"As a seventh grader, he was planning on a career in cardiology, but now he's got his sights set on World Health Organization. Now a senior at the University of Miami, here's..."
2008 Kids Week Reunion winner: $25,000.
1999 Back-to-School Week player (1999-09-09).
Max married 2008 Kids Week Reunion alternate Katie Fulton on 2021-11-06.
My parents have always told me I'm a pretty smart kid. They readily encouraged my interest in the sciences, economics, and engineering by plying me with all sorts of books and educational toys intended to supplement my growing appetite for knowledge. Whereas in most houses, the network sitcoms and reality shows reigned supreme, in my house you'd be hard pressed to ever find my parents watching something other than the news, Britcoms, or old movies. The one exception to their routine was the nightly ritual of Jeopardy!, which I can remember watching when I was in second grade. I didn't watch it as religiously as they did (I had much more important cartoons to be focusing on) but whenever we sat around the kitchen table or the living room and watched together, we played as a family.
Sometime in between sixth and seventh grade, I started occasionally watching the show in my own room. I was starting to get pretty decent for a middle schooler, especially with pop culture questions; I was electric when it came to popular music. On a usual Wednesday night, as the credits rolled for another episode, the strangest, albeit long awaited, summons burst forth from my little TV.
"If you are a child or a parent and would like to participate in Family Jeopardy, call 1-800..." I was already running down the hall into the kitchen. "MOM! CALL THIS NUMBER RIGHT NOW! FAMILY JEOPARDY!" Without hesitation, she called the number. I waited in my room, dreaming of us on stage knocking down opponents like a two-tiered Juggernaut. She came back in a moment later.
"They say that they'll send us a green sheet of paper if we get selected to go audition down in Miami."
"When will it get here?"
"A week, they said. If we haven't heard by then, it's a no-go."
That week was the most anxious seven days I had ever spent on this planet up until that point. But sure enough, eventually the letter came. I would not only get to go drive to Miami to try my luck, but I'd get to leave school early to do it. I was ecstatic. I was uncontrollable. I was telling all my friends that I would be heading down to the 305 to try out for Jeopardy!
"You'll probably never get on." More than a few of them greeted my earnest hope with that cold reality. I admitted to myself that the chances of my appearing on Jeopardy! were infinitesimal (I didn't know that word at the time of the selection, but the sentiment is the same) but I didn't care. I didn't have enough time to change clothes as I left school early on the day of the tryouts, but the thought of dressing up didn't even occur to me.
When we arrived at the Miami hotel, I suddenly realized that these kids who had also been selected were taking this waaay more seriously. They were in suits and dresses, ties and high-heeled shoes, all combed and colored and pristine. I was in torn khakis and a polo shirt. I didn't look like a total shlub, but I also didn't look like I had ever watched an episode of Jeopardy! They separated me from my mom, who went to go take another, more difficult regular Jeopardy! test. I sat down next to some kid with glasses who looked like he had won every science fair he'd ever participated in. No fear, no fear I told myself, just answer your best.
They gave us all a twenty question test on a random assortment of facts ranging from music to world politics to grammar to my one true love: science. Afterwards, we all chatted for a minute, comparing answers and talking about where we were from. I turned to the science fair kid next to me, who was from West Palm Beach.
"Hey what was the answer to the leader of the PLO?" I asked.
"Yasser Arafat," he answered flatly. I smacked myself in the head.
"Damn, I always get that name and Yitzakh Rabin mixed up, that was stupid of me." He nodded and continued my self-berating.
"It was Yasser Arafat. Rabin was an Israeli leader who..." I stopped listening. Screw this kid if he was going to harangue me for admitting a mistake. Fifteen minutes went by, and by this time I had begun to ingratiate myself with the unusually tall blond 8th grade girl behind me. A few of the staff came in and announced those who had passed. Neither the jerk with glasses or the hot girl had gotten enough questions correct to move on to the screen test...but Max Johansen had.
