Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 6

There are a dozen reasons I’m glad I didn’t go on the show fifteen years ago instead of this year, but one of them is this: I wasn’t remotely ready to risk the embarrassment.  Pretty much nobody gets out of Jeopardy! without:

  1. answering a question wrong (on national TV)
  2. making an unflattering face (also on national TV)

It was #1 that bothered me more than #2. It’s actually also embarrassing to admit it–that I was afraid to make a mistake where people could see.  Because a) I make mistakes all the time, and b) I am a teacher, for goodness’ sake–part of my mission in life is to make people feel that it’s safe to make a mistake, to write something incoherent, to say something that doesn’t make any sense, to totally misunderstand a concept–because if you are afraid of these things, you can’t learn very well.

I remember how immediately and permanently I adored my college German teacher–a woman who would leap onto the table to illustrate jumping auf den Tisch, and stand there and stamp her foot to show that now she was auf dem Tisch–when she announced the first day of class that we would all make ridiculous mistakes, and we would laugh at them, because you cannot learn a language without looking ridiculous!

And yet.  Going on Jeopardy!, I felt, would be tantamount to announcing to the world, Hey, I’m good at this!  I know the answers to all these questions!  Which is a perfect setup for falling on your face.  You don’t know the capital of Montenegro*? Guess you didn’t know as much as you thought you did, smartypants!

Jeopardy! is particularly scary this way because, again, the pool of knowledge is wide but shallow.  Of course, no one knows everything.  But you really should study world capitals.  And state capitals–probably more important than world capitals.  And American presidents–Jeopardy! loves American presidents.  And Canadian provinces–don’t get the Maritimes mixed up! And this year’s and last year’s Oscar winners.  And Grammy and Emmy and Tony winners.  Oh, and definitely study up on your Latin and Greek roots; those come up a lot.

There is no stopping place.  There’s always something else you could learn.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography.  (They were students at Bowdoin College together.)  While that’s a well-known fact among those who study 19th-century American literature, I didn’t learn it until the second or third time I taught The Scarlet Letter.  And I didn’t know that Hawthorne died while on a trip with Pierce, at an inn in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and that Pierce found Hawthorne dead in bed, until just now, when I went to fact-check this entry.

One of the great things about Jeopardy! is that having multiple paths to the answer, and potentially learning something new from the question, makes the game far more interesting than a simple quizzing of facts would be.  They’d never give the clue: “He was the author of Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography”–unless, perhaps, the category was “Initials N.H.” or something similarly clue-providing, and even then, there would probably be more paths to access.  A search of the J-Archive turns up several iterations, actually:

(1986) AMERICAN LITERATURE, $200: He penned a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce and pinned “The Scarlet Letter” on Hester Prynne

(1990) HAIL TO THE CHIEF, $600: Nicknamed “Handsome Frank,” he had college chum Nathaniel Hawthorne write his campaign bio

(2000) AUTHORS, $100: In 1852 this “Scarlet Letter” author wrote a campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce

(2016) FRIENDS, $1600: Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of this college pal, later the 14th U.S. president

(Note: Clue values have risen over the course of the show.  The current values–in which the first-round board clues range from $200-$1000, and the Double Jeopardy! round from $400-2000–started in 2000.)

They could just as easily have used COLLEGE FRIENDS: Nathaniel Hawthorne met Franklin Pierce at this college in Brunswick, ME (What is Bowdoin?).  Actually, that would be a fun category**:

In Dunster House: Future VP Al Gore and actor Tommy Lee Jones

Thanks to Mike Dupee (

This question (which has also come up in a few different iterations) is actually pretty low on the embarrassment scale.  If you don’t get it, you don’t recognize the name of the residential house (whatever) or you don’t read People magazine (who cares).  It would be embarrassing if you were known among your friends as a Tommy Lee Jones fan, or if you’d claimed to have known Al Gore in college, but otherwise, no.  So let’s add to the list of ways to embarrass yourself on Jeopardy!:

  1. answering a question wrong (on national TV)
  2. making an unflattering face (also on national TV)
  3. answering a question wrong that you “should” have gotten right
  4. mispronouncing an answer that you “should” have known how to pronounce
  5. misspeaking–the correct answer is in your head and something different comes out of your mouth
  6. answering a question so spectacularly wrongly as to show everyone that your ignorance is even broader and deeper than anyone imagined
  7. answering a question wrong that you REALLY “should” have gotten right, as in something about which you are an insufferable know-it-all, or something people actually pay you a salary to know something about
  8. struggling to ring in and jerking about like a marionette with an incompetent puppeteer on the other end of the strings
  9. getting flustered, guessing wildly, and driving your score deep into the red
  10. looking and sounding like an utter tool when having the “chat” with Alex after the first commercial break
  11. betting high and losing on a Daily Double
  12. not betting enough and failing to take proper advantage of a Daily Double
  13. going into Final Jeopardy behind someone who has a runaway (i.e., more than double anyone else’s score and can’t be caught)
  14. betting badly in Final Jeopardy
  15. writing the wrong answer in Final Jeopardy and standing there on national TV with your wrong answer displayed below you in a tipsy scrawl that looks nothing like your real handwriting
  16. #15, but in a category that is 100% in your wheelhouse
  17. #15-16, but with a question that you actually DO know the answer to, you just couldn’t find your way to it through the clue (which happens all the time in FJ)
  18. losing by a dollar
  19. losing by many, many, many dollars
  20. losing

(Don’t forget to add “on national TV” to #3-20!)

And guess what!  At least half of these things did happen to me on the show!  But by the time I actually went on, I had made my peace in advance with nearly all of them.  Looking back, I was far more conflicted when I first auditioned.  I’m not even sure I 100% wanted to go on Jeopardy! then.  So I’m glad I didn’t.

*Podgorica, known from 1946-1992 as Titograd. What, you didn’t know that?


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