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University Of Oklahoma Professor Reflects On His Jeopardy! Experience

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek with University of Oklahoma professor Kevin Butterfield


Two months ago, the final round of the television game show Jeopardy! took the internet by storm. The prompt was “This song from a 1999 animated film about censorship had a word censored from its Oscar performance,” and stumped 26-year-old contestant Talia Lavin wrote:

“what is the love ballad of turd ferguson

ps hi mom :)”

The reference to a 1990s Saturday Night Live sketch barely acknowledged by host Alex Trebek, but he read her answer aloud and inadvertently made her an internet hero.

What many University of Oklahoma students who shared the viral video might not have realized is one of their university’s professors stood just outside the frame. Classics and Letters professor Kevin Butterfield had prepped for months for the chance to display his knowledge on one of America’s longest-running game shows.

“Sometime in 2014, I took the test. Several months later I got an email from Jeopardy! asking me to go to a tryout someplace else,” Butterfield said. “That means that I got to the next stage, but that’s by no means a slam-dunk from that stage.”

When he made it past the first round, Butterfield started filling up a notebook with facts he thought might be useful, for example, “Who invented the X-Ray?”.

“You can't cover everything,” Butterfield said. “You can get good at reading Jeopardy questions, or actually technically they're answers, and the second thing you can do is just get down pat the obvious things that you probably should know like the state capitals.”

He devoted a whole page to opera, a subject he felt was one of his weakest.

“I learned some of the operas that Puccini wrote and some of the operas that Verde wrote, but I would've been guessing on anything in opera and I probably would've guessed wrong,” Butterfield said.

Jeopardy! has a highly streamlined shooting schedule in which a week worth of episodes is shot in one day,

“They did the first game, and drew names for the second game and I wasn’t drawn for that one and then they drew my name for the third game,” Butterfield said “By then I was nervous and some of that was good energy and some of it was definitely bad energy.”

Butterfield believes the stress made it difficult for him to perform his best. He got second place (ahead of, now internet famous, Talia Lavin but behind that day’s reigning champion Audrey Watkins-Cox) winning $1,300. The nerves lingered even after the taping finished and for the next several nights he had difficulty sleeping.

“The worst part about it was how nervous I was after, just the lingering anxiety of it,” Butterfield said. “You have this moment where if things had gone slightly differently you would've just paid off your student loan, and that kind of thing just hangs with you for a little while.”

Now that he has been a contestant, the contract he signed prevents him from coming back on the show for as long as Alex Trebek is the host, which is a bit of a relief for Butterfield.

“It's probably good that I can't,” Butterfield said. “It gives me a chance to just put it behind me and maybe go on Wheel of Fortune or something silly.”

Butterfield has enough to keep him busy. He was recently promoted to be the director of the Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage at the University of Oklahoma, something he says he’s excited to focus on in the coming year. 

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