How I Became a Viral 'Jeopardy!' Hero... and Villain

Buzzy Cohen on Jeopardy!
Merv Griffin Productions/CBS

Buzzy Cohen is a recording-industry executive from Los Angeles, California, who won $164,603 over ten games in April and May on the popular trivia game show Jeopardy! and became a viral sensation for his playful attitude and flippant Final Jeopardy! answers. Here, Buzzy gives our reporter Jenna Marotta all the behind-the-scenes details of his marathon run.

Winning over producers

I took the Jeopardy! online test about a year ago, maybe last May. A lot of people take the test multiple times before they get called in, and I was lucky that I got called this first time for the in-person audition. There were about 30 or 40 of us in the DoubleTree Hotel in Culver City, where we took another 50-question test. And then we did kind of like a mock-game interview, just to kind of see how you handle yourself, and for the contestant coordinators to get to know you a little bit. I wasn't feeling so hot that day -- I actually was recovering from a cold -- so I was trying to get my personality to come through.

They wound up asking me and two or three other people to stay afterwards to shoot a video for the web. I remember them asking me, "Why would you be a good Jeopardy! contestant?" and I told them that I thought I was pretty different from the usual contestants on the show.

I tried to set myself apart, by having fun with the whole thing. If you look closely, I'm laughing at myself. That's the real me. Irreverence is a big part of my personality. I don't actually hate Alex Trebek. I don't think I'm this amazing trivia person who dusts off his shoulders. I poked fun at the fact that I was a "Jeopardy! champion." I'm not Jay Z or someone like that. For those 10 days, I was king of the nerds.

I don't actually hate Alex Trebek.

The big call

On January 4th (I know because it was my daughter's birthday), I received a phone call asking if I would be an alternate. On Jeopardy!, they have two local people come to the tapings so that if something happens, if somebody can't make it or is disqualified, there's an extra person on hand to play. I came in as an alternate, but did not wind up playing. But I spent a whole day there. I was not feeling great, so I was very happy that I was not chosen to play that time. Todd Giese won four games -- Jeopardy! tapes five shows in one day, so winning four of those five is pretty incredible.

A week later, a contestant coordinator called me. "We'd like you to come back, and you'll definitely play this time." Guaranteed. That tape date was March 7th, a couple days after my birthday. My sister and my brother-in-law flew in because they're big fans of the show. I spoke little about this, but throughout my life I have struggled a lot with depression, especially recently. Over the last year it's been something that I've dealt with more acutely. I remember feeling pretty low going into that tape day. That's part of the reason that, when I was an alternate, I didn't want to play. I think it was all kind of part and parcel of this thing that I deal with.

You have to be at Sony Studios in Culver City at 7:45 a.m. in the morning. I am definitely not a morning person. I set three alarms. It was a challenge. Everyone's said, "Oh, what'd you do? Your hair is so perfectly coiffed." I only shoved my hand into some pomade and ran my fingers through my hair. I was so out of it.

I showed up to set, and everyone else is milling around. I remember there was one fellow who was cramming with flashcards. I was like, "Buddy… it's a little late." Everyone's got their own thing. They do a briefing -- you can't swear, you can't plug your business unless Alex Trebek asks -- which I had already been through as an alternate, so I was pretty comfortable. 

Game day and game-day faces

The returning champion I played on the first day was this impressive guy named Andrew Pau. Previously, he won six games and $170,000 -- a ton of games, and at a very high clip. I had a pretty low average score, but that's also how I played the game. I tried to make small talk with Andrew -- he was a music theory professor at Oberlin, and I sort of studied music theory in college. I think he was pretty worn out and understandably not interested in making small talk with someone like me. He had been on set for two days, gone home to Ohio, then come back. It was all very intimidating.

Before the first game, we rehearsed. You go on stage and they show you where to look, where the cameras are, how the buzzer works, how to write your name in, and then they bring up an old game for practice. Producers make you call out the categories in a specific way: you can't just to say, "400"; you have to say part of the category name and the dollar amount. Alex is not at the rehearsal. You have very little contact with him. After rehearsal, they pull names out of a hat for who from the current contestants will play. Of course, I'm up against Andrew.

