Why I Almost Committed Suicide Watching Jonathan Franzen on Jeopardy

A three-time Jeopardy champ nearly loses it seeing a slightly more famous writer at the game-show podium

BFFs Alex Trebek and Neal Pollack pose on the set of Jeopardy

BFFs Alex Trebek and Neal Pollack pose on the set of Jeopardy

I’m a Jeopardy! champion. I won three games in September of 2013. This didn’t happen during “Power Players Week.” I’m not a power player to anyone but that one guy in Pittsburgh who bought my band’s album in 2004, and also the editor of this newspaper, who wanted me to review Jonathan Franzen’s appearance on Jeopardy! Power Players Week. So here goes.

On Jeopardy, Jonathan Franzen knew all the answers. Of course he did. He’s Jonathan Franzen! They gave him a category about Birds in the first round. He got those questions right, of course. That’s like giving me a category called “Jerkin’ It.” There was also a Shakespeare category. Mr. Franzen knew those answers, too, though he didn’t ring in to answer that the Tamer of the Shrew was named Petruchio, an answer that I, sitting on my couch in my underwear while smoking a joint, knew immediately. “I should have known that,” Franzen said, fake-demurely.

Curse you, Franzen!

Then came the moment when Alex Trebek, the evil lord of knowledge, talks to the players. He and Mr. Franzen spent 30 seconds dissing Twitter, a doomsday scenario, a meeting of the ubermenschen that shattered my soul forever. “Do you think in our society, Twitter is trivializing importance?” Alex Trebek asked Jonathan Franzen. Even typing that phrase—“Alex Trebek asked Jonathan Franzen”—hurts my heart. Believe it or not, Mr. Franzen did, and then talked about how it was impossible to form a counter-argument on Twitter.

When I, a novelist of equal stature (in my own mind) appeared on Jeopardy!, I was playing to win money for a charity called “get my family out of this shitty rental house with a shower drain that’s just a hole in the floor.”

“FU Franzen!” I tweeted, as I woke up screaming.

But now, onto the gameplay itself: I watch a lot of Jeopardy! and always analyze the game like Orel Hersheiser droning on about a pitcher’s “mental makeup.” Yesterday’s game was really good and exciting, as quiz-show games go. Mr. Franzen was up against television journalist Chuck Todd and conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, who seem cool now that they’re all over the news, but are obviously both civics nerds who got super-career-lucky. They also knew lots of answers, and Ms. Cupp, who always looks fresh and young, like she sleeps in a vegetable crisper, was fast on the buzzer. The game was damn close.

Double Jeopardy! arrived. Mr. Franzen still knew all the answers. When the answer to a question was “The Tales Of Hoffman,” he said, “Who is ETA Hoffman?” You know, because he translated Hoffman from the original German. He landed both Daily Doubles in the round. But he bet low. Why, Franzen? He was playing for the birds, not for actual money. Let it ride, Dr. Dre!

When I played my first Jeopardy game, I was down, way down, when I hit my Daily Double. I said, “let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex,” both because I’d always wanted to say that and because if I didn’t say that, I would have lost. But Franzen was like, “mehhhhhh $1800 please.” Then he got the question right! He could have put Meet The Press and Meet The Press For Kids away, but he didn’t.

What did he care? These Power Players all get to play Jeopardy without returning to the sausage grinder of permanent obscurity. Cupp and Todd are on TV every day, and Franzen could be, if he wasn’t so high and mighty about media other than 700-page novels. The rest of us, though, work hard for our Jeopardy! money. Before I appeared on Jeopardy! I did two hours of yoga a day and lost 20 pounds. Because I had nothing else to do, I spent several hours a day studying previous games so I could get used to question patterns. I stopped smoking weed for almost six weeks, a huge sacrifice. And it was still barely enough.

When Mr. Franzen took to Jeopardy! yesterday, he was playing to win money for the American Bird Conservancy. When I, a novelist of equal stature (in my own mind) appeared on Jeopardy!, I was playing to win money for a charity called “get my family out of this shitty rental house with a shower drain that’s just a hole in the floor.” The mouse turds had piled an inch thick in the water-heater closet. The moldy gap in my son’s bedroom ceiling grew every time it rained. My landlady broke the lawnmower when she put oil into the gas tank, and tried to make me pay for it. Jeopardy! was my only chance, my last chance, given the work environment in which I function, to provide my family a semblance of a middle-class life. Those desperate weeks before I went on Jeopardy!,  and those desperate months until the $62,000-something check for my efforts arrived, will be on my mind during “Power Players Week” as the millionaire likes of Louis CK, Matthew Weiner, and, yes, Jonathan Franzen, get to enjoy their relatively stress-free celebrity encounters with Alex Trebek.

Mr. Franzen pissed away $14,000 (which should have been $35,000 if he’d bet like a man on his Daily Doubles) when he didn’t know the Final Jeopardy answer. I’m sure he cared a little, since he is ostensibly human, but that wasn’t real money to him. He was playing for Monopoly cash. It felt real to me, though! Of course the Roman tribunes shouted “Veto” outside the Senate chamber. Duh! Hasn’t he seen I, Claudius?

And then it was over. Jonathan Franzen, our greatest living novelist, only won $10,000 for the birds instead of $50,000. And what did I get? Another day older and deeper in debt.

I knew the Final Jeopardy that Jonathan Franzen missed. I won on Jeopardy, three times, and Franzen didn’t. Are you impressed? I need a new book agent. Hit me up on Snapchat.