No disrespect to Ken Jennings, but Jeopardy! might’ve found its new crown prince of the millennium. Say hello to Austin Rogers, a 30-something, shaggy-haired New York City bartender who has breathed some much-needed life into the quintessentially stuffy game show with his silly mannerisms and super-chill demeanor. In the midst of his double-digit hot streak and more than $365,000 of prize money in his pocket, Vulture spoke to Rogers about his Jeopardy! success, his relationship with Alex Trebek, and his signature pantomimes.
I’m a little cranky that the New Jersey gubernatorial debate was deemed “more important” than Jeopardy!
I just tweeted at ABC 7’s account: Thanks so much. It’s so important to New Jersey. And they tweeted back so passive-aggressively. It was actually pretty classic. They were like: “Thanks for reminding us, Austin. Also, Wheel of Fortune is at 2:35 a.m.” I’m like, well played. Well played, you passive-aggressive bastards.
How’s the post-Jeopardy! life treating you? Do you get stopped in the streets of New York City a lot?
Yeah, I’m getting stopped. Lots of selfies. Someone, a friend’s boyfriend who’s English, had a very interesting observation for me.
What was it?
He said, “You came at a time where the Zeitgeist is so down and tragic, and everything’s going to shit lately. And I don’t know if you know this, but you’re such a spark of joy for so many in what’s otherwise a pretty dismal time in the United States.” I’m like, “Well, that’s applying a huge burden on me.” But if I step back from it and release myself from myself, it’s sort of right. I’m privileged and honored to have become a highlight in what otherwise would be a miserable past couple weeks.
Can you tell me about your educational background, and how you became so intelligent besides karma and genetics?
I went to a small college called Macalester in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I studied history and music. I didn’t get my music major because I slept through my piano test. They offered me to come back and reschedule it, but I was like, “Nah, I already got the history major, I’m cool.” I wrote two senior papers in history, one on European history and one on American history. I like reading and consuming knowledge; it’s almost irrelevant to my education. If I don’t know something, it visibly perturbs me and I have to find out. Back in the day, that meant dropping everything and finding a newspaper to find out exactly what I was looking for. But now, we have supercomputers in our pockets, which confuses me when people don’t know something and they go, “Well, I guess I’ll never know!” I’m like, “You have a supercomputer in your pocket, you can know right now.” You have all of mankind’s knowledge in your pocket. If you don’t know something, why not find it out immediately and close that chapter? I don’t know, people are weird. They’re not curious.
What motivated you to audition for the show in the first place?
Money! The money! I had a feeling I’d be good at it, but I didn’t have an inkling I’d be this good at it. I thought I’d win a couple and call it a day. I accomplished what I wanted, which was to win one or two games of Jeopardy! I had no idea that I would excel at it to this magnitude. No idea. Not even the foggiest.
Did you recalibrate your mind after accomplishing that goal? Or even set a new challenge for yourself?
For sure. The first week, which was a Tuesday through Friday on the television, was taped all in one day. After I went one-two-three-four, the next morning I woke up to do the next session of five, and I said, “I got this! I can do this whole day! I can definitely do this whole day and make it to nine!” And I did, I swept the whole next day. But I have to say, by the end of that day, I was exhausted and it showed. It’s a relentlessly grueling schedule to be the returning champion, so there’s a facet of stamina involved to keep going. Each time you win, you have to get off the stage, change clothing, grab a glass of water, and go back out and do it again. It’s a demanding schedule. That’s why when everyone asks, “Was Jeopardy! Fun?” Not really. Fun isn’t the right word. Enjoyable, absolutely. But fun? It’s a job. It’s two concentrated days of nonstop action.
Did you plan your introduction pantomimes in advance, or did you just live in the moment?
Every subsequent episode after my debut, I forgot that I had to stare for ten-and-a-half seconds at a red light. And I’m like, “This is a long time to just stare and awkwardly smile.” So I realized I had to do something. Each time I kept forgetting that I needed to kill 11 seconds, so they’d announce the third position and I’d be like, “Oh no, I didn’t think of something. Crap, think of something. Balloon animal!”
We recently published an essay arguing that by showing a personality and injecting life into the show, you upset the natural order of Jeopardy! Would you agree with that?
