"You are not supposed to be here."
Those words welcomed me to Jeopardy! And that was you, plural, because I and about a dozen other contestants had just spent some time on a Tuesday morning in January wandering the Sony lot in Culver City, California. The words were said by a Jeopardy! staffer who looked stricken when we strolled up to the studio unescorted. Which was against the rules.
I'm pleased to report that tapings for the group proceeded despite the flub, and you can see my turn on the game show at 4:30 p.m. Monday on NBC15 (WMTV). It was one of many anxious moments that day. And the breach of protocol was, well, my fault.
The trouble started when we got off the bus. This was the shuttle that had transported us from the Radisson Culver City, where I first met up with my fellow would-be Jeopardy! champions. It was a tense-looking group I encountered in the hotel lobby at 7:45 a.m. -- men and women dressed as if going on job interviews. One woman studied a printout of a Wikipedia article on Shakespeare. I wished I had thought of that. There were a few awkward greetings, but otherwise no one spoke.
We piled on the bus, where the driver merrily remarked that he would not be taking us to nearby Los Angeles International Airport. We laughed nervously. He drove us to the Sony lot on that gloriously warm January day. We got off the bus.
And we stood there.
And wondered what to do next.
Ordinarily, I gather, someone from the show greets the contestants at the studio gate. But no Jeopardyista was in sight. We waited awkwardly for a few minutes. Then I -- often wrong, seldom in doubt -- decided that if we were going to find our way to Jeopardy!, someone had better do something. I approached the guard at the gate.
Anyone who's ever seen Hollywood backlot movies knows that the guard at the studio gate is prickly and unwavering. In those movies, the sure sign of the one-time star's fall from grace is that he can't get past the imperious guard at the studio gate. I cleared my throat and meekly asked how to find Jeopardy!, expecting to be thrown out immediately.
"Last studio on the right," he said, gesturing with his clipboard. We were in. My fellow contestants looked glad to have some direction.
Back, back we walked. The studio lot indeed looked just like studio lots in the movies, except that we did not encounter any roving bands of showgirls or conquistadors. Instead we encountered tattooed people on cigarette breaks.
Finally we made it to the Jeopardy! studio, which is next to the Wheel of Fortune studio, unmistakable thanks to the unnervingly gigantic portraits of Pat Sajak and Vanna White on the side. The alarmed Jeopardy! employee appeared. "You are not supposed to be here."
At that moment I sensed the worry and doubt of my fellow contestants, who moments earlier I believed had been grateful for my brave leadership. Had I just ruined their chance at wealth and fame by leading them where they shouldn't have gone? The Jeopardy! staffer frowned.
As it turned out, no. We filed through a metal detector and into the green room, where we awaited our turns behind the podiums. For once my quick thinking didn't get anyone in trouble.