Hundreds of thousands of people take the “Jeopardy!” online contestant test, a couple thousand people are called back for an in-person audition, and only a few lucky hundred are selected to appear on the show. So, as I stood in front of Alex Trebek in a Culver City, Calif., soundstage on a Wednesday in early November, I knew I was lucky.
I’m a law reporter for The Daily Record. So what are the odds of the contestant standing next me not only being a lawyer my age, but a lawyer from Baltimore?
That’s the story of how I met Emily C. Goodlander, a staff attorney based in Venable LLP’s Baltimore office. Goodlander is licensed in Pennsylvania and will sit for the Maryland Bar next month.
You’ll have to watch Wednesday night to see how we did, at 7 on Channel 45 WBFF in Baltimore or 7:30 on Channel 7 WJLA in the Washington area. But I caught up with Goodlander last week to reminisce about our experience. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
DJ: Why did you want to be on “Jeopardy!”
EG: I think that every attorney secretly has this desire to be on “Jeopardy!” one day. It could just be me, but when you see the number of attorneys on each year, I think it’s a real high percentage.
DJ: Do you think it helps being an attorney?
EG: No. And I’m so glad they didn’t have a question or a category about law because those are the ones the attorneys always bomb in because we always overthink everything.
DJ: That was my worst nightmare, having a category I should know about, like the Ravens, and miss the question, that would’ve killed me. I think journalists are the same way. I think a lot of us spend every day being an expert on different topics and so we think that we’re just going to go on and know everything.
I’ve wanted to be on [“Jeopardy!”], I think for a while in the back of my mind. I’ve always liked trivia and game shows and news quizzes and filled my mind with a lot of useless information. It was only my girlfriend, now my wife, who pushed me to try out. And when she did that, it kind of all just happened.
DJ: It happened really quickly, too, I was surprised. Did you get the call in September?
EG: I did. It was the best of times it was the worst of times because I was coming into work and getting onto the highway ramp and I rear-ended the car in front of me. And, full disclosure, this has already been adjudicated and everything. So I messed up the front of my car, her car is OK but I can’t move my car and I’m blocking the on-ramp, which makes morning commuters very happy, as I’m sure you can imagine. I’m waiting for the police and tow truck and I’m standing on the side of the road, emailing work “Hey, I’ve been in a car accident and I’m going to be in late.” And my phone rings with a number I don’t know and I think it’s the tow truck and I answer and it’s Glenn [Kagan, a “Jeopardy!” producer]. He’s like, “Hey Emily, it’s Glenn. How’s Baltimore?” And I’m saying, “Baltimore’s great.” I have no idea who Glenn is. And he says, “Are you still available to do “Jeopardy!”? It was really funny.
DJ: Wow, I had kind of a similar… it was actually just a best of times day because we had just closed on our house and so we’re moving in, we just got there, we’re just getting situated. And I get this call from California on my phone. And I’m thinking, “Who is calling me from California?” And it’s “Hi, it’s Corina [Nusu, another “Jeopardy!” producer] you’re going to be on the show.” I was like, “Wow! That’s great!” And I told my wife and she was ecstatic and she called her family but I was like, I want to get moving. I have all of these boxes here, I have to put stuff together, I kind of just forgot about it. I made a couple of calls and then went right back to work.
How was your studying or “studying”?
EG: It’s funny when I think about it because I right now, in addition to working a full work week I’m preparing for the Maryland Bar, which is a lot of studying. And studying for “Jeopardy!” is much more pleasurable. It’s slightly harder because it’s a completely open universe. At least for the Bar exam I know what to expect. But I sort of enjoyed studying. I think I picked out key categories that I thought would come up.
DJ: Did you watch a lot of shows?
EG: I didn’t have time to, which I was sort of… well, I don’t want to say I was upset about. I think watching the show gets you into the rhythm of it and helps you figure out what they’re looking for in the various categories.
DJ: I hadn’t watched much after I did my audition, I mean when it was on I would watch occasionally but I wasn’t glued to the television. Once I found out [I was going to be on], I DVR’d it and got, like the season pass. I was watching every day, taking notes. I was using the remote as a buzzer to try to practice.
