Austin Rogers Doesn't Want to Be Jeopardy! Guy, Despite the Groupies
Bedford + Bowery, January 2018. Find the original article here.
Photo: Courtesy Neil Hamel
Austin Rogers is working behind the bar at Gaf West, a cozy little Irish pub in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a pleasant surprise to find him here, knowing that the 39-year-old bartender just won $466,000 over the course of a brilliant run on Jeopardy! from September to November. The native of Pound Ridge, NY, has also become a cult figure for his delightfully subversive antics on the otherwise humorless gameshow. He’d wager frivolously, punctuate his correct responses with nifty celebrations, and wisecrack with the often-serious Alex Trebek. He did it while displaying near-encyclopedic knowledge and, most importantly, winning. Again. And again. And again.
“It was disturbingly easy. It was way, way easier than I ever thought it would be,” says Rogers, who was only hoping to play one game at the Jeopardy! studio in Culver City, California. But once the streak started rolling, his approach shifted. “Now let’s not care. Oh, yeah. Let’s make as much money as we possibly can, or crash and burn.”
What followed was a 13-episode run and a well-deserved spot on the Tournament of Champions, a show that features the top 15 contestants from the past two seasons, where he walked away with third place. He’s since done the celebratory TV circuit, with appearances on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show, and a 13-minute YouTube montage of Rogers’ shenanigans has amassed nearly 450,000 views. Yet despite all of the publicity, he’s back slinging liquor at this low-key watering hole, his bright, cheery face greeting customers as they stumble in from the cold.
As he tinkers behind the bar, Rogers looks slightly disheveled, with an untucked plaid dress shirt, a workman’s beard, and that signature mess of greying brown hair swept off to the side. But he’s wide-eyed and quick-witted, laughing with the regulars before moving swiftly to grab another order. It’s this contrast, the Ivy League intellect mixed with the aura of an unshakable hangover, that made him an overnight sensation on America’s Favorite Quiz Show®.
But Rogers hasn’t always been a bartender. In fact, he had a 15-year professional career before he started working at Gaf West. He was an events planner at the Asia Society, a museum on the Upper East Side, dealing with the nit-picky “ladies who lunch.” Then he spent a few years in digital advertising, mastering corporate semantics, before getting laid off after a merger. For almost three years he was unemployed, living off his savings from the agency, where he was “fairly highly paid,” thinking his next job was just around the corner. Time passed. No job offers came. And his savings started to dwindle.
“Things were getting a little dire,” he says. “I was starting to go hand to mouth, struggling.” That’s when he heard about an opportunity at Gaf West, where he had been a regular for the past 17 years, and everything turned around. Being a bartender, he says, combined with his buoyant personality, made him an irresistible contestant.
“Frankly, it’s a stroke of marketing genius,” says Rogers. “All of a sudden that bartending narrative has a quality of this every man that I wouldn’t have had. I still would have been myself. I still would have had the same energy, but I don’t think I would have resonated if I was Rogers the digital ad guy, or Rogers the corporate events planner.”
And he makes a good point. Rogers appealed to a broad demographic, not just the built-in older audience that has been watching Jeopardy! since the Art Fleming days. The purists respected his knowledge, casual fans were amused by his cheeky theatrics, whether he was crafting an imaginary balloon animal or pulling out a nonexistent flask, and for the younger generation, his irreverent quips made for the perfect bite-sized Internet moments. Having met more than a few in person, he says his Jeopardy! fans are easy to categorize.
“As far as I can tell, there’s three groupie classes,” says Rogers. “There’s cute girls, there’s 80-year-old women, and there’s middle-aged dudes.” While he prefers the cute girls, some fans wander into Gaf West just to shake his buzzer-beating hand, and others bombard him with random trivia.
“What’s the capital of Ireland?” says one of those middle-aged dudes who approaches the bar.
“Dublin,” replies Rogers.
“No. Liverpool,” says the man, with a sinister laugh.
Rogers stands there looking frazzled, red in the cheeks. Of course, the answer is (after looking it up on my phone) Dublin, and the strange man just wanted to have some fun at the expense of a newly established TV star. There’s something vaguely dehumanizing about this whole exercise, watching Rogers answer questions like a party trick. But he says his fans are some of the best tippers, so he’s happy to play along.
“The wealth begets wealth. If you’re rich, people start giving you things for free, which makes no sense,” says Rogers. “You guys did see that I have like $460,000 right? You’re tipping the guy who doesn’t need tipping.”
