Diane Mezzanotte remembers watching "Jeopardy" as a teenager with her grandparents back home in Hampton, Pa., back when Art Fleming was still the host. She wasn't exactly sure then, or now, what the appeal was — but as the years went by, she realized she did know one thing: She wanted to compete on the show.
"Maybe there's some kind of emotional appeal in knowing the right answer," Mezzanotte said. "A lot of us collect this trivial knowledge in our lives. We fill our minds with stuff, and there's really no chance to take that knowledge and make it into something. I've always loved the show, and I've been dreaming and trying for years to get on."
It's a lifelong dream that did come true for Mezzanotte, 49, of Laurel. After almost a year since her most recent audition, she'll appear on the show Thursday, April 11, facing down Alex Trebek's questions, buzzer at the ready.
"I wasn't nervous, not like I expected," said Mezzanotte, who taped her appearance in November 2012 in Los Angeles. "It was all excitement, and adrenaline. It was all a blur: I don't even remember the questions. I can't remember the actual taping, it was such blur."
Mezzanotte has been trying to get on the show since she was in college. Once a year, "Jeopardy" posts a test online and if a person does well enough on the online test, Mezzanotte said, their name goes into a pool, where names are randomly drawn for a second round of testing. Before the Internet era, Mezzanotte and other contestant hopefuls would send in their names on a postcard — no testing required — with contestants also being chosen at random.
Mezzanotte, who works at Fort Meade as a federal government writer, had been selected for the second round of testing twice before, and she's traveled to testing centers in Washington and Philadelphia. If a hopeful answers enough questions correctly, the show's assistants ask them to stick around for a mock "Jeopardy" game. Then, Mezzanotte said, your name goes on a list and stays on the list for 18 months. It's not, however, a guarantee that a person will appear on the show.
"They'd never called before," Mezzanotte said. "I'd been waiting for a call twice before, and I didn't think that this time around it would be any different. I didn't even study. I thought, they're never going to call me, I'm getting too old for this, so this'll be my last time trying."
But of course, after the long and tedious testing process, "Jeopardy" did come calling, and Mezzanotte got on a train bound for Los Angeles the day after Thanksgiving. Her destination was the studio where, over the course of two days, the five episodes airing this week were taped. The taping, too, was a blur, she said, and the most difficult part of competing on "Jeopardy" was buzzing in on time.
"You practice in rehearsals, and the assistants tell you what to do and what not to do," Mezzanotte said. "You can't ring in until Alex is done with the question and an indicator light goes on. But if you try ringing in too soon, you're locked out for like, half a second. And they have the buzzers calibrated to about 1/1,000th of a second, but if two people are trying to ring in at the same time, one's going to get locked out. That's the worst part — getting the timing down."
Tackling the bucket list
The trip out to Los Angeles, which Mezzanotte had to pay for, was a chance for her to fulfill another lifelong dream: taking a train across the country.
"I was just knocking off bucket item lists," she said. "That was almost as big an experience as being on 'Jeopardy.' It was phenomenal. When you take the train, you see a very different part of America. There were 160-some stops, so I saw 160 towns and cities I never would have seen otherwise."
On the train, a person sees a lot of rural America — "unending corn and wheat fields, and wind farms" — and the outskirts of cities along the train tracks with a lot of graffiti and boarded-up factories, rather than the downtowns tourists flock to, Mezzanotte said.
Mezzanotte spent the train ride talking to fellow passengers, "studying" — doing crosswords and flipping through a children's almanac to cram in as many facts as possible before the show — and in the observation car, watching the country speed by.
"I had my face pressed against the windows," she said. "It was so incredible to see it all unfolding outside these windows. I hated going to sleep, because the train doesn't stop, and I felt I was missing all these things I wanted to see."
Now, Mezzanotte said, on the checklist of her life, she can cross off two big items: a cross-country train ride and appearing on her favorite game show.
"Somehow, over the years, these personal goals become a kind of Holy Grail," she said. "It was surreal."