What Is…the Experience of a Lifetime? By Keli Tianga
Though Daniel Oxman doesn’t recall not knowing about Jeopardy – he remembers it being on at friends' homes, or his grandmother’s house – he also wouldn’t have called himself a fan. “I never really watched because I was always either doing homework or watching other TV.” Oxman, a 17-year-old South Orange resident, says it wasn’t until a year or so ago that he began watching the popular and long-running quiz show, and then increased last fall to watching every day at the start of his junior year at Columbia High School.
Like most fans of the show, Oxman would watch and do his best to answer (always in the form of a question) before the contestants. It was his father, Michael, who got his wheels turning. “I was all right at [answering questions during] the regular show, and he thought I could totally get on.” After a little more encouragement from his father, Oxman went online earlier this year and looked up opportunities to try out for Jeopardy’s Teen Tournament – one of the show’s special tournaments – for contestants aged 13 to 17 nationwide. There hadn’t been a Teen Tournament since 2016, but an online test registration for a new round had just opened, and he signed up to take part.
His journey began with signing on and taking a 50-question test online in May along with other applicants at the same time. Though he isn’t aware of the show’s selection process, Oxman knows that he must have met its criteria and scored well enough on the online test, because a few weeks later he received an email invitation to Washington D.C. for a live audition in June.
Oxman took a day off from his job as a camp counselor and he and his father drove down to a D.C. hotel, where approximately five dozen teens from around the region would audition. Dressed in a blue Hawaiian-style shirt, Dan played a mock game of Jeopardy with other teens and was then interviewed on camera, which is where he says he felt he had an opportunity to stand out. And according to Oxman, what stands out most among a typical crowd of super-smart Jeopardy applicants is being as normal as possible. “At this point, I knew I had to charm them, say a couple of jokes,” he says.
A senior at Columbia High School, Oxman is a real Renaissance teenager. He describes himself as a curious person who’s passionate about science and learning, and would like to study chemical engineering in college. For fun, he plays the trombone with the pit orchestra for Columbia’s musical productions, including Hairspray last season. He is also on Columbia’s Varsity Ultimate Frisbee team, a sport that’s celebrating the 50th anniversary of its invention this year.
The busy days of summer jobs and activities went by, and in late July his mother, Alison, got the call from the show's producer, whom she didn’t believe initially. “I thought it was some kind of spam call,” she says. She was in part convinced when the producer recalled that Daniel was the “one with the blue Hawaiian shirt.”
“I could not believe it,” says Daniel. “It was crazy to think that 10,000 people took this online test and they only selected 15 people to be on the show. It was really mind blowing.” Things moved fast, as Daniel would be flown to Los Angeles at the end of August, meaning he only had one month to prepare. He says he looked up Jeopardy prep techniques online, and read a long article on strategy by a former contestant.
He made the trip to L.A. with his parents and younger brother, Nate. At 8 a.m. on the day of filming, Daniel and his fellow contestants were taken by bus to the huge studio lot where, among other shows, Wheel of Fortune records. Oxman says he assumed that his interaction with other contestants would be very cold and competitive, but the small group of 15 teens became fast friends.
Oxman says the Jeopardy set was unlike anything he had ever seen before, but exactly as he’d imagined. “You know that scene in Willy Wonka [and the Chocolate Factory] where they first enter the Chocolate Factory and see everything? That’s what it was kind of like, but for nerds,” he joked. Now, as a fan of the show with real first-hand knowledge of its inner workings, Oxman offers some show trivia: “Behind each person’s podium is a mechanical lift that adjusts for each contestant so that everyone appears the same height.”
After makeup and some practice time with the buzzer, show taping began, which Oxman admits was much harder than playing along at home. He points out that at home, the category is picked for you, and no eye-hand-buzzer coordination comes into play. “In the actual game you have to pick the category, the value, and you have to buzz in, which is kind of hard,” he says. While not visible to folks watching at home, lights flash on the sides of the game board when host Alex Trebek has finished reading an answer, indicating that players can buzz in. “It’s very much a timing and coordination thing,” says Oxman. “You have to know the answer and buzz in.”
Jeopardy’s Teen Tournament filming consisted of five quarterfinal games on the first day, with the five winners of those games moving on to the next round, along with four non-winners who had the highest totals. Those nine contestants moved on to the semifinal rounds, which were filmed the next day, and the three winners of that moved on to a two-part grand final in which they played two rounds. The person with the highest cumulative total became the Teen Tournament champion.
Though Daniel had to remain silent on his performance until the tournament aired in early November, it’s clear that being on Jeopardy was the experience of a lifetime, and he’s excited to be a member of this very exclusive club. “I knew that whether or not I won the game, I will win every dinner party conversation for the rest of my life.”
Another “club” that clearly brings Dan a lot of joy is Ultimate Frisbee, which he got to discuss for the famous show banter portion with Alex Trebek. “It makes me very proud to represent such a long-standing tradition in a really good sport. I hope I did the boys proud when I was on TV,” he says.
Alison Oxman, knowing the number of kids who audition and the small percentage who actually make it to the show, says her son continues to surpass all of her expectations. “It’s not that he’s smart, which I know, but that he has the guts to try and the confidence to audition.” She recalled that even Alex Trebek appeared to get choked up at the end of taping, as the host congratulated the group of parents on their children’s performances.
So, what is Daniel’s advice to fans interested in trying out for Jeopardy? “Don’t be afraid of failing – multiple times,” he says, and describes a few contestants he met who had tried out for the show before and weren’t selected, but didn’t give up and ultimately made it on.
“And be yourself, but not too much. Enjoy the show and try your best.”