The first of the loyalists took position at 7:30 in the morning. A brutally cold April rain may make daffodils droop, but it cannot daunt these hearty troops.
They are here for “Jeopardy,” Power Players Edition. But really they are here for America. One rooted in facts and truths, governed by rules, research and historical precedents. One in which the smartest person wins.
And they are here, by the thousands, out of love for that greatest of all Americans, Alex Trebek. Never mind that he was born in Canada – that’s a detail we are willing to overlook.
So inside the storied marble walls of DAR Constitution Hall we’ll go, where on Saturday five episodes of “Jeopardy” were taped in front of some 6,000 superfans. And these are not just any episodes. These are the Power Player shows – like Celebrity “Jeopardy,” but with Famous-for-D.C. types.
And so here comes conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, bounding onto the specially constructed stage, to stand before a massive American flag and a somewhat-angry-looking replica of Lincoln in his memorial. It’s not quite 9:30 a.m., but she’s plenty awake, the first to run the traps each of the 15 contestants will encounter before taping begins.
She will answer questions from the media, learn how to use the buzzer – harder than it looks, staffers insist – and, with others, play a practice game with a Trebek stand-in to get the rhythm of the thing.
Her goal for today, it turns out, will be the same as that of every one of her fellow contestants: “Don’t get embarrassed.”
Next out is that famed man of letters, Jonathan Franzen, wearing dark jeans, mussed hair, sport-coat-no-tie. He’s also wearing a vague look of nausea. Asked about the motto he lives by, Franzen mutters something about Don DeLillo and notes how much he admires St. Francis. Then he’s gone. “He’ll be back in three or four minutes,” his handler assures a colleague. “He just wanted to get off stage.” Writing sweeping, 500-page domestic novels is, apparently, poor preparation for the trials of “Jeopardy.”
But Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” is on his way to the spotlight, looking confident, relaxed, ready to play. “I did this one other time,” he explains. “Having won that other time, my wife was very much against me doing this again.”
By 10 a.m., it’s time for the practice game to begin, and most of the crowd has been seated, rain-soaked and red-nosed, blowing warm breath into cold, cupped hands.
Category: “A Colorful Category.” Answer, as read by the Trebek body-double: “Jet and ebony.”
“Black!” Franzen shouts. Correct, but he forgot to use his buzzer and to phrase it as a question. No points awarded. During break, a producer will give the Pulitzer finalist some remedial buzzer tips, which seems to help.
Twenty minutes later, the crowd – mostly white, mostly young(ish), mostly self-professed nerds – hears the words they’ve been waiting for. “And now, here is the host – Alex Trebek!”
He tells the contestants it’s time to get to work, and categories come flying. We can tell you nothing of the results, lest the “Jeopardy” Gods place a pox upon our house. (Perhaps there is a clue regarding the winners encrypted into this story. If anyone can decode it, a “Jeopardy” fan can. But would a true loyalist want to?)
Commercial break. And here Trebek comes alive. He is 75 and somehow ageless. The voice, the stature, the face virtually unchanged after 32 years as host of the longest-running game show on American television. He bounds to the front of the stage to take questions from the audience.
Q: “Where do you get your questions?”
A: “We have a staff of researchers.”
Q: When are you going to retire?
A: “When am I going to retire? Jeez. I never liked you.”
Final Jeopardy and then a few more questions.
Q: “What’s your favorite place to travel?”
A: “I love going to Yorkshire, England. Especially Haworth, home of the Brontes.”
Q: “How do you prepare for every taping?”
A: “I drink. And I’m going to go do that now.”
They laugh after almost every response. It doesn’t much matter what he says. Trebek can do no wrong. Especially in Washington, which he swears is his favorite place to tape. “D.C. ‘Jeopardy’ fans are not only loyal,” he says. “They are very kind. They are very supportive, and they’re bright.” And that, of course, elicits one of the biggest rounds of applause for the day.
It’s time for Round 2 and former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, who says he wants “Jeopardy” fans to know that he used to deejay. “And I still do. That’s how I relax. After a long day, I go home. I set up my boards . . .”
Anderson Cooper saunters out wearing a teal necktie coordinated to match his eyes. He’s been on “Jeopardy” three times. Won twice. But that’s not what he wants to talk about. He wants to talk about the time he lost – to Cheech Marin. “Who not only beat me, he butchered me.” Redemption would be sweet.
But first he’ll have to get through CBS News foreign correspondent Lara Logan, who seems a tad nervous. “It’s terrifying,” she says. “I’d rather be with the Special Forces covering the Islamic State than be on this show.”
Like the other contestants, Logan is asked to play a get-to-know-you word association game.
“Hamilton,” is the word an interviewer gives Logan. Previous contestants had given responses such as “Alexander” and “musical.”
“Hamilton Beach,” Logan replies, before launching into a story about a faulty small appliance she wanted to return. There were details, but let’s just make this a public service reminder not to be on the other end of Logan’s customer-service calls.
After a lunch break, Round 3 pits CNN anchor Kate Bolduan against Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart and comedian Louis C.K. In this context, the most popular comedian of the moment seems more like a beloved, middle-aged uncle – ill-fitting suit, unbuttoned shirt, obvious self-doubt. “I don’t know much of anything,” he says. “I barely graduated high school.”
The competition gets underway, but soon the real show – the show between Trebek and his fans – continues.
Q: “What percent of the questions on the show do you get right?”
A: “About 60 percent. It used to be higher, but I have no knowledge about the current music scene. Boyz II Men and the Mills Brothers are the same to me.”
Q: “Who should play you in the biopic of your life?”
A: “Kevin Kline, Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey or Betty White.”
Round 4 comes and goes with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) playing against Republican strategist Ana Navarro and CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin. Trebek makes more cracks about his drinking, his murky retirement plans and the Washington region’s faulty Metro system.
By the time taping of the last show begins at 8:30 p.m. Abe Lincoln’s eyes have begun to look more tired than angry.
But “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner is ready to test his knowledge against CNN’s David Gregory and Melissa Harris-Perry, who recently walked off her MSNBC show but hinted at her upcoming plans: “Keep an eye on my shoes.” Huh. (For the record, they were nude, peep-toe, platform pumps.)
The buzzers start going, and when they stop, Trebek makes his way to the audience for one last set of questions.
Q: “Favorite topic of all time?”
A: “We’ve done more than 7,000 shows. And I have trouble remembering what I ate for dinner last night.”
Q: “How did you get involved with the musk ox?” This question comes from a former “Jeopardy” contestant – there are several in the audience – and it prompts a long explanation from Trebek. He explains that the musk ox is “like a buffalo with a long fur coat.” He once read that to protect themselves against their biggest predator, wolves, musk oxen form a circle around the herd’s women and children, with their horns facing out. Trebek was enchanted by the way they get in formation to protect their families and became an ambassador for the Musk Ox Farm in Alaska.
“So when you make a donation,” he says, “You will get a card signed by me as ‘Father of the Herd.’ “
By 9:15 p.m. the final round of applause has been given. But Trebek is still on stage, shaking hands, posing for pictures, standing in front of a giant American flag, tending to his herd.