What is…an unforgettable experience?

Rebecca Bailey stands next to Ken Jennings on the Jeopardy! set
Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings with Northeastern librarian Rebecca Bailey

I’ve heard lots of questions about my experience being on Jeopardy!, so I thought I’d try to share some tidbits, especially now that the episode has aired. The Northeastern Global News article did a pretty good job outlining the audition process, so I’ll skip to the actual process of going on the show and what that was like.

So they called! Just after the holidays, I got the invite to come tape on February 8 at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California. There was so much info included with the invite: a “what to wear and NOT to wear” guide; all kinds of instructions: for getting to the studio, what to do upon arrival, the need to take a COVID test on-site the day before taping, what to bring, what not to bring; a set of social media guidelines that covered both posting about the experience (NO SPOILERS!) and advice about managing the responses and comments about your episode(s) that would inevitably bombard you afterward; and a HUGE questionnaire to solicit anecdotes about your life that they could ask you about on air. That document was crazy, there were at least 25 prompts from the relatively simple (“how did you meet your partner?”; “do you collect anything?”) to the fairly impossible (“what is your secret ambition?”; “everyone has a special talent or quality – what’s yours?”). They needed it back within five days. It said it was okay to skip some but to answer as many as possible. I spent a whole weekend thinking back over my life for interesting stories.

I keep getting asked how I prepared for the show. Truthfully I really didn’t do much. I’ve absorbed trivia for years, of course. But I didn’t have a whole lot of time to cram. The one thing I did do was learn some one-offs: there are lists online of phrases that pop up in Jeopardy! questions that can only refer to one person or thing. If they ask about a “New England silversmith,” it’s Paul Revere. Norwegian playwright? Ibsen. Finnish composer? Sibelius. There just aren’t any others well-known enough in those categories to ask about. So I checked out a few of those lists. But otherwise, as my husband told me, I was just going to have to “fight with the army you’ve got.”

So I flew out to LA on February 7, took a COVID test at the studio that afternoon, then was free until the next morning. On the day of taping, we had to report at 7:45 a.m. for a security check and a briefing on the COVID rules: masks at all times and no eating or drinking indoors. There were 10 or 11 of us mustered in the parking garage next to the studio for this briefing, and we started to get to know each other a bit: where we were from (all over the country!), who we brought with us, which of us was the returning champ. During this time, a producer also came around with an index card for each of us with five of our best anecdotes that they’d picked out, and we were to choose which one we wanted to use first. Five episodes would be filmed that day—the episodes for the week of April 24-28. We weren’t going to be allowed to watch from the studio audience when episodes other than our own were taping, both because of COVID rules and strict sequester policies to make sure there was no chance anyone could get any inside information from the host or writing staff. We were kept in a separate area, which turned out to be the Wheel of Fortune studio next door. So we spent the day in the audience seats for Wheel, with one or two staffers babysitting us and taking us outside for occasional snack breaks. (I desperately wanted to spin the Wheel, but alas, it was covered with a tarp and a giant sign that said not to touch under ANY circumstances.)

We had our hair and makeup done and met with wardrobe people about the outfits we’d brought. You have to bring 3 or 4 changes of clothes because if you win, you’re in the next episode, which is going to air on a different day, so you have to be in a different outfit. We had to turn our phones off and put them away for the rest of the day (so no pictures!). Then we had a rules briefing, going over all the details of how the game works. Finally, they took us next door to the Jeopardy! studio for a rehearsal, where we sat in the audience seats and everyone would have a turn to stand at the lecterns, play a brief round, get used to the buzzer and where to look. Suddenly Ken Jennings came out from backstage, in street clothes (odd to see, since he’s in fancy suits on the show), to give us a little pep talk. He said that no one should feel like an imposter: if we had made it that far, we absolutely deserved to be there. He said it would go by very fast and so we should try to breathe, take it in, enjoy it. Easy for him to say!

As part of making sure no one can get inside info, they drew two contestants’ names right before filming each episode. So, back in the Wheel studio, it was time to get ready for game 1, and they drew two names to be the challengers to the returning champ from the day before. Those two folks were off to have makeup touched up, get wired for sound, and get ready to play, and the rest of us were able to watch the taping on monitors from the audience section of Wheel.

