BILLINGS — This always seemed like Matt Walks’ destiny.
“I remember playing Jeopardy! with my mom at the kitchen table for nickels and dimes, essentially allowance money, when I was really, really young," the Billings native said. "And then when I was in high school at Skyview, I would spend the first couple periods writing my own Jeopardy! board, and then at lunchtime, when the friends would gather around the lunch table, I would host a game of Jeopardy!.”
"We always kind of talked about Jeopardy! with Matt, and it was never if you get on Jeopardy!, or, ‘Are you going to try out?'" Matt's dad, Russell Walks, said. "It was, ‘When I try out for Jeopardy!, and when I get on Jeopardy!...’”
Matt tried out for the college tournament a handful of times while at the University of Oregon, but when nothing ever came of it, he decided to wait until the perfect time.
“I told myself when I was right around 30 - I read some study that said that’s when people are at their intellectual peak, so I was like, I’m going to wait a little bit, try to maximize it," he said. "And then I took the test and I passed, and then things started moving really, really fast.”
Matt, who is now the director of digital content strategy for the Las Vegas Raiders, was brought out to the Jeopardy! studios in Los Angeles in January for his shot, but at that point, he knew the game-show process pretty well - he and his dad had starred on the pilot episode of a different show four years earlier.
“We were on 'Beat Shazam' on a rival network," Matt said, flashing his larger-than-life smile. "It was a great experience. We got to win some money and have a lot of fun doing it together.
"That absolutely helped, because I think a lot of people come to Jeopardy! wide-eyed. TV is a beast and it’s scary.”
Dad knew that wasn’t going to be a problem. "Both Matt and I are lucky. I read somewhere that fear of speaking in public is up high on a list - shyness isn’t one of our many problems," Russell said with a laugh.
Matt, however, acknowledged he worried about one aspect of the in-person experience versus the TV version.
“There are two boards, including the big board with the clues," Matt said of the Jeopardy! studio's configuration. "What I sort of assumed growing up watching Jeopardy!is that on that big board of clues, when you would push into the clue, it would fill up the board, and it does not do that. So you have to have pretty sharp eyesight or be a good listener, because it is not as easy as they make it look on TV."
On the flip side, there was one TV trick that gave him a big smile.
”If you watch a game of Jeopardy!, all the contestants are the same height, and it never occurred to me that there's no way that that could be possible," he said. "So in front of the podiums, it's almost like when N'Sync or Britney Spears would go on tour, and they would come up out of the floor on the stage - they had these built-in mechanical risers.
"We had a chance to watch some games, and there was a really tall contestant and really short contestant, and I'm thinking, 'Something doesn't look right,' and then they rise them up, and I go, ‘Oh, of course!’ They really think of everything.”
One thing that differed between father and son’s experience: the host. Russell was among the thousands greeted by Alex Trebek during his two-show run in April 2000, but after Trebek's death late last year, the show has had a number of guest hosts. While there’s no replacing the longtime legend, Matt was excited to see Katie Couric as his.
“Especially as a journalist, I adore Katie," Matt said. "She was absolutely everything you’d hope she’d be - she was kind, thoughtful, funny, very very funny.”
“In all honesty, I was a little bummed he didn’t get to spend a few minutes with Alex Trebek because that would have been awesome," Russell said. "But Katie Couric is doing a great job. I think Ken Jennings did a fantastic job as well. In fact, I think the executive producer they had hosting the last several weeks before Katie did a fantastic job. I’m just waiting for the call."
That's one more difference between father and son. When asked whether each would want to be the Jeopardy! host now that their contestant days are over...
"Oh, I think that would be fantastic," Russell said.
"I’ve seen first-hand how hard that job is, and I want nothing to do it," Matt retorted. "It is something Alex did with so much grace and skill and talent, and he really made it look easy. And I think if you ask any of these guest hosts who have filled in since we lost Alex, they would all say the same thing, that their respect for Alex has grown ten-fold because of what he was able to make look so simple and fun."
Matt's debut episode will air Thursday at 6 p.m. on KRTV