CHEYENNE – Everyone knows what they would do with a small, unexpected fortune.
Some would travel the world, while others may invest in more practical endeavors.
Justin Earnshaw, an English teacher at Burns Junior/Senior High School, would invest in hot air ballooning skills. That’s what he told studio executives during his “Jeopardy!” audition in November, anyway.
“I got up there, and I totally blanked,” Earnshaw said. “It was something really quirky and personal, but I couldn’t remember what it was. My mind went to the only possible solution, which was ‘I would get a hot air balloon so, when my wife opened a dog rescue, I could run security from it.’”
The room fell quiet for a few seconds before everyone tossed their heads back in laughter.
“That may have been the deciding factor,” he said.
Earnshaw’s original answer to the question was to buy a tiny home on wheels, traveling the country and working remotely with his wife of seven years, Shannon Skelcher.
Earnshaw eventually made it to the TV show, and his episode airs this Thursday at 6:30 p.m. on CBS. The appearance is the culmination of several years worth of attempts to get on the game show.
After taking the 50-question online “Jeopardy!” test every year for five years, Earnshaw knew the odds of being called for an in-person interview were low. The chances of making it on the show, filmed in Culver City, California, were even lower.
During the online test, players have 15 seconds to answer each short-answer question. Anyone who answers 35 or more questions correctly automatically joins a pool of randomly selected trivia whizzes to participate in an audition.
Earnshaw was one of few sent to audition in Denver with a crew. With at least 100,000 people taking the online test in the U.S. and Canada, only 400 people will be on the show each year.
“I had some missed calls at work with a Culver City area code and, sure enough, they invited me to be on the show,” he said.
Earnshaw had only a few weeks to prepare for his debut on the small screen. As a high school teacher, he had unknowingly prepared for years.
“You should read up on as many categories as possible,” he said. “For me, that didn’t help as much because, I figured, you either know it or you don’t.”
For Earnshaw, the most intimidating preparation was mastering the show’s famous wager system.
“If you get a Daily Double, how much do you go in for? You have to practice these mathematical formulas,” he said.
His wife, a graduate assistant at Boise State University, persistently quizzed him on possible wagers. Being his ultimate champion, she was as excited as he was.
“It was incredible,” Skelcher said. “When he called me about it, I just started screaming and jumping up and down. I think I was more into the preparation than he was.”
The two have been watching “Jeopardy!” together for years. Earnshaw is an avid reader, and especially appreciated Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek impression on “Saturday Night Live” as a child. He has long been talking to Trebek from the comfort of his couch.
“At one point, Shannon was like, ‘Stop answering all the questions if you are not going to do something about it,’” Earnshaw said.
“And it would not have been possible otherwise.”
His students are showing their excitement in another way.
“New levels of teasing me, I guess,” Earnshaw said. “They found my ‘Hometown Howdy’ video, and it has been merciless.”
During the week he had to take off of work to film, he left his students daily warm-ups with Alex Trebek quotes and “Jeopardy!”-inspired vocabulary tests. One word of the day was “jeopardize.”
While Earnshaw can’t discuss the details of his performance on the show until it airs, he said he’s not disappointed.
“I didn’t break a Ken Jennings winning streak, but it was a great time,” he said. “I had a lot of fun. Alex Trebek is definitely friendly and personable, but he was also really sarcastic and dry.”
Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak on “Jeopardy!” and continues to be the second-highest earning contestant in game show history.
Earnshaw said the producers of the show think there may be a moment from the episode that will go viral, which is another reason to tune in Thursday.
If the experience has taught both Earnshaw and Skelcher anything, it is that multiple failures are not always indicative of future luck.
“Just do it,” he said. “Because you never know what will happen.”