By Mike Gravitt
I bet there is hardly anyone reading this who has not watched at least a few episodes of Jeopardy! in the past 36 years since its reincarnation with host Alex Trebek. I place an exclamation mark behind Jeopardy! as it is part of the official title of the show.
For those who are not acquainted with the show, Trebek reads the answers to each clue, and it is up to contestants to give the question. For example, if Trebek were to say something like, “An inability to see,” the contestant would respond, “What is blindness?” Without understanding this concept, some of my wording below will likely be confusing.
I was born in 1975, so I have watched Jeopardy! for 80 percent of my life. When I was a kid living in Virginia, we were able to pick up two stations that aired Jeopardy!, one at 7:00 p.m. and the other at 7:30 p.m. As a syndicated show, affiliates have always been given some autonomy in choosing the airtime. So, I would sometimes watch the 7:00 episode from my room, memorizing as many questions as I could, while my parents watched Wheel of Fortune downstairs. Then, I would make my way downstairs to watch the 7:30 episode with my parents, who were not aware that I had just watched the same episode they were getting ready to view. For maybe two or three episodes, they thought I was pretty darn smart! I probably made what I was doing a little too obvious by knowing some random fact that only a rocket scientist should know.
In subsequent years, my wife, Johna, and I have watched many episodes, competing to see who could get the most correct questions. What has been more fun in recent months is that we can play the sixth clue of each category on the Alexa version of Jeopardy! and almost feel like we are part of the action. If you have not tried it yet, tell your smart device to “Enable Jeopardy!” Overall, I believe we typically have scored evenly, although she may beg to differ!
Like many of you, we were saddened by Trebek’s death. Since new episodes are airing, we were not aware that he was doing as poorly as he was. I believed he would at least have a short period when he was no longer able to record episodes, giving us a little more time to brace for our loss. But instead, the news of his death came out of left field and knocked me upside my head!
The last episodes he recorded were on October 29, only ten days before his death on November 8. Incredible! These last episodes will air from December 21 through December 25. Merry Christmas to us…not!
For me, a person who is blind, Jeopardy! is mostly accessible. There are occasions when there are video or picture clues that do not do me much good, but I am even able to get those once in a while depending on the context clues in the wording of the answer. For this same reason, I have found many of my blind friends to be fans of the show.
Every year, Jeopardy! has a two-week College Tournament of Champions, hosted by a different university and bringing together some of the sharpest college minds in the United States to compete for a large jackpot that would likely pay for most, if not all, of the winners’ education. In 2004, this tournament was filmed at the University of Pittsburgh. Tickets were free. All one had to do was mail in a letter specifying preferences for which date and time one wanted to attend and include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the return of tickets.
There were four choices: three episodes on Saturday morning, two on Saturday afternoon, three on Sunday morning, or two on Sunday afternoon. Yes, they film five episodes per day. I requested tickets for the two Sunday afternoon episodes as I knew this would be the final two episodes that would determine the winner. Within a few days, the show sent my tickets, and they were for these two episodes, so I was excited!
Three of the four of us who attended the taping were, and still are, blind. Kudos to the fourth person, our driver, and human guide. When we arrived, they were still filming the first three episodes of the day, so we had to wait. In the waiting area outside the auditorium, there were television monitors showing what was happening live inside. Technically we got to see three episodes being filmed.
One fascinating aspect of the show is that contestants have the right to call a time out at any point if they feel a ruling is incorrect, and these are cleverly edited out. I did not know this until I got to see it happen while waiting to get inside. A contestant buzzed in and gave an incorrect question. When Trebek gave the correct question, she blurted out that it was what she said. So, they had to stop filming and review the recording of her response. It was ruled that she did indeed give the incorrect response. A few weeks later, I remember watching this episode, and I could not tell where they had edited out the interruption; they did it so well. Kudos to their editors!
Fast forward about an hour or so, and we were finally inside the auditorium. I still had enough usable vision at the time to see a little, so I wanted to sit close to the front. We may have ended up about ten or so rows back. Seating was unassigned, so basically, it was a free-for-all for those in attendance. What was cool for me, though, was that I was seated at the end of a row, adjacent to a wall where several television monitors showed what the cameras were filming in real-time. I was expecting to see a few contestant close-ups, nothing fancy, but I was ultimately very intrigued. I saw almost a fully polished final version of an episode on the monitor, complete with camera changes and even the visual effect of the clues appearing on the screen. I had assumed a lot of this was edited and pieced together after the fact, but not at all. Based on what I did observe, truly little editing had to take place later as so much was choreographed in real-time. Very impressive!
Thankfully, we did not have to sit through commercials after each segment. However, what did happen during a break between the segments was even more entertaining. Trebek would re-read several clues for a better recording because an insightful staff member noticed he might have mispronounced a word or did not phrase something exactly as it was written verbatim. Thus, they would record him reading the clue again so it could be overdubbed later. If you listen carefully to the show, you can sometimes tell when an overdubbed version of the reading of a clue occurs. I have noticed this for a while but again assumed much of this was done at the studio later. And, in some cases, it may very well be. But, by doing it on-site during the show’s taping, the overdubs are less obvious, as the auditory elements such as background noise, microphone echo in the auditorium, etc., are not compromised like a studio overdub.
During breaks between tapings, Trebek would interact with the audience, taking questions and sharing insights about himself or the show.
