Nightly viewers of Jeopardy! often find themselves dreaming of being a contestant on the iconic television game show. For Portsmouth’s Paul Pompetti, that dream became reality when he appeared on March 26 in an episode and (spoiler alert) finished in second place and took home a cash prize of $2,000 (before taxes). A fan of the show since he was a teen, Pompetti felt a rush of adrenaline when he reached for the buzzer and correctly answered the very first question. The URI graduate works in IT at Raytheon and credits his lifelong curiosity about the world and his joy of reading to his mother Mary Kay, who frequently took Pompetti and his sisters to their local library in Cranston while growing up. Now, he gives us an exclusive behind-the-scenes look into this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
HISTORY FOR $500: I tried for college Jeopardy! in 1995. I did very well but for whatever reason I wasn’t selected. In 2016, I got an audition and went to NYC. I wanted them to see how serious I was – maybe I was too serious – [and] again nothing happened. There are message boards online with advice to be outgoing and have fun. So, when I got an audition in 2019, I brought my A-game: I was talking to everyone and smiling during the audition, and I got selected. In March 2020, I was told to come out to California for the first week of April and that the show would broadcast at the end of June. Everything got postponed.
COVID FOR $200: In mid-January, they told me I would get to go. My wife and I flew out the first week of February. There was no Green Room where the contestants normally hang out to get to know each other. Instead of a studio audience of 200 people, the contestants were spread out in the audience. We had to wear a mask all day, there was no studio tour, and the gift shop was closed. The most disappointing part was missing out on Alex Trebek.
WHO IS… THE HOST?: I knew the host would be one of four people – Aaron Rodgers, Katie Couric, Bill Whitaker, or Mayim Bialik. Instead, it was Dr. Oz, a complete surprise. There was a lot of pushback because Dr. Oz is known for not always telling the truth on his show and Jeopardy! is all about truth.
PERSONAL FINANCE FOR $300: Contestants pay for everything – plane, hotel, etc. The only thing they provided was lunch on the day of filming, which was 6:45am to 7pm.
FINAL JEOPARDY: The first half was close. In the second half, Susan [winner] got the buzzer faster. It came down to the Final Jeopardy question on 19th Century Americans – it was about Yosemite Park. You have 30 seconds, the lights are down, and the “think” music is playing. I knew I had to write something. I wrote Zebulon Pike, completely wrong. The answer was John Muir. Susan had visited 27 National Parks so she knew the answer. Your dream is to get on the show and you can only be on the show one time. You get so close to the goal and you come up a little short, but it brought a lot of joy to my family and friends, especially during COVID.