A casual observer would be surprised to discover the legal rigor that accompanies an appearance on American game shows. The legacy of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s is still very much with us, and the first thing a contestant coordinator will do upon calling is run through a litany of possible relationships to uncover anything potentially disqualifying.1 For the vast majority of contestants these questions will be perfunctory, so unless you’ve been regularly serving blintzes to Alex Trebek at his favorite diner you should be in the clear.2

Throughout the phone conversation you will maintain your detachment and professional calm, although you both know full well where this is going, so that the actual invitation to appear that follows your satisfactory responses is simultaneously thrilling and anticlimactic.

Jeopardy gives you roughly six weeks between the call and your actual tape day, and there is little flexibility in that schedule, if you wished for a few more months of preparation. Contrary to general belief there is also zero guidance as to areas of study nor any preparatory material, so contestants must watch the show and avail themselves of the same publicly available data as anyone else.3 

This gap between invitation and taping gives contestants a minimally sufficient period of time to whip themselves into shape mentally and also physically, if there are clothes in the back of the closet they’d like to fit into for a national television debut.

Thus begins a frantic period of learning anew all the things that you forgot since high school, and in some instances may be picking up for the first time. Everyone has their weaknesses, and mine included opera and books written in the last 100 years or so, and if you could bet against me on a classic rock clue you’d clean up. However Jeopardy game boards are distributed across subjects, so one weak area can be made up for by others.

It’s essential to watch the actual show and become attuned to the rhythms of the game, which you do not want to be doing for the first time under the glare of studio lights. For me personally this was harder than it should be, given Jeopardy’s 3:30 pm slot in the Chicago market.4 As you’ll find out the shows themselves tape in something very close to real time, so get comfortable following Alex’s cadences, reading clues rapidly and thinking ahead. More importantly, tracking your performance in detail will quickly and mercilessly highlight your deficiencies.

An aside on the nature of studying for Jeopardy: it’s true that the range of knowledge that could be covered spans nearly all of human experience and thus is impossible to study in a constrained period of time. However, Jeopardy scrupulously avoids the hopelessly obscure and layers its clues with allusions and wordplay that point the nimble-minded contestant to the correct response more often than not.

Even a category that is ostensibly about Millard Fillmore or the physics of Jet Skis is likely to weave back to some common core of knowledge, using those headers as jumping-off points.5 Jeopardy also has several well-worn responses that it returns to time and again, so one needn’t fret about memorizing all of the Hawaiian monarchs, when Kamehameha will suffice.6 In the Jeopardy subculture these are known as “Pavlovs”, and key phrases should trigger the answer immediately. Some of these clues have faded from common knowledge, but maintain their attenuated existence like the words that exist solely to provide Scrabble players with ways to burn off extra tiles, or for cruciverbalists to pack in vowels.

Contestants travel to the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot in Culver City, California on their own dime, but the guaranteed minimum of $1,000 for third place at least partially offsets it. Given the sheer numbers of Jeopardy aspirants and the ardor with which they pursue a spot, this self-pay aspect puts little drag on the contestant pool.

We’re allowed to bring up to six guests and given a preferred hotel, at which most out-of-town contestants will stay, and that also serves as the gathering point for the studio shuttle. You could try staying elsewhere, but there’s no need to add more variables during a trip of this nature.7

There’s also a virtual sheaf of paperwork to fill out before you arrive, with a densely layered questionnaire that attempts to suss out anything of intrigue in your background that can be used as fodder for the brief contestant interview. (Sample question: Have you ever had a lucky encounter with a Good Samaritan?)8 This is where you’ll also submit five interesting facts as prompts for the on-air contestant interview, so if you’ve swum the English Channel now is the time to bring it up.

Documents duly completed, flight to Los Angeles booked, hotel room reserved, studying done (although it’s never done), TV outfits chosen—without busy patterns, lest they go all moiré on an agitated cameraman—and it’s time to go see the familiar Jeopardy set, for the first time, in real life.

Next: Inside the studio  |  All Jeopardy posts

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  1. In the release documentation contestants must affirm that they will have nothing to do with “payola”, as apparently it is still 1927.
  2. The process attempts to weed out those with relationships with any of the parties involved in producing Jeopardy, which are numerous, and to eliminate anyone whose interest in the show could be self-serving, i.e., candidates for political office.
  3. The ur-site for all things Jeopardy is the J-Archive, which catalogs the content and performances of essentially every Jeopardy game played, in impressive and obsessive detail.
  4. Good luck trying to find Jeopardy via streaming services. Like other syndicated shows, it can’t be found legally online.
  5. For instance, the actual clue “Millard was born in this state’s Finger Lakes region in 1800” requires no knowledge whatsoever of the president himself to respond correctly. Many clues are written in this way, which is why the category is often only a rough guide to its clues’ subject matter.
  6. To be fair they could also ask about Liliʻuokalani, but given the potential for gnarly pronunciation the chances are vanishingly small, because television.
  7. I can’t tell you where we stayed, but there were two trees involved. (With credit to the late Mitch Hedberg)
  8. Other questions ask about your personal interests and professional life, sifting your life in remarkable detail in search of any nuggets that would interest the general public.