Back in 2017, Jeopardy! experienced a millennial renaissance of sorts thanks to the whip-smart, witty efforts pioneered by contestants Austin Rogers and Buzzy Cohen. Rogers, if you recall, upset the natural order of the show with his massive wagers and cheeky pantomimes, while Cohen and his snazzy suits reigned supreme at the Tournament of Champions. Now, after walking away with nearly $1 million in their collective pockets, the duo is back on our screens once again thanks to Jeopardy! All-Star Games, the show’s first-ever team tournament that reunites 18 of the most successful (and popular) contestants in recent history to prove who’s the smartest of them all. (It starts tonight.) Rogers and Cohen are “captains” for two of the six teams alongside other faves, such as Ken Jennings and Julia Collins, hoping to replicate their individual successes in this new group setting. We’ll take “Our Excitement Is Palpable” for $800, Alex!
Prior to the tournament beginning on Wednesday, Vulture hopped on the phone with the gents to discuss their experiences, the intense preparation they had to undergo, and the death of their pantomimes as we know it.
When you two concluded your Champions run, did you have a feeling the show would find a reason to unite you and other popular contestants for another tournament?
Austin Rogers: Can we engage false modesty here, and can we tell you what we really think?
Unleash the truth.
AR: We were really surprised. No we weren’t! We knew we were getting called back. Me and Buzzy walked out of the Tournament of Champions studio and were like, “Are we going to do this again? Yeah, we’re going to do this again.”
Buzzy Cohen: When we finished the tournament, a couple of people were like, “You’ll be hearing from us.” I realized, just looking at years past, that they do something big every five or so years for contestants.
AR: We didn’t know it would be this soon, though. That was a surprise. We both come from advertising backgrounds, and we both knew there was something special with our Tournament of Champions. We struck lightning in a bottle. Everyone during that tournament got along so well. Buzzy, Alan [Lin], and I had super fun in the final in a way it’s never been done before. Not being cynical, but self-analytical, we were pretty damn sure we were coming back. After the Tournament of Champions ended, we got a phone call saying, “Block off the week from a year from now.”
BC: I would like it noted that for the time that counted, I won and beat Austin.
AR: I would like it not noted that I came in third.
Did the show say upfront that it would be a team format, or did that come as a surprise later on?
BC: They didn’t tell us what it was going to be.
AR: There was a long period of time where we weren’t kept in the dark per se, but the show kept telling us, “We’re doing something we’ve never done! This is very special!” Me, Buzzy, and Alan always text one another and we were trying to guess what it would be. As it came closer to the date, the format came out. We were blowing up the chat like, “Whoa, this is really, really unexpected.” It’s totally outside of Jeopardy!’s comfort zone. It was wild filming it. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s going to look like onscreen after the experience of filming it. It was not like your typical Jeopardy! day. The days are so formulaic: You wake up, play three games, have lunch, play two more, come back the next day and do it again. This wasn’t like that at all. And that goes with the way it was filmed, too. It was almost like a sporting event.
BC: A general show taping is a lot like the TV experience. But with this tournament, there are additional elements at play that were shot separately. In between each round, teams would go one at a time into a cloistered room and talk about their strategy. So none of us have seen what other teams said about each other. You normally get into a rhythm with the game since you’re only playing with yourself. But when you’re not playing a full game, it makes it harder to get into a rhythm — taping just completely stopped for 20 minutes in between rounds, which was a bit jarring.
AR: Buzzy is totally right. The Jeopardy! experience onstage is the Jeopardy! experience transmitted to the audience. This is going to be really fun for the fans because you’re going to get into the minds of contestants for the first time. What people are thinking between rounds and stuff like that, which is always internalized. This time, you hear us and other champions sitting down and talking about our strategies. I think it’s going to be a really informative primer for hard-core Jeopardy! Fans.
BC: But back to the team element — it was definitely a surprise for me. I know how to play Jeopardy!, but I don’t know how to play team Jeopardy! We’re all lone wolves in a way when we have long Jeopardy! runs. How do you change from working on your own to working together and supporting other people, but also not losing themselves in someone else when they’re playing? When I heard “team,” I assumed they would make me, Austin, and Alan a team.
