By MIKE CHAIKEN
When the New Year rolls around, fans of the classic game show, “Jeopardy,” will find out if a resident of central Connecticut will take home the big prize.
Sean Link of Terryville competed on the quiz show earlier this year. And his run toward the big prize airs next month.
But just don’t ask him how he did.
It’s a secret until January.
When someone asks Sean how he did, he said via email from his home in Washington D.C., “I was told to strongly encourage that someone (should) watch the show, starting Friday, Jan. 25. Other than that, my lips are sealed— unless I want to lose my winnings.”
Sean’s arrival on “Jeopardy’s” soundstage took a pretty innocuous path.
“They host a 50-question online test once a year (usually around mid-January) that I’ve taken for a few years now – mostly just for fun, not actually expecting to be selected,” said Sean, a 2006 graduate of Terryville High School. “The contestant crew contacted me a month or so after this year’s test and invited me to move on to the next stage of the audition process.”
Taking the test was his way of getting his foot in the door “Jeopardy,” one of his favorite shows, explained Sean, 24. “‘Jeopardy’ has been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember growing up – after homework and dinner, my family and I would always sit down and watch ‘Jeopardy’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ and I wanted to see how I would fare trying out the real thing.”
And Sean said there was another motivation for Sean’s venture. “I have a mild obsession with the Saturday Night Live ‘Celebrity Jeopardy’ skits.”
“I’m a total nerd at heart, so I’ve always been a huge fan,” said Sean. “The show has been running for 29 seasons now, and has become a big part of our culture – from the theme song, to ‘Jeopardy’-style games in the classroom, to answering in the form of a question – so being a contestant just seemed like a fun challenge and a great way to test my trivia knowledge and recall speed. I think it gets an image as a serious and even stuffy program, but it’s actually pretty exciting and even humorous at its best moments as you’re trying to piece together a question like a puzzle while racing the clock and your fellow competitors.’
Asked to go into greater detail about his path to rubbing elbows with “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek, Sean said the first step is the 50 question online test. (Sean encouraged anyone to give the test a go. “You might be surprised how much you know.”)
Once the results are in, Sean said the team at “Jeopardy” invites people in for in-person auditions in cities across the country. At these in-person events, Sean said you take another test and you compete against other potential cotnestants.”
“I did this in April down in DC,” said Sean, who works in the city as an operations and communications coordinator for SMYAL, a non-profit community center for the DC metro area’s LGBTQ youth. “From there, you are placed into a pool of potential contestants and told that you may be called at any time in the next 18 months to come out to (Los Angeles) and film.”
“If you don’t hear anything after 18 months,” said Sean. “You can always try out again.”
Sean, who has a bachelor’s degree in history and international relations from Boston University, didn’t have to worry about trying out again because he made the cut.
When he heard that he was being given a chance to appear on “Jeopardy,” Sean said his reaction was “total disbelief, at first. I remember staying really calm and composed while on the phone with the contestant coordinator, then hanging up, realizing what had just happened, and literally jumping for joy around my office.”
Once he was picked, there really wasn’t much Sean had to do other than show up for the game. “There isn’t much preparation at all on the part of the show,” said Sean. “You have to fill out a few release forms and share a whole bunch of stories with the contestant coordinators so that they can choose a few leads for Alex Trebek to follow during the contestant interviews.”
Sean added, “You actually don’t have too much time to prepare – I had just under a month between getting the call and the actual film date and went into complete study mode – reading books of facts and questions, going to trivia nights around town, and working out my buzzer finger.
“It paid off a bit,” said Sean, coyly, “but in the end, it’s impossible to know exactly what topics will come up on the show.”
Then on the day of the show, “They tour us around, go through the flow of everything, send us for some light make-up, and even bring us up to the podiums to do a few practice rounds of questions before the real games begin.”
Being on “Jeopardy,” Sean, of course, was able to meet the legendary quizmaster himself, Alex Trebek.
“Alex is fantastic,” said Sea. “We contestants don’t get too much time with Alex – before the tapings he is rehearsing while we are getting made-up and prepped in the green room.”
“He has a very serious, almost know-it-all persona when he’s on camera,” said Sean. “But it was very interesting to see that break down a bit when he was answering questions from the audience during commercial breaks and in our small contestant powwow at the end.”
“My favorite moment of the day was when an audience member asked whether Sean Connery (of ‘Saturday Night Live’s,’ ‘Celebrity Jeopardy’ fame) would ever be on the program and Alex Trebek absolutely refused,” said Sean. “(Trebek) later told the other two contestants and me that someone had actually found out his home phone number and began prank calling him at all hours of the day using an SNL Sean Connery impression. That story definitely humanized him a bit, and made me remember that this TV institution is still a person, too.”
When it came time to play, Sean said, “It was so exciting – my heart began racing. I didn’t have much time to register that, though, because I had to put all of my focus into the game – it seems to move so much faster when you’re in it and you don’t want to fall behind.”
“The interesting part of filming is that they actually tape five episodes per day (an entire week’s worth) only two days per week,” explained Sean of the “Jeopardy” production process. “Since I ended up being selected for Friday’s episode, I actually had the chance to watch four whole games before it was my time to play, and that helped me to feel more relaxed and comfortable with the game pace and studio atmosphere.”
In terms of what was the most difficult part of competing, Sean said it “was buzzing in. You have to wait until Alex finishes reading the entire question and you get locked out for a fraction of a second if you jump the gun.”
Plus, another difficult aspect was what you’d expect. Sean said, “I’d say that all three contestants knew the answer to probably 75% of the questions, so it was all about getting the timing just right if you wanted to come away with the points.”
And how did he get along with his fellow contestants? “We all got along really well, actually.”
Sean explained, “I had expected everyone to be super-competitive, snooty intellectuals, but that wasn’t the case at all. The group of 11 contestants I met were all indeed smart, but also very friendly and enjoyable to be around – you would never have even thought that we were about to go head-to-head with one another. I even ran into a few of the contestants around the hotel and the city of Los Angeles later in my stay and we stopped to chat for a bit.”
The staff of “Jeopardy,” said Sean, “(looks) for people with entertaining personalities and endearing stories when auditioning contestants, and it definitely showed with my group. “
Looking back on the experience, said Sean, “ I had such a great time – the whole taping felt less like a game show and more like just a game. A lot of that was due to the attitude of my fellow contestants and the amazing contestant coordinators, who kept us excited and continually reminded us to go out there and have fun, rather than stressing out. It worked – I was much calmer and more focused during game play than I had expected. Being on the set was totally surreal; it looks just like you see on the show (except, of course, with the audience and the crew back behind the cameras) and it blew my mind that I was really there. I wish I could go back and do it again.”
With the days ticking down till everyone finds out how he did, Sean said, “The hardest part is definitely trying to politely redirect the conversation when my friends try to figure out how I did on the show so that I don’t give anything away.”
“Also,” said Sean. “ it’s a bit frustrating to come across something that I didn’t know or couldn’t remember in time when it came up on the show and think, ‘If only I’d seen that a month ago.’”
Sean Link’s first appearance on “Jeopardy” will be Jan. 25. “Jeopardy” is aired locally on WTNH, Channel 8, at 7 p.m.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver. com.
By MIKE CHAIKEN