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Kathy Holley, Allison's mom, dishes about the show in this Q&A.
Kathy Holley, Allison’s mom, dishes about the show in this Q&A.

Editor’s note: Racine native Allison Holley will be a contestant on Jeopardy at 6 p.m. Thursday on CBS 58. Her mom Kathy Holley gives us the scoop on what it’s like behind the scenes by writing this Q&A about the show.

“This…is…Jeopardy! Now let’s meet today’s contestants…” For the past 30 years or so, I’ve heard announcer Johnny Gilbert say those familiar words on a regular basis.  But there’s no way to describe what it’s like when he introduces one of the contestants as: “A senior at Lawrence University, originally from Racine, Wisconsin, Allison Holley!” Because that’s just not any contestant. It’s my daughter and I’m sitting in the audience, applauding like crazy.

That was in January, and the College Championship shows are being aired this week and next. Since then, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the experience. I’ll try to answer some of them here:

How did Allison get on the Jeopardy College Championship?

She’s been a Jeopardy! fan for years, watching virtually every episode since she was in middle school. She thrives on this kind of competition and is on Lawrence University’s Academic Quiz Bowl team and takes part in the Great Midwest Trivia Challenge. In September, she took the online test (50 questions in 15 minutes) to qualify for the College Championship, along with about 5,000 other students. Her scores earned her an invitation to a 3-hour audition in Chicago, held in November (250 students auditioned at four locations around the country), where she took another test, played a mock game, and interacted with the show’s producers. They then selected 15 students for the competition and she was one of them—she got a phone call on December 2 with the good news.

So what did this entail?

We went to Los Angeles for five days in January (her expenses were paid; mine were not). Jeopardy’s special events (like the College Championship) run for two weeks but are taped in just two days. We had a day to travel, a day to unwind, two days for the taping, then a day to travel back home. All the contestants stayed in the same hotel but other than the taping days, we didn’t have any scheduled activities.

How is the Championship structured?

Jeopardy! tapes five shows (a week’s worth) in a single day. Because the College Championship airs over two weeks, there were two days of taping. Fifteen students start (3 students per day for 5 days), 9 move on to the semifinals (the winner of each quarterfinal and four wild-card contestants with the highest totals from their games), and then the winner of each semifinal game plays in a two-day finale. Each contestant receives $5,000 minimum; semifinalists get $10,000; and the prizes in the final are $25,000, $50,000, and $100,000.

What happens on taping day?

The 15 contestants finally met as they gathered in the hotel lobby at 7 on Tuesday morning. They were wearing sweatshirts with the names of their schools, and they immediately started chatting and connecting. They got onto a minibus and were taken to the studio for makeup, some practice rounds, and to shoot publicity photos and promo videos. Family and guests had to show up several hours later, stand in line, and go through security with the rest of the people who would be in the audience.

Three shows are taped, starting late in the morning, then there’s a break for lunch (and a new studio audience comes in), and two more shows are taped in the afternoon. The studio is more compact that it appears on TV, but the set itself is even brighter, shinier, and more colorful, if that’s possible.

Guests of the contestants are seated in a different area of the studio than the rest of the audience, out of the line of sight of the contestants on the stage. We were cautioned to not wave, smile, signal, whisper answers, or even make eye contact with our student—the show is scrupulous about everything being secure and honest.

The announcer warms up the audience and goes over the ground rules. The show is taped in real-time; there is a break in the action that corresponds with the length of each commercial break. During breaks, the show’s host, Alex Trebek answers questions from the audience or will sometimes re-record his audio for one of the clues he had just said, in order to correct a pronunciation or change the delivery.

Then the lights dim, the familiar music is heard, and boom, the first game is underway. We don’t know what order the students will be appearing (Allison doesn’t play until the fourth game of the day). The other contestants are secluded in the Green Room, watching movies and playing Jenga while they wait their turn. They can’t watch the other games, so they don’t know who’s winning or what their final totals are (which would provide an unfair wagering advantage for those going later).

After each show there’s a break, while Trebek has a wardrobe change and the next round of contestants are prepared. Audience members can wander around—there are displays in the hallways outside the studio to look at, full of Jeopardy! paraphernalia, including a mock contestant set and a cardboard cutout of Trebek for selfie opportunities.

Is it hard being on the show?

