped through the notebook, wondering what I was going to wish I'd studied more. Melissa's parents had driven down from the Central Valley to cheer me on, too. Once they'd arrived and said hello, we went to bed. In the morning I assembled my multiple changes of clothes for potential back-to-back tapings, ate some breakfast (yogurt, granola & fruit — no good being jittery!) and we went down early to gather with the other contestants for the shuttle to the studio. Sizing-up of the competition was inevitable. People in nice clothes without any makeup on eyed each other before tentatively introducing themselves.

Sonia's parents had come out to see her play, and her mother was determined to discover who among the people in the lobby were there for the show. She would report back to the handful of us who had already introduced ourselves, with debriefings like, "he's here for the game, but he doesn't seem very talkative."

The shuttle arrived and the lot of us with our business clothes and garment bags and un-made-up faces said goodbye to our loved supporters and piled in. There were nine of us, not a full day's pool of contestants; I figured others must have been arriving separately. While "Yellow Submarine" played on the driver's radio, we discovered that almost everyone in the van had taken or, in some cases, taught a statistics class. Two contestants found that they had a fairly close mutual friend through connections in Washington, DC. People casually mentioned places around the world they'd traveled or lived for a time. Everybody was impressive. I figured I was probably screwed but continued to force myself to let go of expectations, of results. I’d come to LA prepared to bounce out with the $1000 third-place consolation prize and the experience to talk about. I recommend this mindset. At the same time, I wanted, really badly, to win at least one game.

We arrived at Sony Pictures Studios' Overland Ave gate, and were ushered into a waiting area in the parking ramp. Another contestant arrived on her own. We went around the circle and introduced ourselves. John from Kansas City. Peter from Philadelphia. Beth from Tulsa. Heather from North Carolina. Dana from Georgia. Inta from Toronto. Meg from Washington. Sonia from Boston. Barry from New York. Fred from Minneapolis. Pretty much everybody from the eastern half of the continent; odd, I thought.

Contestant coordinators Corrina and Glenn, who you may remember from the audition, arrived to herd us onto another short bus. They welcomed us and began The Morning Orientation. Turn off your phones. If you absolutely need to make a call, a staffer has to listen in. No wandering around or talking to anyone who isn't a contestant coordinator, another contestant, or someone who has been introduced to you for a specific show-related purpose. And so on. We drove a few blocks through the narrow streets of the former MGM lot, and pulled up next to Pat Sajak's big giant head on the side of a building (Wheel of Fortune tapes next door and shares some staff with Jeopardy). Our bags were poked by security while we walked through a metal detector. Finally, we were ushered into the green room, which I think I remember as purple. I could be wrong about that.

One of the most important things for you to understand about the experience is that everybody involved with the show is really, really nice. Warm, friendly, and funny. You may learn this during the audition process, but it’s really driven home in the morning meetings. The contestant coordinators are all there to prepare you to win money from their bosses, and they love their job. We were greeted by Robert James, who had given me The Call in December, who now asked if Melissa was going to be there. Tony Pandolfo, who splits his time between Jeopardy and Wheel, started confirming the pronunciation of people's names and rattling off the biographical sentences that would be on Trebek's card, asking for us each to highlight a preferred story. Maggie Speak arrived to hold court and get us ready to play.

We were each directed to a pile of release forms with a Jeopardy pen on it. We were encouraged to start coming up with our Hometown Howdies, greetings that our local stations could play to announce our imminent appearances before our air dates. It is my understanding that KARE 11 never uses these. Meanwhile, we were rotated through the makeup chair and Maggie ran through a description of everything that would happen in a given game. Maggie's terrific, and brought us as close to being at ease as eleven people (Mark from Detroit had been caught in traffic) about to be tested on national television can be.

Maggie introduced Inta, who was our returning champion. Inta had been out the week before, and had won the last game of Wednesday's taping (you can read Inta's winner's blog here, for the time being -- she is all class). Inta would be at the first podium for the first game. All new contestants would be drawn randomly from the pool by the compliance company that oversees the gameplay. We would only be taping four shows that day, as they had taped an extra celebrity game in Vegas while they were out there for the Tournament of Champions earlier in January. So six of us plus Inta would play today. The remaining two would be guaranteed to play on Wednesday.

