“Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek poses with Sarah Williams, owner of Cafe Sarah in North Creek, who competed in the TV show that aired Oct. 25.
Packed around a gigantic television screen at Basil & Wick’s restaurant, Sarah Williams, her family and friends heard the words they’ve been waiting to hear for nine months.
It was 7:30 in the evening, Thursday, Oct. 25, and that familiar theme music from the TV trivia game show “Jeopardy” swirled into everyone’s ears as announcer Johnny Gilbert began his introduction.
“This ... is ... Jeopardy! Today’s contestants are ... a bakery owner and caterer from North Creek, N.Y., Sarah Hayden Williams; a medical magazine editor, from Somerset, N.J., Erik Greb; and our returning champion, a research chemist originally from Charlotte, N.C., Keith Whitener, whose one-day cash winnings total 25,000 dollars.”
The television audience clapped enthusiastically. The restaurant was dead silent; people wanted to hear the show.
“And now, here is the host of ‘Jeopardy,’ Alex Trebek!”
Sarah — the owner of Cafe Sarah on Main Street — watched herself on the TV screen.
“It was really weird,” Sarah said about her night of fame at Basil & Wick’s. “As soon as the ‘Jeopardy’ music cued on, I started to getting fluttery, like, ‘Ahhh, here it comes.’”
Sarah knew what was about to happen, but she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone the results until the show aired. Everyone else in the Adirondacks had to watch — and play along — in order to find out whether she’d come home with a mountain of money.
“Actually, I told a lot of people I didn’t win,” Sarah said. “That’s the first question they wanted to know when I got back in August. Plenty of people knew I wasn’t going to win it, but I really couldn’t talk about it much.”
Yet, to most, the show was a big surprise as it unfolded. Even to Sarah.
“It was a big blur in my mind,” she said. “It happened so fast when I was there, and I didn’t remember the ones I got right. That was surprising to me. I remembered the ones I got wrong.”
Even after 30 minutes, the crowd at Basil & Wick’s didn’t know the surprise ending that was edited out of the show.
Sarah’s “Jeopardy” journey began in January with an online test of 50 questions on the game show’s website. At the end of April, she received an email inviting her to an in-person audition. She and husband Jeremy took the train from Albany to New York City, where she auditioned for “Jeopardy” at a hotel on June 5.
Sarah began jumping through more hoops, including a 50-question written test, a screen test with a fake game using a real buzzer, and a public speaking test where she had to improvise stories about herself in front of strangers.
“They kept saying, ‘Show us what you’ve got. This is a TV show. We’re here to entertain. We know you’re all smart. We want to see if you can be on TV,’” Sarah said.
The Jeopardy crew also shared larger-than-life statistics about their odds, giving would-be contestants a slap in the face of reality: out of the 100,000 people who take the online test, 3,000 are invited to in-person auditions, and 400 are invited to be on the show.
“You had to stand up there and be sparkly, and I pulled it off,” Sarah said. “I walked out of there feeling pretty good about it. Exactly two weeks later, I got the call.”
Sarah’s show was taped Aug. 8 at the Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif.
The Jeopardy round featured the following six categories: The 5 Senses, Hearing, Smell, Taste, Site and Touché.
Returning champion Keith started by choosing Hearing for $200.
“A removal hearing is a step toward this, sending an illegal alien back to his or her homeland.”
Sarah buzzed in first.
“What is deportation?”
“That’s it,” Alex said.
Then Sarah, the baker, chose a familiar category.
“I’ll take Taste for 200,” she said.
Sarah thought the category was about food. She was wrong, but she didn’t flinch.
“I show my exquisite taste by collecting this genre of oil paintings seen here.”
A painting was shown.
“What is a still life?” Sarah said.
“You got it,” Alex said.
“Taste for 400.”
“Keep your hot jazz. I prefer this opposite type, a word found in a 1957 Miles Davis album title.”
Keith buzzed in.
“What is cool jazz?”
“Cool jazz,” Alex said. “Correct.”
Sarah stayed at $400 through the first half of the Jeopardy round. She knew early on that she wasn’t going to catch Keith.
“But I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself,” she said later.
Sarah was finding it hard to relax and buzz in properly. Contestants can only buzz in when a light comes on, and they get locked out for a quarter of a second if they buzz in too early. That was happening a lot to Sarah.
“There’s plenty of time to process that answer, but the game show part of it is beating those other two people to the buzzer when the lights come on,” she said.
During the commercial break, producers told Sarah to relax and take her time.
After coming back to meet the contestants on the air, Alex quizzed Sarah about a story she shared from 2002.
“Sarah Hayden Williams is a bakery owner and caterer who catered her own wedding,” Alex said. “For how many people?”
“Three hundred. Actually more than that,” she said.