It takes about the same amount of time to tape an episode as it does to watch it. They stop where the commercial breaks will be, for the same amount of time that the commercials will last and use that time for various things. During one break, Ken came over and stood next to each contestant in turn so they could take a publicity photo for each of us. During another break, they had Ken re-record two or three clues where he had tripped over a word or mispronounced something the first time so they could splice the corrected version in later. During the break just before Final Jeopardy, of course, the contestants are making their wagers. Once the episode is done, Ken and the winner have to go change clothes , and the other two contestants are de-microphoned and set free. At that point, if you’d lost, you could go sit in the audience, or stay in the Wheel of Fortune studio with everyone still waiting to play. There was about a half hour break before the next episode would be ready to start taping. They filmed three episodes, after which it was 2 p.m. and time for a late lunch break. They walked us over to an outdoor commissary area and fed us a very nice hot lunch; then it was back to the studio by 3 and time to tape game number 4—finally my name was drawn!

I have never been more petrified than I was when standing at the second lectern on the Alex Trebek Stage, hearing my name announced, and seeing Ken Jennings walk out to the host’s stand. The actual taping is a huge blur for me—afterwards I could only recall about six of the 12 categories that I’d just faced on the board. You’re in the game and so focused on trying to read each question, decide if you want to buzz in, and also waiting for the signal that it’s okay to buzz (there is a column of LEDs on each side of the game board that light up after the question is read, and you can’t buzz till they come on—if you are early, you get locked out for half a second, which is an eternity when the others are also buzzing). With all of that happening, your brain isn’t able to also make memories. Former contestants have talked about the “Jeopardy! fugue state” and they’re not kidding.

I had fully expected that I’d have trouble getting the hang of the buzzer and wouldn’t get to answer that many questions, and figured I’d likely be in a distant third place as the game went on. As it turned out, though, the aggressive play of the returning champ got him in trouble, as he was quick on the buzzer but was wrong a lot and lost money. My style was the opposite—I only even tried to ring in when I was quite sure of an answer, and so although I didn’t answer a ton of questions overall, I didn’t get any wrong and lost no money. Players can see their scores on a board up over where the cameras are, and as we got to Final Jeopardy I was floored to find myself in the lead. I only really knew wagering strategy for being in a distant third place, and had to scramble a bit to recall what to do as the front-runner. I remembered I needed to bet an amount that would put me $1 ahead if the guy in second place bet it all and doubled his score. But trying to do math under those circumstances, on a little index card that they’d handed me, under the lights on the Alex Trebek Stage—I triple-checked my numbers and was still not sure I wasn’t going to embarrass myself with a dumb wager.

As it turned out, my math was fine, and the wager correct, strategy-wise, but the final question was difficult. I didn’t want to leave it blank so I wrote something down, even though I was quite certain it was wrong. And it was. The second-place guy came up with the correct response, so he pulled ahead of me and very much deserved the win.

And that was it! I went back over to Wheel to collect my contestant swag (a tote bag and a baseball cap, each with the Jeopardy! logo). Then back to the Jeopardy! studio to finally sit in the audience there and watch game 5. It was honestly kind of a relief to just get to watch. The only bummer was that I did know the answer for Final Jeopardy in that last game, though none of the three contestants did. But I have no regrets, and honestly did better than I ever expected.

While the chance to play was amazing, I also want to mention how fun it was to hang out with the other contestants all day, especially the ones I got to know best as the day went on and we still hadn’t been chosen. We were cheering for the folks playing each game as we watched on the monitors, rooting for them to come up with the Daily Double answers, working together to answer the Final Jeopardy questions, all under this intense nervous energy. The camaraderie was fantastic. Several of us traded a bunch of nervous, excited messages this past week as our episodes aired. Another lovely surprise has been the warm welcome from the Jeopardy! alumni community at large: there’s a Facebook group for former contestants and that’s been really fun to become a part of.

If it were an option, would I do it again? I’m actually not sure: I had such a blast that day, kind of a perfect experience with the whole thing, that I wouldn’t want to ruin it with a second trip that didn’t live up to the first. Although if they called and invited me for a Librarians Tournament or something, not sure I could say no!