Corey Schmalzle, ’17, has been sitting in the green room for five hours.
He and the other contestants have been confined to this room with only short breaks to eat lunch and practice with the buzzers. Surrounded by his potential adversaries, Schmalzle continues to mindlessly watch “Shaun of the Dead” and “Talladega Nights” while he waits his turn to take the stage.
This is the third time the contestant coordinator has entered the green room, taking with him the next round of contestants. Each time, Schmalzle has been left waiting.
The television begins to blur until finally, on the fourth round out of five to be taped this day, Schmalzle hears his name. He stands up and follows his two opponents to get their makeup done. From there, the three contestants walk out on the stage where Alex Trebek stands awaiting their arrival.
Schmalzle, ’17, was chosen to participate in that day’s shooting of the “Jeopardy! College Championship” at the Sony production lot in Los Angeles. He was the first Lehigh student to ever participate in the competition. Lehigh is the 10th school from Pennsylvania to be represented in the college edition of “Jeopardy!.” The show, now in its 33rd season, has only had one student from a college in Pennsylvania win the grand prize of $100,000 in cash.
The show was recorded in the middle of January and aired Feb. 16. Schmalzle said he started off well but came up short in the end. He wound up finishing in third place with $11,000 and didn’t qualify for a wild card spot in the semifinals.
As a quarterfinalist, Schmalzle won $5,000. The semifinalists won $10,000. The third-place contestant won $25,000 and the second-place won $50,000.
Schmalzle said watching the “Jeopardy!” episode was less painful than he thought it would be. He said he remembered all of the questions he got wrong, but he didn’t make as many mistakes as he had thought.
“In that moment, I thought I had just gotten everything I said wrong, but looking back it ended up not looking as bad as it felt in the studio,” he said.
Schmalzle said he has always been good at trivia. During high school, he used to be a regular with his friends at a local restaurant, where they would win $25 gift certificates with their trivia skills. Since turning 21, Schmalzle said he often finds himself at Molly’s Irish Grille & Sports Pub on Fourth Street for its Thursday trivia competition. On more than one occasion, Schmalzle and his friends won.
Schmalzle, a native of Hawley, Pennsylvania, credited his mother for having the biggest impact on his trivia knowledge. She was the one who got him hooked on the TV shows “Friends,” “Star Trek” and “Lost,” which he said helped him gain knowledge of pop culture.
“He and I have a love of useless knowledge,” Schmalzle’s mother Mary Helen said.
She said their family was stunned by Schmalzle’s inclusion in the game but understands why he would be good at it. He has always been competitive and consistently attending trivia in high school made him the family’s prime candidate for the show. Mary Helen Schmalzle and her husband were able to travel to Los Angeles to support him during the competition.
Schmalzle said he and his brothers in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house used to watch “Jeopardy!” when he lived there his junior year. During a commercial break, they saw an advertisement for the online “Jeopardy!” candidacy test. Along with a few of his brothers, Schmalzle took the tests for both the college and regular editions of the show.
Months passed with no word of his test scores. Then this past fall, Schmalzle got an email reminding him to retake the test. He retook the test without expecting much, but then he got an email saying he did well enough to get a live audition.
Schmalzle traveled to New York for the audition. It began with a 50-question test, followed by a small sample version of “Jeopardy!” and personal questions.
“I thought I got destroyed, I thought it was really bad,” he said. “I came back from that, and I was like, ‘OK, that was fun and a good experience to have, but I’m just going to go back to school now.’”
A month or so later, Schmalzle got a phone call.
The call came from a California number. The “Jeopardy! College Championship” wanted him to be on the show.
The company paid for Schmalzle’s flight to Los Angeles and put him in a hotel room. They shot the entirety of the quarterfinals on the first day, with the semifinals and finals being shot the second day. Since he wasn’t a part of the second day of shooting, Schmalzle and his family decided to spend the day at Universal Studios theme park, located right by his hotel.
Chris Irwin, ‘17, is a regular on Schmalzle’s Thursday night trivia team at Molly’s. Irwin said he believed a lot of Schmalzle’s trivia knowledge came from his practice of screenwriting and the things he picked up along the way from practice and watching a lot of movies.
“The order might be flipped on that,” Schmalzle said. “I watched a lot of movies and TV shows, and so I got good at trivia. Watching them made me want to write and do that on my own.”
Overall Schmalzle said he enjoyed the experience. He said he liked meeting the other contestants, and a free trip to Los Angeles is always an added bonus.
“It was fun,” Schmalzle said. “It was a learning experience, and I’m glad that I did it.”