Created by Merv Griffin, the original daytime show made its television debut on NBC 50 years ago Sunday. To mark the milestone, we caught up with four past contestants with Champaign-Urbana ties.
The category: TV game shows.
The clue: This iconic show averages 25 million viewers each week, has won a record 30 Daytime Emmy Awards and counts Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Danica Patrick among its clue presenters.
If you answered, "What is Jeopardy?" you are correct.
Created by Merv Griffin, the original daytime show made its television debut on NBC 50 years ago Sunday. The daily syndicated version, featuring its five-time Emmy-winning host Alex Trebek, rolled out in May 1984.
To mark the milestone, we caught up with four past contestants with Champaign-Urbana ties:
Q: What was your toughest category?
Dr. Bhibha Das: HUD Secretaries.
Dr. Kate Kwiatkowski: My Next Mustache. I don't know if it was the toughest, but (it) was definitely the most memorable. It had pictures of Alex with various mustaches, and you had to identify the style.
Dawn Owens-Nicholson: More Than An Athlete. It was about other activities of famous athletes. I know absolutely nothing about sports.
Q: Your funniest anecdote from the show?
Owens-Nicholson: During a commercial break, Alex made a funny joke about marijuana. The answer to some previous question was "Sea of Grass" and Alex pantomimed taking a hit of marijuana and said "Wow, Sea of Grass, man!" ... Maybe you shouldn't print that.
Das: I ended up getting over 100 Facebook friend requests from strangers after my show aired. It was so bizarre because I never knew people actually took the time and effort to look someone up from TV, especially Jeopardy.
Kwiatkowski: One of my neighbors and I would play Wii Jeopardy often to help me practice. He often joked that if I was ever in doubt as to an answer, I should say "What is Mike Humphrey's mustache?" He even told me that (Humphrey's) mustache was a Fu Manchu. Never in a million years did either of us dream that would ever be an answer, but it was. And I got it wrong. I should have listened to Mike.
Keena Finney: I don't remember anything I got right, but I do remember missing a question. Category: TV action figures. They put up a picture of a figure, and you had to identify the show. I got a few right except the last one. It was the seventh doctor from the BBC's "Doctor Who." What made it memorable is that my then-boyfriend/now-husband is a longtime fan. He was so disappointed I missed that one.
Q: What answer were you proudest of getting right?
Kwiatkowski: Category: American islands. Clue: A wide variety of species inhabit Rhode Island's bird sanctuaries like Prudence Island's in this bay. Answer: What is Narragansett Bay?
I attended (college) in Rhode Island, and my father lives there. I have a lot of affection for that state. Interestingly, I was visiting my dad the week after my episode aired. We were at a bar in Newport actually looking out over Narragansett Bay. The bartender said he was a fan and watched regularly. My father asked, "Did you see the one last week when that one lady got 'Narragansett Bay?'" The bartender had. My father pointed to me and said, "That was her."
Das: Final Jeopardy category in the first game: Word origins. Clue: This word for a friend comes from the Latin "with whom you would eat bread." Answer: What is companion?
Owens-Nicholson: I am very happy and relieved that I got my one Daily Double question correct. Category: Anniversary gifts. Clue: 40th: A "pigeon's blood" is one of these. Answer: What is ruby?
Q: What was your Final Jeopardy question, and what happened?
Das: I was on the show three nights and got all three Final Jeopardy questions correct. First night's wager: $9,201. Second night: Playwrights. For a 1953 play, he spent time in Salem doing research at the courthouse and at the witch house. Answer: Arthur Miller. Wager: $1,979. Third night: U.S. structures. On Dec. 6, 1884, this was capped with a 100-ounce, 9-inch-high pyramid-shaped block of aluminum, a metal that was rare at the time. Answer: the Washington Monument. Wager: $0.
Owens-Nicholson: My question was in the category classical music. Clue: This piece that premiered in Moscow in 1882 includes strains from "God Save the Czar" and "La Marseillaise." I bet $0 because I don't really know anything about classical music, and indeed, I did not know the answer. It was pretty shameful.
Kwiatkowski: I watched from the audience.
Q: Did you win any money?
Das: I won $42,380. I bought a house ... after I paid a lot in taxes to Uncle Sam.
Kwiatkowski: I did the complete opposite of winning. I owed them money at the end. They kindly gave me $1,000 anyway.
Owens-Nicholson: I came in second. I won $2,000. We are saving for a new roof, and it is now part of that fund.
Finney: I made it to the second round and ended up with $5,000. It went for tuition.
Q: Were you nervous before the show?
Das: Of course.
Kwiatkowski: Honestly, not really. I had wanted to be on Jeopardy ever since I was a little girl. I didn't want to waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by being freaked out about it. I just stayed in the moment and took it all in. At the end of the day, I knew I had a good job to go home to and a good story to tell.
Owens-Nicholson: I was super-nervous. Plus, I was just coming down with a cold. Those things together made me pretty delirious.
Finney: Not much. I played Scholastic Bowl in high school, so it wasn't a completely alien experience.
Q: Any clicker problems?
Finney: The system was fine. The worst part was trying to write the Final Jeopardy answer on the screen. I hope they've improved that by now.
Kwiatkowski: I wasn't very good at it. In retrospect, that's what I should have practiced. ... If you know enough to get on the show, you know enough to play the game. But if you can't ring in, it doesn't matter how much you know.
Owens-Nicholson: The clicker was very heavy (for me) and I could not really wrangle it one-handed. It took me a while to find a rhythm. Managing the clicker is the key to Jeopardy because most contestants know most of the answers. It is a matter of buzzing in first.
Q: What's Alex like?
Das: Alex is a funny man who tries to make the experience wonderful for all the contestants. He realizes this is a lifelong dream for many people, so he does his best to make sure the experience is good for everyone.
Kwiatkowski: He seemed like a nice, genuine guy who really enjoys his job. He had some nice things to say to me at the end of the show. I think he appreciated that I didn't quit trying to come back.
Owens-Nicholson: Funny, warm and delightful.
Finney: He was pleasant. He didn't really interact with us aside from right when we were recording the shows.
Q: What's your single-best piece of advice for future contestants?
Owens-Nicholson: Study — especially areas you hate, like sports and classical music.
Das: Watch the show every night. Practice, practice, practice and have fun. The experience goes by in the blink of an eye.
Kwiatkowski: Practice clicking.
Q: Do you still watch the show?
Das: Honestly, I rarely watch Jeopardy any more. When I'm back in central Illinois, my parents watch it so I watch it with them.
Kwiatkowski: Practically never as it comes on while I'm still at work. Near Philadelphia, where I grew up, it was on at 7 p.m. That's a much more civilized time.
Owens-Nicholson: I don't watch Jeopardy very often because I do not have a DVR, and it airs during my work hours. But I always read the transcribed questions on j-archive.com.