Category Archives: Pop Culture

Trivial Tales: Being on Jeopardy, Pt. 2

One thing that being in a rock and roll band for any length of time requires is the ability to endure disappointment. Constant, bitter, crushing disappointment. If you take it to heart every time you get passed over for a gig, ignored by a crowd, or rejected in any of the million other ways a musician can get a thumbs-down, you won’t last long. It was my degree from the “school of rock” that, more than anything else, helped me reach the goal of becoming a contestant on Jeopardy. Lots of people are smart, and lots of people are good at trivia. But I took seven tests and traveled to 3 regional auditions over the course of 10 years in my quest to be a Jeopardy contestant. I’m smart, don’t get me wrong – a dummy isn’t going to make it to the Jeopardy stage, no matter how hard he or she tries – but it’s my extremely hard head, not the spongy stuff inside it, that got me to the show.

While I was good at games like Trivial Pursuit, and had been an enthusiastic participant on my high school and community college’s quiz bowl teams, I’d never considered trying to be on Jeopardy until I was in my mid-30’s and the show held a “contestant search” event at a local shopping mall. There, I aced a short trivia quiz and was given an invitation to attend a second test and possible audition at a local hotel and conference center.

If I remember correctly, there were 50-60 of us who took the longer contestant quiz (50 questions) that day. Out of that group, about a dozen lucky souls were called up by name and asked to participate in the screen test/mock game that is still part of the audition process. I was not called.  But, for me, that was the motivator … I’d finally caught the bug: I wanted to be on Jeopardy!

The online tests started a few years later, and from 2009-2015 I took the online test three times, and was invited to three regional auditions: Charlotte, NC; Nashville, TN; and, finally, Atlanta, GA.

At those auditions, I took yet another test — that year’s “contestant quiz” — and participated in a screen test that consisted of playing a few minutes of Jeopardy with two other wanna-be contestants, and being interviewed — usually by Maggie.

Each time I thought I did reasonably well, but I probably got a little better through the process: I know that I was less nervous and a little less personally invested each time.

Looking back, I think it was my experience as a musician that allowed me to continue testing and auditioning, year after year, with no way of knowing if I’d ever make to the ‘big show.’ Knowing the drill from years of working with booking agents, club owners, and various entertainment industry functionaries, I took the Jeopardy staff members who’d conducted the auditions at their word when they said that if we didn’t receive a call in the next 18 months we should try again, that contestants often audition several times before being selected.

Also, I listened to, remembered, and took to heart the coaching that Maggie and other Jeopardy staffers provided at the auditions, tips such as:

  • Speak up
  • Be yourself
  • Have fun

… and more specifically …

  • Always identify the category and dollar amount (not: “That one again for $400” or “the same category for $1000”)
  • Shorten the category name to keep the game moving
  • Wait until the clue has been read in its entirety before trying to buzz in (hitting the clicker early results in a “lock out” of a fraction of a second — an eternity in Jeopardy time)
  • Click that buzzer and keep on clicking until someone’s name is called
  • Wait until you are called on to answer
  • Give your answer in the form of a question, and …
  • Give your answer in the form of a question!

I mention that last one twice because, well, it’s important, right?

What is “yes?”

At the third audition, in Atlanta this past spring, I found myself more interested in the behavior of the other potential players than in my own performance. I was thinking a bit like a casting director, I suppose, with an eye towards who had an interesting story, a unique vocal inflection, or a particularly quick buzzer finger. There were some standout characters, so while I was pleased with how I did, I wasn’t particularly hopeful about my chances of being selected.

I was both surprised and pleased when, only a few weeks into the new season of Jeopardy, my phone lit up with a caller ID reading “Culver City, CA.” It was Glenn, one of the show’s producers, with an invitation to be a contestant on the show in about three weeks.

Sure thing, I said.

Here goes nothing, I thought.

Rob Russell

One sweater vest to rule them all!



Trivial Tales: Being on Jeopardy, Pt. 1

I’m a two-time “Jeopardy Champion.”  I’m a lot of other things, too — a husband, a Dad, a musician, a writer, a teacher, an administrator, a cynic — but being a winner (and, eventually, a loser) on Jeopardy is one thing I honestly never thought I would be, or could be. Pretty surreal stuff!

I thought I’d write something to try to answer some of the questions friends and family members have asked about getting on the show and playing the game, including the most important question of all:

What’s Alex Trebek really like?

So, let’s start there.

Honestly, I don’t know enough to say. I was in his presence about six hours total, and only exchanged a few words with him during, and briefly after, each of the three shows on which I appeared. He was friendly, handsome, and very good at his job. He’s got a dark, but not unhealthy, tan. He smells nice.

