ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — “Alex, you’re being insensitive.”
One of the greatest lines in Jeopardy! history was delivered in a swift, but cherubic way by Laura Sikes, then resident of Rochester.
She’s originally from Lousiana (and moved back in March because of the pandemic), and came to University of Rochester for her PhD in American History. On a July 12, 2012 episode, she made over $34,000, but still unfortunately lost.
She did however, make into the hearts of more than one million viewers on YouTube when the late Alex Trebek professionally discussed the previous guest’s cult, but decided Sikes’ pygmy goat was the perfect time for some well-natured barbs.
Here’s our 1-on-1 with Laura Sikes.
What was your time in Rochester and at UR?
Well, I loved it. I actually probably never would have left Rochester if my family wasn’t down here, Rochester’s probably my favorite place in the world. I loved it.
UR was great, I really liked going there. It felt like very fancy for me because I’m from like the middle of nowhere, Louisiana.
What about Rochester enthralled you so much?
I love that it has all of the amenities and sort of cultural institutions of a bigger town, but it’s small enough that you kind of, everyone knows everybody, and you don’t get lost in the mix.
I think it’s a pretty big town. The town that I come from has about 15,000 people.
What did you get your PhD in by the way?
I’m a historian. And so I got it in American history.
That’s a quite a career path for you going right now. It’s like you’re watching it happen or something.
OK. Definitely exciting. Terrifying.
What inspired you to go on Jeopardy! in the first place?
When I was seven years old my uncle, bought a copy of a book about college football, and it took him three weeks to try and read it, and I sat there, and read it in one weekend. And that’s the first time anybody ever told me, “Hey, you should go on Jeopardy!, you’re so smart.”
And so from then on, I always thought that that would be something that I wanted to do. I just actually saw that the test was coming up. One time I signed up for it, took it, and passed on my first try and got the audition. So I was one of the lucky ones.
A lot of people, many of whom are smarter than me, have to take the test multiple times to get on the show. But for me, it just really worked out. It was a smooth path. I just sort of took it, got on, well, took it, interviewed, and then got on.
How many games were you on total for?
One game, I lost.
But I have one of the best losing scores in history. Um, my final score is $34,600, but unfortunately my rival had about $1,200 more at the end of final Jeopardy!.
Here’s the small constellation prize; even though you may have lost, you were involved in one of the most memorable Jeopardy! moments. Walk me through that scenario — did you know that was coming? What on earth were you thinking?
Part of the audition process for Jeopardy! is doing anecdotes. They not only want someone who can obviously get the questions, right, but they want someone who can tell a little story on TV, believe it or not, they actually pick the ones who are good at telling stories.
You have to have three different anecdotes throughout the audition process. And the story of my little goat was one of them, but you don’t know what’s going to be picked. When he’s reading off of the car, he has all three options on there. So he can just sort of pick any story he wants to and then ask him anything about it. So when he mentioned the goat, I was a little bit surprised. I had like a sentimental story in there about my grandfather and how much he loved Jeopardy!. And then he brings up the goat and I’m like, OK, great.
And I told myself — I’d watched him interview with Jon Stewart one time — and he was like, “all right, just for future guests… Y’all never, y’all are never supposed to try and be funny. I’m the funny one. You just, you know, talk back.
I was going to do that. And then I saw the chance to make that joke, and I just had to do it at the time he was right. And so I called him insensitive for asking about how my goat died.
And it was a little pause for me to be like, “Oh my gosh, is this going to go over?” But then I saw that like the camera guy was shaking. He was laughing so hard and Trebek wasn’t talking. And I was like, okay, “I think this is working.”
But in general, I would say it, don’t try to be funny on Jeopardy! because we’ve seen how that usually goes.
So what was the story of the pygmy goat? We got the end of it, and a little kind of the beginning. How did this goat come into your life and how does it feel that it’s at the other end of the joke on Jeopardy!?
It’s been a really funny experience. I had the goat with my roommate at college, and when we both went to graduate school, the goat went to her parents’ farms who live.
He was actually on that farm when he passed. He wasn’t with either of us. Her dad was making a little cabin, and he just accidentally left the door open one day just to crack. And Billy got in and ate concrete… It was not really supposed to be my story. My story is supposed to be about how had this cute little goat.
It just turned into that because one really notable thing about goats is they do eat a lot of stuff. It’s one of the most remarkable things about them. And so whenever he died, my roommate called me and she was so sad, but there was this weirdness to her and “I was like, well, what happened?
And she goes “he ate concrete,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s not funny.” But I couldn’t like help it! Like, it was just such a strange situation.
