January 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.
That 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.
“Congratulations!”, a producer said on the other line. “You’re going to be a contestant on Jeopardy!”
I grinned, I cackled. I texted my brother Mark with, “I’M OFF TO TREBEKISTAN, MORTAL.”
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.
Getting 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.
So 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.
Contestants 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.
I 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.
After 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 me.
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.
Andrew 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.
In 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 life.
I 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!
Here’s 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 hours.
You may also find Louis Virtel on Twitter.