I was beginning to think I was falling out of love with Jeopardy! Earlier this year, for the third time, I auditioned for the show. And, for the third time, they didn’t take me. They never confirm you’re not wanted — they just never call. Gutting.
Still, I couldn’t stop watching, hoping to learn something by examining which prospectives the show did take. The dull retirees; the pale nerds; the “New Mexico’s Foremost Collector of Pyrite” types … what could they possess that I lack? Not youth, not game-playing skill, not flair. Why were they there, while I was here? And then along came Austin Rogers.
Rogers, who describes himself as a bartender from New York, has won the show’s last eight nights. His cash winnings total $306,900. And he is like no champion who has come before him. First off, no one has won that much money that quickly. He steamrolls through categories and brings derring-do to Daily Doubles. He wagers boldly and answers correctly. On Tuesday night, he won $69,000, providing 24 correct responses and no incorrect ones.
Numbers cannot explain, though, how Rogers’s style has upset the game’s natural order. Wearing a misshapen pile of hair atop his head and a thick beard on his face — but sharp coats and ties, always — he is both unkempt and natty by the show’s drab standards. And the clothes are just the beginning. Rogers plays with joy and an attitude. During the show’s opening, when each (silent) contestant is introduced by announcer Johnny Gilbert, Rogers mugs and pantomimes. He’s a showman. When he had to reply to a clue with “the Eagles,” he grumbled. When he aced a Daily Double, he punched his arm across his body in exaltation.
And then there’s his banter with host Alex Trebek. Clearly each has boundless contempt for the other. Trebek can’t stand Austin’s jokes. Austin can’t stand Trebek’s presentation. When a sneering Trebek asked Rogers how he “got to be so smart,” Rogers deadpanned: “Genetics. Luck. Karma.” What about school?, Trebek asked. Pfft, Austin replied.
I watch Jeopardy! because I love trivia, and the show’s trivia offerings are better than those of any competitor. But what makes the show unique (and uniquely aggravating) is its solemn punctiliousness, enforced by Trebek, who delights in humbling contestants. The show styles itself as syndicated TV’s last refuge for sophisticates — I mean, sure, but anything would be, compared to Maury and Inside Edition — and a meritocracy, too. No Wheel of Fortune–style free money here! Cash comes by way of studying. The game’s great champions are teachers, accountants, lawyers. They wager conservatively; they play and dress modestly. The audience is meant to believe their knowledge is but a fraction of what makes them excel, that dutiful reverence for the game matters, too.
But Rogers is a rapscallion. He’s a 38-year-old man whose get-to-know-the-contestant interviews have included stories about getting drunk with his buddies, and falling asleep at a Korn/Disturbed show. He is precisely the sort of person who is not supposed to win on Jeopardy! And he is winning like no one ever has before. Marooned on my couch, 3,000 miles from Culver City, I feel like I’m winning, too.