Behind the Scenes of 'Jeopardy!': An Interview With Champion Pat Antle

As you can probably tell by the number of “Jeopardy!” bloopers we post here, I am a huge fan of the show. I watch it almost every night, shouting out the answers whether I’m with friends or sitting in my living room by myself. I’m easily excitable. Anyway, while I was watching an episode that aired last month, I was overjoyed by the reaction of one contestant upon winning. When I saw a GIF of it pop up in my Twitter feed (via the amazing Dan McQuade), I immediately retweeted it, no doubt adding something very subtle and understated like “OMG BEST EVER YOU GUYS BEST.” I think you can see why:

The next morning, because the Internet is awesome, I got an email from the guy in the GIF, Pat Antle. It turns out he is a fan of UPROXX and Warming Glow, and was very pumped to have seen his reaction make his way to Twitter. We traded a couple emails, and Pat was kind enough to agree to answer a bunch of questions about the show that have been on my mind for years. He was able to provide a lot of perspective and behind the scenes information, and I found the whole thing fascinating. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did:

First of all, let’s talk a little about the audition process to get on the show. I know they do the online test first, but, from there, how did you end up in the studio as an actual contestant?

The first step in the process, an online exam that I took in January 2011, consisted of fifty fill-in-the-blank “clues,” similar in both structure and level of difficulty to those you would see in a “Jeopardy!” round. That April, I got an email that I’d been selected for a May audition in Boston. The in-person audition consisted of three parts — a written test (similar to the online test), a mock half-round of “Jeopardy!” with two other auditioners, and a personality interview (much like “storytime” on the show). I had at least two glaring gaffes during my audition, so didn’t think I had a chance in hell to move on to the actual show. Apparently, however, they needed to fill the once-a-decade “did Bell Biv Devoe choreography during his audition” quota, and I got “the call” in October that I’d be taping in Los Angeles in late November. So the whole process took a little less than a year.

One of my favorite parts of Jeopardy is the segment where Alex Trebek asks the contestants to tell a personal anecdote. These are almost always painfully uncomfortable, and it delights me to no end. You actually managed to tell an interesting story when you were on, about a karate-related mishap. How did you figure out which stories to tell, and what, if any guidance, did the people at the show give you?

When you are selected for the show, you are asked to send five “interesting” stories in with your paperwork. You repeatedly go over those stories with the contestant coordinators in order to flesh out what you might say on camera, improve your delivery, and decide on your preferred story. During the taping, Alex Trebek starts the conversation based on one of the five stories. I repeat — Alex Trebek decides which story will be discussed, on the spot. ON THE SPOT. That is why it is so awkward — you might not be prepared for what he asks. For example, I told two stories, neither of which were my preferred story (Which was a great one about my hairdresser mom being ashamed of my horrible early-90’s mushroom cut after a picture of me appeared in the local paper. I even had the picture — it’s AWFUL.). So you take a group of people who aren’t necessarily the most charismatic, put them in the most nerve-racking situation imaginable, surprise them with unexpected prompts, and get television magic.

Tell me about Trebek. I have theories.

My experiences with Alex Trebek were limited to shaking hands after the games and the on-camera banter you saw on the show. They keep him away from the contestants because they are extraordinarily strict about clue security. He was still on the mend from his ACL surgery, so he mostly stayed at his podium when not doing the contestant interview portion of the show. He chats with the audience during commercial breaks, during which people repeatedly ask him what his favorite food is. He seemed to like me because I was emotional and excited and not afraid to banter a little during interactions, and I appreciated that. Nonetheless, it still feels like a punch to the gut when you get one wrong and hear the snarky, “No, sorry”. But that’s what viewers secretly like — put the mutants in their place! As for the mysterious small talk as the credits roll, it’s just the four of you discussing Final Jeopardy and the deductive route that each of you took. For my first game, the interaction was entirely me panting, “I can’t believe I won. Never in a million years…”. In the second game, it was me cursing and saying, “How the hell did I not see that when reading the clue?”, wondering when the camera would turn off so I could go somewhere and cry.

I know the show films multiple episodes in a day. How do you prep for that? Do you have to bring, like, 20 shirts in case you keep winning? What’s the schedule like?

They film five episodes a day, two days a week. So two weeks of shows are done in just two days. After the morning’s paperwork, practice, and makeup, they pick two names out of a hat to take on the reigning champion. When the game is over, the losers are given their consolation prizes (a hat and a reusable grocery bag for me), whisked away, and two more names are selected at random. The champion has approximately 10 minutes to shoot a “I am a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion” promo (mine was an impression of Randy Savage – RIP Macho King) and get changed into a new outfit. I repeat, ten minutes. You’re asked to bring five outfits, and if you win more than that, I assume some combination of mixing and matching and “You just won 100 grand, go buy a new shirt” is needed. It’s unfortunate — I had a dynamite outfit planned for game three, but never got there. Those are the regrets that keep me up at night.

Going back to the anecdotes … how many did you have stored up? Did you have a plan in case you kept winning? I imagine by about Day 7, you just start telling Trebek about stuff that happened in your hotel the night before.

