Culture

Writer Neal Pollack On His Dreamlike ‘Jeopardy!’ Odyssey

Culture

Writer Neal Pollack On His Dreamlike ‘Jeopardy!’ Odyssey

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Last week, noted author, certified yoga instructor, punk band frontman, part-time luxury-car test driver, and self-proclaimed Alternadad Neal Pollack added three-time Jeopardy! champion to his eclectic resume. For his legion of fans, Pollack’s run on the grand poobah of all quiz shows was a thrilling week of come-from-behind victories, punctuated with the outbursts of bravado we’ve come to expect from the man who once called himself “The Greatest Living American Writer.” Pollack’s magical run eventually came to an end on his fourth go around, when he met his match in the form of L.A.-based screenwriter-slash-net-artist Sarah Zucker, who along with Pollack added an unexpected element of cool to a show that often feels like a refuge for poindexters. When we spoke to Pollack about his whirlwind experience earlier this week, the Austin-based writer was still riding the high of three straight wins, 62 grand in cold hard cash, and the satisfaction of finally being able to say, “Let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex,” and mean it. This is his story.

Congratulations on being a three-time Jeopardy! champion. How does this rank in terms of all-time greatest achievements, keeping in mind that you’ve had several books published?
My first book was published 13 years ago, so that initial thrill is gone, of course, while the Jeopardy! buzz is still freshly ringing in my ears. But I would have to say they’re roughly equivalent. Both represent life-long dreams. I’m deeply fortunate to have lived them both so fully and so satisfyingly. I am a lucky bastard.

How long ago did you shoot the episodes?
Well first of all, those were all taped within a five hour period. So I had a bag full of clothes and I would win a game and then come off stage, take a piss, put on a clean shirt without sweat stains under the pits, and head right back out there into the arena against two new opponents. It was a total grind.

So they don’t film the shows one day after another?
They film five a day, two days a week. When you see someone win five games, they either win five in a row on one day, or they’re splitting them up among two days.

So they tell you to bring five changes of clothing?
It’s awfully ambitious to bring five changes of clothing because most people are one and done just by the nature of how the show works. I went in there intending to play more than once, as everybody does, but I had five changes of clothing in my bag. I had come all this way and I intended to wear everyone of those shirts.

How long was the entire shooting process?
Well first of all, I had to sit through an entire day of shows taping, without them calling my number. Then I had to sit through another one the second day before they finally said, “You’re in.” But I knew I was going to make it in, I just didn’t know when, or against who. I just had to be ready.

Who makes up the studio audience?
There’s a mix. There’s about a hundred or so people who wait in line to watch a TV show being filmed, and then every contestant gets up to six family members or friends. There’s no potential contestants. It’s not like The Price is Right. If you’re called and you’re brought in, you’re brought in to be on the show.

Had you always wanted to be on Jeopardy!?
I can’t say that I always wanted to be on Jeopardy!. I certainly have watched the show on and off ever since the Trebek era started 30 years ago, but starting in 2000 I started participating in pub trivia contests, which is a big hobby and a big sport, and I was really good at it. I started thinking, Man, this could be my sport! There’s no way to prove your mettle in the sport that is more concrete than Jeopardy!. There are other quiz shows where you can win more money, but none of them are as hard or validating as Jeopardy!.

How did you become so filled with facts?
I’ve always been a Trivial Pursuit shark, ever since I was a kid. It’s not like I couldn’t be beaten, but I would generally knock people down pretty hard. I was always a big reader of encyclopedias and almanacs, and I always had this voracious thirst for knowledge. I don’t even really consider it trivia. Most of it is just knowledge, knowing about history, knowing about literature, knowing about geography. These are just things that an educated person should know about.

So when did it occur to you that you should audition?
I’d always sort of thought about it in the back of my mind that I should do it, and my friend John Erler who’s a comedian and a deejay here in Austin was on it last year. He posted on his Facebook feed one day that there was going to be an online Jeopardy! test, so I thought, ‘Alright, what the hell, I’ll take it.” I didn’t study, I didn’t work at it, I just went on the site when they told me to and I took the test, and it was easy for me. I didn’t know everything  but I knew a lot.

Was it multiple choice?
No, you have twelve seconds to type in the answer.

So there’s no time to cheat.
You would have to have someone behind you with an iPad. It could happen.

But you’d be exposed sooner or later.
You’d be exposed. If you have to cheat to get on Jeopardy! then you’re going to look like a total ass if you somehow make it through the process. But there’s a lot of filters to keep that from happening. So basically, I took the test and a few weeks later got an email from one of the contestant coordinators inviting me to a regional audition, which was in San Antonio, an 80 mile drive from my house. Basically what happens is you get 100,000 people a year who take the online test, and of those 100,000 they contact 2000 for the regional audition, so I was in the top two percent.

What happened in San Antonio?
You do a written test with about 50 questions or so, then they had us play a mock game with a mock up of the buzzer and the board, and then they did a personality interview with us, just to see how we would be on camera.

So personality does matter?
You have to be smart to be on the game, but you don’t have to be the smartest. There’s a combination of being smart and also having a personality that is decent for television.

Do you think your position as a well-known writer and personality worked to your advantage?
Absolutely. I have a thoroughly interesting backstory. I don’t mean to brag, my life is my life, but I wasn’t going to pretend to be boring just for humility’s sake. I was trying to get on television! You want to make yourself as interesting as possible, and I happen to have a lot going on. I’m like, Hey, I’m a novelist, yoga teacher, I test-drive race cars. I played it up. Why not? It’s all true. Sure enough they called me in June and in August I was on Jeopardy!.

