For all those hardcore Pollack-heads out there: the following is the long version of the piece I turned in to VICE magazine. It’s below this video of Neal’s band performing “Beer and Weed.”
When I first met Neal Pollack back in 2000, he was riding high as the first ever McSweeney’s Books author, touring behind The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. At the time he was playing his hyper-egotistical “world’s greatest writer” character a little too realistically. Following a bad breakup with media darling Dave Eggers, Pollack published the lesser-loved fictional rock-n-memoir Never Mind the Pollacks, and hit the road again with his real, questionable band, the Neal PollackInvasion – all of which seemed to bring his growing head down from the clouds.
Pollack soon reinvented himself as “Alternadad” and published a tumultuous child-rearing memoir of the same name, helping kick off the media’s hipster parenting craze. He followed that success with the even better Jewball, a noir sports-history tale pitting Jews against Nazis and gangsters on the basketball court in the late 1930s. He later became a yoga teacher and began a series of detective novels about a yoga teacher who solves “yoga crimes.” Downward Facing Death was followed by, Open Your Heart, which comes out in paperback this November via Amazon.
More recently, Pollack’s appeared on the game-show Jeopardy. I spoke to Neal Pollack via phone about his stoner buzzer reflexes, the dangers of knowing too much, and “that inscrutable Canadian Wizard, Trebek.” But mostly we discussed his three-game Jeopardy winning streak, and his new shitload of money.
I watched all those episodes of Jeopardy and I kept wanting to correct Trebel when he called you a writer: “He’s an author damnit!” Writer sounds like so much less. That’s my fault, I should have called myself that. They just read what’s on the card. I had way more problems than that.
What problems did you have? The buzzer. It was a nightmare trying to chime in on those questions. I have 43-year-old stoner reflexes that weren’t that good before I started smoking weed. I’m really bad at video games. I have bad hand/eye coordination. And then just the pressure of being quizzed on national television with flashing lights, plus this weird Canadian man passing judgment on you… I was so tired, I didn’t sleep, then I sat in the studio audience and watched six games before I got to play — they tape five games a day. All four of my appearances were taped in a five-hour period. It’s a game of knowledge, but it’s also a test of mental and physical endurance. You have to have decent handwriting, you have to know how to gamble, and at the end of the game after all that nonsense you have to do a complicated math problem to try and gauge your final wager. And you have to have complete world knowledge on television in front of ten-million people while your parents are sitting in the live audience.
Obviously they make it look like you play a game, then you go home and think ‘What could I do better tomorrow?’ No, very rarely does anyone play two days. If I had won a forth game they would have had to fly me back the following Monday.
How did you go about getting on Jeopardy in the first place? I took the online test and I did pretty well, so a few weeks later I got an email, inviting me to a regional audition in San Antonio. They gave me a written test of like 50 questions. I got booked for the show and they gave me like a mock contestant interview. About 100,000 people take that test, then they pick about 2,000 to audition. So you’re up there in pretty good company. Then they pick about 400 people a year to be on the show. They’re looking for smart people but they’re also looking for someone who might be a good character for this intellectual reality show. You are definitely out there for people’s amusement. It’s like the intellectual Hunger Games. I have a broad knowledge base though and I never really doubted I was going to get on the show, especially once I saw the level of material they were looking for. I hadn’t watched the show everyday for the last 30 years but I’ve always been extremely good at trivia games.
I never really watched Jeopardy because I didn’t think I was smart enough. But then watching you on there, I was surprised how easy the questions were: a lot of dumb stuff like internet memes and cellphone apps. I kept wondering if Trebek isn’t pissed that he has to quiz people on fucking Grumpy Cat. It’s always been a mix of pop culture and tough stuff though. An episode last night had a category about opera arias and 19th century British literature. So it goes high and low. The Buzzfeed category and the iPhone app stuff, that’s them just trying to be current, and to appeal to a younger demographic. There are a lot of young people who enjoy the show, particularly because of the popularity of the teen tournament.
How did you study up for the game? I didn’t study for the audition. I just breezed through it. But then as soon as I was called… I knew I had to pick up the pace. There’s a website that has Jeopardy clues from the last 30 years archived, and I poured over the material, how the questions were worded, the patterns. Categories where I didn’t know stuff I would just find information online and study it: botany, geology, history, things that I hadn’t really studied in any real depth, and in some cases not at all — keeping in mind that you can be up against someone who knows the exact same things that you do, and they could be faster on the buzzer, and it won’t fucking matter anyway, and then your entire existence will depend on knowing a lot about David Hasselhoff. Which I do!
You did, actually! I was surprised. How the hell did people study for Jeopardy before the internet? In the past I think people just had to read encyclopedias, and pneumonic devices. But I don’t think it’s an easier game now; it’s the same as it used to be. It is more geometric in a way; you can deduce patterns and types of questions that you just simply couldn’t before.
