Hemant Mehta: ‘Friendly Atheist’ gets his chance on ‘Jeopardy!’

Hemant Mehta poses for a photo with longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.

By Hemant Mehta

Hearing “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek say, “Congratulations, young man” after I unexpectedly won was the shocking culmination of a year-long journey.

After auditioning a year earlier by taking an online test, I was invited to an in-person audition where the casting folks could chat with me and watch me take part in a mock game. They told me they would give me a call if they wanted us on the show, but that I should keep my expectations low.

Approximately 80,000 people take the online test each year, of which about 3,000 are selected to come to an in-person audition. Of those, only around 400 actually get invited to be on the show. I was shocked to get The Call a few weeks later.

They gave me six weeks to prepare before the day of filming. So, I started cramming. I was always a decent student, but it’s not easy studying for an exam when you don’t know the subject, much less the clues!

On the plus side, writing about religion and politics full-time for my “Friendly Atheist” blog, I felt I had an advantage on those topics. While some people may dread the broad scope of political trivia, I spend every day writing about what politicians are doing, what constitutional concerns are raised in new laws, and how religious beliefs get in the way of public policy. As narrow a scope as that might be, doing it well requires understanding quite a bit of U.S. history and legalese. (Also, how pleasantly ironic would it be if they asked an atheist about the bible? I felt confident I could hold my own against any Christian.)

Beyond that, I also knew the topics they tend to ask about regularly: world capitals, Shakespeare, history, geography. So, I memorized those capitals, brushed up on the outlines of Shakespeare plays (thank you, Wikipedia), and did my best to re-learn as much of that high school history as I could. I also took advantage of J-Archive.com, a fan-created, text-based collection of every question asked on the show, stretching back several years.

“Jeopardy!” records five episodes on each filming day, so when I arrived at the studio and met the other contestants, none of us knew which “day” we would be playing or who we’d be up against. It was incredible, really, being surrounded by people who are all about to have their dreams come true, knowing that most of those dreams would be dashed within hours.

Waiting to go on

We got to practice on stage with the buzzers. Later, I took my spot in the studio audience and waited for them to call my name. And waited. And waited. They filmed two full episodes before finally telling me I would be taping the “Wednesday” game. I went in for a quick touchup on my makeup, stood behind my assigned podium, and within minutes, the filming began. Alex Trebek was only a few feet away! But there was no time to think about that, because he immediately read off our first categories.

It was a nightmare. One category, about world languages, was nearly swept by the defending champion. Another one, about alcoholic drinks, was no good for a guy like me, whose liquid intake boils down to various kinds of Diet Pepsi. At the end of the first break, I was in a distant third place. I barely improved by the end of the “Jeopardy” round.

But the “Double Jeopardy” round was glorious. Planets! Theater! Crossword clues beginning with the letter “J”! Those were my sweet spots and I was able to capitalize on them, finishing the game with a solid $14,200. But with the very last clue, the defending champion took the lead by the slimmest of margins: $14,400.

With the other contestant at a mere $1,000, my fate depended on the “Final Jeopardy” category: Canadian Geography. (Two things I knew virtually nothing about.)

This is where strategic thinking came into play, since contestants have to wager before seeing the clue. I figured that if I got the answer right and bet everything, the champion would surely know it, too, and have enough money to beat me. My only hope was both of us missing it, with her wagering a lot of money on the assumption that I would go all in.

So, I made a tiny bet: $201. It would be enough to overtake her if I got it right, but more realistically, it was small enough that it might not hurt me if she also got it wrong. 

Then came the clue: “Canada’s Four Corners Monument marks the junction of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut & these two Prairie Provinces.”

Which provinces were the Prairie Provinces? I had no clue. So, I took a wild guess that was, as expected, incorrect. (Sorry, Canada!) I sat there, resigned to my fate, just waiting to hear what the champion did. To my shock, she also got it wrong. After a few tense seconds during which Alex told us the answer (Saskatchewan and Manitoba), the champion’s wager was revealed: She bet nearly everything she had!