Did they fly you to California?
No, we had to pay our own way, and pay for our own hotel. They give you a hotel discount, but you pay your own way.

Did you  study in the months leading up to the show?
Yes, I went at it pretty hard. I reviewed old episodes and saw what kind of clues they were offering and got a sense of the patterns of the show. The clues are worded in a certain way, so I studied that diction, and I got a sense of what they were actually interested in having contestants know, because they’re always going throw you curveballs. There was a category about Buzzfeed when I played.

What’s the green room situation like before taping?
There’s a green room where the contestant pool for the day gathers, kind of like a sequestered jury, where we have to fill out paper and do a bunch or preparatory stuff. We get a little lecture about what it’s going to be like on the show, and then we get a short practice session on the buzzer.

Speaking of the buzzer, often times on television it looks like contestants are just hammering away on it, and the person selected to answer
feels arbitrary or random.
No, it’s not arbitrary. It’s a timing mechanism. If you buzz in too early, you’re too early, if you buzz in too late, you’re too late. I mean, everybody knows almost all the answers. It’s a matter of rhythm and timing and being in the zone. In my first game I knew all the answers but I didn’t have the timing down yet, so I had to gradually figure it out.

Was that frustrating?
It was really frustrating. It was terrifying. I was like, Oh my god, I’m dying up here. It’s not happening. I just kept thinking, I cannot come all this way and lose.

Did the idea of winning feel daunting?
I was confident. I knew I could do it. I knew I had the knowledge base, I knew I had the mental fortitude, I knew I was in good enough physical shape to stand up there for a few hours. But once the game started I was like, Oh shit. I am going to lose, and I’m going to lose badly.

I know you’ve done television before, but did being on national TV freak you out at all?
I don’t care. I like being on TV. Being on TV is fun. What a treat. It was more the idea of losing that bothered me. I tried to be zen about it, I tried to to say, Whatever happens, happens. But that’s easy to say if you win. A lot of people who became good friends of mine in The Thunderdome walked away with nothing.

So you became good friends with the other contestants?
Oh yeah. It’s like you’re thrown into battle together, and you have this experience that very few people get to share. It’s very physically and emotionally intense. Some people respond to it by retreating and not talking to anybody again, but a lot of the people I was on with I’m Facebook friends with now. We shared something together that can’t be taken away. Yes it was great to win $62,000, don’t get me wrong, but the friendships I made on the show are something that mean a lot to me.

What was your relationship like with Alex?
You’re not allowed to interact with Alex except when you’re in the field of play. Because of federal law, anyone who has any knowledge of the questions is not allowed to interact with the contestants. You have to form this relationship with Alex in the field of play, and that makes for a very awkward situation, because he’s not there to be your friend. He’s there to preside over the madness.

It seemed like you guys had a pretty good report.
He’s comfortable on TV, I’m comfortable on TV, so we were able to do it. I don’t know if we would be drinking buddies, but I have enormous respect for Alex Trebek. He just does his job so well, and he does it with such wit and skill, that you just have to admire him. I can’t think of anyone else on earth that can do that job that well. There’s no replacing him. Even if he and I aesthetically may not match up, to have stood there with him, and gone toe to toe with him is just such a privilege.

It sounds like a pretty surreal experience.
Oh man, it felt like I was living in a dream. When I actually said, Let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex, I really said that! I really fucking said that! I stood there, with all my money, and I said that. It happened. That wasn’t a dream!

And you have the tape to prove it.
I have the money to prove it!

Speaking of the money, how much winning was about personal pride, and how much of it was you thinking, Hey I could really use this Money?
If you really need money, going on a game show to try and win it is not the best way to go about it. Yeah, I wanted to win some cash, but I didn’t win that much in the big picture. That money will one day go away. It’s not like I won a million dollars.

When do you get to see the money?
They’re going to mail it to me in January. Again, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because god knows, I’m not going to look $62,000 in the mouth and say that’s not a lot of money, because it is. It’s a tremendous amount of money for me to get, particularly at one time. That’s a big freaking cheque to receive for going and answering questions on television for 5 hours. It’s a really nice boost, but it’s not like I’m going to live off of it for the rest of my life, right? Hopefully my wife and I will be able to take that money and use it on a down payment on a little house that we can call our own. That would be nice. That’s all I ask, a modest little house. The house that Jeopardy! built.

I found it so poetic that you lost to someone like Sarah Zucker who’s not only a Northwestern alum, but also one could argue that she’s cut from the same cloth as you. Was that a bit freaky?
I lost to my younger female doppelganger. Very weird. It’s not like she was the only person who could’ve beaten me, but it takes a lot to out professional hipster me, and she did it. She didn’t win a lot of money doing it, but man, she beat me and I have so much respect for her, and we’re friends now. Real friends. And it’s nice to have so much respect for someone who you shared something so weird with.

Do you plan on writing about your experience at all?
I’ve got some ideas, for sure. It would be out of character for me to do something like this and not write about it. And also it’s just an outstandingly weird, deep, and emotional experience, and in some ways I chased a dream, and I succeeded, and that’s a very universal story, and universal desire, and I hope it encourages other people to do the same thing. It happens. I’m not the only person this has ever happened to. People go on Jeopardy! and win money, and it’s something that I’ll have for the rest of my life and I’m so grateful for it.