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Behind the Scenes of “Jeopardy!” with Mayim Bialik

I’ve been watching “Jeopardy!” my entire life.
[additional-authors]
October 27, 2022
Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

I’ve been watching “Jeopardy!” my entire life. My mom put it on every night when I was growing up, and we’d watch it and answer the questions together. I got most of the answers wrong. God forbid I would forget to phrase my answer as a question. That’s a serious faux pas in the world of “Jeopardy!”  

When I went to college, instead of putting me in a dorm room, my mom bought a house near my campus where I would live. All she needed to do was find me a roommate. She placed an ad on Craigslist, and on my first day there, I met my new roommate Arthur, a shy 22-year-old with thick-rimmed glasses who went to a prestigious university nearby. 

Years later, Arthur was popping up all over the news. It turns out he had won “Jeopardy!” And he was also probably the most hated contestant in the show’s history. Yes, he was that Arthur: Arthur Chu, the infamous “Jeopardy!” villain who aggressively jumped all over the board and earned nearly $300,000 on the show. 

I laughed about this with Mayim Bialik on a recent Sunday in her dressing room at “Celebrity Jeopardy!” I had just watched two tapings of the show featuring celebrities Aisha Tyler, John Michael Higgins, Hasan Minhaj and Matt Rogers. 

Mayim, who had to film four episodes that day, was her usual personable and professional self. She’s a down-to-earth, kind superstar who secured her syndicated “Jeopardy!” hosting gig in the funniest way. 

“My son saw a post on social media that ‘Jeopardy!’ was looking for guest hosts,” she said. “He said, ‘Mama, you should be the host.’ I said, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ but I asked my agent, and sure enough, they had me come on. It was really nuts. My kid was right.” 

Mayim, who worked with Alex Trebek when he appeared on a 1995 episode of her show, “Blossom,” tries to answer the questions in her head while she’s hosting. “I’ve definitely made my share of mistakes, but often my mistakes come from just how fast-paced the show is, and how you have to make decisions quickly,” she said. 

During one of the episodes taped, a contestant failed to phrase their answer in the form of  a question — a classic mistake, and one that I made many times growing up. Unlike when I was a kid, though, I got almost all the answers right, so I decided that the producers must have written easier questions for the celebrities. 

While Mayim would like to compete on “Jeopardy!” for real, she’s nervous about how she’d perform. “There are certain categories I feel more comfortable with than others,” she said. But I am doing ‘Celebrity Wheel of Fortune’ for charity.”

Jewish questions seem to come up on “Jeopardy!” from time to time. Last fall, Mayim remembered, there was a question in the “Sabbath” category about cooking cholent:  “Exodus 35:3 bans doing this on the Sabbath, hence the Jewish dish ‘cholent,’ which can go on the stove Friday and cook until Saturday lunch.”  Both contestants got the answer wrong; one said, “What is cooking?” and the other said, “What is work?” The correct answer was “What is ‘lighting a fire?’”

Even though Mayim is an observant Jew, she doesn’t write the questions. When I was at the taping, another Jewish question came up, and it led to a low-toned argument between audience members during the commercial break.

“That’s not the right answer,” one man in front of me said. 

“Yes, it was,” a woman nearby quickly responded. “I went to Hebrew day school.”

“I’m Orthodox. Do you need me to call my rabbi?” I said, trying to lighten the mood. 

Of course this happened, I thought. In Jewish culture, we question everything! Then I thought: We’re actually perfect contestants for “Jeopardy!”

Mayim is deeply engaged in her religion and culture and is a proud Jew online, which is becoming more and more important these days. Recently, she posted herself building her sukkah, and she frequently wishes her followers a “Shabbat Shalom” and tells them when she’s going offline for the holidays or Shabbat.

“Shabbos is my only guaranteed quiet time,” she said. 

In the Jewish New Year, Mayim is taking up chanting the Torah at her synagogue, which she did over the High Holidays. When she isn’t hosting special episodes of “Jeopardy!” she’s starring on her own sitcom, “Call Me Kat,” and recording her podcast, “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown,” where she discusses mental health. She also spends as much time as possible with her two teenage boys.

“It’s been an interesting and hectic fall,” she said. “My kids have some trips on the weekend, but I try to rest as much as possible.”

The “Jeopardy!” hosting gig is perfect for Mayim, a neuroscientist whose family always emphasized learning.

“I was raised with a love of information and a love of knowledge.” – Mayim Bialik

“I was raised with a love of information and a love of knowledge,” Mayim said.  “My mom’s parents never really spoke English and never drove a car. I come from a family where there was a big shift in really embracing learning. So for me, that feels very consistent with a lot of what I get to do at ‘Jeopardy!’ I get to learn things and help other people learn things.”

To this I responded, “All the questioning reminds me of the Gemara. You answer a question with a question.”

Mayim laughed. “That’s right. It’s true. It’s a very halachically inclined format.”  

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