Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions Winner Buzzy Cohen on His Dream of Replacing Alex Trebek

Buzzy Cohen. Photo: Jeopardy!

In the land full of clues, buzzers, and preplanned small talk with Alex Trebek, Buzzy Cohen has reigned supreme. The snazzily dressed music executive from Los Angeles won Jeopardy!’s Tournament of Champions last week, narrowly beating out his fellow competitors Alan Yin and Austin Rogers in a two-part final that was surprisingly full of levity and GIF-worthy moments. Vulture called up Cohen — now with an extra $250,000 in his pocket — after the tournament to discuss his experience as a “polarizing” player since day one, and how he’d like to stay in the Jeopardy! franchise in the future. You better watch your back, Trebek.

Going back to your original Jeopardy! run last spring, what motivated you to audition in the first place?
I’ve always been a really big fan of the show. I watched it growing up. I lost a little bit of touch with Jeopardy! because I didn’t have a TV or cable for a while, like a lot of young people do, but I got back into it again a couple of years ago. I watched it nearly every night, and on one of the shows they did an announcement to take the online test if you’re interested in getting on. So I took the online test, got called into an audition, did that, and then got called into the show. Funnily enough, I was actually an alternate originally, since I live close enough to the studio in Los Angeles — in case somebody gets sick or disqualified, that’s when an alternate comes in. Nothing came from that, so I played my official game a month after that.

Does the show do anything special to alert you that you made the tournament?
I knew because I won nine games that I had a pretty good — it was the closest thing to being in the tournament that you could get. I don’t know if there was ever a five-time champion who never made the Tournament of Champions, so I was a pretty good lock for that. There’s a tournament tracker on the website, too. As people start winning more, people get added. I was keeping an eye on that throughout the year, to see who else was in the running and such. Because occasionally I’d miss shows or would be traveling. But I got a phone call in June to tell me there was a tournament scheduled, and when it would be taping and airing.

It was pretty clear from day one that all of the contestants were having a blast, and Alex Trebek even said it was the “most fun” tournament of all time. What would you attribute that fun atmosphere to?
When I was on the show, I was pretty irreverent during my original run. I was there to enjoy myself. Obviously I wanted to play well, but it wasn’t about beating other people. It was me doing a good job for myself, as opposed to me defeating other people, which is a different mindset to have. Austin’s shows didn’t air before we shot the tournament, but he’s a goofball in his own way, which we learned when we got there. Also, it had been a really long time since the last tournament, so a lot of us hadn’t been on the show in an equally long time, and we were happy to be back there. There’s a community of former Jeopardy! contestants, so we’ve gotten to know each other well from that. There was a lot of camaraderie. I don’t think anybody showed up and was looking to throw elbows or be super-mysterious or whatever. Those of us who do have a fun time with the show really pushed it. In the rehearsals, especially the second day rehearsal — which is the semifinal and the final — those rehearsals were really, really silly. We were using fake names and giving sarcastic answers to stuff, as opposed to using it as a chance to practice the game. We were goofing around. We knew this was the last chance we would be on the stage, so we were like, “Let’s do all of the fun stuff we’ve been too nervous to do on the actual show.”

Similarly, why do you think the previous tournaments haven’t embraced being fun or silly?
I’m not totally sure. I went back and watched as many Tournaments of Champions as I could. My thought is this: For the most recent tournament, Alex Jacob was just so dominant that it’s hard for it to be fun and playful. It’s demoralizing when you go against someone like that. I know a couple of players who had some really big performances. Alan [Yin], who we went up against in the finals, was definitely one of the more dominant players. But at the same time, there were a lot of really close matches. Going into the tournament, based on the tracker, Austin was the top seeded and I was the third seeded, I believe. So when two of the top five players come in with a naturally irreverent attitude, it sets a tone. But not everyone was like that. There were a lot of people who were really hard on themselves and taking it really seriously. Which is totally okay, but that’s not who I am. I don’t think I could do that if I tried.

How did you decide to coordinate your delightful group introduction pantomimes?
When Alan won his game, he came out and the three of us had to be escorted to lunch together. We were sitting and eating together separated from the rest of the group, just so nothing could potentially influence us. We were sitting there, and I think Austin remarked, “How great is this? We’re going to get to play each other — this is so exciting! No matter what, we get $50,000!” His shows hadn’t aired yet, so I didn’t know his antics, but we spoke and we had the same feeling about the introduction: It’s ten seconds of staring at the camera, so why not do something fun? I suggested that we should do the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” thing. And then Austin suggested we do a pop-lock robot and pass it down the line. We wanted to do something together because we were excited to play each other. Austin and I are also older than Alan, so we looked at him like … not like a little brother in a demeaning way, but affectionately. So we’re like, “Let’s do this together.” He was on board for it, so that was great. If he hadn’t been cool with it, we wouldn’t have pushed it.

