What happens to a world-class Jeopardy player when the competition ends, the lights go dark and the audience moves on to the next big thing?
He comes to work at the Port Authority, of course.
Justin Bernbach, the new Director of Government Relations-New York for the Port Authority, is a seven-time champion and former contestant in the Tournament of Champions of one of America’s most venerable game shows.
So Portfolio wanted to know, among other things: Was being a Jeopardy champion in his DNA? What is Alex Trebek really like? And why do none of the contestants ever sweat? The category of this Portfolio episode of Final Jeopardy is “Reality Shows: Before & After.”
Q – Do you think you were born to be a Jeopardy champion?
A – I was actually born to be a “Card Sharks” contestant. It didn’t take long to understand that you should always say “higher” when you saw a card less than 8, “lower” when you saw a card higher than 8 and “pass” when you saw an 8 – a seemingly simple rule of thumb that eluded many adults four to five times my age. Unfortunately, that show was cruelly and prematurely removed from the airwaves before I came of age. I then turned my attention to the “Merv Griffin” game shows but was perplexed by “Wheel of Fortune,” where people were routinely forced to purchase ceramic Dalmatians with their hard-earned winnings. Jeopardy dealt only in cash, which seemed to me a much more honorable way of doing business.
Q – Alex Trebek always seems so disappointed to hear a wrong answer, as if he feels sympathy that he’s so smart and you aren’t. What were your interactions like?
A – There weren’t many interactions to be honest. The only time Alex talks to the contestants is in the final seconds of the show after Final Jeopardy. As the theme music plays, you will see (but not hear) the carefree bantering between Alex and the three contestants. As soon as the music ends and the cameras stop rolling, Alex basically sprints backstage and is not seen or heard from again until the next taping begins.
Q – How did you become a contestant in the first place? What was the test like?
A – My motivation for taking the online test was very simple: I needed the money. As for the test itself, I can’t remember any of the questions I got right, but I do remember one I blanked on: The correct response was “Who is Nina Totenberg?” For a month or so after the test, when I thought that miss had cost me my opportunity to be on TV, I camped outside NPR’s offices waiting for my chance to confront Ms. Totenberg about her not being more memorable. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity.
Q – Did you eat a special diet of champions before your appearances. If so, what was it?
A – I ate the same thing I eat the morning of all important events in my life, including my wedding, the birth of my children, the SATs, my driving test, Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, etc.: scrambled eggs, bacon, home fries, rye toast, black coffee.
Q – None of the contestants ever seem to sweat. Why is that?
A – Jeopardy knows that “sweat doesn’t sell.” So the show typically pumps cold air into the studio. Unfortunately, on the day of my taping the HVAC system was down so all contestants were required to stand ankle deep in ice buckets set up behind the podiums.
Q – Describe the moment of Final Jeopardy when you’re standing there trying to come up with the answer. Is that irritating music playing?
A – Little known fact: The famous Jeopardy theme music is actually added post-production. In the studio during Final Jeopardy, the song that actually plays is “Welcome to My Nightmare” by Alice Cooper.
Q – Describe your most memorable Final Jeopardy round: what was the question, how much did you wager, and did you win?
A –The most memorable one was, of course, the one that knocked me out of the Tournament of Champions. The category was Opera, and all three contestants got it wrong. Had I gotten it right, I would have advanced to the tournament finals and may have even won it all and taken my rightful place alongside other household names such as Ryan Holznagel, Russ Schumacher and Celeste DiNucci.
Q – Do you have your sights set on another game show, perhaps recreating your spectacular Jeopardy run?
Ultimately, I don’t have a burning desire to continue my game show career. There is only one Jeopardy and the other options seem a bit beneath my dignity. On the other hand, I still need the money so you really never know.