‘Jeopardy!’: BYU grad Suzanne Zgraggen competes, meets Ken Jennings

In the opening scene of “The Office” episode “Stress Relief,” Dwight Schrute stages a fire in the office. The situation quickly escalates from mild panic to pure chaos, largely thanks to boss Michael Scott, who emerges from his office and shouts, “OK, it’s happening! Everybody stay calm!” over and over — each declaration more fraught than the last.

According to Suzanne Zgraggen, she could’ve been cast as Michael in that scene based on the way she reacted when she learned that after 15 years of attempts, a longtime dream was finally coming true: She was going to be on “Jeopardy!”


The ‘Jeopardy!’ dream 15 years in the making

Zgraggen got the big news last October.

She was out of town, exploring the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, and had pulled out her phone to take a picture. That’s when she saw the text message from “Jeopardy!” producers telling her to give them a call. Zgraggen, who lives in West Valley, held her phone up in front of her husband’s face and acted like she was going to take a selfie. Her husband’s posed smile for the camera quickly transformed into a smile of excitement as he read the message.

“It was just shock and disbelief,” Zgraggen told the Deseret News. “I was so excited — and then that very quickly turned into being super nervous.”

Zgraggen didn’t have great cell reception, and ended up filling out her background check and other forms on her phone at the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Visitor Center, surrounded by buses of tourists. It was an oddly familiar moment for her — earlier that year, she was in the woods of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when she learned that she had made it past the preliminary round and had been invited to audition for “Jeopardy!”

“If you leave cellphone service, that’s when good things will happen,” Zgraggen said with a laugh.

Suzanne Zgraggen is pictured on “Jeopardy!” Zgraggen, who is a BYU graduate and works in the Hogle Zoo’s education department, competed on the Jan. 10 episode of “Jeopardy!”

Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Zgraggen is no stranger to the “Jeopardy!” audition process. She started taking the show’s annual online test 15 years ago. For that test, aspiring contestants are given 50 clues and have up to 15 seconds to answer each clue. If you get a high enough score — 35 is widely considered to be a passing score — you are considered for an in-person audition (you never actually get to see your official score).

Up until last year, Zgraggen had reached that point three times. Over the years, she flew to California, Phoenix and Denver for a chance to make it on the quiz show. During this phase, “Jeopardy!” producers work with the potential contestants, playing mock games and seeing how they perform on camera.

“After the audition, they either call you or they don’t,” Zgraggen said. “And then after about a year if they haven’t called you, you just start over. So that’s kind of the holding pattern I’ve been in for 15 years.”

This time around, due to pandemic-induced changes, Zgraggen did her audition on Zoom. It ended up being a benefit to her dela — her as the Academic and Community Programs manager at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Zgraggen had become efficient at doing education programs online the past few years. She felt comfortable in that element, and she was also auditioning from the comfort of her own home.

Over the years, Zgraggen’s mindset about “Jeopardy!” had also shifted, going from being stressed and nervous about auditioning and making it on the show to thinking of it as more of a fun opportunity.

“You know, it’s 15 years in,” she said. “I’m not so wrapped up in it.”

But that didn’t make her any less excited when, at long last, her big “Jeopardy!” moment arrived.

‘Oh my gosh, this is real,’ Zgraggen thought when she arrived on the set of ‘Jeopardy!’


The ‘Jeopardy!’ dream becomes a reality

Zgraggen saw the “Wheel of Fortune” set first.

Both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” are filmed at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, and “Wheel” wasn’t filming on the day of Zgraggen’s “Jeopardy!” game. So the contestants for the day had their hair, makeup and other preparations done on the set of “Wheel of Fortune” before heading over to the “Jeopardy!” set, now called the Alex Trebek Stage.

Producers had Zgraggen and the other contestants sit in the audience. From her seat, Zgraggen took in all of the sights that she had watched for years on the TV in her living room — everything from the gameboard to the host and contestant lecturers.

And then the “Jeopardy!” theme song, “Think,” began to play.

“I started to cry,” Zgraggen said. “’Oh my gosh, this is real,’” she thought.

“Jeopardy!” co-host Ken Jennings stepped onto the stage and welcomed the contestants. The 74-game winner and “Jeopardy!” Greatest of All Time champion then offered up some words of encouragement.

“And the rest of the day was kind of a blur,” Zgraggen said.