I can speak to this because I saw David Gard win several games and, as such, use several stories. By the end of his run, they were scrambling to find something new. I think if he had won one more game, he probably would have had to turn the tables and, like the studio audience, ask Trebek what his favorite food is. As for me, I prepared for my inevitable march to multiple wins with the two stories I told on-air (one about a speeding ticket appeal and one about taking a karate board to the face), the aforementioned mushroom cut story, a story about my off-the-books arson investigation after my car blew up (literally), and the time that I, as a 16 year-old, beat a bunch of 10 year-olds at Roller Kingdom karaoke by doing six whole minutes of “Def Squad Delite” while my brother break-danced in the tears of the vanquished youths.

How did you prepare to be on the show? Did you do any research into past contestants to look for tips, or did you just kind of hope the smarts that got you there would translate into success on the show?

I’m not sure I’d recommend my preparation strategy to others, provided they want to maintain healthy human relationships. I am lucky that my girlfriend is a saint. I didn’t think that I’d be selected for the show, so I hadn’t studied in the period between my audition and “the call.” As such, I had only six short weeks to prepare for a nationally-televised 61-question pop quiz, the source material being all of human knowledge. Terrifying, yes, but fear can be a great motivator. I read all sorts of books like “The XYZ Affair for Dummies” (Note: “The XYZ Affair for Dummies” has not actually been published) and went through hundreds of games on the J! Archive, looking for common topics and clues and those “Pavlovian” responses (“wise king” is always Solomon, Finnish composer = Sibelius). Every day, I’d get home from work and study until probably 1 a.m., wake up at 6 the next morning, and then study until I left for work again. (And who knows, maybe I even occasionally found myself on Wikipedia while at work.) Literally thousands of flashcards were made, enough to completely fill a duffel bag. More reading, more notecards. Buzzer practice using a ballpoint pen. It was like the most boring Rocky training montage of all time, and it didn’t even end with a slo-mo beach hug.

I know they don’t let you buzz in until Trebek is done reading the question. I imagine this led to furious button-mashing amongst the contestants, all trying to sneak in first to answer. Did you have a strategy with that, or was it more a combination of speed and luck?

It’s all about timing. After the last syllable exits Trebek’s mouth, indicator lights surrounding the big board light up, and your signaling device is activated. If you ring in early, you’re locked out for about 1/4 of a second, which is an eternity in the “Jeopardy!” universe. But with at least two of the three contestants likely trying to get in on 90% of the clues, you can’t exactly wait around, either. When you arrive at the studio, everyone plays a practice game with super-easy questions about pizza toppings and the like (maybe one step harder than the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! skit questions), so as to get your timing down. You have to figure out what works for you.

Almost everyone I know that watched my shows has asked why I stood with my arms crossed, like either Dracula or a sarcophagus-bound mummy. Well, during practice, when holding the signaling device normally, I couldn’t ring in. Frustrated, I crossed my arms, and suddenly, it worked. Five in a row, done and done. And why mess with what works? (Answer — if you don’t, your podium stance might get you called “pretentious douchebag” by some troglodyte on Twitter.) For a game and a half, I was getting in first at an reasonable rate. It’s frustrating to know the answer and not get a chance sometimes, but its something that all contestants have to accept. Then, in the middle of my second game, as my nerve evaporated at the same rate as my lead, my timing went haywire — I found myself buzzing in wayyyy too early. Disaster. And by the time I got it back, the damage had been done.

Here’s something I’ve always wondered: Can you see the scores of your fellow contestants during the game, or are you just flying blind until final Jeopardy?

Yes, there is a little scoreboard next to the big board — that’s why you sometimes see the contestants awkwardly look up and to the left during Daily Double wagering. Another thing people probably don’t know — in the studio, the clues fill up only their given square, not the entire screen like when watching at home. Much harder to see and read! That burned me on my ill-fated and embarrassing video Daily Double.

Wait. What happened with your Daily Double. You can’t just tease it like that and not pay it off!

Toward the end of my second game, I was nursing a lead when I finally uncovered a Daily Double. I had a bad feeling about it, so I bet the absolute minimum — $5. The clue popped up on the TV that they use for video clues, and I saw Dr. Oz talking about antibodies and pointing to something on the human body. I have good eyesight, but I just could not make out where he was even pointing (at the spleen). I thought, “thymus” (a bad answer), but for some reason said, ‘the thyroid gland” (a somehow even worse answer). When I saw it on TV, the picture was quite clear, and the clue mentioned a seat belt, so my response of a gland in the neck sounded really stupid.

Oof. Let’s move to Final Jeopardy. When they show you the category, and you have to wager without seeing the question … that’s scary as hell, yes? Can you talk a little about that process?

When it comes to wagering, the category doesn’t actually play a huge role, unless it’s either (a) something you’ve never heard of, or (b) the topic of your doctoral thesis. If you’re in the lead, you’ve gotta bet enough to ensure that you win if you get it right. If you’re in second or third, there’s a little more leeway, but there are definite guidelines based on whether you are playing to overtake someone or play spoiler in the case of a triple miss. The J! Archive has an excellent wager strategy tool, for those interested. But it is based on logical betting by all three contestants, which is not always the case.

