When James T. Spencer, director of the Syracuse University Brass Ensemble (SUBE), turned to accept the applause at the 2018 Great American Brass Band Festival (GABBF) in Danville, Kentucky, he joked to himself, “Now what do we do for an…
Grad Student to Appear on ‘Jeopardy!’ on March 12
What started with a passion for trivia in high school (along with a couple of appearances on a local TV academic quiz show) has led to a moment Ashley O’Mara’s youth pastor knew would one day arrive.
“He told me that he wanted to take me on “Jeopardy!” because I knew the answer to his every question,” says O’Mara. “Even the non-religion ones.”
O’Mara, a Ph.D. candidate in English in the College of Arts and Sciences, says it started with taking an online test. She received an email from show producers this past summer.
“They invited me to audition in New York City in July,” says O’Mara. “Although I felt reasonably confident about my performance at the audition, I never once thought that I might get a call back to be a contestant in December!”
We asked Ashley to tell us how it all came together, and why show producers have put together a power point about a much-missed mustache.
01When will the episode air, and how much are you allowed to share about your experience?
The episode will air on Monday, March 12 (check your local listings for time and station information). I can’t say how well I did or if I’ll be on more than one episode, but I can say that it was a lot of fun. I got the insider scoop on making the show, I got to meet some awesome contestants and I got my makeup professionally done by Alex Trebek’s makeup artist. I also got to miss the first big snowstorm back in Syracuse, although since we filmed right after the massive Skirball wildfires, I traded snow for some pretty eerie ashfall. (I took photos of the burnt-out hills outside the Getty Museum.)
The “Jeopardy!” production team was really the best part of the whole experience. Throughout the audition process, the green room orientation sessions and the dress rehearsal, they went out of their way to make sure we were pumped with excitement and having fun. The most disappointing part was that we never got to properly meet Alex Trebek! When you see him interviewing me after the break, that’s the first time I’d ever talked to him.
02As a Ph.D. student, do you feel you had a competitive edge against others on the show?
I actually feel like being a Ph.D. student was somewhat of a disadvantage! I spend so much time working in a narrow field of study that I haven’t kept on top of all the trivia I knew as an undergrad (the legendary grad-student memory loss is real). I spent the weeks before filming brushing up on my constellations and dead Russian composers, and paying close attention to the historical details in the lyrics to “Hamilton.” But I was definitely prepared to answer any and all Shakespeare questions.
For me, the real advantage came from being a teacher. All the teaching experience I get in the English program more than prepared me to get on the show. Between engaging an audience at least twice a week and working a brand-new classroom at the start of every semester, I’ve practiced a high-energy personality that plays well on TV and I no longer have stage fright. The “Jeopardy!” team specifically searches for candidates that make for entertaining television, and teaching definitely gave me a leg up there. Plus, I had all the well-wishes of my wonderful students cheering me on.
03Was it difficult to try out as a contestant?
There is a very large element of luck to getting on the show. Even if you do well on the online test, only a fraction of high-scoring applicants are randomly invited to audition. The audition itself has another 50-question test (I can’t talk about the questions, but I will mention that the selection was, again, very lucky for me). They also do a screen test, which involves playing a practice round of “Jeopardy!” and talking about yourself as if Alex Trebek were interviewing you. You’re tested as much for your personality as you are for your knowledge—again, they want to see people who will be fun to watch on TV.
After the audition, we were told that we would hear back from “Jeopardy!” either within 18 months or never (in which case, feel free to apply again). I met some people there trying out for their second or fifth time (Ken Jennings allegedly auditioned seven times!). But again, with luck, I got my call right before Thanksgiving break and I was in LA to play within a month.
04What surprised you most about the experience? Was there anything unexpected?
People really miss Alex Trebek’s mustache! He answers audience questions during breaks in the filming, and people have asked about his mustache so often that the crew has a PowerPoint of highlights from his mustachioed past ready to go on demand.
One bonus perk of trying out for “Jeopardy” was that the evening before my audition in New York City, I saw a taping of “The Daily Show” with my family. On our way back from dinner afterwards, we ran into Trevor Noah on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. He’s such a sweetheart—he even took selfies with us!
About Syracuse University
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