Going into her game, there were a few categories Zgraggen hoped wouldn’t show up on the board, like math and physics and pop music from the last 20 years. She doesn’t consider herself to be particularly good at cramming and studying — she likes to learn trivia through solving crossword and acrostic puzzles and by going down rabbit holes on Wikipedia when she misses a question in her online trivia league.

As a Brigham Young University graduate who studied biology, Zgraggen was hoping for categories connected to that field. She’s been with the Hogle Zoo’s education department for 20 years — and she volunteered as a junior zookeeper at the zoo when she was 13 — so she welcomed clues about animals.

She would also be OK with categories about Western art and history — she’d taken a lot of history classes in high school and college.

“Tragically, that’s not what came up on the board,” she said with a laugh.

Zgraggen’s “Jeopardy!” game was fairly difficult — according to the show’s archives, there were eight clues that stumped all three contestants during the game that aired on Jan. 10.

Zgraggen does have her husband, a sports enthusiast, to thank for getting a clue about Serena Williams and the French Open early on in the game. But overall, she said she struggled with the buzzer and timing. Going into the game’s final round, Zgraggen was in third place and opted to wager all of her her $3,600 on the Final Jeopardy question in the category “classic tale characters.”

It was a tough clue: “In one 19th-century translation, she ‘perceived the dawn of day and ceased’ speaking nearly 1,000 times.”

No one came up with the correct answer: “Scheherazade.”

Zgraggen finished third and walked away with a $1,000 consolation prize. But the way she sees it, being on the set of “Jeopardy!” and interacting with the crew and her fellow contestants was the real prize — not to mention the fact that she got to briefly chat with Jennings, who she has been following since his legendary run on “Jeopardy!” in 2004.


Meeting Ken Jennings

Zgraggen was actually at BYU around the same time as Jennings, but the two never met — Jennings studied computer science while Zgraggen was immersed in biology courses, on track to become a biology teacher (she did her student teaching at Jordan High School during the 2002 Olympics).

In 2003, after a few years of being a volunteer educator at the Hogle Zoo, Zgraggen took a job in the zoo’s education department. It was about a year into this job when Jennings began his record-breaking run on “Jeopardy!” — a record that remains untouched even 18 years later.

“Jeopardy!” came on at the end of Zgraggen’s workday, so she and a few co-workers made a habit out of watching Jennings dominate day after day before heading home. And Zgraggen has been a fan of the “Jeopardy!” legend ever since — she even went to one of his book signings at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.

Ken Jennings is the host of the “Jeopardy!”  Tournament of Champions.

Ken Jennings on the set of “Jeopardy!”

Tyler Golden, Sony Pictures Television

So although her “Jeopardy!” her game did n’t mark her first time meeting Jennings, it was Zgraggen’s most personal interaction dela with him to date. With the busy filming schedule, you don’t get a lot of time to interact with the host outside of regular gameplay. But Zgraggen did get a few minutes when Jennings was going over his notes from him about the contestants ahead of filming.

First, Jennings worked on pronouncing Zgraggen’s name (pretend the “zg” is an “sk.”) He mispronounced it on the first try, but did better than most, Zgraggen said. When Jennings read on his card that Zgraggen was a zoo educator from the West Valley, Hogle Zoo immediately came to his mind and mentioned how he used to take his kids there when he lived in Utah, Zgraggen said.

Like all contestants, Zgraggen also got a photo with Jennings.

“My 9-year-old’s very impressed that I had my picture taken with the guy who wrote the ‘Junior Genius’ books,” she said with a laugh.

Watching her episode unfold on national TV months after filming was surreal for Zgraggen. She had forgotten a lot about the game — between the rehearsals and filming, it was hard for her to remember which questions were a part of the actual game. She was able to gather family and friends and co-workers, about 40 people in total, for a watch party at the zoo. As the game aired, her passionate supporters her booed whenever her fellow contestants beat her to the buzzer and offered up a correct response.

“No, no, no, they’re nice guys!” she told her friends.

And for Zgraggen, that fact may have been the very best part of “Jeopardy!”

“Every single person that I met during this process — all of the ‘Jeopardy!’ staff and crew and every one of the contestants — it was just really, really nice, top to bottom,” she said. “It was such a fun experience. It was way more fun than I thought.”

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