HUFFPOST PERSONAL
02/22/2018 08:30 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2018

I Became An Insanely Viral 'Jeopardy!' Champion. Here's How It Changed My Life.

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek and contestant Austin Tyler Rogers, who took home $463,000 after appearing on the show.
Jeopardy Productions Inc.
"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek and contestant Austin Tyler Rogers, who took home $463,000 after appearing on the show.

As I sit on the same old dun-colored Craigslist couch I’ve had for a decade, eating last night’s leftover chicken tikka at 9:30 a.m., I scan my apartment for the trappings of wealth and minor fame that my recent “Jeopardy!” success has surely afforded me. I find very little evidence of them.

There’s the same old mix-and-match component bike (named Spokey Robinson), a winter coat “liberated” from the lost and found at the bar where I bartend, and scattered stacks of books.

There’s a half-unpacked suitcase from a recent trip, still held together with packing tape provided by a hotel concierge after a zipper failure. [1] Hanging on a very rarely used mic stand is a newish ― and obscenely expensive ― flight-recorder-orange raincoat. [2] 

It all seems the same, three months after winning $463,000 during a 12-day run on a nationally televised, wildly popular game show. But something must’ve changed, right?

That’s the answer: the notoriety, the proverbial “15 minutes,” the fact that this windfall comes solely from a very specific talent that allows someone to excel in a very specific environment.

On my unmade bed lies a Sunday edition of the New York Post from early February with my picture and 500 words about my life as New York’s highest-winning bartender. That weekend, all of the city opened the paper and, on the first page, saw my grinning mug next to a full-column photo of Selena Gomez.

Since “Jeopardy!,” I’ve appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Dr. Oz,” “Good Morning America,” “TMZ,” and have been featured twice on “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” Somehow, I’ve been transmitted in some way to every key demographic. It’s unreal.

As a result, gleeful anonymity is over. It’s not even an option anymore. Now, I get recognized at least 10 times a day.

The tiers of recognition are as varied as the people who recognize me. Bros in a bar say, “Hey, you look familiar.” An older gentleman at a restaurant does a double take followed by, “You’re the ‘Jeopardy!’ guy.” Then there’s the immensely unnerving cat lady at Duane Reade whose look seems to be saying, “OH MY GOD YOU’RE AUSTIN ROGERS I’M YOUR BIGGEST FAN CAN I STARE AT YOU WITH MY REALLY SCARY EYES?!?” Occasionally, an Instagram photo or tweet featuring a picture of me and one of my female friends is savaged by would-be paramours who attest that the girl in the photo is “not good enough for me,” albeit in less charitable language and with even less cogency.

The worst are the quizmasters who I meet, know-it-all fans who pepper me with random questions to which ― surprise, surprise ― they already know the answers.

“No way — tell me more about the sex life of a lemur vis-a-vis RBI totals for the 1924 Washington Senators.” (Was 1924 the only year the Senators won the World Series? Or the only year they were in it? I forgot and I’m not going to look it up. Tell me in the comments.) [3] 

On an exceedingly rare basis, I am approached to fund someone’s nonsense, which I will always refuse, ignore, deflect or feign insanity to escape.

Most interactions, though, are overwhelmingly positive. Most often, I get a simple, “Hey, we really enjoyed you on the show.” And I never fail to smile when I’m on the receiving end of a classic sidewalk drive-by delivered in full Doppler effect: “Heyyyyy, ‘Jeoooopppparrdddyyyy!’”

Some people want to know insider tricks to appearing on the show. (Keep taking the online test!) Others want intimate details about Alex Trebek. (His wine of choice is chardonnay.)

Occasionally, a parent will bring their child to meet me while I’m bartending at Gaf West at 401 West 48th Street at the corner of 9th Avenue (SHAMELESS PLUG). It’s truly touching, because I remember watching “Jeopardy!” with my parents and brothers every evening at 7 p.m. on WABC when I was a kid. It’s amazing to me that children born in the mid-2000s can grow up with the same fond memories of this program that I made 33 years ago.

That’s a testament to the longevity and quality of the “Jeopardy!” franchise. It’s simultaneously timeless and timely, and unlike so many other television properties, 100 percent based on talent. On “Jeopardy!,” you’re not provided with an R S T L N E. There are no phone-a-friends or immunity idols. You can’t be voted off via text or get passed over by a generic white guy holding a rose.

To excel at this game, you have to earn it. Being smart, knowing things ― it’s cool. That’s why I’m not ashamed to capitalize on the success and subsequent whirlwind of post-“Jeopardy!” fame: I’m genuinely talented at a very difficult, merit-based contest and it allowed me to present the genuine me, without reservations, to the greater public.

To excel at this game, you have to earn it. Being smart, knowing things ― it’s cool. That’s why I’m not ashamed to capitalize on the success and subsequent whirlwind of post-'Jeopardy!' fame.

