Season 25 2-time champion: $46,300 + $1,000.
Francois's name was printed on-screen with an acute accent over the first "E" in "Laramée", but without a cedilla on the "C" in "Francois". However, he drew the cedilla on his name as it was displayed on his podium screen.
Won C$64,000 on the Canadian edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on 2000-09-13, making him the highest money winner on the show.
Francois Dominic Laramee - A Writer and TV Personality
Verdun, Quebec, Canada
June 18, 2009
My name is François Dominic Laramée, and on December 12th, 2007, I learned that I was slowly going blind.
Oh, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Retinitis pigmentosa is genetic - and my father carried the dominant form of the gene, so the odds that I would inherit it were 50-50. With luck, I won’t notice much in the way of symptoms for several more years, but the ultimate outcome is clear: the first thing to go will be my night vision (which was never beyond mediocre anyway), then my peripheral vision, then, well...
Having grown up with a visually impaired father, and having a wife who assists visually impaired people in all kinds of sporting activities (including downhill skiing, of all things), I know better than most that the blind are far from helpless. But still: on December 13th, 2007, I decided it was time to accomplish as many of my life’s dreams as possible, as soon as possible. Just in case.
So I enrolled back into college to study a topic (i.e., history) that I thoroughly enjoy and that I have no expectation of ever turning into a career. I went on stage as an actor for the first time in 20 years. And of course, I applied to become a Jeopardy! contestant.
Game shows have been a big part of my life ever since I can remember. For all intents and purposes, my first exposure to the English language as a child was The Price is Right. (I’m only half joking when I tell people that Bob Barker taught me English. Maybe less than half.) And Jeopardy! has been my favorite ever since I’ve known enough English and anglo-american culture to play along. If there was one show I had to play on, this was it.
I honestly can’t remember how many times I took the online test over the years. It’s been at least twice, probably more. What I do remember, though, is that the 2008 test appeared harder than the one(s) before. Which suited me just fine: I grew up in a French Canadian home and really learned English in my teens, so the stuff that should be easy (like nursery rhymes, for example) I was never exposed to. The more politics and history questions there were, the better my chances, I thought. But still: with tens of thousands of bright applicants and precious few slots available even for the in-person audition sessions, I figured I was a long shot to make it to the next round even if I aced the test - which, since Jeopardy! never reveals results, I may or may not have done. (If you ask me, I’ll tell you I got every question right. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)
Therefore, when I received an email, back in September, asking me to come to Toronto for an audition, I was both thrilled and shocked. Now, Toronto is a six-hour drive away from my hometown (Montreal), and I don’t drive anyway, but luckily for me I have a very understanding and adventurous wife who was quite enthusiastic about the prospect, so off we went!
I believe I was in the second of five groups auditioning for the show that weekend. There were 20 people or so in my group, most of them from Ontario and upstate New York. The audition started with a second 50-question test, which was much easier than the online test we had all passed before. (I guess the contestant coordinators were just making sure that we hadn’t found the answers to the original test on Google!) Then came time for everyone to shine in a mock game of Jeopardy!, and shine they did: playing well, telling amazing stories in the mock interview (one guy had been kidnapped by his cab driver in Kazakhstan; can’t beat that!), etc. I remember thinking that, of the entire group, only one person seemed too shy to be comfortable on camera and would probably not go into the contestant database. Which, from a selfish perspective, wasn’t very good news: with so many qualified people vying for so few spots on the show, odds were this was the last I would ever hear of it, and the only thing I would ever “win” on Jeopardy! would be the nice clicker pen they gave us to write the test.
Maggie, who ran the audition, then told us that we might be called at any time within an 18-month window, and that women (who made up a smaller segment of the applicant pool) could expect to be called earlier than men. Complicating things in my case, the show is often taped on Tuesdays... Which also happens to be the day we tape “La Revanche des NerdZ,” the French-Canadian television show on which I have worked for the last 4 years. So, with regret, I told the contestant coordinators that I would be unavailable to tape on Tuesdays until March 17th, at which point our season would be over, and promptly wrote off any chance of ever getting The Call; after all, with so many good people to choose from, why would they pick the fussy troublemaker who was unavailable all the time?
