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Conversations with Clayton: Johnny Trutor, Jeopardy Champion

A must read for anyone interested in making it on the show.

'Jeopardy!' Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational  Tournament Show Taping Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

In this installment of “Conversations with Clayton,” I sit down for a chat with my brother, Jeopardy champion Johnny Trutor.

Johnny was a one-day champion in March. In this interview, he displays the sense of humor and wit that made him such a fine representative for his home state of Vermont on the national stage. We discuss, among other things, the process of becoming a contestant on the show, what a day on the Sony lot filming Jeopardy is like and some of his greatest sports video game victories.

Clayton Trutor (CT): How did you get on Jeopardy?

Johnny Trutor (JT): Pretty much the same way everyone does these days. I took the online test that they advertise quarterly or every-so-often and received an audition a couple weeks later. I heard back from Sony a few days after the tryout and they booked me for the first tapings since Alex Trebek came back from his surgery. I’m kind of honored they chose me for those shows. I ended up being in the first game he played upon his return — and won.

CT: What is a day as a Jeopardy contestant like?

JT: You show up and they read lists of rules at you for legal purposes. You will retain literally none of it, because you’re just so excited to go out there and play the game. Then you play an altogether too brief warm-up round with one of the producers MCing, which was fun because the production staff don’t take it seriously. They’re joking with each other because for them, it’s Tuesday. For most of the contestants, it’s the MOMENT of your life. But I’ve already had that experience when I met Bob Diaco at a Kenny Rogers’ Roasters in the Philippines back in ‘06.

I played in the first game, won, changed in Erik Estrada’s old dressing room, came back out and lost in the second game, and then left. I thought it was weird when they asked me if I wanted to stay and watch other people play Jeopardy. Who does that? I got in the first cab to LAX and did my best Kurt Russell impression after having my driver stop at the In-N-Out right next to LAX so I could get a Double-Double.

CT: What did you find most surprising about your experience as a Jeopardy contestant?

JT: One of the hotels they use in Culver City is kind of a dump — it’s got that California all-used-up feel to it. I assume they’re trying to keep costs down (they’re not — it’s a national brand that you’ve heard of) for contestants, but I felt like the place was not that great. There wasn’t any luxury on the trip. Now granted, I was using their corporate rate at the hotel, but I’d be shocked if executives stayed there. Just the trivia show cannon fodder.

CT: What’s Alex really like?

JT: I wouldn’t know. I saw him at work with cameras on and a live studio audience. I met the same Alex Trebek that you see on your television every week. He’s a well-dressed Ontarian senior. He doesn’t turn into Ted Nugent during commercial breaks. Plus, dude was recovering from a serious medical scare.

CT: What advice would you give to someone who wants to make it onto Jeopardy?

JT: You know what the trivia parameters are — they’ve been doing this since 1984. If you need to work on your personality, that’s much harder. Be nice. Be kind to other contestants and the production folks. Don’t be stand-offish or egotistical. You’re there, you made it, good job! Be excited, but don’t be nervous. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t win. Of course, I’m a Jeopardy Champion, so it’s really easy for me to be all high and mighty here, but that’s the approach I took.

CT: Have you been recognized much in public?

JT: All the time. People like to shake your hand, take a selfie, I’ve even signed a couple of autographs. If you get tired easily of being a local celebrity, then why go on the show to begin with? I always try to take the time to thank anyone who says they watched for their support, and I try to learn something cool about them.

CT: How is the clicker?

JT: I made a promise to myself — I would not lift the clicker above my podium and make the OOOH OOOH TEACHER I KNOW face while I furiously clicked in and grunted into my mic. It’s not great, but I don’t think they’re going to find a better system. They test their clickers A LOT.

CT: What’s behind the podium?

JT: They have these hydraulic lifts for the shorter competitors. I am preternaturally tall for a Jeopardy contestant, even though they’ve had Kareem on before. All of my competitors were slowly lifted up to reach my height, which I found to be the most distracting thing about the show — you’ve got all of these people on pedestals next to you, and you feel like you’re only the third best bobsledder that day.

CT: Did you get to meet Johnny Gilbert?

JT: Biggest disappointment of the trip. Even more than not being able to think of the Beatles for my last day’s final jeopardy. He pronounced my name right, which was a plus, but he remains a mystery in a satin baseball jacket.

CT: Describe your greatest sports video game victory.

JT: What Clayton is doing here is letting me put myself over by talking about how I dominate him in Tecmo Super Bowl, R.B.I. Baseball, NHLPA ‘93, NBA Live ‘96, Bill Walsh College Football, Winter Olympics: Lillehammer ‘94 and Knockout Kings. What Clayton won’t tell you is that he’s secretly an elite-level NBA Jam player who makes Nick Van Exel play like Oscar Robertson. (Is this now relevant content?)

CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of _____________.

JT: I lived in Akron and Cleveland for a few years, and only made it down to Cincinnati once. Akron is post-apocalyptic, but not in the fun way and they had an OK deli. Cleveland is probably the worst place to raise a family, start a career or enjoy life in America. Centralia, Pennsylvania, you know, the ghost town with the trash fire that’s been burning under it since 1962? Practically Money Magazine’s No. 1 place to live when you compare it to Cleveland. But Cincinnati is a jewel of a city. Unlike crowded Columbus or dull Dayton, Cincinnati has a kind of vibrancy and sense of purpose that you can see in everyone’s face. I love the view from Carew tower. I also think of the “Florence, Y’all” Water Tower, which, strictly speaking, is in Florence, Kentucky.

Follow Johnny Trutor on Twitter: @JohnnyTrutor

For more of the same, follow me on Twitter too: @ClaytonTrutor