In the world of Jeopardy!, I was more of a Rocky Balboa than an Apollo Creed.

At around 10:15, I assumed my position behind the podium. I remember looking at Maggie Speak, the contestant coordinator, and saying, "Maggie, I'm going to be on Jeopardy!" We're on stage, we're seconds out from the "This. Is. Jeopardy!" and I was just like, "I'm going to be on Jeopardy!"

My first game was my best game. I hit all three Daily Doubles, and got them right. I made the first one a true Daily Double because I knew I'm never going to be on this show again. Those are the rules -- I couldn't be on the show again. I thought, I am going to make the most of it. I'm gonna have as much fun as I can.

I think a lot of people who watched my shows would agree that my first game was my best performance, and one of the most competitive games of the season. In Double Jeopardy, we cleared the board, which means we answered every question, and nobody gave an incorrect response. People talk about the match-up between me and Andrew, but Jeanne, who finished in third place, was right up in there. The first game was exhilarating, then all of a sudden you look up and you won.

Buzzy Cohen wins first Jeopardy game
Merv Griffin Productions/CBS

Skill, luck, and having a blast

This is going to sound obnoxious coming from somebody who went to a private prep school and an Ivy League college, but in the world of Jeopardy!, I was more of a Rocky Balboa than an Apollo Creed. I'm just a guy who likes the show. I don't follow all these message boards on how to wager for Final Jeopardy and Daily Doubles. I just love Jeopardy! And winning is far beyond anything; once you win Jeopardy! once, you can say "I'm a Jeopardy! champion" for the rest of your life. After the first game, I went backstage and told Maggie, "I won one. I don't have to do anything else now." And she was like, "Don’t say that! Go win more!" And so that's what I did.

I'll be the first person to admit that my wins were not terribly convincing. I had two games that I won in Final Jeopardy, where I got it right and the guy in first place didn't. I also had a lot of funny, Slumdog Millionaire-like moments. On the Thursday show, the category was "Islands" and the correct response was the Leeward Islands. The only reason I got it was because, when I was younger, I had spent some time sailing in the Caribbean and I was familiar with them.

buzzy cohen daily double jeopardy
Merv Griffin Productions/CBS

Another I don't really admit to too many people: I had a Daily Double on "Military Nicknames," a category in which I didn't feel confident enough. The clue was basically asking, "What was the name of the Mexican general at the Alamo?" I knew Santa Anna because, to help me fall asleep that night, I watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and two of the characters had a running gag where they recreated the Battle of the Alamo and tried to figure out how to win it.

There are people that study trivia and there are people who just live their life and absorb things. I'm lucky to live a rich life and to have been able to retain the details of a lot of that stuff. Those experiences were fun, and shut up some of the haters that had no idea about the Leeward Islands.

I was taping for two days in a row, which resulted in ten aired games. There's definitely a lot of adrenaline going on. You can imagine how hard it was to sleep on that first night. I had $100,000 at that point. I was also reliving all the mistakes I had made. One of my favorite books when I was a teenager was Walden. For one question I answered, "Walden Pond." Alex looked at the judge, then I followed with, "On Walden Pond?" I just blew it -- too much information. But that's part of the game. You've got to be ready to roll with that and be OK.

buzzy cohen see you tomorrow trebek jeopardy
Merv Griffin Productions/CBS

Becoming a nine-day champion

I came back the next morning and I was the champ who collected $100,000 in five games. I had already done the shoulder-brush thing, which was something that I told my friend beforehand: "If I win, I’m going to do something that we can turn into a GIF." But on the second day I was a little more conscious of my persona: I’m going to keep having fun.

When I was the captain of my high school Quiz Bowl team during my junior and senior year, I checked the rules to see if you had to use your real name. It came up because of me being called Buzzy, but my team of four would come up with funny quartets, like "Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, Goldilocks." Then the person running that Quiz Bowl competition would have to call us that because that's what was on our card. Here we are at the state Quiz Bowl tournament, the national Quiz Bowl tournament, and I created a culture of irreverence. During Jeopardy!, a friend of mine, who is an editor at Someecards, tweeted, "That feeling when your childhood friend gets famous in exactly the way you'd imagined he would be."