I do agree with it. I’m confused it hasn’t happened before, because there have been other‚ ugh, I hate the “D” word, disruptive, I hate that word, it’s such a tech-bro word. There have been other “disruptive” [groans] contestants, but they’ve been disruptive in a maligned way, from what I gather. I’m told there were other people who didn’t play to the spirit of the game and were either curt or curmudgeonly or terse, or they would bounce around the board. The analogy I keep coming back to is a bat flip in baseball. You crank a 425-foot home run to put your team up in the eighth inning, and you flip the bat. You don’t bat flip when you hit the solo home run when you’re already up 13-1. I was doing the bat flip. If I jack one out of the park, I’m gonna flip the bat. If I crush a grand slam when the other team is behind, I’m not gonna rub it in their faces, you know what I mean?
It ultimately comes down to this: Jeopardy! is a game show. Games are fun. There’s this weirdly intense ethos of gravitas applied to Jeopardy! No one takes a step back and says, “Jeopardy! is a revenue-generating product from Sony Pictures Entertainment.” It’s not a hearing at the Hague. It’s not a session of the NATO joint chiefs. It’s a game show meant to entertain. So why not have fun on it? I set myself a goal to win my first game. When I won it so convincingly, my motivation was not to keep accruing crazy money. My motivation was to enjoy myself in the moment now that I already set my own goal. So every subsequent game was, “Let’s have fun with this, I don’t care if I lose now!” From day two onward, I never cared if I lost. But the other contestants really needed to care if they wanted to beat me. So that’s where my laissez-faire attitude came from. I started with $36,000 on my first game. Each subsequent game is like, “Whatever! Let’s go have fun! I could win a lot of money or I can lose and go home happy.” Either outcome was irrelevant to me.
What is this “spirit of the game” you speak of?
I believe I adhered to the spirit of the game in the mechanics and gameplay aspect, in that I’m not bouncing around categories. I like going down the columns because if it’s a clever or witty wordplay, or a snarky category, you gotta see one or two clues to see what they’re getting at. You toss away a $200 clue, you toss away a $400 clue, and then you go, “Ah, now I understand the category and I can get the rest of the clues in this category.” Sometimes the writers are a little too clever for their own good, and you can’t figure out what kind of tongue-in-cheek, clever facet they’re trying to convey until you see a couple of clues. By bouncing around the game board, you lose that. The game is written from top to bottom. Also, I didn’t see a need to bounce around. That why some of the prior contestants who disrupted the natural order of Jeopardy! so infuriated the purists, so to speak. I did my best to not do that, for my own personal reasons.
What was your on- and off-camera relationship with Alex Trebek like? You two had a pretty fun rapport after awhile.
There is no off-camera relationship with Trebek.
Goddamn it, Trebek!
At no point does he ever come offstage and mingle with the contestants. What you see is the full extent of the relationship with Alex Trebek.
What did your on-camera relationship mean to you, then?
We started to get along with each other. He gets where I was coming from. I got where he was coming from. He’s gotta be the stern taskmaster who can occasionally throw in a sarcastic quip. I’m the unruly yet worthy student who’s the class clown but also excels, so you can’t really hold it against him. That was the role we played as antagonists and protagonists.
Was there ever a time during your run when producers or contestants got annoyed with the way you presented yourself?
Absolutely not once. The producers were like, “Keep doing it, kid!” And I kept saying I’m 38 years old and not a kid. They were like, “You’re golden, this is great, you’re having fun, everyone else is having fun.” Even the other contestants were having fun when I was beating them. One of them said, “I’m completely content that I get to say I got beat by Austin Rogers. If I lost to some squeaky anonymous person, I’d be infuriated. But I lost to you so I can say I’m happy and hold my head up high.” One contestant said that to me and I got a little bit choked up. I was like, “No, no, no, no, no!” They were like, “We’re watching you in awe and we’re seeing something we’ve never seen before.” And I’m like, “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop! Okay, tell me more about me!” The only thing [the producers] said was that could I knock it off with the swearing all the time. I was like, “Yeah, I fucking forgot. I’m a fucking New Yorker and fuck is like my own fucking word. It’s how I speak!”
Now that you have such cushy winnings, what does the future look like for you? Have you quit bartending?
I’m perfectly happy and loving bartending, but obviously my life has changed in a way of magnitude that I could’ve never envisioned. There will be new opportunities. Something massive will happen to me that’s due to being kismet and my hard work, but until then, the boys and me at the bar are family. I’m not gonna leave until I know that my next steps are solidified. So look for me behind the bar until you see me again on TV.
This interview has been edited and condensed.