AR: Heartbreaking. They didn’t want to.
BC: It would’ve been really fun if the three of us got to play together. It’s like when opponents join forces and become even more powerful.
AR: Like the Rock and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw!
BC: Or Rocky.
AR: It’s always back to Rocky with this guy.
Did you have to campaign to be captains, or was it offered up front?
AR: The captains were picked by the show, and in September we did a draft on Facebook Live where the other champions were selected by us six captains. We thought the teams would be created for us by the show, so that was another element of randomness and strategy. A lot of the players during this draft hadn’t played in a while, or we didn’t know them at all. So you had to get to know your fellow champions. We got to go back and watch old episodes and then, conversely, get disappointed when you didn’t get your draft pick.
BC: The added element of surprise for me was that the draft was on the due date of my second child. We had a contingency plan where I had a sealed envelope with my auto-draft.
When it came time to meet your teams and talk strategy, what were your respective leadership styles like? Did you have a decent amount of time to get to know everyone and practice?
AR: I married upward with this team. I ended up with Roger Craig, who’s a methodical genius when it comes to dissecting Jeopardy! When I was preparing for my original season run, I watched a YouTube video of a guy who broke Jeopardy! out into quadrants of probability, questions, value of questions, stuff like that. And it turned out it was him! I was less of a leader and more of a cheerleader at that point. He would be like, “Would I be stepping on your toes if I came up with this strategy?” “No, man! That’s why I picked you! I don’t know what I’m talking about and you literally wrote the book on how to analyze Jeopardy! strategy!” In a team, you can’t be letting other people down, so you defer to each of their strengths. Roger’s strength is meticulously planning in-game strategy. I wasn’t really a leader. I was more of a good manager who hired well. That’s the hallmark of good management — hiring people who are better than you.
BC: Alex Jacob quit his job to study and prepare for his Tournament of Champions. He had the most dominant tournament of all time. So he inspired me to take the preparation more seriously. I couldn’t quit my job, but I dedicated myself to methodical preparation. Similar to Austin, I was just like, “Teach me!” He was generous with his notes. He converted them into flashcards, and our team ended up with over 30,000 flashcards to work with thanks to him. We had a private Facebook group where we were constantly sharing stuff. We actually did a weekend training camp in Denver, where we brought in a guy who had a homemade Jeopardy! setup, and we spent 48 hours at an Airbnb playing the game. We played 51 games that weekend. Other than Ken Jennings, people haven’t had the opportunity to play 51 games of Jeopardy! against two other players, with a buzzer and all that stuff. That was obviously a great experience to have, but we also talked about strategy in terms of different scenarios of our lineup. We crunched the data and realized some lineups performed better than others. My wife was like, “I’ve never seen you prepare this hard for anything.” We were very serious about it.
Back when you two competed in the Tournament of Champions, the mood was so upbeat and fun, which clashed with its supposed seriousness from years past. Was there a noticeable change in mood for this tournament, or were there still good vibes all around?
AR: There were great vibes going all around. No one in that roster has anything to prove ego-wise. Bragging-wise and accolade-wise, sure. Everyone in that champions crowd has already proved themselves.
Also, half of us up there hadn’t met the other half, so it was exciting to be chilling in the greenroom with Ken Jennings. What?! Being an atypical Jeopardy! experience, it was more like being on a film set than it was being on a syndicated television show. There was a lot of downtime and a lot of backstage lollygagging, so we all got to know each other well. It definitely felt like “I’m playing with buddies I’ve gotten to know over the past few days.”
BC: I don’t know if you felt this way, Austin, but … when I was playing in the Tournament of Champions, I played with a certain level of seriousness, but I laughed stuff off and goofed around a little bit. But this time, since two other people were depending on me, I felt a little more focused and less goofy and loose than I have in the past.
AR: I definitely felt like I couldn’t let someone else down. If I made a stupid bet and blew it on my regular season, I would’ve gone like, Oh, well, whatever. But if I made a stupid bet and blew it this time, I would’ve definitely been like, Oh, crap, I let my guys down. The game-play was definitely more serious.