We were instructed to have fun, and to keep the game moving. They know that everybody likes to say "I'll take [category] for [dollar amount], please, Alex," at least once, but to try to keep it brief after our first selection. They encourage shortening category names, and always naming categories before dollar amounts. They don't require sticking with one category—some players were known for bouncing—but do ask that you signal that you're moving to a new category, so their cameras can catch up. Some categories are required to be taken in order, and we'll be informed if this is the case. Mispronunciation is generally ok, as long as it doesn't change the consonant sounds. Misspelling in Final Jeopardy is also alright, as long as it doesn't change the sounds of the word. Giving an answer, any answer, is always preferable to giving none. As I mentioned last time, they discourage playing for ties. And so on.

After the morning talking-to, I could now say I’d had my makeup applied by Vanna White’s makeup artist, and we were moved to the stage to rehearse. My nervousness grew.

Next Jeopardy blog: In the studio!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cookies are for closers

I watched this clip with my brother a week ago on one of the Sesame Street Old School DVDs.

My new phrase of choice:
"got to do something to pay the cookie bill."

As much as I love the clip above, this next one's more of a timeless classic. When Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked together, you could tell they were having the time of their lives. That they usually worked their mistakes into the scene only made it better.

Hey there, lamp; that's a nice shade!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In other words...

I prefer:
"Stuff found on things Clemens had."

More fun with news copy:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wikipedia Quiz At Seventeen: Janis Ian Edition

Trivia time! #16's answers are posted.

1. Eustace Tilley is the monocled mascot of this magazine.
2. The Director's Guild of America authorizes its members to substitute this pseudonym for their own names in their credits to protest the treatment of their film by the studio.
3. Pitcairn Island was settled in 1790 by mutineers and crew from this ship.
4. A line of plants, especially fruits or vegetables, that is grown organically from seeds older than 100 years (or predating WWII, depending on who you ask) may be labeled with this handed-down adjective.
5. This Mexican port is called "Four Times Heroic," having withstood siege or occupation from the Spanish, French, and twice from the Americans.
6. If you're trying to figure out the possibility of a recessive trait appearing in offspring of parents who carry the gene, you might construct this diagram, named for its biologist inventor.
7. He proposed a Hierarchy of Needs in a 1943 paper. The bottom tier is physiological (food, sleep, breathing, etc.), the top, self-actualization).
8. Of the original 12 companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896, it is the only one still in existence today.

Bonus! Pop cultural version of the last clue (answer is the same):
8. Contrary to its portrayal on a sitcom, this corporation is not a subsidiary of the Sheinhardt Wig Company.

Discussion question for grammar nerds:
In clue #7, between the words "top" and "self-actualization," should I have used a colon or semicolon instead of a comma?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Jeopardy: Strategery, or: Don't hate the player, hate the game

Part of an ongoing series.

In tandem with studying potential Jeopardy content, I familiarized myself in Jeopardy strategy in December and January. The J! Archive was particularly helpful for this, as it has every clue and their outcomes from almost all of the show's seasons available for browsing. It also has a long glossary full of game theory and strategy, including guidelines on how you should bet in Final Jeopardy! under a variety of conditions. Head-spinning.

I eventually came across a description of the game pictured above, which was the first and thus far only three-way tie in the history of the show. You can watch their FJ! on YouTube (WaMu Files For ChapLev). I wondered what the game-leader (Scott Weiss, left, a computer scientist) had been thinking with his wager. Typically, if you're leading enough to potentially outpace the other contestants, you bet enough to get to 2x(their current score)+1 so you win. My first thought was that he'd done it for the sake of the uniqueness of the tie. It's neat to be a part of something like that.