That’s why, on a secondhand ottoman that serves as my makeshift coffee table — because buying coffee tables is for the bourgeoisie — there are high-level membership cards that I received after making generous donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In my living room, still in their boxes, are a fierce red-pencil-and-gouache piece called “Red Reincarnation I” by Firoz Mahmud and a wild acrylic with artist’s notation — “Study 51″ by David Reed — both purchased at charity auction to benefit the International Studio & Curatorial Program. I recently hosted a trivia fundraiser for the Hudson Valley-based Beacon Arts Council, where my dad is president, and pledged to match attendees’ donations. I’ve given to both the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center.

So that’s changed: I’ve been afforded the opportunity to support causes both local and national that espouse my values. But these are things I would’ve done had I received money from any avenue.

I was initially accused of hamming it up for the camera on “Jeopardy!” As I won more and continued to appear on the show, I saw a sea change in attitudes: “Maybe he is actually just like this.” I am. I’m stuck with it. But apparently my unfettered personality and something in the nerdy-leaning zeitgeist resonated with the world in a way neither I nor the immensely talented staff of “Jeopardy!” could have foreseen.

Three months after winning $463,000 on television, I still bartend. I still host trivia at The Brazen Head and The Waylon on Mondays and Wednesdays, respectively, at 8:30 p.m. (SHAMELESS PLUG 2: BACK IN THE HABIT). I’ve gotten many ― many, many, many ― offers: TV development opportunities, sponsorship deals, book prospects, marriage proposals. Some are promising; some are vaporware.

I would be very content to forge a small but fulfilling media career on the coattails of my “Jeopardy!” success. Perhaps you’ll see me on TV aimlessly pontificating or at The Strand bookstore shilling some book. If none of these prospects come to fruition, I will still be happy and hopefully have forged some new lasting friendships in the process.

Two years ago, when I started at Gaf West, my local of 17 years (SHAMELESS PLUG 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES), I swore I would never work in an office again, and have remained true to my oath. Tending bar while hanging out with my friends, I realized the false importance applied to the inconsequential that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with corporate workplaces is anathema to happiness. Trust me, nothing will catch fire if that “deck” (how I hate that word ― just call it a presentation or PowerPoint) is delivered on Monday morning instead of Friday afternoon. IT. IS. NOT. IMPORTANT. If the stress associated with a job comes at the expense of happiness, consider a change in scenery. It took me years to reconcile, but the assumed path ― promotion from cubicle to team huddle to corner office ― is simply not for me and not for everyone.

Even if I never had my amazing experience on “Jeopardy!,” I would still be happy today living and working far from what became a potentially poisonous environment. My life would certainly be less enriched had I not appeared on “Jeopardy!” Not knowing my fellow contestants, like Buzzy, Alan, Lilly ― not to mention Alex and the amazing team at the show ― would be dispiriting. But remaining at my current life as a simple bartender would still yield a quiet satisfaction. 

Happiness is real and achievable.

I still source my nearly identical shirts from the Goodwill on 88th Street and Second Avenue in New York. Three pairs of identical Converse low-tops are in three different rooms of the same Spanish Harlem apartment. For some reason, all that’s in my refrigerator are two cans of soup. (WHO PUTS CANS OF SOUP IN THE FRIDGE? That’s not the real question. The real question is, why haven’t I taken them out of the fridge?) It all is the same.

A lot of people commend me for still being just a regular guy who kept his old job ― I’d be a fool not to, since I love it so much. And I’d really be a fool not to because $463,000 sounds like a lot, but after taxes it will barely buy you a new refrigerator with delivery and installation in Manhattan. Dreams of down payment for a two-bedroom condo start in the $3.7 million liquidity range, which means I’ve got a ways to go. 

So without preaching and without condescending paternalism, I guess what I’m saying is if your circumstances afford it, get out there and give it a shot ― whatever “it” might be. Start painting. Watch more movies. Make snow sculptures. Be the best damned actuary you can be, if that’s your thing.

Life’s short, and if you’re not already Mozart, you most likely will never be. So all that’s left is happiness in yourself and happiness in friendship, in love of family, in respecting and empathizing with strangers. Do that instead and if the money doesn’t come, at least contentment will. I guess Voltaire was right: cultivate your own garden. Or buy a Land Rover 101 Forward Control. That’ll make you happy too.


Endnotes

[1]          I should throw that away. 

[2]          OK. So it’s obscenely expensive. Like, take the price of what you think is a reasonable raincoat price, then double it. But it’s got a lifetime unconditional guarantee and it replaces a prior coat with a similar warranty that was stolen.  So basically, I’m set for raincoats for life. That’s how I justified the price. 

[3]          Yeah, yeah, I had to look it up. I was right. 1924 was their only World Series Win. But that’s sorta how I remember everything. I have to chronically look up answers. Thus the beauty of having ALL OF THE WORLD’S KNOWLEDGE IN YOUR POCKET. I hate it when people are like, “Guess we’ll never know.” NO! Of course you can know. RIGHT NOW! Look it up on the supercomputer that is on your person at all times. People without intellectual curiosity are probably the worst people in 1600 Pennsyl ― I mean, the world.

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