The game I lost, I was winning heading into final, which was my goal. Barely winning, but that’s all that matters — you get it right, you get a win. However, when I tried to do the “two times 2nd place plus one dollar minus your score”, I could not do it properly. I was so goddamn nervous, I kept screwing up carrying the ones. Here I am on “Jeopardy!”, and I couldn’t do 2nd-grade math. It was a close game, so I just bet what Michael’s score was — 13 grand. I bet thirteen thousand dollars on one question! And missed it because I misread the clue!

Let’s talk a little about when you won. You kind of freaked out, and it was awesome. What was going through your head at the time?

Of the twelve prospective contestants who showed up on day one of taping, I was the very last to go – I didn’t start until the 2nd game of day two. Each time they were picking who was to play, I was both terrified to get up there and eager to finally do what I’d trained for weeks to do. And during the episode, as you might have noticed, I was a tad bit nervous. To be more accurate, I was about as amped-up as humanly possible (despite Trebek’s nickname for me — “Laid Back Patrick”). I’d imagine it’s similar to what either cocaine or 25 scoops of NO-Xplode do to a person. And you have to be on edge for every question, ready to ring in as soon as Trebek finishes the final syllable. If you’re not ready to go at all times, and trying to get in on 90% of the clues, you’re toast. You cannot stop for the entire half hour. That’s why I went so insane when I won — six weeks of terror, followed by thirty minutes of complete and total competitive focus, all culminating in one question. I told myself for weeks that the goal was to not be embarrassed, and I tried to keep expectations in check after watching so many smart people lose in the previous games, but when I got out there, I wanted nothing more than to win. And somehow, it actually happened. Ophelia.

If I was the Rod Tidwell of “Jeopardy!”, so be it. But goddamnit, when I finally realized that I won, all that raw emotion just escaped. I’ve watched the GIF of the end of episode more than a few times, and I’m struck by the crazed, maniacal look in my eyes at the end. It’s like I’m not even there — just all shock and emotion. In all honesty, I don’t remember anything that happened between the time I saw that Jessamine didn’t have an answer to Final Jeopardy! and when I shook her hand post-celebration. Not to exhaust Rocky metaphors here, but the only thing I can compare it to is Rocky’s collapse celebration in the ring at the end of Balboa-Lang II. Ten seconds of ecstasy, exhaustion, and most of all, elation. In the NFL Network’s “A Football Life,” the Lord Almighty Bill Belichick admonishes the Patriots for not celebrating after a big play because it showed that they weren’t really enthusiastic about what they were doing. Everyone always throws out that bullsh-t line, “Act like you’ve been there before.” I couldn’t, because I hadn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t.

So you’re coming off the high from winning, and as you said there’s really not much time between episodes … I imagine that next episode is kind of a blur, right? Was it hard to stay focused on the game?

Fatigue most definitely sets in. At the risk of turning a game show into Walter Sobchak’s Vietnam, you have to believe me when I say how taxing the entire process is. (I will, however, fully admit that I’m more high-strung than most — see above.) I had stressed through six games before being picked to play, and my first game was more than a bit of a rollercoaster ride, so I was surviving on leftover adrenaline from the win as game two started. And that adrenaline got me through a fantastic Jeopardy! round, but by the time Double Jeopardy! rolled around, I was a reanimated corpse. In watching the episode, I noticed a point during the middle of the round in which all color basically drained from my face. At that point, I was hoping to hang on to my lead until Final Jeopardy!, get that one clue right, and then go to lunch. Unfortunately for me, the only one of those three I forgot to do was “get that one right.”

If I remember correctly, the Final Jeopardy question you got wrong in that second episode was about Gandhi. Do you get angry every time you hear his name now? I would.

I was one “e” away. I didn’t notice the “e” at the end of “outcaste” in the clue, so I focused on Pretoria rather than India. Just carelessness on my part, and that’s something I have to think about for a long time. The bad thing about having a memory good enough to get on “Jeopardy!” is that you never forget your mistakes. During my prep work, my girlfriend asked if I wanted flashcards on famous people. My exact response was, “Sure, but not people like Einstein and Gandhi — I know about them.” I love both of the Attenborough brothers, so I love the movie “Gandhi.” When I got home, I took out that DVD and put it on my coffee table. It stayed there for a month and even now, three months after that, it’s still in a very visible spot (and still makes me angry). I think I’m pretty much the only person alive who hates Gandhi.

Ugh, I’d be livid. I guess that about wraps it up for my questions (for space reasons, not for lack of curiosity — I could do this all day). Anything else you’d like to add in conclusion?

This is probably entirely unprofessional, but I was hoping to plug my friend’s free web comic because he works really hard on it and deserves pageviews. It’s like “The Walking Dead”, except, you know, stuff actually happens.

Stuff happens? It’ll never catch on.