“Good idea or bad idea in retrospect?”
“Bad idea in retrospect,” she said, “but it turned out great.”
“Why was it a bad idea?”
“Well, most brides enjoy their wedding morning of getting ready and primping and nails and makeup, and I was baking rolls and glazing cupcakes,” she said.
After hearing stories about Erik and Keith, the second half of the Jeopardy round continued.
A wrong $800 question in the Taste category sunk Sarah to -$400. She started to get anxious. Her worst nightmare was to end Double Jeopardy below $0 and not make it to Final Jeopardy.
“As a fan of the show, whenever I see that I always feel bad for those people,” she said.
But Sarah didn’t stay in the hole for long; she rebounded to $600 with a correct $1,000 question in Taste. Then a missed question in the Site category dropped her to $400.
Sarah ended the Jeopardy round at $400, behind Erik with $2,400 and Keith with $9,400.
“Sarah off to a slow start, but she picks first in Double Jeopardy when we come back,” Alex said.
The Double Jeopardy round featured these six categories: Name That Century, MTV Video Music Awards, Books & Authors, Euro Coins, One Man One Vote, and A “Ha”!.
“Each correct response will begin with H-a,” Alex said. “Sarah, you begin now.”
“I’ll take A ‘Ha’! for 400, please.”
“Hyphenated term for an article of clothing passed on from one person, who’s outgrown it, to the next.”
Keith buzzed in.
“What is a hand-me-down?”
“That’s right,” Alex said.
With a wrong $1,600 response in Name That Century, Sarah dropped to -$1,200. Then she began to climb out of the hole with a correct $800 response in Euro Coins. Now at -$400, Sarah shot back into positive territory with a correct $2,000 response in the A “Ha”! category.
“From the 13th to the 15th centuries, commercial activity in northern Europe was dominated by this league. Sarah.”
“What is the Hanseatic League?”
“Yes,” Alex said. “You’re on the board with 1,600 now.”
“Hanseatic League, I was pretty proud of that,” Sarah said. “I was talking to the other two afterward, and they said, ‘Hanseatic League? I‘ve never heard of that.’”
Things got even better with a correct $1,200 response in Books & Authors. This was far from her favorite category. Even before leaving for California, Sarah was dreading questions about literature.
“For as much as I read, I haven’t read the classics,” she said. “That’s my weakest subject.”
Still, at $2,800, she hit a Daily Double when choosing Books & Authors for $1,600, and she wagered $2,000.
“The title of this E.M. Forster novel refers to a country house, not to someone’s death.”
“What is ...?”
She couldn’t think of the correct response before time ran out.
“‘Howard’s End,’” Alex said.
Sarah said later that she’s heard of “Howard’s End,” but she’s never read the book, and even though she’s heard of E.M. Forster, she never put the book and the author together in her mind.
“So you drop down to 800,” Alex said. “Go again.”
With a correct $1,200 response in MTV Video Music Awards and a wrong $1,200 response in One Man One Vote, Sarah ended Double Jeopardy with $800. Erik was at $4,400 and Keith at $18,200.
The Final Jeopardy category was World Languages, the answer: “Of the romance languages, it has the greatest number of native speakers in a single country.”
Then after 30 seconds of the famous “Thinking Music,” we found out the correct question.
“That country is one of the world’s largest,” Alex said. “Let’s see if you were paying attention. Sarah, we come to you first. You had 800 to risk, and you wrote down, ‘What is Brazil?’”
Oh boy. This is where reality takes a back seat to show business. The studio audience heard one thing; the television audience heard another.
“What you don’t see because it was edited out,” Sarah said, “although you can see it on my face when they revealed my answer, Alex Trebek said, ‘Yes!’ Then all of a sudden from the judge’s table, they shout, ‘No!’ That’s why I start out smiling, then I look really confused, and then I kind of look bummed.”
Once the judges made their ruling, Alex waited a beat, knowing the producers would make an edit, then said, “No, sorry. You picked the country, but we’re going for the language.”
Sarah bet $799, and she dropped to $1.
Erik got the right response: “What is Portuguese?” He doubled his score to $8,800, but that wasn’t nearly enough to catch Keith, who also picked Portuguese and walked away with $26,200 for the show and a two-day total of $51,200.
For her part, Sarah took home $1,000 for finishing third.
“Alex, when he came over to shake my hand, he said, ‘I totally thought it was Brazil,’” Sarah said. “I’m like, ‘Oh good, I’m not crazy then.’”
The producers admitted that if the other contestants said something other than Portuguese, they probably would have reset Final Jeopardy with another clue.
“Everybody agreed that the way that was worded was a little ambiguous,” Sarah said. “That made me feel a little better knowing that I didn’t just blow it.”