Sony Pictures Entertainment has a contracted rate at a comfortable if nondescript hotel, and we made the wise move of arriving there two nights in advance—creating some semblance of a consistent daily rhythm is probably good before performing under pressure.1 Wandering the halls on the eve of taping triggers idle speculation as to which fellow guests might also be prospective competitors, although it’s unclear what in comportment or style would mark them out as such. But the next morning when I head to the lobby to catch the shuttle the contestants are unmistakable, for two reasons:

  1. Everyone has the two2 requisite changes of clothes draped on an arm or over a shoulder, like we’re about to go to a very formal sleepover3
  2. No one else would be standing in a lobby of a hotel in a rough circle nearly motionless and silent at seven in the morning

Latecomers insert themselves into this group and the rest shuffle to accommodate like riders in an elevator. It’s in this moment that Jeopardy transforms from an abstraction to a reality, one filled with actual people. A full week’s worth of shows is taped in one day, so your experience with this group will from now on be inextricably the same as your experience with Jeopardy; although Alex may be the face, there is no meaning in a game show without contestants.4 Soon we’re packing into a van and making small talk over a drive to the lot, not knowing if we’ll later share a stage with any of our interlocutors.

We pass through the gate to the lot and a light-touch version of airport security, including metal detector, and then walk around the corner to enter the cavernous studio itself. Contestant coordinator Glenn pops up in the role of affable bellhop, wheeling our spare clothes on a cart to spare us from having to carry them. The drop-off point is incidentally next to an expansive sign for Wheel of Fortune, the more popular but less intellectual brother in Sony’s family of game shows.5

Is that Sajak's ride in the corner?

A studio lot to the uninitiated is a vast complex of anonymous warehouses, whose unremarkable exteriors provide no hint as to what places and times are being recreated within. Inside you could be in revolutionary France or a rundown urban warehouse or a 1960s boardroom, but outside are endless identical canyons of beige.6 Tiny signs on the doors indicate the shows being filmed, and the walkways have a few employees about, a goodly share of whom likely have “production assistant” in their job title.

An eerily-lifelike cardboard cutout of Alex Trebek greets us when we file into Jeopardy’s studio, and in the transition from sunny and mild Los Angeles morning to dark and frigid television production hangar it appears for the briefest moment that he is actually here to greet us. But there shan’t be any fraternizing with Alex, lest anyone gain an unfair advantage.7 We’re herded directly into the contestants’ room, past the trophy case stocked with rows of Emmys.

One of our number is actually the returning champion, though she discreetly does not volunteer that information, and when outed remains quite nonchalant about the whole thing. The rest of us ask her questions as if she has just returned from the moon. The champ—an appellation the contestant coordinators take every opportunity to use—is hustled into makeup, having gone through the preliminaries during her prior visit.

One attribute that must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated is how practiced the whole operation is. Jeopardy in its current form has been churning through thousands of games with many thousands of contestants for three decades now, and the whole apparatus has been optimized for efficiency. Everyone moves briskly, staff deliver their instructions as if they’ve been set to a double-speed playback setting, contestants are moved between steps with maximum economy—a sense of the urgent hangs over the whole operation.

Past players have remarked on the chill blast of air conditioning that greets you in the studio, and today an apparent malfunction has brought the room down to arctic levels of cold. There’s a compact array of food and drink, though few are eating much, an understandable restraint given the need to be sharp for an imminent podium summons. The greenroom is also battling an infestation of fruit flies that add their silent witness to the charmingly worn surroundings.

There’s more paperwork, essentially a rehash of documents already submitted. Someone checks Social Security8 numbers and another works through biographical anecdotes, which will be provided on a card to Alex with a subtle swipe of highlighter to note the preferred one, which he is free to ignore. We don’t actually know which prompt will catch his eye until he tees it up, on camera.

Maggie, the much-remarked upon force of nature who leads the contestant briefing, takes to her task with a gusto belying the early hour and the fact that she has delivered the identical spiel hundreds of times. If you are fortunate enough to one day receive her briefing, I assume she will whip out a well-worn photo to lighten the mood.9 Portions dealing with finer points of the rules are like a Miranda reading on steroids, although certainly more upbeat.

Despite the free-form nature of the delivery this information torrent has been finely tuned over hundreds of similar briefings: Form of a question. Minimum bet is five dollars. Five seconds to respond. Don’t interrupt the flow of the game, but let a staff member knew at the first break if there’s any issue or challenge.

Part of this may be a form of sensory overload designed to keep contestants from freaking out over the fact that they’re about to appear on national television. There’s no time to sit and contemplate the enormity of it all.

My turn to cycle through the stylists’ chairs arrives, and for the first time in my life I’m given very official Television Makeup, from someone with a truly staggering array of cosmetics at her disposal, in hues covering every potential tone of the human rainbow. Brushes and sponges and powders and pastes and paints are laid out over every inch of the counter. Whatever your complexion, or perceived imperfections, all will swiftly and efficiently be made camera-ready.10

For further tension relief Maggie is wont to abruptly burst into boisterous song, at which point various contestants will join in authentically. Unforced group singing is one of the great communal pleasures in life, which holds true even though at no point did I know any of the songs being sung.11

And then we’re finally released to walk out onto the set itself, and a narrow passage gives way to the view you’ve seen countless times, and is strangely exactly like it appears on television.

Next: Game time |  All Jeopardy posts

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  1. Given the circumstances this was also the first flight for our newborn son, which added exponentially to the logistical complexities of the trip. Plus guests under eight are barred from the set, requiring someone to stay back with him. But it was definitely worth it, because love.
  2. You are of course welcome to bring more than two outfits, depending on your level of optimism, though if you’re lugging a Samsonite and the combined number of Jeopardy wins in your ancestry is under 20 you should probably dial it back a bit there, tiger.
  3. There are no other life situations I can think of where outfits are selected and transported with such careful consideration and the simultaneous knowledge that there is a two-thirds chance they will be put back unworn.
  4. Even the robot battle shows that were briefly popular thrived on the competition between the teams themselves, which the mechanical destruction merely foregrounded. Drama, an essential component of television, is ineffably human.
  5. You’ll note a rather expensive German luxury car in a prime parking spot right next to the studio. Look closer and you’ll see that the license plate is BONUS RD. I would hardly think that Pat Sajak or Vanna White would want to draw such attention to themselves given their existing levels of celebrity, so it could be a producer’s vehicle. Regardless, further evidence of the handsome profitability of game shows.
  6. And the amorphous hopes of thousands trying to catch their big break in Hollywood.
  7. His dressing room is somewhere in the back regions of the set, comfortably insulated from any chance contact with contestants. It is presumably furnished with accoutrements unknown to the contestants’ side of the house.
  8. Or the Canadian equivalent: after a temporary hiatus Canadians are once again eligible to compete. Questions over anti-spam laws had caused producers to cut off Canadian contestants for fear of lawsuits. 
  9. It’s that shirtless one of Alex, of unknown provenance.
  10. And having my eyebrows filled in made me aware that my eyebrows could use a filling-in.
  11. Our taping occurring shortly after Prince died, and I later found out that at least one of these songs was a very famous one. This did not bode well for my performance in any potential music categories.