Actor Ike Barinholtz was still letting the “absolute dream” of having won the celebrity version of his longtime favorite game show, Jeopardy!, sink this week when he was invited to play in the upcoming Tournament of Champions, which in the past has been limited to contestants who’ve won multiple games of the non-celeb version. He’ll be the very first celebrity champion to compete.
“Don’t ask me how I’m gonna do, because I don’t know if I’m going to do very well,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment before laughing. “But, here’s the thing, like, it would be against this year’s champions. It’s gonna be incredibly difficult.… I’m just going in to have fun. To me, it’s like, I’m not looking at it as the all-star game, I’m looking at it as the celeb all-star game, and I’m just gonna try to have fun. That way, when I get completely annihilated, I can say that I was just trying to have fun.”
But, seriously, he’s excited.
“It really is gonna be exhilarating,” Barinholtz says. “It’s gonna be just so cool to be up there with all those smarties and playing the real game. The thought of me playing the real Jeopardy! game is just absolutely wild.”
Barinholtz landed the invite after triumphing in a bracket that included the likes of Aisha Tyler, Andy Richter and Constance Wu. He faced Wil Wheaton and Patton Oswalt in the finals, and he bested Oswalt by just $1 in the dramatic finish, pocketing $1 million for Pacific Clinics’ Hollgrove programs.
So it wasn’t easy. And yet, as a longtime viewer, Barinholtz acknowledges that the clues are on Celebrity Jeopardy! are not quite the same. He understands that the famous TOC, which is expected to take place later this year, will be even more difficult than that.
“The questions are definitely easier than regular ones Jeopardy!,” Barinholtz says before cracking a joke. “That is because there’s just a part of a celebrity’s brain that is different than a normal person’s brain. It’s the part of the brain that we use to, like, walk down a red carpet or remember our lines. So we don’t have access to this extra part of the brain that non-celebs have that allows them to retain more information, so the questions have to be easier.”
The actor is best known for his work on comedies such as The Mindy Project, MADtv and the Neighbors movies, says people have explained just how surprised they were that he won. His characters aren’t usually the quiz show champion-type.
“A lot of people, at least online, were like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know Morgan was smart!'” Barinholtz says of his The Mindy Project character. “I think a lot of the things I’ve done, I play like a — I guess buffoon is the best word — and so there were definitely people online who were like, ‘Whoa, cool. I thought that guy was dumb, but in real life he’s not so dumb.’ But I think my friends and family were not surprised, because they know I’m good at trivia, but also I’m kind of dumb. So they were like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.'”
Yes, it turns out that the former Morgan Tookers, is a trivia nerd.
“I just remember in the ’80s, you know, my folks watching Jeopardy! and playing Trivial Pursuit with their friends,” Barinholtz says. “And my brain is wired to remember random things, while also forgetting things like my Social Security number sometimes.”
He’s not giving himself enough credit, of course. The truth is that, when Barinholtz was in high school, he was part of a trivia team that won the Illinois state championship in 1994. He insists that he was the “solid fourth man” on the team then, and he’s just always participated in quiz nights or pub trivia ever since.
He traces it all back to the show that was then hosted by the late, but still beloved Alex Trebek.
“My relationship with Jeopardy! was always a very serious one. We were not casually dating. We were very much in love,” Barinholtz deadpans. “No, I’ve been watching the show since I was a child. My parents love trivia, and they would always watch it. I would just sit there and watch them answer questions… As I got older, I started learning — what’s the word? — information. And I started, yes, playing myself, watching almost every night, myself, and so I’ve just been a huge, huge fan for 30 years, I would say now. I believe I got asked to be on some new game, and I was like, I’m not interested. If Jeopardy! calls, let me know.”
About two weeks later, they did! Barinholtz thinks he might have been asked to come on Celebrity Jeopardy! because he previously appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when current Jeopardy! executive producer Michael Davies worked on it.
“I was just so, so, so excited,” Barinholtz says. “It was just an absolute dream.”
After seeing his performance, people have asked him what he did to prepare. His answer is simple: He watched. He practiced clicking a pen, which stood in for the buzzer, while watching at home once he had played his first game. The actor says he also started stopping himself from just blurting out an answer once he thought he knew it, because the show’s rules mandate that the host has to read the entire clue before contestants can answer.
Before the final show aired, when he faced off against Oswalt and Wheaton, Barinholtz says he was miraculously able to keep his big win a secret. A neighbor offered to throw him a watch party, not knowing if he won or lost, and he agreed. His parents — who started it all — his brother and a bunch of others attended.
“And it was just perfect. They probably had an idea that I won because otherwise maybe I wouldn’t have invited everyone over, but watching the game back… it was just a very enjoyable game,” Barinholtz says. “It was very back and forth. I think there was a moment where most of the guests were like, ‘Oh, maybe he lost. He came in second.’ And then, for the last moment, big cheers. And we all hugged. And I poured myself a little extra Amaro.”
The response has been a lot.
“There are still some TV shows that people watch religiously. Lots of them,” Barinholtz says. “So I have people reaching out from grade school, from MADtv, just from all these different parts of my life. People coming up to me like, ‘Good job, idiot,’ so it was really lovely. And I’m excited to be part of it Jeopardy! family now.”
He says his arm is “getting sore from carrying the trophy all over town.”