EG: That is really smart.
DJ: It didn’t really help but… there was a website that has all these old “Jeopardy!” games catalogued, so I would go on there, during work hours, and play 2-3 games at a time just to, like you said, pick up on hints. A lot of categories repeat themselves, a lot of clues are the same. But I felt like… you can’t really study. You just have to know what you know.
EG: Yeah. You just have to fill your brain with information and take it from there.
DJ: When did it hit you that you were going to be on the show?
EG: Probably when I got on the plane to go to L.A. I had a very, very busy month during September and October, so I was working 60-hour weeks and I didn’t really have time to stress about it or get anxious about it. So I was on the plane to L.A. and had packed some books and things to review and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is tomorrow.”
DJ: – Yeah, when I got on the plane, that was the first time, when I got to the hotel and they said, “You’re here for ‘Jeopardy!’?” and I said, “Yeah, that’s me.” And then the last time was when we walked and saw the stage. It was like, ‘Here we are, this is actually happening.’
EG: Yes, it’s very cool. I kept expecting to show up at the hotel and, “I’m sorry, “Jeopardy!”? We don’t have you on the list for that,” one of those things.
DJ: Were you nervous at all up there?
EG: Once I got to the show? I think it was a bit different for me because I was there Tuesday and of course they pull the names randomly, so you’re in this state of chronic anticipation. [Note: The show tapes five episodes per day, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.] Am I next? Am I next? And then it’s the end of the taping for the day and you haven’t gone. So you have all of this built-up anticipation and then it’s the next day and am I going to next? Am I going to go next? So I think more than anything, rather than being nervous, it was just exciting. It was just fun. I was so ready to get up there and take my turn.
DJ: I felt the anticipation, too. I didn’t want to be on the first show Wednesday, I wanted to be able to at least see a show and… you got a whole day of watching, I wanted to see one and get a feel for it. I felt bad for the people who went on the first taping, that’s got to be rough.
EG: It is rough. And I remember sitting in the audience, because I didn’t know if we would be in the audience or be in the green room during the taping of the show. And I remember being in the audience watching some of these tapings and thinking, “Thank God I’m not on this show.”
EG: Because I know nothing about the history of the Cadillac or one of those categories that was on there.
DJ: What’s the question people have been asking you the most since you got back?
EG: “Oh, can you tell me what happened?”
DJ: I get that and I also get, what’s Alex like?
EG: The “what’s Alex like” definitely. And “Did you meet Alex?” Which I think is a funny question to ask because if you’ve seen the show clearly there is interaction between you and Alex on the show.
What do you think was the most surprising thing to you?
DJ: How fast it went but how slow it went. …When we got up there and they started taping, I was like, “Here we go” and this was my last “This is happening” moment. Once they read the first clue and we started going, I felt better, like, I can do this. And then in the game, I felt like I could read everything and focus and answer and sort of process everything. But when it ended, it felt like it happened in five minutes.
EG: Exactly. I was really surprised by how small the stage was. It looks really massive on TV. The miracles of cameras I guess. I had no idea. I thought there would be a football field between us and the screen with how it looks on TV.
DJ: It can be very low-tech behind the scenes. I also didn’t realize the pedestals behind move up and down. I was always wondering how they get everyone to be the same height.
EG: Yes, I was wondering if they would bring out an apple crate or something since I’m on the shorter side.
DJ: Have you watched since you came back?
EG: I’ve watched a little bit but again I rarely get home in time to watch. But it’s been fun, especially during this past week to see a little bit of the show. Or hear people talk about it because those are the people I was out there with.
DJ: That’s right, you saw two weeks’ worth of shows.
EG: I know everything that happened. I know the person they’re talking about, the stories they’re talking about.
DJ: I have not watched since we were out there. And not because I’m bitter or upset or just – after that day, maybe you experienced this twice, I was so drained. I just wanted to do nothing. I know I saw you afterward and you looked spent as well.
EG: I was ready for a major nap.
DJ: And I had just no interest to watch. So I’ll tape next week because I know, like you said, what happened. So I haven’t watched, haven’t really paid attention. But as we’ve gotten closer, I’ve been getting excited.