“Hemant, congratulations, young man! You’re the new champion,” Alex said. Or at least that’s what I saw later on TV. In the moment, it was a complete blur. Somehow, I backpedaled my way into becoming a “Jeopardy!” champion!

Once the taping ended, and after a pre-scheduled lunch break, the producers shuffled me back into the green room, where I had a few minutes to change clothes before we filmed the very next episode.

This time, despite missing a “Daily Double,” I felt much more confident. And in “Double Jeopardy,” I felt like the nonexistent gods were on my side when Alex read off the name of a category called “Books of the Bible.” Without knowing it, I had been preparing for this for years.

Here was the first question: “Verses like ‘The Shuhamites . . . were threescore and four thousand and four hundred’ explain this book’s name.” (I buzzed in a split second too late and got beaten to “Numbers.”)

The next one: “St. John experienced this in a cave on the isle of Patmos and is said to have written the bible book of the same name.” The same contestant beat me to it and said “Revelations.” Damn! Alex responded in the affirmative, before the judges quickly ruled it was incorrect!

I caught the mistake within moments and jumped on it: “What is Revelation?” That was it. The pluralization was a common mistake, Alex said.

The questions got harder for me from there: “In the 4th chapter of this book, Peter and John are imprisoned in Jerusalem for preaching the Gospel.” I didn’t think “Jeopardy!” would ask about subtle differences between the first four books of the New Testament, so I buzzed in with the book right after those: “What is Acts?” That was right! I pushed my luck a bit more and went to the $1,600 clue.

“The bible book named for this woman is read during Shavuot, the holiday observed 50 days after Passover.” The second half of that clue meant nothing to me. A bible book named for a woman? It had to be Ruth or Esther, I thought, but which one? I knew Esther was always associated with the holiday of Purim, so I picked the other one. “What is Ruth?” It was right. I exhaled. Lucky break.

Those clues helped me go into “Final Jeopardy” with a slight lead over both my opponents, but I knew I would have to bet most of it to win again.

This time, the category was more to my liking: Classic American Novels. But the clue sent me into a daze: “Lady Duff Twysden was the basis for a character in this 1926 novel set partly in Spain.”

None of those hints rang any bells for me, so I took another random guess. It was wrong. This time, however, another contestant got it right and bid everything she had. (Her answer: What is The Sun Also Rises?)

Hey, if you lose on the show, that’s the way to go. I was perfectly content ending my one-game streak to someone who actually knew the right answer.

Emotional rollercoaster

The entire experience was an emotional rollercoaster. Yes, there was the incredible high of winning a game, but there were also (many) moments of frustration, wondering why I missed something I felt I should have known. But I got to meet Alex Trebek. I met these incredibly smart contestants from such different walks of life. It’s hard for me to imagine any other situation where I’ll casually become friends with an opera singer, attorney, screenwriter, political activist and journalist within a few hours, only to be bonded forever through this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

(In case you’re wondering, I didn’t tell the producers exactly what I did for a living and they never asked for specifics. I told them I was a blogger who wrote about religion and politics — which is accurate, if not specific — and left it at that.)

With the show now fully in my rear-view mirror, I would also share a few lessons that hit home for me.

Every contestant had plenty of opportunities to shine. It didn’t matter what our background was — the nature of the show meant we all had areas of expertise. No one should ever be counted out.

I’m also glad I auditioned even though I never expected to get picked. The experience of trying out would have been a memorable experience by itself. Everything else was just a bonus.

So, if you’re thinking about doing something challenging, go for it. Whether it’s a political campaign or a new career, you won’t know unless you try. Have confidence in yourself and make the most of any opportunity that comes your way.

At a time when everything around us seems bleak, it’s all the more reason to pursue those dreams. Who knows where you’ll end up?

FFRF Member Hemant Mehta, who spoke at FFRF’s national convention in 2019, writes “The Friendly Atheist” blog on Patheos.com.