Whether you are a Jeopardy! aspirant, or just a giant fan, you may have wondered how on Earth a contestant is prepared by the show; I’m not talking about the mondo amount of studying to which a potential player might embark on their own, but what Sony Pictures and the rest of the Jeopardy! production team might have to say to someone who got ‘The Call’ to appear, and how the show itself is put together. I was on the show relatively recently, so allow me to walk you through some common questions that people have.
Is Jeopardy! Scripted?
Yes, of course it is! It’s a television game show, and a very word-heavy one at that, so it has a team of writers putting it together. Each episode needs 61 questions (well, answers) researched and written, and all that knowledge can be considered part of a “script.” As well, the host has notes that contain all the information from the array of answers you see on your TV screen, plus potential talking points to follow up for especially interesting answers/questions. (Additional quips, eye-rolls, and other reactions are improvised, though!).
The host also has notes from the contestants as part of the episode’s script.
What Kind of Notes Would the Host Need From the Contestants?
Talking points for the after-the-first-commercial-break interviews, of course!
When you audition for Jeopardy!, and again when you get ‘The Call’ to appear on the show, you are asked to write down five-to-ten interesting stories, achievements, or other personal (but not THAT personal—this is a family show, after all!) information that might make a fun topic to chat about. (Even after 50+ years in the business, the great Alex Trebek didn’t just come up with the questions off the cuff!)
On the morning of my tape day back in 2019, the production team had narrowed my list of stories to five that would make good television content and made suggestions of the three that they thought would be most suitable. They asked me to rank them in order of preference but told me that the actual final choice would be up to Mr. Trebek at the moment. He did not pick my top choice of story (that I had once starred as a murderous circus tent in a short film), which is fine! How would even a seasoned pro figure out how to spin that into 20 seconds of conversation for a diverse audience across North America? Instead, we chatted about travel, probably his favorite subject, instead (my third choice of story).
The contestants absolutely do not have the luxury of having script notes to refer to, though!
Do Jeopardy! Contestants Get Questions Beforehand?
Oh, wouldn’t that be so simple? No, Jeopardy! contestants absolutely do not get the questions in advance; if they did, the show would be infinitely less challenging, and probably a lot less fun.
Do Jeopardy! Contestants Get a Study Guide?
I wish they did! Or do I? But yeah, no, no one is being issued an official Jeopardy! Study Guide, there are no Cliff’s Notes for Jeopardy! categories, and the show is probably better for that; if everyone was working from the same information, would the game be interesting anymore? It would just be a contest of memorization at that point. Which, sure, Jeopardy! is, to an extent, but it’s not just that.
Aside from a few practice tests, you are not going to get a great deal of pre-game intel from the fine folks at Jeopardy! The beauty of a game like Jeopardy! is that it is challenging at the moment for a variety of reasons; does a contestant know a subject well? Do they know it not expertly, but can (in thirty seconds or fewer) get their brain to find the pathway to the right question AND also hit the signaling device (the official term for what almost everyone else calls a ‘buzzer’) in time/at the right time? Do they not really know it all, like me with ‘Biblical Paintings,’ one of the categories in a Jeopardy! round when I played?
(A lot of viewers LOVE it when Jeopardy! contestants are wrong, especially if they know the answers themselves.)
Does Jeopardy! at Least Give You Topics or Categories to Study?
No again! It’s up to the contestants themselves to figure out what they should study, either by being connaisseurs of the show by watching (and re-watching!) and/or by trolling through J!Archive, and trying to determine which categories come up often, and which ones for which they are least prepared.
Does Jeopardy! Prepare its Contestants?
If you pass the Jeopardy! test and get invited for an in-person try-out, you get to play a mock game with your fellow would-be contestants, so you get a feel for the game (and the production team can get a feel for how you would be on the show, obviously) AND get to try the signaling devices out for the first time. But the mock games only last a few minutes, and in my case, took place in low-stress hotel conference rooms (very different from live in a TV studio! And, yes, I auditioned twice!), so it’s not a hardcore training session.
On the day of the game, you have a few more minutes to practice with the buzzers, and to practice at the podium on set (very nerve-wracking, and, in my case, very early in the morning!) but that’s it! You’re mostly on your own to become a Jeopardy! champion!
So! If you’re looking for a strategy to win on Jeopardy!, there are websites dedicated to the finer points of the game, and the Jeopardy! Reddit community has a lot of insight, too. In the meantime, download Jeopardy! World Tour to play on your phone, try the Jeopardy! test online, check out some of the Jeopardy!-themed board, card, and video games (if you can find them!) available, and keep your mind sharp by quizzing yourself on this very site in categories in which you may not feel strong (yet)! Once you feel ready to take that leap, be sure to also read about what happens if you DO win on Jeopardy! and just how much it is possible to win in a single game. Good luck!