A Life in Jeopardy!

Ever dreamed of being on the brainy game show? Think you could sweep the board? Yeah, Ted B. Kissell did too.

I looked him right in the eye. "Who are The Jetsons?"

He looked straight back. "Good for 500."

I scanned the game board. I needed a strong category, something like "David Bowie Albums of the Seventies," or "Women of Star Trek." The best I could do was "South American Beauty," which seemed likely to involve geography, one of my specialties.

Like it mattered. Charles gobbled up the first question and Robin the next two. I was still coming in late.

On the $400 clue, Trebek directed us to the big TV monitor to the left of the game board. It displayed a shot of terraced fields on the side of a mountain, which I recognized from some sixth-grade history book. Trebek asked for the "usual term for the agricultural levels seen here, used by the Incas."

I pressed frantically. My lights came on.

"Ted."

"What are terraces?"

"Correct."

No one rang in on the next clue, and then we'd reached the first commercial. I only had $900 ("Nicely on the board," Trebek offered encouragingly); Robin was leading with $2100, and Charles had $1300. Not too bad, and it was still early. Besides, Double Jeopardy, where the clues net up to $1000, is where champions are made. We turned around and faced away from Trebek as he bantered with the audience about a horse he owned. I imagined Jen cringing at his banter. A stagehand brought me water, then one of the coordinators offered me some buzzer advice. I was coming in too late rather than too early, he said. He showed me how I could apply slight pressure to the button without triggering it, which should give me a better chance to get in.

After the first commercial comes the "chitchat" segment in which Trebek reintroduces the contestants and prompts each to tell an interesting (and predetermined) anecdote. The prospect of this terrified me almost as much as the game itself. After dispensing with Robin's tale of dressing as Elizabeth Taylor at a costume party, Trebek sidled to the front of my podium and consulted his index card.

"Ted Kissell, a journalist who says that Kermit the Frog was a big influence on an important career decision you had to make."

"Well, it was becoming a journalist," I said, praying I wouldn't blow it. "My favorite part of Sesame Street was always 'The Muppet News Flash.' Kermit would come onscreen in his trench coat and fedora and say -- " I paused, then summoned the frog in my throat. " -- Hi-ho, this is Kermit the Frog, with Sesame Street News." I struggled to keep a straight face. "I was hooked," I declared in my normal voice. "I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up."

"You could be a stand-up comic," Trebek said, unconvincingly as the audience chuckled. "That was a very good impression." I think I caught him a little off-balance.

"I'll save the tape," I said for some reason.

Then Charles told some boring story that involved no funny voices whatsoever.

When play resumed I nailed a couple of quick answers. But my buzzer woes returned; I got shut out of the "Raise Your Glasses" category, which was all about booze. "Oh What a Year," the last remaining category, treated me a little better. Each question consisted of three events; we had to name the year in which they occurred. I snagged the $100 and $300 clues in the category, then picked the $400.

Trebek read: "Johnny Carson retires, L.A. riots break out following Rodney King verdict, Hurricane Andrew hits Florida."

Okay, so here I was, a journalist from Miami, someone who had actually lived through Hurricane Andrew. Obviously this was my question for the taking. Right? I jabbed at my buzzer furiously. Right?

Trebek said, "Robin."

"What is 1992?"

Doh!

This was the equivalent of failing to hit a slow-pitch softball ... on national TV. I could already hear all the shit I'd be catching about this from my colleagues back home: How could you miss such a gimme, Ted? You have brought shame to Miami's entire press corps.

I wanted to scream: It's not me! I knew the answer! It's this goddamn buzzer!

But I had bigger problems at the moment. Robin -- sweet, brutally unflappable Robin -- had control of the board with one clue remaining, which was ... the freakin' Daily Double. If I'd gotten in on Hurricane Andrew, that Daily Double would have been mine. I could have bet my entire $1900 and vaulted into a tie for the lead.

Instead Robin put down $1300 of her $3800 and, of course, nailed the question. The score at the end of the round: $5100 for Robin, $2300 for Charles; $1900 for Hurricane Ted.

Even so, I was relatively calm as we waited through another commercial break for Double Jeopardy to begin. Lots of money up there for Ted, I told myself. Two Daily Doubles up there for Ted. And because I was in third, I'd get to pick first.

I quickly assessed my prospects in each category: "Literary Heroines" (not bad); "Foreign Words & Phrases" (strong); "Actors & Movie Roles" (not bad); "Former City Names" (very strong); "Yes, Mast-Er" (confusing; stay away); and "Woof!" (something about dogs? confusing; stay away).

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