There are two things I learned during my star-turn as a “celebrity” contestant on “Jeopardy!” One, if you’re obsessed with crossword puzzles, you’ll be fine. Two, that buzzer is a #*&$%! But the best part of the whole experience was playing for charity. And the charity I chose, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, serves some of the most vulnerable among us: homeless and at-risk youth.
When I received the February email from the “Jeopardy!” talent executive inviting me to be a part of their D.C. “Power Players” tapings in April, I freaked out. Come on, folks! You would, too! It’s “Jeopardy!”! I thought I was being punked. Not only was that not the case, I didn’t even have to try out. All I needed to do was show up and play to win for my charity.
Since 1974, Sasha Bruce has worked with homeless, disadvantaged and at-risk youth (mostly kids of color, many of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) in the District. The organization’s dedicated staffers provide a range of services, including a 24-hour emergency shelter in the District where homeless youth can find a safe place to sleep, shower and get clean clothes and a meal. Sasha Bruce’s various programs have reached about 1,500 young people and 5,000 family members.
The importance of Sasha Bruce’s work was powerfully brought home to me when I emceed the annual gala dinner last month and introduced Danielle, one of the young people helped by the organization. For such a young life, she had already endured enough physical and emotional abuse to last a lifetime. As her tears flowed, so did mine. Her story of suffering and resilience that is giving way to one of thriving determination was a reminder of why I picked Sasha Bruce as my “Jeopardy!” charity.
Going into the “Power Players” taping, I knew that Sasha Bruce would receive at least $10,000. The winner’s charity would get a maximum of $50,000. So, my goal was to not embarrass myself, my employers, family, friends and anyone else who might care. The thing I learned during some online practice sessions and on stage at DAR Constitution Hall was that the “Jeopardy!” clues are written like crossword puzzle clues. If you do them, you know that your brain has to contort itself in any number of ways to get suss out the puns, plays on words and visual cues that reveal their answers. That turned out to be the easy part. The hard part was the buzzer.
Die-hard viewers know that you can’t buzz in until the blue lights appear on the side of the game board. If you buzz in early you get penalized. Your buzzer goes on lockdown for about a quarter of a second. There were a few times when I had the answer but not the clicking skills to be first on the buzzer. But during the second commercial break, comedian Louis C.K. said something to me and CNN’s Kate Bolduan that was a light-bulb moment for me.
“I’ve been buzzing in early,” he said. Bolduan and I were like, “How does that even happen?” Turns out, Louie remembered something I’d forgotten from our pre-show briefing. You are not allowed to start buzzing until legendary host Alex Trebek stops reading the clue. Once that happens, the blue lights go on. Because there’s a human being who makes that happen, there is a nanosecond’s worth of time to hit the buzzer before your competitors.
So, in the space of what was probably about five seconds, I read the clue then followed Trebek to figure out what the answer was and awaited his last syllable. The moment that happened, my thumb went into action. Thanks to Louie, I had a good run there, made better by getting questions on the arts and D.C. history correct and rolling through most of the “I heart capes” category. Funny how I didn’t know where conservative radio man Rush Limbaugh was born for $1,800. “Liberal bias,” no doubt.
The episode aired Wednesday, so I can tell you that Louie emerged victorious. But my second-place finish earned Sasha Bruce $14,800. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj