Matt Joyal, a history teacher at his alma mater, Central Catholic High School, has been tuning into "Jeopardy!” since childhood.
On Thursday, an episode will stand out more than others for him, his family and community, when the Methuen native makes his television debut in the game show's tournament of teachers.
Joyal, 30, remembers watching "Jeopardy!" with his cousin starting in the 1990s. He laughs now about how she learned to spell her name to the tune of the show’s signature theme song.
Joyal, who currently lives in Hampstead with his wife, can’t say how successful he was — or even the categories he faced — before the tournament airs. But he describes a whirlwind couple of days filming at the historic Sony Pictures Studio near Los Angeles.
“I’ve always been egged on by friends and family that I should just put myself out there and do it,” he said of eventually starting the process to earn a place on the show. “I really had no interest in being on TV whatsoever.”
A self-proclaimed “lifelong learner,” Joyal praises his parents for “always encouraging me to try and explore anything I was even a little interested in.”
“I have a lot of trivial knowledge just from random things I’ve tried, like building a boat with a friend of mine last summer just to see if we could do it,” he said. “I really enjoy learning new things.”
The first leg of his "Jeopardy!" journey was an online test of random trivia, which he took early last spring.
About May 2019, he was called to an in-person audition in Boston before seven months of silence from "Jeopardy!" producers.
By the time they called in January to update Joyal’s information — was he still a teacher living in New Hampshire? — and offered a flight west, he had almost forgotten about the possibility of making it.
“They led off with the updates to my personal file. They didn’t come right out and say it,” he said. “But a few minutes into the conversation they offered me a spot in their teacher’s tournament being filmed at the end of February.”
It was the last opportunity he would have to travel and sight-see before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most of society.
The call left him “shocked,” he said.
“I thought I wasn’t what they were looking for after the in-person audition,” he said. “I had met multiple people who had made it to that phase and not gotten a call back.”
He would quickly learn, “It’s much easier to play the game from the couch.”
Joyal said he told some of his Central Catholic colleagues about why he would need a few days off, but kept his students — freshmen, juniors and seniors — in the dark until he returned.
He had a month to cram for the ultimate test, which would happen in front of a live studio audience, famed host Alex Trebek and teachers from elsewhere in the country.
“I knew nothing about what I’d be facing. I know there’s no perfect system to getting ready, cause they really could throw anything at you. But there were definitely certain categories I was hoping I wouldn’t end up with,” Joyal said. “No matter how much time I put into studying, they weren’t going to be my friends.”
He knew that sports, African capitals and recent movies would be a struggle.
He would be quicker to buzz in about history — he teachers European civilization, American history and a course he created about the Merrimack Valley — anything music-related, theater and botany.
“In the moment, it flew by. The time on stage didn’t feel like a full episode of 'Jeopardy!' But you get more comfortable over the course of the day.”
Joyal said the tournament’s 10 episodes were filmed during two days.
“I have a real appreciation now for how long the tape days are,” he said. “But these are people who very clearly like their work. They’re interested in having a good show. They want the contestants to feel at ease. Because it’s terrifying.”
Social distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic will prevent any sort of viewing party when the episode airs. Joyal plans to watch at home with his wife and dog, like he has many times before.
The show airs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on CBS.