Through the years, numerous Emersonians have been contestants on the greatest game show ever – Jeopardy!, and several have won a few games.
Unlike the show, Emerson Today asked the questions and the answers were provided by the former contestants: Daniel Viafore, MA ’09, Sallie Bieterman ‘18, and Andrew Rostan ’07. Answers have been lightly edited for style, grammar, and length.
Q: What degree did you receive from Emerson?
Viafore: MA in Media Arts/Audio Production
Bieterman: BFA in Theatre & Performance, and double minoring in History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Rostan: I graduated with a degree in Film, although I never particularly had a knack for making films. I loved both screenwriting and artistic analysis. This ended up serving me well as I now write comic books (my third title will be out next year), and I’ve published essays in Bright Wall/Dark Room.
Q: What are your pronouns?
Q: Where do you live?
Viafore: Long Beach, California
Bieterman: Brooklyn, New York
Rostan: Chicago, Illinois
Q: What do you do for a living?
Viafore: Adjunct faculty – I teach Music for Media Makers, and a section of the internship class, both at [Emerson Los Angeles].
Bieterman: I’m an actor, and by day I’m a museum educator and costumed interpreter at The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.
Rostan: My vocation is writing, mostly fiction and comics, which Emerson prepared me well for. I’m still aiming to one day write full-time, but I am also the records clerk for a long-standing corporation in Chicago.
Q: When did you appear on Jeopardy?
Viafore: I had to look this up! July 28, 2017.
Bieterman: March 9 2022, although we filmed in January.
Rostan: April, May, and November 2007, with the shows recorded in February and October. One of them aired on the day of my Emerson commencement!
Q: How did you do? Did you win? If so, how many times?
Viafore: I lost! I did better on the buzzer than I had hoped, so I took an early lead but I did not get friendly categories.
Bieterman: I came in third – some very difficult categories! But as my roommate reminded me, if you come in third at the Olympics, you still get a bronze medal! I started in a pool of 47,000 applicants, and I made it not only to air, but all the way through to Final Jeopardy, so I feel good about that.
Rostan: I won five shows in a row, lost the sixth, and then was knocked out in the Tournament of Champions opening round…by two incredibly smart people I am still friends with to this day. I’m actually working on a musical with one of them!
Q: How much money did you earn?
Viafore: $1,000. Not bad for driving across town for the day!
Q: What surprised you about appearing on Jeopardy!?
Viafore: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but the contestant handlers/casting people were incredible. Energetic, smart, so super friendly and supportive. I felt a bit like a regular, as I’ve worked on TV stages a lot and was a local, but they made everyone feel at home.
Bieterman: Watching the game at home my whole life, I never appreciated how different actual gameplay is. It’s all about the categories you’re dealt and the rhythm of your buzzing in. There are so many answers I knew but didn’t get thrown because someone else was a fraction of a second earlier buzzing in, and so many things I know I wasn’t asked about! Such a rich well of Shakespeare, theatre, mythology, and U.S. presidents (and more!) I didn’t get asked about on air!
Rostan: Where to begin? Starting off, they tape five shows a day with a lunch break between the third and fourth shows, but otherwise barely any time in between. People bring different outfits and do rapid-fire changes before each game.
I’ve been on the sets of different TV shows before and a lot of them – like where they film late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live – are so much smaller than they look on your screen. Jeopardy!, because of the size of the board, is one of the only shows where the set matches your expectations.
Q: Did you get to speak to the host? If so, who was it, and what did you talk about?
Viafore: I did! Alex told us about how he was enjoying working on remodeling his daughter’s home. Some people had told me he would be very cold, but he was sweet to us.
Bieterman: Ken Jennings! I told him that my parents still got the actual physical Seattle Times [that was] delivered when Ken was having his historic run in the early 2000s, so meeting him was bonkers!
Rostan: I was so fortunate to meet Alex Trebek. One other thing about being a contestant is that they want at least five anecdotes or cool facts about yourself for the part where the host talks to you halfway through the Jeopardy! round. I had just read a nonfiction book about the French Revolution, and it was the first time I’d ever seen the last name Rostan in print. I thought that was pretty cool and wrote that down. Trebek brought it up in the first episode and called me “Andrew Ross-TAANN” with a French pronunciation for my whole initial run….
We taped the week after the Super Bowl and he was telling stories about him and his friends drinking too much Chardonnay during their party.
Q: What advice would you give to Jeopardy contestants?
Viafore: Just try out, especially if you live in LA. They are always looking for local “alternates” in case one of the out of town contestants gets sick or something. This was a bit of a downside as I was there from 7: 00 am-4:00 pm, not knowing if I’d play that day, and then they (no joke) flip a coin to see which of the two alternates gets to play that day: It was me!
Bieterman: Get really clear about what your goal is with your show appearance. I identified that the thing I love most about trivia and Jeopardy! is knowing something really esoteric because of [random string of events], or something I remembered from high school or a podcast. For me, the provenance of the knowledge is what’s fun, so I didn’t want to go super deep into flash cards and rote memorization. It felt like there was no sport in that.
Rostan: When it comes to getting ready, study only as much as makes you feel comfortable and don’t feel like you have to cram all the knowledge in the world into your brain! I barely studied at all because once I approached the game logically, I knew they could ask anything at any time and I couldn’t prepare for every eventuality. I went in trusting that the knowledge [that] got me this far in the first place would carry me through. If I got lucky, the board would play to some of my strengths, and if not, c’est la vie! That mindset kept me relaxed through the high-intensity atmosphere in the studio.
I did practice with a click pen to hit the buzzer the second Trebek finished reading the answers on the show. That trains your muscle memory!
Q: What else would you like to share about your Jeopardy! experience?
Viafore: How fun it was. I watched the show with my dad growing up, so it was all a bit surreal. My wife urged me to take the test as, in her words, “There are always people from LA on the show, and you have a personality.” Since I was an alternate and there all day, I got to play two “warm up games” on the set, and spend a bunch of extra time with the contestant people, etc. Great memories!
Rostan: Jeopardy! people are the friendliest people in the world. That goes for your fellow contestants and the crew. There is a massive amount of mutual respect that makes everything easier and more fun to experience.
And I ended up writing a book about it! My second comic, Form of a Question (Boom!/Archaia 2018) is an autobiographical work about my life through college, drawing on many warm memories of Emerson, and what the experience of being on the show is like in the most emotional sense.
Q: How has Emerson helped you in your professional and/or personal life? Did your Emerson experience help you on Jeopardy!?
Viafore: While Emerson has helped me immensely in my professional life, I can’t say for sure if it helped me on Jeopardy!. I’d have to re-watch the episode to remember if any specific questions came up.
Bieterman: Shout out to Professor [Sharmishtha Roy] Chowhurdy’s non-Western world history classes on that Dynasties of China category!
Rostan: To answer your question, on the one hand I owe my career to Emerson. It was my best friends at Emerson who got me to seriously consider comics as an art form, and I broke into the comics world because my fellow member of the Class of ‘07, Stephen Christy, convinced me to take a chance on writing a book. Every good thing in my creative life followed from his persuasion.
And on a personal level, there’s a reason I wish everyone in this country could go to Emerson. I grew up in the most suburban suburb possible, a land of total homogeneity for the most part. Emerson is a place where everybody, or every race, belief system, or lack thereof, and sexual orientation and identity forms a true melting pot and beautiful things emerge from it. …[W]hen you’re all pulling together to make something, who the hell cares what you are apart from being human?