His exchanges with the studio audience were mostly humorous and low key. Between shows (the Jeopardy crew tape a week’s worth of shows — five — in a day)  he walked to the edge of the stage and took questions. His wit is clearly on the dry side, and he seemed just as pleased to let a seemingly off-hand joke bomb as he did when it hit. He’s comfortable in his polite, slightly aloof Canadian skin.

As to his intellect, staff members have said that Alex has taken the new contestant quiz (the one we take at the actual auditions) himself almost every year the show has run — going on 21 now —  and done quite well.

What I was most impressed with was his ability to navigate the categories and clues during each game so smoothly that his delivery appeared rehearsed. But there was no way it could be, as Alex does not get to see the games — which are selected at random for that day by a third party — or the categories and clues within them until the morning of each day’s taping. He has all of three hours to go through five games’ worth of categories and clues and scan for possible pronunciation or delivery trouble spots.

When I was there, Trebek misspoke or slightly garbled clues only twice that I can recall during the six games I watched or was a part of. These slight errors didn’t affect game-play in the least, and during commercial breaks they were “fixed” on the spot by speedily orchestrated live voice-over dubs by Alex himself. I was impressed. The man is smooth!

On top of that, during the games he has to quickly identify and read the clues as they are called, in no particular order (and sometimes in purposefully weird order, e.g. by Arthur Chu) by each contestant. All he appears to have in front of him is a stack of papers, so what he does to organize the material or anticipate the next clue, I have no idea. Whatever his method, it works, and it appears effortless.


Alex Trebek Rob Russell Jeopardy November 2015

Seriously, I miss the mustache. Don’t you?


He does seem a bit standoffish regarding the contestants, but that could be to avoid any appearance of favoritism, to allow the producers and make-up artists to get to the contestants and do their jobs, or just to keep himself un-frazzled and in his own zone. As I learned, the energy generated behind the contestant podium is viral, and different in every game, based on the personalities and attitudes of the players involved. I’d wager that a host would be just as likely as a contestant to get swept up in this energy and get ‘thrown off their game.’

More over the next few days regarding how I made it to the show, what my preparation was like, what happened on the days of the tapings, and how good In-N-Out Burger really is.

Day 27 – A song that you wish you could play: "The Green Manalishi"

“The Green Manalishi” by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac is my (current) guitar holy grail: I really need to just sit down with it for a couple of hours and suss it all out. This song haunts me, dangit … but not as badly as it haunted Peter Green. What exactly IS a manalishi, anyway?

Day 26 – A song that you can play on an instrument: “Blackbird”

“Blackbird” by The Beatles is still the only song that I can really fingerpick, and I invariably whip it out whenever my hands touch an acoustic guitar. Brilliant (and beautiful) in its simplicity. Here’s a great video of Paul working out an early version of the song with producer George Martin:

Day 30 – Your favorite song at this time last year: "The Fixer"

Day 30 – Your favorite song at this time last year: “The Fixer”

old guys can rock too

May 2010 was a pretty rough time for me, for a bunch of reasons. I was struggling with a lot of “demons” and insecurities — struggles that I, luckily, didn’t have to go through alone, thanks to my family. I’m not a huge Pearl Jam fan, but I’d bought Backspacer (only the second PJ album I’d ever purchased) the previous fall, and this tune was one I came back to a lot last May and through the summer. The chorus — “And fight to get it back again” — is a line that rings through my head fairly often, especially when I’m having a rough day, or feeling that I don’t have any creative gas left in the tank.

EV will shred the cords for ya

I figure if these guys still have the fire in them to write and record songs with balls this big after 20 years and 9 albums, then I have no excuse wussing out!

Day 25 – A song that makes you laugh: "Let's Rock and Roll"

“Let’s Rock and Roll” – Bobby Bare, Jr.

the luxuries of van living

Thanks to my brother Andy Russell for turning me on to this song. Truer lines have never been written about the indignities of the ‘rock and roll lifestyle.’ I laughed, I cried … because it quite literally had been a part of my life for twenty some-odd years. Not to the extent it has been BB, Jr’s, but I’ve seen the vomit running down the walls, and when I heard the opening verse, I knew that this song would be one I’d be listening to again and again:

I live in the floor of a mini-van

Driven by drunks across this land

And I wake up in the worst part of your town

Drink free beer and sing until I fall down

Let’s rock and roll, let’s rock and roll

May the good lord of wine, women and song bless the road warriors like BB Jr who are still out there doing it every night. My rocking and rolling is now limited to once a month or so, and very seldom does the van get more than an hour away from home base. The days of draft beer dinners and crashing on strange, cigarette-stained couches or six dudes sharing a cheap motel room (“we don’t take checks!”) are fading into the fog of memory. And I can laugh about it now, thanks to this song.

