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Five students may join the ranks of Carls on “Jeopardy!”

“Minnesota’s Northfield College got this name in 1871, honoring a benefactor.”  If you answered, “What is Carleton?,” you would be correct, the college is named after William Carleton, who donated $50,000 when the school faced serious financial challenges.  This question appeared in the Double Jeopardy! round on the July 3, 2014 airing of the show. 

Several Carleton students—including Nicole Collins ’22, Athena Brooks ’22, Liora Newman ’23, Mei Knudson ’21, and Stevie Fitch ’21—are currently in the running for the Jeopardy! College Championships. All of the students described the same timeline: they took the initial test in the fall, received an email in December saying they had passed, and took the second test shortly after via Zoom.  Now, they are either waiting or have already heard back that they advanced.

Liora Newman took the college test for the first time last year, though she didn’t make it past the initial round. She said, “I’m still subscribed to their newsletter from last year, so when I got a notification that this year’s test was open, I was eager to take it again.”

Newman said, “It’s so exciting and I’m incredibly grateful to have even made it past the first round, which is honestly more than I expected.  If I may geek out for a moment, being on the show would be an absolute dream.  I’ve always been someone that stores a lot of random knowledge in my brain and it would be great to have more of a use for it.”

When the Carletonian spoke to Nicole Collins, she had just received the news that she was moving on to the third round of auditions.  Thinking about competing on the show, Collins said, “I was telling my family I want to be super risky, I want to make a bunch of funny comments, I want to be, you know, the life of the party,” but acknowledged that in reality, she’ll probably get nervous onstage. 

Collins followed up to say, “One thing that has been stressing me out a lot is the potential for transphobia and a Jeopardy appearance.” Since she had never been on a national broadcast before, Collins is worried about how online communities will react. 

Athena Brooks, another Carl in the running, said, “I think everyone at Carleton should at least do it once because people think that Jeopardy is super hard. But the college one I think is pretty doable if you regularly study and know current events and stuff like that.” Mei Knudson reported that she and Stevie Fitch are both currently waiting to see if they will get an offer to move on to the third round.

Jeopardy! is not only America’s favorite quiz show, but also a Carleton favorite. Over the years, a number of Carls – including Rush Holt ’70 and Jonathan Capehart ’89 – have appeared on Jeopardy! either in the college division or as adults.  

Today, anyone can log on to Jeopardy.com and take the Jeopardy! Anytime Test or the college test.  Either online test only takes around 15 minutes, and you are given only 15 seconds to type an answer to each of 50 different clues.  Since the online test was only released in February of last year, many alumni did not yet have access to this online option when they competed –  instead, they lined up in gymnasiums, at nearby universities, and at the Mall of America to test their trivia chops. 

Carleton archivist Eric Hilleman was one of those people in line at the Mall of America in 1999.  He explained that, among those trying out, some come from more “traditional” backgrounds, meaning that they were already involved in quiz-related groups.  Hilleman, a long-time quiz competitor himself, said, “Quite a few of the people who are Carleton folk who have been on Jeopardy were also players on the academic quiz team, which for 20 years I coached.  And so, in fact, a bunch of us auditioned together or took the test together.”

While Hilleman was the coach, the Carleton academic quiz team won two undergraduate national championships and were paid a visit by Ken Jennings – the record holder for the longest Jeopardy! winning streak at 74 consecutive games, who was a fierce academic quiz team participant as well.  

Whether at the Mall of America or online, if you pass this first test, you are then placed into a random selection pool for a live audition – being held on Zoom this year.  The emphasis of this second portion is not contestants’ knowledge, but rather their on-camera presence and sociability.  Sam Kavanaugh ’13, who won five straight games on Jeopardy!, said, “that audition is the deciding factor if they want you, which is basically like, do you have a personality and will [you] crack under pressure?” 

“It’s an entertainment show, so they’re going to take who they want to have on camera. So they’re watching you to see how you handle yourself,” Hilleman added.  Assuming you perform well at this audition, you are placed into the contestant pool and could be invited to compete at any time, up to 18 months from your audition date.  

Kavanaugh was in Australia, visiting family for the first time since he was a teenager, when he got the call.  He said, “I was on a one-day camping trip in the bush, and looked at my phone and I’d missed a call because it wasn’t great cell service, and was like, ‘Who the hell is calling from California?’, got the message like, ‘Hey, this is Jeopardy!, we’re trying to get ahold of you.’”  A few weeks later, he flew out to Los Angeles – an expense not covered by Jeopardy! – to compete on the show.  

When Kavanaugh first arrived, there were all kinds of precautions.  For starters, you can’t be on the show with anybody that you happen to know beforehand, and longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek never interacted with contestants prior to the live show.  Kavanaugh said, “You don’t meet Alex until you see it on TV.  They completely have you sequestered.  I mean he’s busy doing stuff, but also […] they can’t have any even looks of impropriety. He can’t be playing favorites or anything like that.”

According to alumni, the hardest on screen challenge  may actually be the buzzer.  Hilleman said, “Most Jeopardy questions, all three players know the answer – the majority of them. And the trick is timing.”

He added, “If you wait even a beat too long, someone else has already buzzed. And if you do it too soon, there’s a penalty – you’re frozen out for a full second or two.”  This is why you often see contestants repeatedly pressing their buzzers on the show.

One more strange fact: Jeopardy! usually tapes five shows in the course of a day, but on screen they look like separate days of the week.  Hilleman explained, “they make it seem like they’re different days. Because if you win, you go back and change your outfit – because you’re supposed to bring several changes of clothes – and Alex changes his outfit, and you’re back. Fifteen minutes after winning my game, I started my second game. I didn’t have any time to savor it.”  

For Felicity Flesher ’14, competing on the show was a lifelong dream come true – she even had a “little printed picture of mustache-era Trebek” in her first-year dorm room in Nourse.  She got the chance to meet Trebek during one of his last shows on air. 

Though Jeopardy is a dream experience, many alums are also haunted by the exact moment that they made an error.  During Final Jeopardy!, Flesher said, “I even guessed and started singing the song in my head before Alex read the question, but I could not for the life of me remember the title ‘Shallow’ from ‘A Star is Born.’  I will never forgive Gaga.  Think of more memorable titles, girl!  I shouldn’t have wagered so much, but that’s one of the regrets I’ll have to live with.”

If they won a game, these alums also came away with some winnings.  Kavanaugh said, “I was working at an education nonprofit, like this was a life changing amount of money.  Suddenly it’s like, I don’t have any debt anymore. That was huge. I got laser eye surgery.”  But ultimately, for many contestants, it’s not about the money.  “Don’t tell the studio this: I would play for free,” Kavanaugh added.

The passion for trivia in the Carleton community reaches far beyond the end of the show.  Noah Tarnow ‘97  now runs the Big Quiz Thing, a quiz events company that hosts “pub quiz” style games.  He is set to host Carleton’s 21st Annual Nationwide Trivia! event virtually on February 13 for those who want to test their knowledge against Jeopardy! veterans.

The current student contestants said they are excited for their chance to represent Carleton on the Jeopardy! stage. If any of these students appear in the College Championships, they will be wearing a Carleton sweatshirt.  Collins said, “It would be very cool to have the Carleton name on Jeopardy! Whether it’s me or other people, I just want more people in this country to know what Carleton is, and I feel like Jeopardy is a great method.”

Correction: Feb. 3, 2021 – An earlier version of this article did not include information about Mei Knudson and Stevie Fitch.

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