So when I did get The Call, asking me to fly over for the March 17th taping, the very first one I was able to attend... Well, let’s just say that the neighbors probably got an earful of bloodcurdling yelps, poor things. (That’ll teach them to snoop!)
10% Preparation, 90% Perspiration
And then I hung up the phone. OK. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat... Good.
Now, I had a couple of weeks to prepare, but exactly how are you supposed to prepare for a show like Jeopardy!? I figured it was too late to get an education in musicals, movies, English lit and “potent potables,” all frequent Jeopardy! topics in which my French-Canadian upbringing had left me woefully inadequate. (More on this later.) The best I could do was hope for plenty of categories that would fall into my strong suits: sports, science, history, politics, Rhyme Time, Before and After, and of course Canadian stuff.
However, I could at least download the PlayStation 3 version of Jeopardy! to practice ringing in at the right time, which might otherwise be a huge problem, because I regularly play in adult leagues and tournaments of a French-Canadian quiz game called “Génies en Herbe,” in which we are allowed to ring in before the question has even been completed - a bad idea on Jeopardy!, since it deactivates the buzzer. And indeed, that’s how I worked off the stress in the weeks before my appearance on the show: I played through the entire question database, learning not to buzz in when all I had to give was a wild guess, winning 88% of my games against robot opposition, and smoking the competition the few times I was able to find live opponents online. Of course, there is no test to select online players, and I suspected that the robot opponents in the PS3 game weren’t exactly programmed to be speed devils with the virtual buzzer, but I still got a bit of a morale boost out of it.
The Big Day
Fast forward to Tuesday, March 17th, the day of the tapings. Still waking up on Eastern time, I was wide awake at 3:45 AM. Not the best way to prepare for an intellectual challenge, I suppose... After tossing and turning for 3 solid hours, I finally gave up, showered, and went downstairs to the hotel lobby to wait for the shuttle bus that would take us to Sony Pictures studios. That’s where I met several of the other contestants for the first time. We struck an easy conversation; while undoubtedly nervous, they were all friendly and excited to be there. Then came the ride to the studio, the contestant briefing, and the makeup session - which made some of the male contestants visibly uncomfortable. (Me? I’ve been on TV in drag before, so...) And finally, after about two hours of formalities, it was time for First Contact with the studio.
What does the Jeopardy! soundstage look like? It is quite large, with an audience section that can probably sit around 200 people, and very well lit. But mostly, it is cold - I was freezing, and I live in Montreal all year round. The game board itself is quite far away from the contestant stations. Two columns of surprisingly small light bulbs on each side of the board light up once Alex has finished reading the clue and the buzzers are activated. There is also another section of the set, to the left of the game board, that hides two of the cameras and displays everyone’s scores at all times. (The scores are about 20 feet high; if we look like we’re staring at the ceiling when figuring out Daily Double bets, that’s why!)
Before the actual tapings, the day’s contestant pool played through two whole practice games, tagging in and out at various times. I tried my old “Génies en Herbe” tactic of buzzing in repeatedly as soon as I knew the answer, even if the clue hadn’t been completed yet, hoping against hope that it would work with Jeopardy!’s system even if we had been told it wouldn’t. It didn’t. Not once. I would have to rely on hand-eye coordination during the real game, trying to signal in as soon as the lights would go up... And hoping that the other contestants wouldn’t figure out a better system. (One of the ladies who were in the group, Ingrid, seemed to get the timing exactly right every time; I really hoped I wouldn’t play her or I’d be toast.)
After practice, we went back to the green room to take next year’s qualification test, which the crew is currently calibrating - and then it was announced that I would play the very first game of the day. Like, RIGHT NOW. So, back to the studio I went, not quite in a panic, but not quite sane, either.
Lights, camera... Action!
My first game started out rather slowly. The defending champion, A.J., and I shared the score on a category about NFL team logos, beating each other on speed. A.J. then took the lead for a little while, but he missed on a true Daily Double, and I think that shook him a little because he wasn’t the same player afterwards and stayed far behind.
