Underestimating us Southerners can put you in Jeopardy.
This is something you’ll never hear a Southerner say.
What is “I’ll take ‘Shakespeare for a thousand, Alex.”
Don’t look at me like that: some people doubt the intellect of anyone with the slightest twang in their voice or who hails from anywhere south of Brooklyn. That’s why, in certain situations, I’ve been known to crank my accent up to George Jones: it makes people underestimate you and gives you a tactical advantage.
That’s also why, when watching Jeopardy!, I root for the Southernest contestant on the show.
If there are no Southerners, I go by profession. Journalists usually get my support, which is why I was stunned to learn, after the recent death of the show’s host, Alex Trebek, that two former colleagues were contestants on the show.
Former News & Observer editors Rob Waters and Pam Nelson appeared in 1989 and 2010, respectively.
I marvel not just at the intellect both obviously possess to have made it onto the show, but at the modesty, too. I worked with both for more than a decade and only learned third- or –fourth-hand that they’d been on the show.
Me? Any time some smart-alecky reporter or columnist questioned my editing decisions, I’d have haughtily replied “You know I was on Jeopardy!, right?
I called and asked them the two questions everyone asks a Jeopardy! contestant:
Did you win?
What’s Alex like?
To the first question, no, they didn’t win. To the second, Waters said “I spent about as much time with him as you did. Keep in mind: it was a long time ago, and Alex wasn’t yet Alex” – the icon he’s since become.
Nor did Nelson hobnob with the best Canadian export since bacon. No, better than their bacon.
“They limited time with him because he was very busy with everything he had to do,” she said. “They assign you a contestant coordinator, and that’s the person you interact with more than anybody else. It’s just like they show on television: he comes over and asks a question” and chats.
Several years ago, when Jeopardy! was in Raleigh auditioning contestants, senior coordinator Glenn Kagan told me “No matter what Alex says to you, just respond ‘That’s right, Alex.’” That led to me imagining this scenario:
Alex: So, Barry, I hear you hiked the Adirondacks barefoot while gnawing on a pickled pig’s foot.
Me: Uh, that’s right, Alex.
For decades, we in North Carolina could be forgiven for thinking the only response to “This is the toughest job in the world” was “What is coaching the UNC basketball team after Dean Smith, Alex.”
In the next few weeks, we’ll discover that hosting Jeopardy after Alex Trebek is no slam dunk, either.
“When I played,” Nelson said, “I was little bit rattled at first because I missed a couple of answers. But then there was a break, and one of the contestant coordinators came up and helped me calm down. Once I got back into it, got a couple of responses right, I settled down.”
Did she ever: she closed fast and answered correctly on Final Jeopardy, but came up short.
“Mostly, it was just a lot of fun,” she said. “Once you get started, you don’t think about the audience or the millions of people” watching and critiquing you.
I started watching Jeopardy! with my granddaddy back when Art Fleming was host and Don Pardo gave the losers some Turtle Wax or a Jeopardy! home version.
It’s unlikely either of us – my 82-year-old granddaddy in his rocking chair, my five- or six-year-old self seated on the floor, between his feet - got any correct responses, but I got memories that have warmed me for more than 50 years.
Now just imagine the memories if I’d been a contestant.
Oh, that’s right: you wouldn’t have to imagine, because I’d tell you.