When Matt Ribel (19C) took the “Jeopardy!” test in April 2019, he didn’t think much would come of his attempt to compete on “America’s Favorite Quiz Show.” He was sitting on Emory’s Quadrangle a few weeks later when he received an email: out of the roughly 100,000 applicants each year, Ribel had been invited to the next round of auditions in Washington, D.C.
What followed was a rigorous application process that involved two additional paper tests, a simulated live-round of play and an eight-month waiting period. Eventually, he got a call in early February 2020. By that time, Ribel had already graduated from Emory and taken a job as a speechwriter in D.C.
“I waited eight months before I heard anything and at that point had basically forgotten about it,” Ribel said.
The “Jeopardy!” production team gives contestants just two weeks to prepare for the show’s official tapings. Ribel said he didn’t prepare much for the show, instead focusing on mastering the buzzer, as well as studying a few of his “known unknowns.” For Ribel, these were mostly fine arts and humanities categories.
“The little studying that I did do — maybe a day or two — prior to leaving for LA, was literally, I was reading a page from ‘The Bible for Dummies,’” Ribel said.
In addition to studying the book, Ribel said he read up on opera, Renaissance art and musical theater. He felt confident in topics related to politics and geography. In the end, he said the studying did not prepare him for the overwhelming experience of the game show.
“It’s not like cramming for an AP exam where you know what you need to know,” he said. “I talked to people who had been on the show, [and] they told me studying will independently probably only stress you out, but it kind of depends on how you work. And I knew that would be the case for me.”
Ribel said he watched about 50 episodes in the eight months prior to his taping as well as two dozen more episodes in the two-week period leading up to the taping.
On Feb. 18 and 19, Ribel and his family flew to Culver City, California, where the “Jeopardy!” set is located at Sony Pictures Studios. At 7 a.m., he and the other contestants took a shuttle to the studio, where they began to prepare for the day.
“I was kind of expecting a weird high school debate sort of dynamic where everybody is kind of on edge and trying to engage in these weird psych-out tactics,” Ribel said. “I found that everybody was very friendly and … made it a lot less stressful than it could have been.”
The studio tapes each week’s five episodes in a single day to accommodate contestants who fly in from across the country as well as long-time host Alex Trebek, who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2019.
Ribel, who met Trebek for the first time during his taping, expressed gratitude for being able to compete while Trebek still hosted the show.
“He is an enormous presence,” Ribel said. “He really commands that entire room. … It’s great to be able to get on now and have that opportunity.”
Ribel described the experience as completely different from what viewers see at home. For starters, the studio could be as cold as 55 degrees; Ribel said he even saw people wearing coats and gloves before the taping. Though he had the chance to rehearse his introduction and practice with the buzzer, the experience was still foreign to him.
“One thing that did strike me is … how much harder it is there then at home when you’re watching on TV, just cause there’s so much stimulus,” he said.
Ribel was surprised to learn that the clues were smaller than they appear on screen, forcing contestants to squint across the stage to see them. Contestants also must wait to buzz in until Trebek finishes reading the clue, or else they risk a time penalty that effectively locks them out of the question.
Ribel’s parents, Shannon and Jeff Ribel, described a palpable air of stress as they watched their son compete.
“I was completely nervous — it was nerve wracking,” Shannon said. “You want to watch your child do well. And then you sit there and have to wait to see who’s next [to compete]. … Each time you’re like, ‘Is it going to be them? Is it going to be them?’”
But once Ribel finally went on stage, the experience flew by.
“There’s this huge rush of adrenaline,” Ribel said. “You may or may not blackout. And then when it’s over, it’s over very quickly because [the show is] a well-oiled machine.”
Since the taping, Ribel’s D.C. coworkers have attempted to discover the outcome of the taping, but Ribel, like all contestants, is bound by a non-disclosure agreement not to talk about the results of the show.
Director of Emory Conference Services and Housing Administration Sherry Ebrahimi (97C), who became familiar with Ribel while he was president of Alpha Tau Omega, said she is excited to watch him compete on the show.
“I can’t wait to see him on TV,” Ebrahimi said. “I’ll definitely be watching with friends ready to see him be the next super ‘Jeopardy!’ champ.”
Ribel advised prospective contestants to watch the show as much as possible and to take the online test more than once.
“Everybody who enjoys the show and wants to be on it should take the online test whenever the opportunity comes up,” he said.
Ribel is not the first Emory alumnus to compete this year. Mandy DeLucia (97C) competed this past Monday, earning a 2nd-place finish.
Ribel’s appearance on “Jeopardy!” will air on April 27 on CBS.