When Daniel Donohue sat down for a Skype audition for ABC’s new primetime show, “The Chase,” he never anticipated he would get the chance to compete head-to-head with his childhood idols.
Beginning his journey with the “Jeopardy!” College Championship, to now battling Brad Rutter, James Holzhauer and Ken Jennings — some of the biggest names in “Jeopardy!” history — Donohue has skillfully mastered his way up the trivia game show circuit.
The first-year Gould School of Law student is set to play a high-pressure game on the newest episode airing Thursday. The aim is to answer trivia questions faster and more accurately than the champions, who are dubbed the “chasers.” The game is fast-paced and high-stakes, with questions even valued at $25,000 each.
Donohue said it was the speed-based format that appealed to him.
“I think that benefitted me because when you’re trying to go as fast as you possibly can you don’t have time to get in your head,” Donohue said.
When it comes to tackling questions that could come from any and every category, Donohue said he didn’t believe in memorizing facts and cramming information.
“Some people go on game shows, and they really hope to have like the ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ moment where every question is based on something in their life, and they get really lucky. And you know, but that’s not gonna happen,” Donohue said. “It kind of helps to just be generally curious about everything.”
Donohue believes that a natural intuition, built with habitual practice, is an essential technique to build performance.
“There’s this almost sixth sense that you have to have: ‘Do I know this? Even if I don’t have the correct answer at my fingertips in this nanosecond, will I be able to pull this answer out of my brain? In the next five seconds? Is this something I’ve heard before? Is this information that I have?’” Donohue said.
He describes it as a subconscious surrendering to his mental and physical being, especially during high-pressure situations. At times his fingers and some distant part of his mind would know the answer, and it would propel him to buzz in even without being consciously sure about it.
“But there was something that my thumb, just my thumb on the buzzer, caused me to ring in. And I just made up what I thought might possibly be the answer. And I was right,” Donohue said. “It’s the sixth sense of like, somehow my thumb and my brain knew that I knew.”
Donohue was introduced to competitive trivia in middle school through Quiz Bowl, and he continued involving himself in these national competitions all throughout middle school and high school.
His selection for the “Jeopardy!” College Championship was what introduced him to the world of televised and monetized trivia competitions in the form of game shows.
He entered the Los Angeles trivia circuit through the O’Brien’s Irish Pub & Restaurant in Santa Monica, which is a hub for many former “Jeopardy!” contestants. He got extensively involved in the Pub Quiz and through that, made a strong network within the trivia community.
As an undergraduate radio, television and film major at Northwestern University, he found a passion not just for the fun of the game but also for the life on set— the way the shows were produced, directed and executed.
“Twenty-one-year-old Dan gets flown out to Los Angeles for ‘Jeopardy!,’ and I get to walk on to the backlot at Sony Pictures, because that’s where they taped ‘Jeopardy!’, and I get to go to a soundstage. And there’s lights and there’s a director going ‘roll camera!,’ read the intro and there’s a makeup person doing your makeup,” Donohue said. “This is literally what I was studying in school.”
Donohue pointed out that the lack of scripted production propelled a major influx of unscripted content. A large number of game shows were being greenlit over the summer resulting in casting calls being circulated extensively in the trivia circuit.
Donohue believes his immensely thorough knowledge of film and theatre, which also happens to be his strength in general trivia, general experience on set and as a performer and his career in TV hosting is what gave him an edge in the audition process.
“How many of [contestants] can say that they had the experience multiple times of being on a working Hollywood set and interfacing with producers and hosts and writers and everyone that’s involved in making a production like ‘The Chase’ or ‘Jeopardy!’ or ‘Millionaire’ happen?” Donohue said.
Quizmaster at O’Brien’s Irish Pub & Restaurant and USC Law alumnus, Brian Fodera can attest to Donohue’s vast expanse of knowledge and skill.
“He has encyclopedic knowledge of musicals, … and is also a huge sports fan,” Fodera said.“There aren’t a lot of people that are sports and theatre experts — that’s something unique about Dan,. It sets him up to do well in something like ‘The Chase’ where the questions come across a whole broad swath of categories.”
According to Fodera, a sense of “intellectual curiosity” and a habit of reading is a vital trait to have in order to master the game of trivia.
“Curiosity, curiosity, curiosity — cause that’s the way to learn things,” Fodera said. “They’ll not only become better at trivia, they’ll be a better informed citizen. And we certainly need that.”
While Donohue notes that he is not the best in trivia, and that there may have been many who auditioned that were much smarter than him, he said the primary factors that game shows are truly looking for are televisable content and entertainment.
“There are a lot more people who are really good at trivia that aren’t necessarily the most camera-ready people in the world … so they don’t make for primetime television,” Donohue said.
Close friend and School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Jerome Vered, who Donohue credits as being a guide and the person who introduced him to the O’Brien’s community, agrees that Donohue’s personality and natural talent makes him the ideal contestant for “The Chase.”
“I’m sure he could have gotten on to “The Chase” when he was in college and I don’t think he would be intimidated,” Vered said. “He’s very appealing, … he’s really fun and very animated, very expressive and fun on TV, which is why they cast him, I’m sure”
Donohue said it was surreal to play against champions he’d seen on television as a child — those that in many ways inspired him to enter the field.
“The three guys that are on as the ‘Chasers,’ these three greatest ‘Jeopardy!’ contestants of all time, I grew up watching them compete. So how could I resist an opportunity to go head to head,” Donohue said.
While Donohue can’t say whether or not he won until after the episode has aired, he has an optimistic attitude toward the outcome.
“The way I look at it is it’s all found money, right? I came to this experience without this money, anything I win would be gravy. So I’m just happy to be here having the chance to win it.”