Jeopardy host Mayim Bialik on set with NYU student Jeric Brual

Host Mayim Bialik, left, with Jeric Brual (Tisch '22). Photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

In 2016, just for fun, Jeric Brual (Tisch ’22) started making an annual year-in-review video to post on his YouTube channel. Coming up with the script took hours and hours of research, but that was fine with the film and television major who has always found himself curious about, well, pretty much everything. And when he took the stage to compete in the Jeopardy! National College Championship last November, he discovered that this personal project had inadvertently paid off. “I like to think that helped with my preparation process because it made me aware of all these global events,” he explains. 

Inquisitiveness may be a prerequisite for competing on Jeopardy!, but getting there takes its own sort of persistence. Jeric became fascinated with the show as a middle schooler in Union, New Jersey, started applying to the Teen Tournament at age 15, and kept trying, unsuccessfully, each year throughout high school. Finally, in October 2020—his last chance for college eligibility—he took the online test and, 11 months later, was shocked to receive the coveted phone call. “I completely forgot about the audition process until I got a text from a producer in September of 2021, and I was super excited,” Jeric says. “I was at a loss for words.”

Then came even more phone calls, with questions from producers about his background and details about travel, rehearsal, tapings, and more. (Sometimes his phone rang during class, and he’d bolt outside to quickly chat.) For Jeric, the hardest part of the year-long experience was keeping it quiet. To avoid spoiling the outcome, the show requires contestants to keep their potential appearance a secret, forbidding them from discussing it with anyone but immediate family members. “I felt kind of alone in the process,” he says. 

Now, at last, the world can know that Jeric is one of only 36 students competing in the 2022 primetime Jeopardy! National College Championship, which runs through Tuesday, February 22, on ABC (with streaming on Hulu). Jeric will appear on Tuesday, February 15, at 8:00 p.m., and in anticipation of the big show, NYU News talked with him about the bright lights, big stage, and that pesky buzzer.

Jeric Brual (Tisch '22) competing on Jeopardy!

Photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

How did you prepare in the months leading up to the show?

I definitely was weak on Shakespeare, and a little bit weak on recent history, so I wanted to study those a bit. But I mostly focused on the subjects that I knew well enough so that I could answer them accurately because any information you're going to cram last minute, you probably won't remember anyway, right?

In terms of other preparation, I bought two books. One of them was called Secrets of the Buzzer, by former Jeopardy! champion Fritz Holznagel. It's basically a guide to what worked for him and what didn't. I also bought Answers in the Form of Questions by Claire McNear. It's half memories of Alex Trebek, but also includes testimonies from other contestants about their experiences. 

Tell us what happens behind the scenes—hair, makeup, opponents.

Let me just say right off the bat that everyone on the Jeopardy! production team is super welcoming. They treat you like family. They made us feel like celebrities in a way. The makeup team does a really good job of making us look good—I'm sure you'll be able to tell from the actual show. Our casting producers were the nicest people ever. The media people were great at guiding us to do promotional material. 

In terms of the 35 other undergraduates, even though it's like a cutthroat competition on TV, we were friends. We even have a giant group chat with all 36 of us talking at once. It's actually popping off right now. A lot of messages going out, supporting each other amidst the posting on social media. We've been sharing each other's posts, hyping each other up. It was just a really good experience with no animosity, no ill will—just good vibes all around. 

Let’s talk about that enigmatic buzzer. Were you able to tame it?

So the buzzer, I thought, was going to be heavier. It's actually pretty light, similar to a pen. It's just like a button on top of a stick, and you click it. What you don't see at home is that when the host is done reading a clue, there will be lights that tell players when they can ring in, and that's your cue. So some people based their buzzing ability on the lights, whereas some people used sound and they based their timing on the host’s cadence, opting to ring in on that last syllable. I tried both sound and light, but the producers told me that I was coming in a little bit too early when I buzzed based on sound, and so I switched to the lights during my episode.

I’ve read that the smartest person in the world would lose badly if they couldn’t figure out the buzzer.

Oh yeah, 100 percent. I want to say, 50 percent of the battle is knowledge, while the other 50 percent is definitely the buzzer. 

How about the board—did you have a strategy for picking the categories?

Yeah, so there's this website called J! Archive, which is basically a site that contains every single Jeopardy! clue from every single episode. So I went back and played a couple of previous college championships to gauge my performance. I noticed that when I bounced around like [former champion] James Holzhauer, I would kind of trip myself up. And I realized that maybe going from top to bottom, even though I don't really like watching it or doing it, was what I needed to do in order to build confidence and build a streak. 

With your strategy in place, what was it like when you finally took the stage and started to play?

My game was filmed as the first game right after a lunch break. That kind of allowed me to let some nerves loose because all morning I was just watching the other games happen. So then when my game came around, all those nerves had pretty much disappeared. My palms were sweaty the night before and that morning, but as soon as I walked on that stage, all of that went away. I had a one-track mind and honed in on playing the game.

I know you can only say so much to avoid spoilers, but it seems like you’re ultimately quite happy with the experience.

Oh yeah, it's unlike anything I've ever experienced. I say tune in for the entire tournament! I mean, obviously, I want you to watch my episode, but my friends are like the smartest people I've ever met. Like they're so funny, they're so talented. And no matter how well or bad any of us did, we know we'll be there for each other throughout the entire process. 

What has been the biggest takeaway for you from all of this?

It's okay to know a lot. I mean, sometimes I'll think to myself, “Why do I know this?” Or like, I'm so weird that I know this random thing. And by going through this whole experience, I realized it's okay to be smart because I was surrounded by people who share that feeling. Everyone just had a wide range of knowledge, and it was just an honor to be with like-minded individuals.