One of his best stories was how a hotel screwed up and assigned one of the College Tournament of Champions’ contestants to the same room where he was staying. He said it was a suite (no surprise), and he was sitting in the living area reading. Suddenly, he heard someone swiping a key card, and much to his surprise, in walks a female contestant! For whatever reason, she did not notice him sitting there and immediately bolted to the bedroom. I forget exactly how he made himself known to her, but I imagine her surprise was also tremendous, not only because she was given a luxurious suite, but she also got to meet Trebek in a unique environment that I imagine not many people can claim. I am sure Trebek, as well as that contestant, told that story many times after that. Although, I will guess she was ultimately disappointed, as she likely had to stay in a standard hotel room, not the luxurious suite!
What made the tournament even more exciting was that three of the fifteen participating students were either from Pittsburgh or attending school in Pittsburgh.
After the filming was completed, I was excited that I had an opportunity to be a part of pop culture. However, I asked my friends if we could stick around a few extra minutes. I wanted the chance to get close to the stage to see if I could discern anything with my limited eyesight. They agreed.
So, after the crowd cleared out, we made our way to the front. Sadly, I still was not able to make out very much. However, my friend did give a wonderful description of the stage and its layout. As she was wrapping up, I had to do a double-take as to what I heard her say next. She said, “Alex Trebek is walking toward us.” I was shocked! After a long day of taping, I figured that he would be backstage saying his congratulations to the winner and ready to grab his plane back to Los Angeles, go back to his hotel room, or eat dinner. I did not believe he would come out to the audience to meet the stragglers.
The next thing I hear is Alex’s voice. I kid you not. The first thing he said as he was walking toward us was, “I see all the blind people are hanging out over here.” We introduced ourselves and we had a brief conversation. During our chat, one of the show’s producers joined the group.
We discussed how wonderful a show like Jeopardy! is for people who are blind. A few years previously, in 1999, Eddie Timanus was the first blind contestant on Jeopardy! At that time, there was a five-game limit per contestant during regular-season play. Eddie won all five games and returned later in the year as a contestant on the Tournament of Champions.
The producer informed us that another blind contestant was filming a few days later for the Teen Tournament of Champions. Her name was Kerri Regan, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the American Council of the Blind convention in Columbus, Ohio, in 2013.
Very few accommodations were needed for Eddie and Kerri. They were given the list of categories in Braille to refer to during the game. They would often say just the category name they wished for and then ask for the next highest dollar amount. They were provided with a device to type out their responses and wagers for Final Jeopardy! Also, visual or video clues were avoided, making all the clues auditory. When it was okay to buzz in, Eddie would hear an auditory cue while sighted contestants would see a light.
To explain this a little further, contestants cannot buzz in until the reading of the clue is completed, and the light appears. Buzzing in too early will preclude the contestant from buzzing in again unless another contestant gives an incorrect response. In very early seasons of the show, contestants who could read very quickly or were very knowledgeable in a subject would buzz in as soon as Trebek began reading the clue, making it unfair to contestants who could not read as quickly. So, this system was put into place to try to make play fairer and, quite frankly, less annoying. Just look for the first episode of Jeopardy! On YouTube and give it a view, and you will see what I mean.
For Eddie Timanus, the only other accommodation was for the contestants to already be in place at the podium when play began instead of each walking up to the podium as they were being introduced. The producers must have liked this approach; beginning in 2000, this became the standard practice. Each of these accommodations did little, if anything, to alter the show and did a fine job of displaying the skills and talents of people who are blind.
After we discussed Eddie and Kerri and how much we each enjoy the show, Trebek said something to us that goes against his wishes to share. He said, “Do not ever tell anyone I said this, but Jeopardy! is really more of a radio show than it is a television show.” I just smiled and said, “Yes, that is true. Now go back and tell Pat Sajak that I have been trying to solve a puzzle on Wheel of Fortune for years!” We all got a great chuckle out of that, except for Trebek. Either he was not amused or did not find it appropriate to laugh, but I will bet somewhere along the way during another commercial break, he told that story alongside the hotel story, or at least I would like to think so.
I have told this story to folks throughout the past 16 years, and I am happy that I now have gone into more depth and shared my little piece of history that is only a small part of a huge chunk of history for years to come. I regret that I did not get an opportunity to go on stage. I would have loved to stand behind the podium to see what it felt like. I cannot recall if they were already disassembling the props or not. Either way, it was not offered, and I did not feel it appropriate to ask.
I also regret a little that I did not have a chance to get a photo with him. Neither of us had a camera, and this was before cameras were common on cell phones. Even if I had a camera, I likely would not have asked to have a photo. I have always found this practice to be rather tacky. If it were offered and available, I certainly would have, though. Either way, it was not a choice that day, but I have the memories forever, even more so now that I have written them down! We did each receive a genuinely nice keychain with the Jeopardy! logo on one side and Wheel of Fortune on the other.
As I write this during the week of November 16, there are only six weeks of episodes left, 30 shows, 30 minutes each. After over 8,000 episodes, this is hard to believe.
I have a few thoughts on who the next host should be, including LeVar Burton, Jim Parsons, and Ken Jennings. Whoever it is will have some ridiculously huge shoes to fill. And, if they record as many episodes as Alex Trebek did, I will be 81 years old. Hopefully, by then, I will have somehow guessed a puzzle on Wheel of Fortune!
To listen to or watch the entire tournament we attended, you can use the below links to view or download MP3 audio or M4V video files that I generated from my VHS recordings.
Audio MP3 files (without commercial breaks):
Video M4V files (includes commercials):
A postscript to this story: Ken Jennings has been named as the first of a series of interim hosts and will air his first show as host on January 11, 2021. The plan is to present a series of familiar personalities before deciding who will replace Trebek at the answer desk. In addition, Trebek’s final shows will be aired during the week of January 4, 2021.