PROVO — Christine Hurt was in a meeting when she got the big phone call — the one from “Jeopardy!” producers in Culver City, California, telling her she’d made the cut.
They wanted her at the studio in three weeks. Hurt’s excitement quickly gave way to nausea.
“I thought, ‘What if I go in and I can’t answer any questions and it becomes a meme?’” the Brigham Young University law professor said. “I really didn’t want to become a meme.”
Hurt did everything in her power to ensure that wouldn’t happen.
On top of her teaching schedule, she studied the U.S. presidents and the English monarchs. She viewed CrashCourse videos on European history, computer science and the history of science. She memorized all of the world capitals, bodies of water and mountain ranges. She listened to a lot of podcasts. She learned the plots of the most famous operas. She watched a documentary on hip-hop.
“I sort of treated it like I was taking the bar,” she said. “Anything in the world could be on the bar.”
There were some categories Hurt wasn’t as confident about, like popular music — she joked that she only remembered one thing from the hip-hop documentary she watched. But to Hurt’s surprise, that random fact popped up on the game board and was read aloud by host Alex Trebek. Something Hurt had studied was actually on “Jeopardy!” It was her shining moment.
“I didn’t buzz in on time!” she said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Hurt’s appearance on “Jeopardy!” — which was filmed in October — airs Dec. 18. A couple of weeks ago, on the last day of classes, the professor sat down in her office and reflected on her journey to the nationally beloved game show.
Like mother, like daughter
Hurt takes the stairs to reach her office on the fifth floor of the J. Reuben Clark Law School.
On her desk there’s a copy of the Utah Law Review journal and a Bible. Hurt is a member of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and her husband, Paul Stancil — who also teaches law at BYU — is an evangelical Christian.
At the far end of her desk there’s a framed cartoon from The New Yorker magazine.
“Then maybe you should just tell me what you want for your birthday instead of saying you don’t care,” a husband tells his visibly upset wife as 11 monkeys jump around her.
Hurt came up with that line, and she’s a proud two-time winner of The New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest.
To the left of her office window, which provides a view of the mountains, hangs the Mary Cassatt painting, “Breakfast in Bed.” Hurt likes this painting because of the way it depicts the special bond between a mother and her child — a recurring theme in Cassatt’s work.
“Once a long time ago someone said to me … that students might find me intimidating. I don’t consider myself intimidating at all,” she said. “Deep down inside I see myself as a mom, and so I just thought that if students come to my lair, they would see that I’m really a mom.”
Hurt has her own mother to thank for her deep love of “Jeopardy!” Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Hurt recalled how her mom made it a priority to watch the game show — even as she neared the end of her life.
“When she was on hospice, she and her caregiver, they would watch ‘Jeopardy!’ every day, and during the first commercial break, they would each bet on someone to win,” Hurt said. “That was their little ritual every day.”
Hurt’s mom died two years ago, but the “Jeopardy!” fandom carries on in the family, with Hurt’s husband and their three kids. Hurt’s 18-year-old son even wants to be on “Jeopardy!” some day.
“I would’ve loved for my mom to see me on ‘Jeopardy!’” Hurt said. “I was happy to do it anyway, but she would’ve been really, super excited.”
Getting on the game show has been years in the making for the professor, who has taught corporate tax and securities regulation at BYU since 2014. She’s taken the online test — which is only offered once or twice a year — five times.
And she’s made it beyond the online test twice. The first time she flew out to California and auditioned for “Jeopardy!” she wound up in the same room as Buzzy Cohen — the polarizing contestant from 2016 who wrote comments like, “What is, ‘See you tomorrow, Trebek?’” and “Who is, ‘You aren’t rid of me yet, Trebek?’” during Final Jeopardy rounds.
Unlike Cohen, though, Hurt didn’t advance past that audition round (she had to endure an 18-month eligibility period before trying out again). But she’s since rooted for Cohen, who came from behind to win the 2017 Tournament of Champions. And for the record, Hurt is rooting for Ken Jennings in next month’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament.
Although Hurt was less confident about her second time auditioning, in October 2018, she got the call from producers about a year later.
“They just give you a date. And if you can’t make that date, that’s it,” she said. “You have to start over.”
So a day after returning from an already-planned trip to Germany with her husband, Hurt got on a plane with her kids. She was finally going to meet Trebek.
On the show
The whole experience was kind of a blur.
“It was really like skiing downhill and you’ve never skied before and it’s a double black (run) and people are watching and it’s on television!” Hurt said with a laugh. “It goes so quickly.”
One of Hurt’s biggest challenges on set was the buzzer. Beforehand, she had studied up on the best ways to hold the buzzer. But when it came time to practice, Hurt couldn’t buzz in at all.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be really embarrassing. … I should just go home,’” Hurt recalled.
After a few minutes, a producer came over and told her she was buzzing in too quickly, before the question was completed. When that happens, you’re locked out for five seconds, “which in ‘Jeopardy!’ time is a lot of time,” Hurt said.
“That’s the thing they tell you at the audition, is that if it were a written trivia contest, every contestant would get most of them right,” she added. “The buzzer makes it a game.”
If she could get a do-over, Hurt said she would pre-commit herself to strategies for selecting questions and wagering, because thinking on the spot turned out to be even harder than buzzing in at the right time.
“It’s hard to overstate how stressful it is while the game is going on,” she said. “The people who are able to slow things down and employ a strategy, my hat’s off to them, because to me it just went incredibly fast.”
But Hurt loved meeting Trebek and is glad her kids were able to watch her in the studio. Now, the professor is about to relive the whole experience again when it unfolds Wednesday night on national television.
She couldn’t have done anything too meme-worthy, as she’s throwing a big watch party at her house (she actually had to buy an antenna since her family got rid of cable). But she did use a popular NFL meme to explain how people should behave at her party.
“This will not be a Super Bowl party where everyone is chatting and eating with their backs to the TV until the commercial comes on,” says Hurt’s invitation. “This is the Super Bowl party where Eli Manning has to sit in the owner’s box watching Peyton Manning in stone cold silence while he thinks, ‘I could have done so much better.’”