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Cheering for my friend on the ‘Jeopardy!’ set

February 3, 2019 GMT

What a thrill to go to California recently to cheer on my friend, Bryan Coyle, on “Jeopardy!”

Out of 80,000 applicants last year, Bryan made it through all the levels of competition to appear as a contestant. I knew it was competitive, although I had no idea what it takes to get on the show.

Bryan is the son-in-law of my best friend since kindergarten, Patty Johnston. For my West Virginia readers, he’s a native of Kearneysville, in the Eastern Panhandle, and went to West Virginia University, where he met his future wife, Caity Frail. They now live in Minneapolis, and Bryan is a high school English teacher and coach of the Quiz Bowl team.

I always knew he was smart. I just didn’t realize how smart!

Stiff competition

For starters, Bryan had to pass the online written test — no easy task. Participants have just 15 seconds to answer a question. Producers then select about 3,000 people from that initial pool to audition for the show. That’s less than 4 percent of the total applicants who have taken the online test. Did I mention how competitive this is?

The next level involves a telephone interview. Upon clearing this hurdle, Bryan moved on. The “Jeopardy!” show flew him to California for a trial run.

After a successful stint with a mock show, Bryan was notified he was in the pool of 400 contestants to actually compete on the “Jeopardy!” show. That’s a 0.5 percentage rate overall!

Culver City, here we come

It was so exciting to hear he’d conquered all the hurdles to qualify as a contestant. And then the waiting began. The show always keeps an adequate number of contestants in the pool. So, Bryan didn’t know if— or when — he would be called.

I made a pact with my friend, Patty, on the day we learned the news that he qualified. I said if he was “called up,” I’d be there to support him. Fast-forward to the day Caity called her mom to say, “We’re going to Culver City!”

Flights and hotels were booked, and we were soon on our way. I’ve been on show sets before, although I didn’t know what to expect with “Jeopardy!” We were seated in a special section for “family and friends,” separate from the studio audience.

World history for 400, Alex

Alex Trebek, the show’s host for the past 34 years, was very engaging on the set and interacted frequently with the audience — entertaining questions during all the breaks. You’d think after all those years he might just want to “chill out.” He has a pretty good sense of humor, too.

The contestants all got a final opportunity to take a turn onstage, try out the microphone and buzzer — and answer some questions.

When the time came for Bryan to take his place at the podium, we could hardly contain ourselves. The “family” cheering section consisted of Patty, Caity, Patty’s husband, Larry Frail and me. We certainly did our share of cheering.

We also got familiar with the other contestants. I felt like I was at a giant Mensa convention!

Study hall

How do you cram for a show that’s just as apt to ask about Harry Potter as the periodic table of elements?

There’s no set pattern. Bryan said contestants need to have a wide breadth of knowledge, and so much hinges on the categories. You never know if you’re going to get Aviation, Zoology, or a hundred categories in between.

Ten topics have appeared more than others: Before & After, Literature, Science, World Origins, American History, State Capitals, World History, Business & Industry, Potpourri and World Geography.

I know Bryan reviewed numerous past shows and countless questions. Caity quizzed him from trivia books, and he attended trivia nights. He also boned up on topics such as world capitals and opera — and strategized heavily about those “Final Jeopardy” wagers.

Another recent contestant, Carrie Blazina, is a copy editor for The Boston Globe and shared her preparation strategies. Carrie took a lot of online quizzes from the website Sporcle, and downloaded a flashcard app to help her memorize important items. “I also studied up on the Bible and Shakespeare,” she noted.

In the beginning

So, how did all this get started? Producer Merv Griffin’s wife, Julann, came up with the concept for the show during a plane trip in 1963. The show debuted a year later.

The first rendition of the show, hosted by Art Fleming, ran from 1964 to 1975. Then it was totally revamped in 1984 and has run for 34 consecutive years. While game shows come and go, “Jeopardy!” has outlasted more than 400 other shows.

That theme song

Who doesn’t know that theme song? All you need to do is hum a few syllables, and everyone gets it. We even hear it played during challenged calls at sporting events.

Fun fact: Merv Griffin actually wrote the song as a lullaby for his son, Tony.

Getting the bus

In terms of strategy, a key component is the buzzer. Obviously, you want to be the first to ring in. You have to wait until Alex completes the question, though.

If you ring in prematurely, you get locked out for a quarter of a second — which is an eternity in “Jeopardy!” land. And you don’t want to be too late, or you’ll miss the boat.

“It’s about reflexes, not speed,” says Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest “Jeopardy!” winning streak. “You have to buzz at the exact second the buzzer goes live.”

Timing is everything. Multiple contestants, including Bryan, shared they knew more answers; they just weren’t the first one with a qualified buzz. Whew — as if the contestants needed any more pressure! And everything can change from the first segment to “Double Jeopardy” and then the “Final Jeopardy” period.

Tune in Wednesday, Feb. 6

Bryan will appear on “Jeopardy!” on Wednesday, Feb. 6. Due to the show’s restrictions, we can’t reveal the final outcome. You’ll have to watch to find out. Suffice it to say we’re proud of Bryan — and the fact that a native West Virginian represented us so well on the national stage.


What an amazing experience! Thanks to Bryan and the Johnston/Frail family, I have another unique experience under my belt.

Patty and I have traveled to all 50 states and many of the continents together; and I continue to learn and grow with each adventure. I also learn something new every time I watch “Jeopardy!”

And I now have an even greater respect for the contestants — knowing each of them is “one in 80,000!”

©2019 Linda Arnold Life 101, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold, M.A., M.B.A.. Is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and founder of a multlstate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at llnda@llndaarnold.org For Information on her books, go to www.llndaarnold.org or Amazon.com.