Pete Smith, co-owner of Gaf West, certainly doesn’t mind the influx of passionate new customers. In his 13 years of being involved with the bar, sales have never been higher.
“To be honest with you, he’s probably one of the best hires we’ve ever had,” says Smith, who has known Rogers since they were in their twenties.
According to Smith, Rogers knows all the regulars, takes good care of the register, and injects life into any barroom conversation, whether patrons want to discuss European politics or the New York Yankees.
“Austin is very good because he can jump from subject to subject kind of seamlessly, and just have useful knowledge to apply to a conversation,” says Smith. “So most people tend to really like him off the bat.”
Some people, however, tell Rogers that he’s wasting his potential as a bartender. After all, a person with his brain-power could be whooping it up on Wall Street or climbing some other corporate ladder. But he says people have skewed priorities.
“I hadn’t known what it was to be happy until I started bartending,” says Rogers. “I’m happy, I have money. Everything’s OK. How am I wasting my potential?” His job gives him the flexibility to spend his days at museums, watch movies and documentaries, and read books. “At night, I hang out with my friends,” says Rogers. “That sounds like a pretty fulfilling existence to me.”
“What about drive?” people ask.
“Ahhh what’s the point?” says Rogers. “Everyone dies. It doesn’t matter. I’m not Mozart. I’m not Beethoven. I’m not Picasso. I’m not going to leave a lasting impact on the world. I’m not a nihilist, but why bother unless you’re happy? And I’m happy. And I was happy. And I’m still happy.”
Rogers arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a bike that he calls Spokey Robinson. He bought it off Craigslist, after Bike Tyson was stolen from outside a White Castle, and before that, James Van Der Bike was crushed by a hydraulic lift on the back of a truck. The two-wheeler is comprised of a bunch of mismatched parts, thrown together much like Rogers’ outfits.
As he walks through a frenzy of people in the Great Hall, he’s wearing pale yellow converse, a pair of “skinny-ish” jeans from his appearance on The Tonight Show, and the camel blazer that he sported on Jeopardy! He’s especially excited about the red buttons on his blazer, which he claims to have sewed on himself.
“There’s a really cool buttons-only store on Lexington and 62nd Street, and it’s just thousands and thousands of buttons. That’s all they sell,” says Rogers, referring to a place called Tender Buttons. “And like, rare buttons and antique buttons. But then just run-of-the-mill regular buttons. And it’s so cool.”
Rogers wears those same yellow sneakers and snug pants every day, and finds most of his other clothing at thrift shops. This cobbled-together look reminds me of a lazy teacher’s assistant or a fledgling magician. But in a good way. Maybe. “I don’t look at what I dress like,” he says. “I grab whatever shirt is clean, I put it on. I grab whatever blazer is at hand, I put it on, I walk out the door. I never actually select what I’m wearing.”
Originally, I wanted to meet Rogers at his apartment, just a couple blocks from the museum, but he told me that it hasn’t been cleaned in months. “It’s just a complete and utter disaster,” says Austin. “Boxes are opened and lying on the ground. My table is just covered with unopened mail that I haven’t checked. My chair is covered with laundry, clean and dirty.”
“I’m going to pay someone, not to clean it, but to never talk about what they saw while cleaning it. You’re going to clean for free, but I’m paying you to shut up,” he says playfully.
His mother, Peggy Basalyga, wasn’t surprised to hear about the disorganized state of his apartment. “I don’t think anybody’s allowed there at this point,” says Basalyga. “He’s busy doing things in his mind. He’s writing, he’s reading, he’s doing stuff. The cleaning doesn’t really work out.” It’s not uncommon for bright people to neglect the more mundane tasks of day-to-day life, she adds, and Austin has always been bright, pretty much since the day he was born.
“He came out speaking in full sentences almost,” says Basalyga. Always reading or listening to music, Austin was an inquisitive child, and if he didn’t know something, he would look it up. They would sit together, mother and son, spinning a globe and marking a spot with their fingers, before grabbing an encyclopedia to research whichever country they landed on. “He was a sponge,” says Basalyga.
Rogers grew up with two brothers on a 5,000-acre reservation in Westchester County, NY. His father, Rick Rogers, was the park ranger, and his mother was a licenced wildlife rehabilitator. Jeopardy! was mandatory viewing in their household, an old and rickety place off Stone Hill Road. The house was heated by a cast iron stove in the living room, but the insulation was so terrible they put plastic on the windows to keep the draft out. After dinner, the family, would gather around the Sony Trinitron, one of those clunky boxes with built-in buttons and silver antennae, to watch a taping of the show.
“As a young kid it was always the misadventures of Austin,” says Tim Darcy, his best friend since middle school. “Getting into trouble hanging out in the woods, doing typical childhood stuff.” Though a bit mischievous, Rogers was a fun and energetic kid, always playing pranks on his friends.
“He was always the smart kid. But it wasn’t your typical, ‘Oh, I’m smart and therefore going to be a doctor smart,’” says Darcy. “Just knowledgeable about everything.”
Although he excelled at the courses he found interesting, Rogers, by his own admission, was never an outstanding student. He attended Macalester College, a private liberal arts school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he planned to double major in history and music. That was until he slept through his final piano exam, leaving him with only a minor in the latter.
“Technically I’ve got a major, but not literally,” says Rogers, who didn’t seem that disappointed. Still, he could play the viola, violin, mandolin, guitar, harmonica, organ, and a couple other instruments during his time in school, though maybe not that well. “All mediocre,” he says.
This education seems to explain how Rogers built up such a remarkable foundation of knowledge, along with natural talent and years of pursuing his intellectual curiosity. As he wanders from exhibit to exhibit in the Met, he’s like a walking, talking Wikipedia page (though possibly more trustworthy). When he recognizes an artwork from across the room, he pauses, a flicker of excitement in his eyes.
“Hold on, I’m going to guess… Franz Kline,” says Rogers, as he moves toward an abstract black and white painting. “Nailed it!” In one exhibit, Modern and Contemporary Art, he talks about the work of German artist George Grosz, “He always did paintings of these absurd German officers.” Then later, in The Ottoman Empire, he details the grandiose signature of Suleiman the Magnificent. “I saw a documentary on this Arabic script. Each flourish means something else.”
During his time on Jeopardy!, Austin was so confident in his knowledge, and thus, his ability to control the board, that he didn’t need much of a betting strategy. To train for the show, he simulated the buzzer by using a calisthenic thumb exerciser, one of those gimmicky devices you might see on an infomercial, and watched hundreds of episodes. He noticed that the Daily Double often appeared in the same five squares on the board, and that answers would repeat themselves after enough episodes. Apparently, contestants know most of the answers, so it’s of heightened importance to be quick with the buzzer. But Austin says there are lot of intangibles that impact your ability to ring in, including natural timing and staying cool under pressure.
“Have you been under studio lights, on stage, with make-up and a microphone on, in front of 100 people? Is that a thing for you?” says Austin. “Does that get to you? Doesn’t get to me.” When the show lights went on and Mr. Trebek took the stage, other players froze up and went into a cold sweat, says Austin. Not him. “I think my balance of being an alpha extrovert, plus talented at Jeopardy! is what sets me apart. You can have fun, you can do cool things, and you can know stuff. It’s not mutually exclusive data sets.”
His mother made the trip out to California for the Tournament of Champions, and had the opportunity to witness her son’s poise in front of the cameras. “Watching him was phenomenal. We’ve watched him in his trivia nights and stuff, which is entertaining, but this just brought it to a whole different level,” says Basalyga. “It was entertaining. It was nail-biting at times. How could you not be so proud of him?”
And as we enter a busy corridor in the museum, it becomes clear that Rogers is the pride of his hometown. In fact, he’s approached by several people, all claiming to have a close connection.
“We’re from Pound Ridge!” says one family. “You’re so smart.”
“I’m from Cross River,” says an older gentleman. “Can I take a picture with you?”
“Of course!” says Austin, who poses with a cheesy but endearing ear-to-ear smile. He’s polite and gracious with everyone, but after about the third interaction, the fanfare begins to impede Austin’s ability to move freely through the museum.
“I don’t go unnoticed anywhere anymore. But it’s OK. It’s fine. This is like my new job. And I hope it to be my new job. Something extrapolative of this fleeting fifteen minutes.” Rogers’ next challenge is to parlay his public persona into a full-time job, but without getting branded as a one-trick trivia guru. He wants to write a book, or host a TV show (maybe something on the History Channel), and ultimately build an entertainment brand. That way he can continue to live a care-free life.
“I want to forge something out of this that’s lasting, maybe not necessarily fame, but a niche fame where I get to host a nice little show,” he says. “I want to be Austin Rogers, I don’t want to be the quiz guy.”