A Trivia Wiz Wins

Or, How a Professor Becomes a Game Show Contestant

by Fernando Quintero

For years, Daniel Melia, associate professor of rhetoric and Scandinavian studies, amazed his family and friends with his vast knowledge of trivia from the television game show "Jeopardy!"

Then last January, Melia wrote to the show's producers and asked to become a contestant.

"My teenage son told me, 'If you're so darn smart, why don't you go on the show and compete,'" said Melia. "I thought, 'Why not?'"

Melia's adventure as a game show contestant began when he received a form letter asking him to come to the show's studios in Los Angeles to take a test.

"It was sort of discouraging. The letter said 24,000 people a year take the test, and only about 400 actually get on the show," he said.

In February, Melia flew to Los Angeles at his own expense, and took the qualifying test along with 55 other game show hopefuls. The tests are conducted twice a week. Candidates are herded onto the set and seated where the studio audience sits during tapings of the show. A television monitor flashes 50 questions. Participants are given 30 seconds to respond. They must get at least 35 right in order to compete.

"I didn't think the questions were particularly hard," said Melia, who divides his time between the rhetoric and Scandinavian studies departments, where he teaches Celtic languages (Welsh and Irish), oral literature, folklore and medieval history.

"We were asked questions like, 'What is the famous racetrack where the Kentucky Derby is held?'"

Twelve people passed the test. Melia was one of them.

After the test, the candidates were asked to play a mock game where they practiced using the buzzer. Getting familiar with the hand-held device is critical because the first contestant to push the buzzer gets first crack at answering the questions-or as Jeopardy fans know, asking questions to match the answers.

Afterward, the contestants were given quick interviews to check on poise and personality. Melia was asked to return Feb. 24 and compete for a show that aired July 18, at the end of the show's 1996-97 season.

Before the show, Melia and the other contestants were kept in the "Green Room," where they sipped refreshments and nibbled on snacks. The taping began at noon.

"When it's your turn to go on, the stage manager gives you a little shove," Melia recalled. "The makeup lady pats you down a little during commercial breaks if you start to sweat too much. I wasn't all that nervous. I was too focused on the game."

Melia described the show's host, Alex Trebek, as "very nice." "He's good at putting people at ease."

Before the show, Melia was asked to list five "interesting" facts about himself, which Trebek shares with the studio and television audiences during introductions of the contestants.

Among the items Melia listed was the fact that he is editing an eighth century Irish manuscript, which Trebek took a special interest in.

In July, Melia returned to Los Angeles to compete for the show's current season. He won all five games, garnering $75,000 and a new Corvette. (On the show, the keys he was handed actually were for the stage manager's car-the Corvette has yet to be delivered).

"I had the choice between a Chevrolet Corvette, Suburban and Tahoe. I already have a Jeep," he said. "Besides, I haven't had my second childhood yet."

A check for his cash winnings will be mailed to him, with IRS and state taxes already deducted.

For Melia, competing on "Jeopardy!" was a rewarding experience, bringing him fortune and fame. He has received email messages, calls and letters from long lost acquaintances and even fans who admired his on-screen performance.

From his colleagues on campus, he received an email message from philosophy professor emeritus Wallace Matson who wrote: "You've fulfilled my Walter Mitty fantasy."

At a back-to-school party held annually by colleagues in the Department of Scandinavian Studies, Melia got to watch himself on the show.

"I was interested in how calm I looked. Years in front of standing in front of class gives you an air of calm," he said.

"Jeopardy!" Quiz

  • Twice in "Final Jeopardy," Melia was the only one to offer the correct reply. Under the category "Detective Stories" (Melia just happens to be a detective novel fan), he was told: "'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and 'The Mystery of Marie Roget' are mentioned in the first paragraph of this 1845 detective story." The correct answer: "What is 'Purloined Letter.'"

  • Under the category, "Famous Republicans," Melia was told: "He died in Topeka, Kansas, in 1987 at the age of 100." Correct response: "Who is Alf Landon."
    "He lost the presidency to Franklin Roosevelt by the greatest margin ever. He was kind of a hero of mine. He was a great elder statesman," said Melia. "Nobody else had a clue who he was."

  • Also: "Written in 1517, the 62nd of these is, 'the true treasure of the church is the holy Gospel of...God." The correct response: "What are Luther's 95 Theses."

  • Among the ones Melia got wrong was: "He invented the famous term 'Flower Power.'" Melia guessed Rod McKuen. It was Allen Ginsberg.

  • "Biblical Death Sentences" was Melia's favorite category. "'St. Stephen was stoned to death' was one of the ones I got right," said Melia. He got all the others right, too.


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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