How One Jeopardy! Contestant’s Experience Lead to an Unforgettable Viral Moment
15, 2015 was poised to be magical. It was the day of the Oscar nominations,
a.k.a. The Real Christmas. My pals Chris, Tony, Gus, and I woke at 5:30 for the
big announcement and huddled in our jammies like Clement Moore characters. As
nominations were read, we screamed for the goodies that Academy Santa had
brought us. “A surprise nomination for Marion Cotillard! You shouldn’t have,
Santa!” I hollered. A holy morning.
afternoon I was coasting on Cotillard zealotry when I noticed a missed call from
Culver City. Culver City! I saw Ken Jennings give an interview once where he
mentioned that when Jeopardy! producers phone him, it’s from a Culver City
number. I knew this was my time.
a producer said on the other line. “You’re going to be a contestant on Jeopardy!”
grinned, I cackled. I texted my brother Mark with “I’M OFF TO TREBEKISTAN,
Jeopardy! has been my favorite TV show for as long as I can
remember. It rewards the three things I care about: reflexes, knowledge, and
competitiveness. I call it “Bad Girls Club” for nerds. Just showoffs going nuts
and bludgeoning each other with trivia about word origins.
on Jeopardy! means acknowledging your trivia blind spots – and fast. I
needed to cram factoids on classical music, economics, and sports ending in
“ball.” Weights and measures. Carpentry. Opera. Military everything. Why do
people know so much about the military? The army dresses that way so you don’t
notice them, guys.
I rallied. I coaxed my comrades to play Wii Jeopardy! against me. My friend
Nick made flashcards with horrible things like “1 hectare = 2.47 acres” on
them. My mom mailed over a gigantic timeline of classical music history and
assured me that Beethoven’s 7th rules. By the date of my tape day, I could
recite a list of Super Bowl MVPs and tell you what plagued Schumann. Plus, I
bought a puce suit from J. Lindeberg that made me look like a superfly British
game show host. I felt qualified.
on Jeopardy! arrive early. I wiled away the morning of February 25 signing
papers and asking nice strangers to fix my tie. When we all introduced
ourselves, one of the other contestants glanced at me and said, “Wait, Louis
Virtel. From Twitter?” Damn. My competition knew my 140-character Cate
Blanchett jokes. I was unprepared for that subterfuge.
noticed during rehearsal games that it’s almost random who has buzzer luck. A
lady named Mary Green trounced me on the buzzer five questions in a row, and it
didn’t bother me. I knew my nervous energy would serve me well during an actual
game. What did bother me was when a contestant coordinator pointed at me and
said, “Louis! You’re playing now.” I’d been so focused on rehearsal practice
that I’d forgotten to be terrified for the actual game.
a quick check in the mirror, where I coerced my hair into its traditional Cool
Whip dollop, I took the third podium. A new champ named Andrew Haringer
reigned, and Mary Green – that renowned buzzer warrior – was also up against
While Johnny Gilbert read my name, I snapped my fingers at the camera as a
little shout-out to my fellow LGBT vixens watching at home. To my surprise,
Alex stepped out onstage afterwards and mimicked my snap, adding, “That’s for
you, Louis!” I honestly believe he saved entire villages of gay children with
that gesture. It was so rad and funny and unexpected. I laughed to myself about
it until the first round categories were revealed, and “NASCAR” was one of
them. Then my laughter stopped for eternity.
cruised through the first round with sweet buzzer elan, racking up $12K. I
did well on the “First Ladies by First Names” category and got to say the words
“Lemonade Lucy Hayes” on national TV, which felt naughty. Better yet, I got to
entertain Alex with my anecdote about interviewing the most electrifying
actress of the 1970s – Jane Fonda. Have you seen “The China Syndrome” recently?
Survive Jane’s sorcery. I dare you.
Double Jeopardy!, I started to rebound a bit and plucked a Daily Double in the
Arthur Miller category. Andrew was ahead by $6,000, so I decided to wager most
of my money. Once the clue was revealed, the first word I saw was “Salem” and
my heart, soul, and neurons leapt. Let’s face it, a $1,600 clue about Arthur
Miller could be pretty tough – certainly tougher than a reference to
“The Crucible.” For whatever reason, it wasn’t. I answered correctly and in a
burst of saucy, hasty relief, I snapped my fingers again. This time it was a
seismic burst of middle child angst. It was a “Yes, I do recall the
Oscar nominations of Joan Allen!” snap. It was a “Yes, I love witches who dance
on a Sunday!” snap. It was heaven. The internet turned it into a meme that
George Takei found, and I plan on being ecstatic about that for the rest of my
want to tell you that the rest of the game isn’t important, but that’s only
because Andrew Haringer got the Final Jeopardy! question right about the Tower
of London and I didn’t. Yep, he won. I’d be resentful, except here’s the thing
about Jeopardy!: it burns to lose, but it felt – um – good to learn
something about the Tower of London. Not kidding! Information is the true
currency of Jeopardy! fans, and adding to one’s own trivia bank is a serious,
consummate pleasure, even when it means you lose Jeopardy!
what I take from my Jeopardy! experience: I did it, I loved it, and I got to
be myself doing it. As the gay kids say, I was living. Jeopardy! is
forever my trivia HQ, and I’m exhilarated I got to make the hajj to Trebekistan.
Now I can search GIFs of myself whenever I want to revisit that trek – right
after I read about the Best Supporting Actress race of 1977 for a few more