While it may seem easy to shout out the correct answers when you’re watching at home, there’s more to Jeopardy! than just knowing a lot of stuff. The show also requires skill, strategy, and luck. Oh, and don’t forget to factor in nerves!

Competitors have to buzz in at just the right moment—that split second when Trebek finishes reading the answer. There are lights on the stage that TV viewers can’t see and contestants can only buzz in when those lights go off. If you buzz too soon, you get locked out for a couple of seconds, which is an eternity when you’ve got two other competitors also eager to answer.  That’s why you’ll sometimes see contestants on the show frantically pushing their buzzer but not getting through—they’re locked out.

Wagering is also crucial, whether on Daily Doubles or Final Jeopardy. Because contestants in the quarterfinals of the College Championship are also trying for those wild-card spots, it’s even more tricky. Do you bet it all and risk ending up with nothing or make a wager that could still earn you a spot in the next round, even if you’re wrong?

And sometimes it just comes down to the categories of questions in the game. I cringed when “Broadway Musicals” came up in the very first game—Allison would have aced that one. She wasn’t nearly as happy with the “Athletes in the Headlines” category that came up in her game. But that’s just how it goes.

So what’s Alex Trebek really like?

Well, he’s just like you see on TV—because that’s really all you see of him. On taping days he arrives at 7 a.m. to practice reading all the answers for that days’ shows (5 shows x 61 answers per show = 305 answers!). By design, the only contact he has with the contestants or the audience is when he’s on the set. He is professional, dapper, personable, and funny when he answers questions from the audience. What does he do on his days off? “I drink,” he deadpans. “A lot. My doctor keeps telling me to quit, but I’m no quitter.” The audience loves it.

What were the other contestants like?

After both days of shows were taped, the college contestants could finally relax and enjoy a reception held in their honor. They got some Jeopardy! swag, chatted and posed for pictures with each other and members of the Clue Crew and the show’s staff. They are all very similar: funny, smart, talkative, likable young people who now share a unique bond. The producers commended them for their hard work and pointed out that this was one of the strongest college championships they’ve ever had, with high game totals and tough competitors. That evening, several of them went out to celebrate some more.

So how did she do?

Well, I can’t say. Keeping quiet about this for the past month has been hard. Every student came to compete with hopes of winning it all, and all but one of them went home wishing they had done a little better. While they had a great experience, each one of them will always remember that question that they missed…or the wager that they made…and wonder how things might have turned out differently.

Allison’s goal was to not embarrass herself or her school, and to not end the game with no money, and she accomplished that. She played very well. We’re incredibly proud of her for taking a bold step and making this bucket-list dream into reality at a very young age.

What’s next for Allison?

She’ll graduate in June with a double major in English and Spanish. She’s applied to several graduate schools and plans to earn a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. But no matter where she goes from here, she will always be able to say that yes, she was a contestant on Jeopardy!

The interest and support from the community regarding this adventure has been so encouraging for Allison and our family, and we’re really grateful. We never realized how many people are also Jeopardy! fans and it’s exciting for them when someone they know actually gets on the show.

Fun facts:

  •  Allison has been destined to be on Jeopardy! for a long time. She got her first Final Jeopardy question right when she was just 9 years old. It was on June 10, 2004, and the answer was: “This title character was created by former marine biology educator Steve Hillenburg.” The question? “Who is SpongeBob SquarePants?” She knew it right away. There’s not a place for this in most baby books.
  •  Allison is a 2013 graduate of Case High school and earned the International Baccalaureate Full Diploma. Interestingly, she is the second Case IB FD student to be on Jeopardy!—Charles Swanson competed on the show in 2009. And for the record, all-time Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings is also an IB FD graduate.
  •  You never know who might grow up to be a Jeopardy! contestant. Allison was just a regular Racine kid: a student at Goodland and Jefferson Lighthouse Elementary, McKinley Middle School, and Case High. She was a Girl Scout, performed in many high school musicals and the Kiwanis Youth Symphony, and sings in the choir at Faith Community Church. You might have seen her working at Papa Murphy’s, Malicki’s Piggly Wiggly, or as an intern at the Racine Public Library. But now she can add “Jeopardy! contestant” to her resume.

Editor’s note: Racine native Allison Holley will be a contestant on Jeopardy at 6 p.m. Thursday on CBS 58. Her mom Kathy Holley gives us the scoop on what it’s like behind the scenes by writing this Q&A about the show.




Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.