He was a happy goat. He had a great life. He had a best friend, a mule named Jamie. I mean, he was out there grazing and living his best life, but unfortunately his rumbly tumbly got him into a little bit of trouble.
So for reference, how big is a pygmy goat?
When I got him, we brought him home in a cat carrier… And when he was bigger, maybe the size of a small dog. So he was, he’s a really little, little guy. He was a very cute little guy. Here’s what I tell people:
Don’t mistake livestock animals for companion animals… Mistakes that I made, but I had a great time with Billy. He was a great pet and he actually had a really good life. It just was a little accident that happened at the end.
You’re historian: You come from a profession in which knowing facts very quickly at your disposal is like part of the gig …
When you get a PhD in history, one of the things that you have to do is you have to take a series of exams, including these, like four-hour long oral exams, where professors can ask you any question about anything in American history, and you have to know the off the top of your head.
If there’s anything better for training for Jeopardy! to give them that, then I don’t know what it is. So basically I was being trained for it just by virtue of the fact that I was learning about this stuff all day, every day.
And then whenever I got, um, the audition and was told that I was going to be on it, I just got like little kid flashcards of like presidents or like Shakespeare plays.
It worked out and if I had it to do again, which I wish I would, I don’t know if they’re going to have people back, but if they do, I’d love to go back one.
I would just say if anyone’s thinking about taking the test or studying for the test, just watch Jeopardy!, see what they talk about all the time and quiz yourself on it. Take all of the practice exams.
Another thing I want to say just to like reiterate is that most people don’t get on their first audition. One of the most brilliant people in my audition group who actually won a lot more money than me had auditioned five times by the time he actually got on over the course of many years. So definitely if you want to be on Jeopardy!, it’s really important to keep trying.
Your time there was brief, but memorable. If you can, what was Alex really like?
He smelled nice, like not in an overt way, but just kind of like in a very well-kept person. Like his skin was like Canadian pale, you know, it had a life like vibrancy to it. He was taller than me and I’m 5’11”. So I was pretty impressed with that.
When he came up behind me to take a photo with me, he said that I livened the place up. And so I thought that was a really nice compliment. I think in general he really loved the contestants, but you have to imagine, you know, they’re filming multiple shows a day when they do that. So I think that ultimately kind of most contestants just probably blurred together for him.
It wasn’t really like meeting someone that you get to know, but of course I was a huge fan, so it was really exciting and she was really nice to me. And I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Does he talk in his Jeopardy! voice in like his personal voice?
Yeah, he does. I feel like what I’ve got from it is that he’s 100% himself on the show, like the he’s exacting, but I think he’s probably exacting in real life.
One of the things that a lot of people don’t know is that for many years he taught test himself every single year, just to prove that he was up with the contestants. He was a really smart guy. He knew when he would correct people’s pronunciation, you know that from him, it didn’t come from the producers or, or whatever.
He just was a very well-educated and knowledgeable guy. And so I think that that was something that you really get coming through in the show.
When people, sometimes when people see my clip, they’re like, “Oh, Alex, he’s so rude.” He was in on the gag. He was part of the joke. He’s a great entertainer. And I think that it really comes across in the clip. That he’s a good sport.
So the other guy after you, he was just skipped over …
He ended up beating me so I don’t feel too bad for him, but he’s a really nice guy. Actually, I’m in contact with Tracy and him still. They’re both really nice people. We’re Facebook friends.
When you’re on the show, it’s so fast and you spend most of the day just in the green room waiting to go on. And so you really bond with the people, and it was just really cool.
The guy had, you know, I think he was a student and he had just won the game before. So at lunch I said: “You’re rich now.” And he’s like, “I don’t know.”
I have to ask, is Tracy still in the group?
You know, I imagine that she must be, I don’t think that being a priestess of the blessing, or whatever of Saint Scully is, is a short-term appointment. I think that seems like more of a long-term commitment, but I’m not for sure.
Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you’d like to add?
One thing that people ask me a lot about is what happens after the show because they show you you’re standing there with Trebek and this is actually when you get to talk to him, you only had those few minutes as the credits roll to actually chit chat.
And we just chit chat about nothing. He just stands there and just starts chatting and he just would come up and it’s like you’re his friend. That’s why I think, you know, sometimes he probably just thinks of the contestants as sort of undifferentiated mess perhaps for the most part …
But the other really funny thing that happened was there was like a 95-year-old woman who had to get restrained by security, because she was trying to jump over the barrier to get at Trebek. These old ladies love Trebek like you would not believe in the audience.
It was like being at a Biebert concert. It was amazing.