I told my friend beforehand, "If I win, I’m going to do something that we can turn into a GIF."

My "See you tomorrow, Trebek" sign-offs were all on the second day of taping. By then, I had changed my strategy and attitude in a way that I think helped me dominate people. I started having runaways. (And I don't want to reveal what I did differently because I'm going into the Tournament of Champions.) My dad had asked me, "If you have a runaway, please write 'Shop at Sam's'" -- Sam's is my dad's clothing store in Livingston, New Jersey. But the rules stipulate no plugs. So, I get up there, and all of a sudden I have a runaway. So I'm thinking, All right, I’m going to bet zero so that I don’t even have to worry about this. It wasn't about winning the most money or dominating people or anything like that. I just wanted to keep playing.

People have written funny Final Jeopardy answers before, but I think I was the first person to do it at Trebek. Which is weird. I just assumed it had been done before. The first day he definitely was surprised. The clue was about the smallest state that touches the Great Lakes, which is something I could have figured out, but I'd already bet zero. So I just wrote, "I'll see you tomorrow" because I knew I was going to be on the next show, and then I just wrote "Trebek" because that's what everyone refers to colloquially. I'm sure the Jeopardy! sketch from Saturday Night Live was in the back of my mind. Alex is familiar with it, too. During the commercial break he talks to the audience, and he said that he actually liked Eugene Levy's impersonation of him better.

Buzzy Cohen brush shoulder jeopardy
Merv Griffin Productions/CBS

The end of his run

Losing was fine. That was a really tough game. The two women I was up against were out for blood. Erin and Megan were determined to take me down. I lost a lot of buzzer races. You realize on the show that a lot of people know a lot of stuff and have good reflexes. That game was a good way to go down. I got Final Jeopardy. I finished in second place.

The internet reaction started almost immediately, but went like wildfire during my second week. I thought that brushing my hands through my hair or dusting dirt off my shoulder was going to be something that people would laugh and joke about online. That's not why I did it, but afterwards when I spoke to my wife who was at the taping, she was like, "People are going to have like a field day with that." She works in PR. When it really took off was when I wrote the thing about Trebek. People went crazy.

Anyone who wins a couple games and shows a little personality on Jeopardy! is divisive. And Twitter is divisive. People try to post the strongest opinions for attention and that's how you get attention. People won't retweet "Buzzy seems like an OK guy and is a really good player." Instead it's "I want to punch Buzzy Cohen in the face," or "I want to marry Buzzy Cohen."

Anyone who wins a couple games and shows a little personality on Jeopardy! is divisive.

During the first week there was somebody who posted a picture of them holding a target, saying, "Gonna go home and watch Buzzy." That frightened me. There was a troll who was wishing really awful things on me, more weird than anything. He wanted me to get Crohn's disease and hoped I would get T-boned in my car while leaving the taping. I was just like, What?

I don't know what I could have done differently. I'm glad I had fun doing it. But it's funny that people try to read into stuff that isn't real. The first week I got a lot of guff because everyone thought that I was, like, as the kids say, cheesing to the other contestants, smiling at them with this big shit-eating grin. Like, "Oh, Buzzy's such a dick -- look at him smiling at those people he just beat." But I was smiling at my family [sitting in the audience].

Jeopardy! was very authentic. The only clunky moment was on the last game that I was on. In the opening, Alex Trebek said something about the social-media response to me, which they obviously filmed afterwards. So that was kind of spacey. And then at the end, he said something like, "He'll be back for the Tournament of Champions," which he didn't say that day. The only thing that kind of bummed me out about that was the look on my face, like I'd just lost. But the look on my face wasn't about being bummed out that I'd lost; it was just the two days of taping catching up with me. My wife and I both said we could see the fatigue during that last game. So Alex says, "He'll be back for the Tournament of Champions" and then the show cuts to my face and I look like totally wrecked. That I didn't love. But I will be back.

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Buzzy Cohen is a recording-industry executive from Los Angeles, California.