But then I realized that the rules of the game, and by extension the nature of competition, might incentivize going for the tie. Here's how prizes work on the show:
  • First-place player gets to keep the money in their score, and gets to play again in the next day's show.
  • Second-place player gets $2000 regardless of winnings.
  • Third-place player gets $1000 regardless of winnings, which only partially defrays the cost of traveling to the show if you got on a plane to get there.
  • If there is a tie for first place, both or all three players keep the money and get to play again.
So if you're in Weiss' position, and you bet the whatever+1, all you're doing is screwing the other players out of $14,000 and $15,000. You jerk. But, if you play for the tie and everybody gets the question right, then you've just made two new best friends AND you get to play your next game against two players you've already been able to beat once. The benefit of this is hard to estimate. Reading Prisoner of Trebekistan left me with the impression that any known quantity with regards to who your opponents will be is greatly beneficial, both psychologically and strategically. Otherwise, you might end up with what Bob Harris calls an "Ivy League Serial Killer," who can get all the really obscure crap regardless of who might beat him or her on the buzzer (excuse me, Signalling Device).

(Of course, in the later rounds of a Tournament of Champions game, this rule does not hold, as the poor guy on the left in this video learned all too well. I would've been in the same boat here, incidentally, answering the FJ! handily but being useless on this particular tiebreaker.)

Now, skipping ahead somewhat in the narrative, I learned when I was actually at the show that The Powers That Be actively discourage ties. They were certainly excited about the three-way tie due to its novelty, and if you go into FJ as the leader with exactly twice the score of the person in second, it doesn't make sense to endanger your lock-tie with a non-zero wager. But, they screen thousands of contestants a year, and turn away most of them. They want to move as many people through the show as they can, and any game with two winners cuts in half the new players in the next game. So they encourage playing for the tie+1.

Back to me approaching my tape date... I watched the show daily in the weeks leading to my tape date. The week before I went out to California, there was a five-day winner named Matt Kohlstedt (a graduate student originally from La Grange, IL, pictured, borrowed from PioneerLocal). Kohlstedt had two very interesting FJ situations wherein (1) he was not in the lead going in, (2) everybody got it wrong (triple-stumpers), and (3) he won by $1 or $2 with wagers that were not obvious choices to me. I decided that it would behoove me to understand them before I appeared on the show, so the day I left, I copied down the FJ scenarios of these two games in my book, and on the flight westward, I reasoned my way through them.

I believe Matt's logic was roughly this:
  • I'm not in the lead
  • The people ahead of me are most likely going to make rational wagers to cover their nearest opponent doubling their score
  • If they get the question right, I will lose
  • I can't guarantee that I will get the question right
  • Therefore, the only way to win is to assume that the people ahead of me will get it wrong, and base my wager on what their wager is likely to be
Look at the January 20th game. Matt's in 2nd going in, with 10,000 to Rebecca's 11,800. Matt figures Rebecca will bet 8200 to tie him if he doubles. So he assumes she'll lose 8200, and bets just enough that if he loses too, they'll tie at 3600. This almost happened, except she played for the win+1, and lost by $1.

He did it again, two days later. Here Matt is in third with 6400 to Luis' 12,200 and Chris' 15,000. He figures Chris will bet 9400 to cover Luis doubling up. So he bets enough that if everybody's wrong, he'll cover Chris by a dollar. It ended up being $2 in this case, because Chris also played for the win+1. (Note that in this case, if Luis hadn't overbid 8800, and instead bet between 2801 and 5600, he'd have won. Matt's gambit is less likely to be successful, it seems to me, from third place.)

(Matt Kohlstedt will be in this year's Tournament of Champions, which begins airing on Wednesday's broadcast. Watch for him, as well as for Deborah Fitzgerald, right, a retired government employee from McLean, VA, who is a friend of my Aunt's.)

This is crafty stuff. On the flight, prime ministers and countries on the Equator competed for headspace, along with Matt's strategy, the crush, and the 2/3, 3/4, and 4/5 rules. But mostly I tried to stay frosty.

Next Jeopardy Blog: To The Studio!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ka-Baam! Returns, Thursday (tomorrow) Night!

Note! Show time corrected, see below!

