Community, Latest News

Local man recounts his time spent on ‘Jeopardy!’

“I’ll take, “Tight-Lipped,” for $500, Alex.

Nobody in The Dominion Post newsroom was surprised 20 years ago this month when the story broke that Mark Stacy was going on “Jeopardy!” 

After all, the now-retired copy and headline maven was a venerable  encyclopedia of trivia.

Because he came up as a  sportswriter, he could summon, at will, inning after inning of arcane facts and stats from baseball (majors and minors, thank you).

Whole scripts of movie dialogue and B-side song lyrics were also at his cerebral call.

And he was the only ink-stained wretch around who subscribed to The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated — reading both, cover-to-cover, right after they were plopped in his mailbox.

Why wouldn’t a guy like Stacy, who knew everything, go on the quiz show that celebrates everyman eggheads, from intellectual sea to intellectual sea? 

The surprising thing was that the newspaperman never told anyone —  until the night his first match was set to air  Jan. 31, 2001.

Contractual obligations, you know.

What is, ‘How do you know that?’ 

Tonight, Stacy said he’ll be obligated to watch “Jeopardy!” for Alex Trebek’s last go-around.

Trebek, the smooth, erudite Canadian, hosted the show for 30 years, up until his death from pancreatic cancer in November.

Shows were taped in advance over the fall when Trebek was in the twilight of his illness.

Not that Stacy is “obligated” to watch. He goes back with “Jeopardy!” to the 1960s, when he would catch it on those occasions while home from school.

That’s when “Jeopardy!” was an afternoon affair, presided over by Art Fleming, a genial, ex-college football lineman who came up in the business as a radio announcer.

That’s when stagehands were positioned behind the wooden game board, to yank the planks in order to reveal the clues that were to be answered in the form of a question — the show’s hook.

The show’s appeal, Shaun Young told reporters two years ago, comes in the form of its unique balancing act combining academic rigor and competition.

Well, that, plus the just plain entertainment of seeing how you might match up with your bookworm brothers and sisters from the comfort of your living room.

Young is a University of Toronto professor who edited a collection of essays on the subject for his book, “Jeopardy and Philosophy: What is Knowledge in the Form of a Question?” 

“It is a completely knowledge-focused show for people who have, throughout the course of their lives, acquired knowledge,” the professor said.

“People who are more well-read in some sectors, better-educated or have a greater amount of education are likely to find the show more interesting and more attractive.” 

Those same people, he added, might be so inclined to want to compete on the actual “Jeopardy!” set, as did a certain newspaper copy editor from Morgantown.

He had to “audition” in Pittsburgh. That’s how it was done then.

From Iron City to Culver City 

“Back before they took all their testing online, the contestant wranglers would come to your city for a day or two and herd 100 or more people at a time into a hotel ballroom,” Stacy said.

Stacy took a “Jeopardy!”-styled test with 50 clues, got most of them right, and promptly forgot about it.

“I took myself for a beer and went home. Sometime later, I came home to an answering machine message asking if I wanted to come to Culver City to play: ‘Uhmmmm … SURE!’ ” 

He emerged from that flight from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles jittery from caffeine and a little disoriented by the time change.

No matter. He was quickly oriented, as it were, to the “Jeopardy!” way of doing things, which meant taping after taping, touch-ups in the makeup chair and having to ask permission to go to the bathroom (security and all).

The Culver City studio was smaller than he would have thought, and was kept quite chilly because of the set lights.

Trebek was friendly and slightly intimidating at the same time, he remembered.

“For me, the hardest part of show prep was coming up with a few anecdotes that I could tell in 20 seconds and not embarrass anyone.”

Stacy came out of the gate during that first host-contestant encounter by talking about comedian Dennis Miller, who by then had become a star on “Saturday Night Live.” 

Both went to Point Park College in Pittsburgh. They didn’t know each other, but they played in the same Air Hockey league.

Hello, Uncle Tubby (goodbye Alex) 

There was no embarrassment when it came to “Jeopardy!” as Stacy swept four matches before falling to an attorney from neighboring Maryland.

His respectable winnings were dispensed in the form of a voucher on stage.

No star-turns for him, he laughed. One of his nephews watching back home started calling him, “Uncle Tubby” — “Yeah, I was a bit heavier back then.” 

Not as heavy as the occasional contestant-angst: The New Yorker aficionado did whiff on a couple of clues that he knew he knew, because of the dreaded second-guessing.

“It’s funny how in the course of a word or two you can go from ‘I got this one!’ to ‘I must look like a moron.’ ” 

Ask him about the appeal of the show, and he’ll make just like that professor from the University of Toronto.

“The world can use more shows that promote and reward broad knowledge of the wider world, even if it’s largely superficial,” Stacy said.

“And everyone at home can play along because we all know some stuff. It’s gratifying to know a clue that no one else does.” 

Of course, it was gratifying to get to know Trebek, also, he said — even if that was on the surface, too.

“Who else came to our living rooms every night for 30 years and was always welcome?” 

TWEET @DominionPostWV