EG: I’m really excited to watch because I think I’ve forgotten even the things I even rang into.
DJ: Yeah, I remember certain things but not the full day. Have you gained any newfound appreciation for “Jeopardy!” contestants or the show?
EG: Absolutely. It’s tough. Watching “Jeopardy!” from home, it’s easy to say, “Where did they get these contestants? These people are idiots.” But being able to manage the buzzer very well is a huge, huge deal, and working under that pressure. And for returning champs, too. When you have 10-15 minutes between tapings, that’s exhausting.
DJ: People were asking me before I left, “What’s your buzzer strategy going to be?” kind of half-jokingly, but it really is. You really learn how much of it is about being able to buzz in. I don’t know about you, I felt like I knew the majority of the clues on the board, it was just a matter of being able to get in on time.
EG: I started thinking I should have worked on my thumb reflexes as much as the studying.
DJ: And you’re just kind of at the mercy as to how quick as you buzz. So watching now, I think I’ll understand that a lot of is, not luck, but a little bit of it is luck.
EG: You know, I think that probably when the three of us were finally up there on stage, the three of us shared likely 95 percent of the same knowledge base, and if [the clues] were given to us in the format of a test that we would have achieved probably the same score. It just really comes down to who’s buzzing in the fastest.
DJ: And when I was watching to prepare, I notice the people that were calm did a better job and were able to get their answers out. And watching people now, people that look nervous now I’ll understand why they look nervous. It’s not just flop-sweat. It’s intense.
EG: It’s definitely nerve-wracking. One of my personal strategies – not that it played out much to my advantage necessarily – during the taping was unless it was a Daily Double I didn’t look at the money that was on the board. I think that’s really dangerous. Because once you look up there and you start thinking, “I’m behind by this,” “This person is catching up by this,” I think you psyche yourself out.
DJ: That’s smart. I think I did that subconsciously. …And you have to remember, too, the money is real but it’s not real. You don’t have it yet.
EG: Oh, yeah, it’s the house money. That’s definitely the mindset that I went in with, that this going to be a great, fun experience and I can’t lose anything. Other than my dignity.
DJ: Well I think we both kept it, a little bit.
EG: As long as I was excluded from Final “Jeopardy!” for being in the hole.
DJ: Yes, once we got to Final “Jeopardy!”, I said, “We’re good.”
Has it been hard to keep the results from people?
EG: People have respected it pretty well, and being an attorney I think I’m inherently able to lock bits of information away and don’t have the impetus to shout them from the rooftops. …For me, it hasn’t really been difficult.
When I got home, my mom wanted to know immediately and my dad was on the other side. He wants it to be a completely exciting episode for him.
DJ: Oh, really? He doesn’t know?
EG: Anything, which I think is really fun.
DJ: Good for him. I talked to family after we were done that taping day, and that was really good to get it out. I told a couple people at work because I couldn’t last that long. But after that people have been kind of cool and they understand you can’t talk about it. I think they want to be surprised, too, and see how it goes.
EG: I haven’t told a single soul unless they were in the taping room.
DJ: Have you been invited to a lot trivia nights and quiz competitions by people?
EG: I have, sort of informally… “Emily’s been on “Jeopardy!”, we have to have her on our pub trivia night team.”
DJ: Yeah, I feel like there’s so much pressure on us now to be on these teams, and to win now, too.
EG: The funny part is, ever since the online test commercials have been airing, I’ve been getting random emails and Facebook messages from people I haven’t spoken to in years. [Note: Contestants at Tuesday’s taping filmed a commercial encouraging people to take the “Jeopardy!” online contestant test] …The most frequent response from them, when I tell them that I am [going to be on “Jeopardy!”] is you have officially satisfied what I thought a smart person was in fifth grade.
DJ: A lot of people have told me they figured I would be on the show one day. I think no matter what happens [on the show], a lot of people will say, ‘Wow, that’s so cool, you were on “Jeopardy!”.’
EG: Exactly. Well, if you come in third in the New York Marathon, not too shabby.