It seems different to me in that now we sort of know all the same pop culture things, because of the internet. Like, no matter what type of office job you work in, you use a computer and Grumpy Cat and all that bullshit is going to come across your screen somehow at some point. But if you look at a game from the 80s, everyone knows who Mary Tyler Moore is, or Pac Man. A lot of the people I played against were in their 20s, so I was like, ‘Please give me 1970s television, please give me 1970s television…’
There were a couple categories I thought you’d own, but then you did not. The first category in the first game I played was sports statistics! I was like ‘Oh my god in heaven!’ And then that guy next to me knew all that and was faster on the buzzer. I had to get into a game with the most bro-tastic Jeopardy contestant in the world, like a sports financial analyst guy who knew everything about sports and TV. If you put me against any other Jeopardy contestant, I am gonna run that sports category. Eventually, I got enough of a rhythm that I was able to squeak in. I basically realized that if I was gonna win, it was going to be because I knew everything and I bet big. Those were my only options really. I really had to scratch and claw ad – which is an appropriate metaphor for the way I go about my business in general: all hustle, all desperation, all the time.
All real writers are in that situation. It was funny when Alex introduced you all, and said, “Neal is a writer, and he’ll be competing against, this editor.” And she’s also a writer and backstage before the game she said, “Looks like a couple writers are going up against each other Pollack.” And I was like, ‘Oh, she’s trying to play me. OK, I can appreciate that.’ She was not even 30 yet. That is a young person. And she gave me a hell of a hard time. I was sandwiched between two people who were not even 30. It was a tough run, man.
I don’t want to make you feel bad but…what was up with flubbing that Daily Double in the “Authors on Authors” category? Yeah tell me about it! I missed a Mark Twain question! Mark Twain! I said Thor Heyerdahl who wrote the book Kon-Tiki which is about a guy who travels on a raft. They mentioned in the clue was the raft, so that’s what I thought.
You knew too much. I am the man who knew too much. The Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Daily Double where I pissed away another four-grand later was a little more excusable. But yeah, I shanked that Mark Twain question hard — and I was fully aware of the fact while I was doing it, that I was on TV.
Yeah I sort of imagined you going through the Rolodex in your mind of everyone you didn’t want to see you flub a question about authors. That would be everyone. But at the end of the day, because I won the game, I got away with it.
The other moment where I felt for you was when they came back from the commercial and took that $1,600 away from you for have previously added a ‘d’ onto the end of ‘fatigue.’ That pretty much sums up my Jeopardy experience right there. Some people go in there and are champions and just win easily, they’re ahead by like $20,000, they don’t have to bet shit on final Jeopardy. But I had to scratch and claw and club my way for every dollar I won. But yeah, there are a lot of semantic quibbles. Yesterday this Latino poet guy lost money because Alex didn’t think he pronounced ‘Elaine’ right on a Seinfeld question. But he totally pronounced it right, so I don’t know what that was about. The woman who beat me, she called him, “That inscrutable Canadian wizard, Trebeck.”
So how much money did you win over the course of four games? I walked away with $62,000 dollars plus. Some people win like a grand or two, and then they have that memory of having suffered a defeat on national television [laughs].
How does that compare to your book advances? Well, especially these days? I was in Hollywood for a few years and I received a couple decent sized checks while I was there but Jeopardy is certainly up there among the largest checks I’ll ever received for anything. It’s gonna make a big difference; it’s really gonna help my family reset our lives, even after they take the taxes out.
And that’s after you take your son to South Korea to the video game championships like you told Alex you were? Yeah, I don’t think we are going to do that. I have this gig where I test-drive cars and South Korea actually comes up a lot because of Hundai and Kia. So there are opportunities to go drive cars in Korea sometimes, and if that ever happens, maybe I’ll have a free plane ticket over there and I can use my frequent-flyer miles to bring my son. It’s not an impossible dream. But our main goal is to use that money to put a little down payment on a house, and to essentially reset our lives—because our lives were just so tumultuous there for so many years. We’ve been trying to claw our way back into the middle class. Jeopardy may actually be the lever that pushes us there. So it’s a really nice bonus.
Going back to Alex for a moment. He seemed surprised, or maybe even freaked out, at your reaction to winning that first game. I pumped my fist, I raised my arms to the sky. I celebrated. I didn’t do a victory dance but I was really going for it there. It was an exciting win! And it was a miracle that I came back from $10,000 down. Some people when they win Jeopardy they’re like a deer in headlights. Stoicism is considered the social norm. But I was like Fuck yeah, I did it! I trained hard and I actually accomplished it.
But you didn’t freak out after the second win. I gave a little fist pump. But doing that twice in a row would be weird.
Did Trebek do anything out of character? No, he never breaks character. He’s sort of like the Old Testament God; he praises you if you do good, and scolds you if you do badly. And he just kind of watches over the whole thing and he’s sometimes kind, sometimes cruel. His judgments can be random. He never lets you forget it’s his show and it’s notyour show, because the contestants are just sausage. He doesn’t break character though.
When you were talking about the Korean video game championships you blurted out, “Those prizes are much bigger than in this game!” Yeah I don’t think he liked that much. That was a stupid fucking thing to say [laughs]. At that point he turned to the producer and he’s like, ‘Send that one done the chute. We’re done with him. Flip the switch; his streak is over.’ And sure enough, that was the end for me.