I was starting to feel good out there; my other opponent and I finished the first round tied, and then I pulled away in Double Jeopardy, completing the dream of any contestant: a runaway win. Good thing, too, because the Final Jeopardy category was the dreaded “Oscar Winners,” which I know less than nothing about. When the clue came out, I figured it had to refer to one of the two Hepburns - and I guessed the wrong one. No matter: I had won! Woo-hoo!
For the rest of my life, I’d be a Jeopardy! champion, one of undoubtedly very few Jeopardy! champions who had to learn English as a second language. And I was $19,000 richer, too. Whatever else happened on that day didn’t matter: I had done better than I had any right to expect.
But enough of that: we had been warned that defending champions only had a few minutes to rush back to the green room and change outfits before returning for the next game, so that’s what I did.
That second game was anything but a runaway. The lady in the third slot finished below zero and couldn’t play in Final Jeopardy, but my other opponent and I both scored big: $17,300 for me, a bit more than $13,000 for him. In that type of situation, everyone needs to bet big money on the Final Jeopardy clue - and the player in second place tends to win if everyone gets the answer wrong, so my heart sank to my knees when I saw the impossibly evil “Historical Poems” category come up. My first thought was: “Historical poems? With an S, as in plural? You mean there are more than one?” Then I thought of Homer, and Gilgamesh, and Virgil’s Aeneid, and... Well, that was about all I could think of. More than one, to be sure, but not by much.
No matter: I had to bet $10,000 to cover the maximum that my opponent could score (assuming he was some sort of historical poet himself), and then I had to hope for a miracle - which I got when the clue was revealed. Trust me: no one, in the history of the world, was ever happier to see the words: “Cossack” and “Russian” pop up on a TV screen. There was only one possible answer: The Charge of the Light Brigade. (Which, I must admit, is actually a historical poem. Huh!) Anyway, we both got it right, and I scored a huge $27,300 payday. Thus, so far, I had made $46,300 in a little more than an hour, which is LeBron James-type money, and undoubtedly the only time in my life that I’ll be able to compare myself to LeBron James without getting smacked upside the head.
One more quick trip to the green room for a change of clothes, and it was time for my third game, which I really hoped to win because a) the crew picks Tournament of Champions players among three-peat-and-better winners, and I really wanted to play again, and b) I’d get to stay for lunch with the crew and remain champion for at least an hour longer before I had to defend again. But it wasn’t meant to be...
And boy! Did I ever learn that quickly!
In the Jeopardy round, one of my opponents’ blew me right out of the water: I think he “outbuzzed” me on 8 straight questions at one point, and he finished the round with twice as much money as I did. I knew that I needed several Double Jeopardy categories in which I’d be the only one to know the answers, or I’d be a goner. But as soon as I saw the categories, one of which I didn’t even understand, I knew it was lights out. A whole category on Edgar Allan Poe? Another one on ravens? And what does “purloined” mean, exactly? (I looked it up later.) Not good...
Most of the time, I know between 20 and 23 answers out of 30 on any given game board, sometimes 25 or 26 on a good day, almost never fewer than 18. On this one, I don’t think I had 10. I had been struck by the perfect storm of Jeopardy! ineptitude. So I basically watched the other two contestants play (phenomenally well) and started thinking about what I’d order for lunch once I returned to the hotel.
To this day, only my wife knows how much I won, or even that I won anything. I told nobody else, not even my mom. (I’m sure she’ll forgive me eventually.)
What will I do with the money? Well, I guess I could invest it in the stock market until it’s all gone, but I’d rather travel. I’ll turn 40 in 2010, so maybe I’ll take my wife on a cruise to Antarctica, or Greenland, or Iceland, or maybe even somewhere actually warmer than Montreal. And a third graduate degree might be fun at some point, too... There’s plenty of time to think it over.
A Fond Farewell
Although I wish I had been less stressed out before the tapings and I had taken more time to “breathe it all in”, my only real regret is that it’s over: the rules state that once you’ve been on the show, you can’t ever qualify again, and it would take an astounding fluke for my two wins to earn me a spot in the Tournament of Champions. Therefore, I’ll never get to play Jeopardy! again.
But that’s okay. I have plenty of other dreams left to fulfill.
Two-time Jeopardy! champion François Dominic Laramée
(yep, I like the sound of that!)