Did you find your game-playing styles change in other unexpected ways, now that you were part of a team?
AR: There are so many well-established Jeopardy! wagering formulas out there. I never read them because some people smarter than me formulated them. There are proper ways to bet, proper ways to wager, and proper ways to play the game to win in a methodical, coldhearted way. In my normal season, for instance, I didn’t think of wagering at all. $6,000? $10,000? Whatever. That sounds okay to me! But for this tournament, I realized that if I have to make that bet, I have to make it by the book, and as a result I had to learn the book because I didn’t know there was a book. That changed dramatically for me, so I didn’t let me teammates down.
BC: In these two-day games, you either bet everything or you bet nothing when you get those opportunities. Our team’s time in Denver made everyone feel comfortable to make those moves. Our team was essentially like, “Take the shots, just don’t do something stupid.”
AR: Making unforced errors are totally worse than swinging for the fences and striking out. What I learned is that if you get a Daily Double in one category, you don’t stay in that category. You don’t do that, you go to another category to find the next Daily Double. That would be more of an unforgivable offense to bet it all and get it wrong. If you bet it all and you get it wrong, your teammates will realize that you made the right move, you just didn’t get the question right. But if you don’t move the proper way around the board, your teammates will be pissed.
BC: If you’re in Double Jeopardy! and there’s a “Literature” category, there’s a good chance the Daily Double is there. You start there.
AR: It’s going to be in “American History,” not “Ariana Grande Singles.” Although I wish Daily Doubles were always in “Ariana Grande Singles.”
Should we expect some pantomiming to return during your teams’ introductions?
AR: I think we broke the internet with that and we all agreed we’d retire it. Especially after those kids at the Teen Tournament tried to dab and couldn’t even do a dab. Buzzy texted me and was like, “I have become death, destroyer of worlds.”
BC: “He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer.”
AR: “What have God wrought?” We plotted disapprovingly, like a 19th-century British father upon finding out his son had dropped out of the army.
BC: It didn’t feel like there would be an opportunity, necessarily, for that in this tournament.
AR: Our pantomimes were of an of-the-Zeitgeist kind of thing, and once we saw the plethora of imitators we were all on our group text together saying like, “Eh, we’ve had enough of that.”
BC: When we were shooting the promos, the producers were like, “Hey Buzzy, can you brush your shoulders off?” I said no, I don’t do that anymore. I get that they want recognizable stuff. But also, I don’t want to fall into a schtick. We have fun when we get to be spontaneous, and being told to do it doesn’t feel true to its nature. With the pantomime introductions, we didn’t tell anyone we were doing it. Alex literally saw it on the monitor and decided to join in, too. Better to stop when you’re ahead, you know?
The main Jeopardy! news of late, besides the tournament, was Alex Trebek signing a new contract to remain as host until 2022. Buzzy, I know you’ve expressed interest in potentially replacing him when the time comes. Besides yourself, who do you two see as a suitable replacement?
AR: During one of the games I was playing, I can’t remember which one, Alex Trebek was doing some crowd work with the audience while the set was being retooled for the next show. He needs to keep the live audience entertained! Someone asked him that question. He said, “Now it’s time for a woman to do this job, because the timing is perfect. We need to get women into STEM.” Right on, man.
BC: I think there are two general approaches the show can do. You can bring in star power; someone who has a big following with people. Or, you can pick someone who’s less known who can make the show their own thing and make it their identity.
AR: Those are going to be some crazy shoes to fill.
BC: It’s unreal how good he is. People don’t realize how hard his job is and how well he does it. Like, there’s a teleprompter that give him directives every so often, but they’ll be a vague “chat with contestants.” That’s not a big help! He’s so great in finding interesting and fun ways to connect with people. Of the names I’ve seen, other than myself who’s the obvious choice, I always felt LeVar Burton was a cool choice. People from the news world would also be a great option, since there’s a news-reading element to the job. I’m a huge fan of Ann Curry and would like to see her in the conversation.
AR: I think Ariana Grande should host it. Thank you, next question.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.