Something very weird happened when the parents came in: almost universally, if the kid passed the kid test, the parent failed, and vice versa. My mom and I were the only pair to pass both tests, which entered her in the running for a year to be on regular Jeopardy. We kind of figured that that was the feather in the cap, if nobody else passed, how could they pick a team other than us?
"Now, everyone who passed, we'd like to begin the screen testing. We're going to give you a fake buzzer and we're going to set up some categories for you. Just call out any dollar amount, remember to phrase in the form of a question, and smile." That was all the instruction the staff members gave the remaining dozen or so kids, who sat happily there with their parents watching and silently hoping for some spark of the divine to touch their child. They called me up first.
"Our categories are: World Capitals, Music," I was already thanking the gods before they laid down the biggest gimme ever, "Star Trek Aliens..."
I couldn't believe they said that category at first. Star Trek Aliens?! Are you effing kidding me? Did they not know that they were talking to a professed master of Trekism and self-proclaimed hypernerd? I suppose not. The girl on the end selected music first, which I promptly stole and redirected to Star Trek Aliens.
I murdered that category. Left it gutted and flopping on the hotel floor. They were such easy questions to me: who the hell doesn't know that Andorians have blue skin and antennae?! Having thoroughly rocked my screen test, I left with the adulation of my mother and the confidence that I'd be hearing soon from the Jeopardy! people. They told me they'd get at me by late May, and I was unable to sleep for the next month. I told everyone how well I did and how I dominated the screen test. Now I had the faith of the masses, for the most part. As I relayed the experience to my closest friends, they held the faith, except for one: Julian Kayne. To this day and for as long as I live I'll never forget the conversation we had on the train ride to school one foggy Tuesday morning.
"You're not going to go on. They'll never pick you."
"Don't say that. I have a good shot, man. I bet you I will get on." I said the words as faithfully as I could, but for a moment, doubt snuck into my larynx and I faltered.
"I bet you won't," said Julian, "I bet you ten dollars you won't." I didn't have ten dollars, but I bet it anyway.
"Deal. See you in California, Kayne."
"You won't, and for two reasons: one because they aren't going to pick you, and two, even if they do, I won't be going with you, so you will in fact not see me in California."
That retort was flawless. I had nothing. A little broken by his lack of confidence in me, I decided to shrug him off as a jackass, which it turns out he was.
Late April became early May. Early May passed seamlessly into the long hot stretch of middle May. Middle May copped out into late middle May. Late middle May stretched agonizingly long into early late May. Finally, what could universally be called late May arrived with no word from the Jeopardy people. Then came early June. Not even a thanks for trying. Oh well, it was worth a shot.
I sat dejected and doodling in my 7th period engineering class, listening to my teacher prattle on about suspension bridges. I was depressed and bored, and thinking about falling asleep. Suddenly, a knock resounded on the door, much to my teacher's irritation. A tall woman I had never seen before entered the classroom with a microphone and a camera in tow.
"Is Max Johansen in this classroom?" Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god's god. They're here for me. What...does that mean? What did I do? They couldn't possibly...oh my god.
"Max do you know why we're here?" I stammered.
"I have an idea."
"You've been selected to go on Kid's Jeopardy! We're from the local news channel and we're here to talk to you and your classmates."
I had no words.
Then all of the sudden, it erupted from within me.
"YES! YEEEESSS!! OH MY GOD YES! I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS!" I turned around to face the kid sitting right behind me.
"IN YOUR FREAKING FACE JULIAN! I TOLD YOU I'D BE SELECTED! IN YOUR FAAAAAAAACE!!!" To his credit, Julian humbly stood up and shook my hand, and offered me heartfelt congratulations, as well as the sum of ten United States Dollars. By three in the afternoon, the whole school knew. They talked to my teachers, my friends, me, my parents (who had been in on the surprise for several weeks), everyone who had had more than ten minutes of contact with me.
I can say, without a doubt, it was the single greatest feeling I had experienced up until senior year of high school for reasons that are unimportant and inappropriate. I was King of that school, a local celebrity, and on my way to proving myself. My legend had begun.