Were you surprised that Trebek did dance moves of his own?
Definitely! When the camera’s off, he’s much goofier and all over the place. I wouldn’t say he’s acting, but he’s definitely playing the role of the stern teacher. I think it was fun for him to get to have fun. Every single show he tapes — and he tapes five shows a day, two days a week — there’s one returning champion who’s maybe been through one or two games, and two people are freaked out of their minds. The tournaments are fun because we’ve all been there before. Even when I was on the show the first time, when I was brushing my shoulders off and slicking my hair back, he was doing it, too. I had a feeling whatever we did, if it was recognizable for him, he would jump on board.

I talked with Austin last month about how he upset the natural order of Jeopardy!, even though it was a delight to watch. I was wondering if you agree with that, given that you’re also an “unconventional” contestant.
When I was on the first time, there was definitely a very polarized reaction to me. My defense of myself, I guess, is this is who I am. Short of being in court, I’m always injecting my personality into stuff. I tried to do it in a way that wasn’t disruptive of the game play. There are few opportunities you have to display your personality in a show like Jeopardy!, and when I had them, I took them. When it came to playing the game, I was serious about that. No matter what, Jeopardy! purists are always going to find something to be upset about. There isn’t someone who fits everyone’s idea of the ideal contestant. I guess Ken Jennings has been the perfect contestant. He’s a great guy, supersmart, smiles and plays the game. But then you see someone like Arthur Chu, who plays a different style and is very aggressive. People went crazy over him. I wouldn’t say he was injecting personality, but whenever someone deviates from the norm of the show, it ruffles feathers. I have a feeling that after my run and Austin’s run and this tournament, you’ll get more people that have more present personalities. I think you’ll see people more like us who will take an interest in the show.

I’m sure the show would appreciate the ratings, too. People tune in to see those personalities in action.
People tune in to cheer against us, too. [Laughs.] It’s fine! In the greenroom, the first time I was on last year, the producers warn contestants to stay off social media the week your shows are aired. I did not. One of the contestant producers said that quote from Reggie Jackson: “People don’t talk about nobodies.” I don’t mind if people are hate-watching. If that’s how you want to use your time, that’s great. When we watch reality shows, we watch as much for the person we’re cheering for as we are for the person who drives us crazy. For some, that was me or Austin or both of us. I did notice that during Austin’s run, he had a much more positive response than me.

Why do you think that is?
When I was having a runaway game, I would bet $0 and use it to taunt Trebek — make it very SNL. But Austin was using those opportunities to make huge bets. I think people got frustrated I was leaving money on the table, but Austin was making all of this money. In a way, the way he and I play is the same place of, “This is a game show — let’s have fun and entertain ourselves.” [Laughs.]

Has the show approached you about future appearances? I know they have a few correspondents on rotation.
No, they haven’t. I told the producers when I was back for the tournament, “Nobody has asked me, and I’m sure there’s a long line, but I want to put my name on that list when Alex Trebek wants to retire.” I’d love to do that. A lot of fan response was that Austin, Alan, and me should have our own show. Maybe Jeopardy! will figure out a way. Because it wasn’t just me and Austin; having Alan there with us, there was something for everyone. Austin’s the off-the-wall bartender who’s incredibly knowledgeable and smart, but feels very improvisatory. Alan is incredibly calculated, knows a ton of stuff that I certainly don’t know, and is incredibly fast on the buzzer. Compared to the two of them, I felt I was in the middle: a little looser than Alan and a little more buttoned-up than Austin. There was something about the three of us that gave everybody someone to cheer for and identify with. Each of us on our own couldn’t hold all of that, you know?

We all keep in touch. I saw Austin this weekend in New York. I saw Alan once or twice when he was in Los Angeles. We get along so well, so it would be really fun to find a way to do stuff together. I would love to host the show or continue to be involved in some way in some capacity. But there might be something to the three of us, because we’re an odd trio that somehow works. [Laughs.] When I caught up with Austin, we were both in agreement that there was nothing for Jeopardy! to lose for the three of us to continue to do something. From what I’ve seen online, the support has been really overwhelming. I was really touched. It wasn’t about me as a winner, but about the three of us guys being great. I’m really happy that came across onscreen because it was real, and you never know how that’s going to come across on television.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jeopardy! Champion Buzzy Cohen on His Big Win