An interview with the Turd Ferguson 'Jeopardy!' prankster

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Last night, Jeopardy! contestant Talia Lavin's uniquely dramatic buzzing style quickly became a subject of fascination on Twitter. But then Final Jeopardy came along, and Lavin—a fact-checker for The New Yorker by day—was catapulted to full-blown internet stardom.

The category: Oscar-Nominated Songs. The clue: "This song from a 1999 animated film about censorship had a word censored from its Oscar performance." The correct answer is "Blame Canada," from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. None of the contestants knew it.


But Talia nevertheless managed to secure herself a place in Jeopardy! Valhalla with her answer, which Trebek—as is customary—read aloud.


No, that's not a real song–at least, it isn't yet. Turd Ferguson is a reference to Saturday Night Live's cult favorite "Celebrity Jeopardy!" sketches, in which Burt Reynolds (as impersonated by Norm Macdonald) insists on being addressed as Turd Ferguson.

Unsurprisingly, comedy nerds collectively lost their shit upon hearing Alex Trebek—the real Alex Trebek, not the one played by Will Ferrell—utter that name.


I'd been looking forward to watching Talia, a friend of mine from college, compete on Jeopardy!, but I'd had no idea just how legendary her showing would prove to be. We caught up on the phone about her overnight fame, Twitter haters, and the enduring appeal of Norm Macdonald.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How are you feeling this morning?

I’m living my 15 minutes right now. I’m trying to have a normal workday but obsessively checking Twitter, I’m not going to lie.


I’m so excited, because [that Final Jeopardy answer] was such a doofus move, and I’m so happy people liked it. People keep saying I’m a hero, but really, I’m just a regular American who thinks oversized styrofoam hats are funny.

How long ago did your episode tape? What were things like on set?

It was mid-August. I flew out to L.A. and had to pretend it was a normal vacation. That day, I was [at the studio] from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. I was one of two contestants who smoked, and they sequestered us in a back room, like a jury. We had to go on supervised smoke breaks. I felt like I was at a terrible adult camp.


[The taping] goes by so fast. It all happens in 25 minutes; it’s pretty much the same as you see on TV. During the commercial breaks, the talent handlers came up to me and said, “It’s okay, Talia, you’ll get used to the buzzer. It often trips up new contestants. You’re looking visibly frustrated." I was like, well, shit. They stroked my back and gave me water.

I left after my game. I needed to go soak it off in the hotel hot tub. It was a rollercoaster of emotions.


What was going on with the buzzer?

It kept locking me out, or other people would buzz in first. I just got really flustered.


Last night, someone texted me, "Look at #Talia on Twitter right now." And I did, and I was like, oh my god, people are really invested in contestants’ gameplay styles. There was a lot of intense sofa Jeopardy! playing.

I hadn't realized that people routinely live-tweet the show.

So many people! They get mad when there’s questions left on the board, and they were mad about how I slowed the game down. So many people were like, "This girl is such a spaz." Someone called me [SNL cast member] Bobby Moynihan in a wig. Someone said that I should be hit with a shovel because I took too long to tell my story.


I showed my husband one that said, "Talia doesn’t have a husband, she’s lying." No, he’s real. He’s an adorable, chubby Jew.

I’m glad I got to turn things around on Final Jeopardy, because apparently I was a widely hated Jeopardy! contestant… for being super nervous when I was on national TV?


To what extent was your Final Jeopardy answer premeditated?

The whole plan was hatched in about 30 seconds. I knew I was going in with $600, and that I'd lost, so I thought I'd better just make a joke.


I was trying to come up with a good joke that would be clean enough to air, but would still be funny. [The question] was about censored songs, so my initial idea was to write "F the Police," then I was going to write, "Suck it, Trebek," but I worried that I would shame my family—and that those wouldn't make the episode.

Did you get to talk to Alex Trebek afterwards?

There’s a bit where the contestants go up and talk to him after the show for a minute. He asked me who Turd Ferguson was.


He didn’t know?!

I was like, dude. It’s from the SNL sketch about you.

Once you said that, did he remember? He was definitely on "Celebrity Jeopardy!" at one point.


He was like, “Oh, I haven’t watched those sketches in a long time.” Bullshit. You watch them before bed every night, Trebek.

Does "Celebrity Jeopardy!" hold a special place in your heart?

I would say that Norm Macdonald is my life sensei. If he wants to get at me any point, this journey would be worth it. I’d have crested the summit.


Where did you watch the episode? Who did you watch it with?

I watched it at a bar in TriBeCA with a bunch of my coworkers, who are also fact-checkers. They wrote down all my mistakes on the tablecloth. Someone sent me over a drink, and the whole bar was cheering for me. It was an awesome moment.


Was your mom psyched that she got a mention in your answer?

Oh, totally. She texted me that she loved the shoutout, with 10 exclamation points. All her friends watched it, too.


Did you anticipate this big a reaction to your appearance?

No! I really didn’t. I didn't think it would strike this big a chord at all. Maybe it's because we accept that everyone will be very straight-laced on Jeopardy!, and literally any deviation from that is exciting.


What advice would you give to aspiring Jeopardy! contestants?

Don’t search your name on Twitter if you feel sensitive about haters. If you’re losing, go down in glorious flames. That’s the only way to do it. And try to get a whiff of Alex. Lean in close and smell him. He smells like a rainbow farted on a unicorn.


Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.