And while we're talking comics:

That's right, true believers!! KA-BAAM!! is every four-color fantasy writ large and on-the-spot by a cast of Minneapolis' most heroic improv comedians! Every week, audience suggestions will inspire the origins and adventures of three never-before-seen heroes in a comic book story that will never be seen again! The Golden Age will be reborn with the deadliest of villains, most ridiculous of brawls, and a comic book artist capturing the characters in a comic book cover, drawn live and unique to every performance!
The first Thursday of the month, *10:00* PM at The Bryant Lake Bowl!
Produced by Huge Theater.
Directed by: Nels Lennes
Starring: Fred Beukema, Rita Boersma, Hannah Kuhlmann, Nels Lennes, James Moore, Tom Reed, Michael Ritchie, Jen Scott, Troy Zimmerman
Tech: Butch Roy, David Lipkin
Special Comic Art: Christopher Jones

Callback: DC Storytapes Teach Classical Music

You may recall way back in the second post on this blog, when I wrote about these old DC Comics storybook & tape sets I had as a kid, and about how they ended up introducing me to a few pieces of classical music, but there were holes in my memory as to what all the pieces were. Well, over the weekend, I found mp3s of all these sets online. Link here — scroll down a little for the DC/Fisher Price sets.

In my searches for these tapes, I came across several message and comment threads where people were asking about the pieces of music used in them. Since such a list seems not to exist, and in the spirit of niche marketing, I hereby present:

A Brief and Incomplete Guide to Classical Music in the DC Comics/Fisher Price Story Tapes

I. Superman: From Krypton to Metropolis
This was the tape I was wondering about in the original post. As it turns out, the Superman theme from this story is Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture, which I would have guessed too dark, but the way they edit it, it works.
Wagner: The Flying Dutchman, overture; opening used for main theme, other clips used for some action scenes
Dvořák: Sym. No. 9, "From the New World," IV. Allegro con fuoco; used (including, once or twice, the "Jaws" motif from the beginning of the movement) throughout in action scenes, especially the climax
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks; TE's lighthearted theme quoted goofily during Superbaby's exploits

II. Wonder Woman: Cheetah on the Prowl
This story makes a lot of use out of pretty much one piece.
Liszt: Les Preludes; single most "heroic" statement of the tone poem's theme used repeatedly as WW's theme, other sections used incidentally throughout.

III. Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder: The Case of the Laughing Sphinx
A Mussorgsky two-fer! Besides the selections I list here, there is another piece used several times, including the scene where Batman invites Dick Grayson to become his sidekick, that I did not recognize.
Mussorgsky (ed. Rimsky-Korsakov): Night on Bald Mountain; main theme, other moments of Bat-action
Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition -
- Hut on Fowl's Legs; used through most of the middle in threatening situations, with an odd piano/percussion arrangement for some of the training "montage"
- Great Gate at Kiev; used triumphantly at the end

IV. The Justice League of America: The Lunar Invaders
First off, this story reuses the main themes of each of the individual heroes above for their big moments, which is pretty cool, especially when each is being introduced at the beginning. I did not recognize the theme used at the top of the recording, which reappears a few times as a sort of JLA "team motif". Also didn't quite catch Green Lantern's theme or The Atom's. Red Tornado's theme is ridiculous and seems original.
Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata, I. Adagio sostenuto; used for the scene of the astronaut Team of Ethnic Tokens working on the moon, in an unusual and surprisingly effective interpretation of the piece's title
Wagner: Lohengrin, Prélude, Act III; Flash's theme which was incidentally also used as one of the pieces Peppermint Patty skated to in the "She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown," book & tape.
J. Strauss II: On the Beautiful Blue Danube; boringly and predictably used for the approach to the JLA's space station. Maybe 2001 references weren't completely played out in 1983?

Overall, it's clear that whoever put the music together for these things knew their stuff, especially along the Liszt-Wagner-Strauss 19th Century German axis. I'm a little surprised that the first time I heard the Flying Dutchman Overture later in life, I didn't experience the Sudden Instant Recall Effect (SIRE, coined by the Muppet nuts over at that I did with Les Preludes in college. In any case, I'm glad to have solved the Superman music mystery with which I kicked this blog, and to have celebrated it with yet another obscure post with an incredibly narrow target audience. Cheers!