Day 24 – A song that you want played at your funeral: "Strangers"

“Strangers” – The Kinks

This rare Dave Davies-composed (and sung) Kinks tune leapt out at me when I first heard it on Pandora, and I heard it again on the soundtrack to The Darjeeling Limited. I like the simplicity of the lyric, as well as the melody:

If I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die

So I will follow you wherever you go

If your offered hand is still open to me

Strangers on this road we are on

We are not two we are one

Such a beautiful song.

Where are you going I don’t mind

I’ve killed my world and I’ve killed my time

So where do I go what do I see

I see many people coming after me

So where are you going to I don’t mind

If I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die

So I will follow you wherever you go

If your offered hand is still open to me

Strangers on this road we are on

We are not two we are one

So you’ve been where I’ve just come

From the land that brings losers on

So we will share this road we walk

And mind our mouths and beware our talk

‘Till peace we find tell you what I’ll do

All the things I own I will share with you

If I feel tomorrow like I feel today

We’ll take what we want and give the rest away

Strangers on this road we are on

We are not two we are one

Holy man and holy priest

This love of life makes me weak at my knees

And when we get there make your play

‘Cos soon I feel you’re gonna carry us away

In a promised lie you made us believe

For many men there is so much grief

And my mind is proud but it aches with rage

And if I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die

Strangers on this road we are on

We are not two we are one

Strangers on this road we are on

We are not two we are one

Day 23 – A song that you want to play at your wedding: "Such Great Heights"

“Such Great Heights” – The Postal Service

So, this gives me a chance to gush a bit about how much I love my missus.  I’m not much for big events (I hate most ‘milestone’ events — for myself or others — finding them at best a big let-down or, at worst, a reminder of the impermanence of any given moment of happiness … sorry to be Captain Bringdown), but our wedding is, in my memory, one of those times that really was better than I’d ever dreamed it could be, and it’s all because of who I’d shared it with! Friends and family of ours from all over the country — heck, some from other parts of the world, came together and had a great party. It was a huge conflagration of folks and, I would like to think, an unpretentious and fun experience for all. But, most importantly, it was the wedding that we wanted it to be, and music was very central to it.

Thems some fancy outfits

The Hussy and I actually played “Such Great Heights” together at our wedding — that is, we performed it. As music-nerds, we wanted to not only have a cool playlist for our ceremony — which we did — and great singers for the songs — which we most definitely did, we wanted to play a couple of songs together. The tunes we chose for pre-ceremony were:

Don Eanes (on keys), David Hart (vocals), and Chad Light (guitar)

“Maybe I’m Amazed” – Wings (sung by Don Eanes)

“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” – Death Cab for Cutie (sung by David Hart)

Wedding March: “The Final Countdown” – Europe

Vanessa Bentley

“To Make You Feel My Love” – Bob Dylan (sung by Vanessa Bentley)

We had a great bluegrass band for our reception, Meridian, and they played “Tennessee Waltz” when we came into the barn (yes, our reception was in a barn). After eating and dancing some, we took the stage along with many of our rock and roll compatriots, commenced to rocking. My now-wife and I played “Such Great Heights” and Teddy Thompson’s “Altered State”; the combined forces of many of my bands, past and present, kept it rocking on into the night. The wonderful night.

Day 22 – A song you listen to when you're sad – "End of the Rainbow"

“End of the Rainbow” – Richard & Linda Thompson

The Whole Records is ALmost tHis hapPy

This is a harsh song. Brutal even: “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow / there’s nothing to grow up for anymore.” Whenever I’m sad, very sad, this is the soundtrack playing in my head. Tough stuff. But there’s something about the absolute rawness of the lyric, the clarity —  “I feel for you, you little horror” — that’s somehow cleansing. When you see the world that bleakly, and you’re feeling bleak, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Right?

Day 21 – A song you listen to when you're happy – "I Believe"

“I Believe”  – REM

,,,, nice eyebrows ....

REM was one of those bands that was special for me when 15-16: still kind of a ‘secret’ because radio and MTV hadn’t really discovered them, thus most of the popular kids hadn’t either. Lifes Rich Pagaent was their first really mainstream sounding record, the first one that I could get my non-record nerd friends to listen to and admit that these guys were really a rock and roll band. “I Believe” was, and still is, my favorite track off that record. Kicking off with a little lo-fi banjo lick, it soon leaps into signature REM territory: rollicking Byrds-jangle with Stipe’s pastiche lyrics. And such great lyrics: “I believe in coyotes / and time as an abstract / exchange the change the difference between / what you want and what you need / there’s the key … and change / is what I believe in.” Up to that time, probably his best work.