While I have never wanted to be on television, I have always enjoyed the television game show Jeopardy! In 2013, the trivia show held auditions here in San Antonio, and when I read about it in the newspaper, it got me wondering about the whole process. Did I, an English teacher in the Northside Independent School District, have what it took to be a Jeopardy contestant?
The Jeopardy web site outlined the process – first you take an online test, which is only offered for a few days each year. I signed up and took the test in January 2014. The test itself, which consists of fifty general knowledge questions with fifteen seconds to type each answer, was kind of like a game of Jeopardy itself – some answers I knew, some I didn’t. Upon finishing the test, I received a message thanking me for my interest and informing me that I may or may not be selected for an audition, and that if I didn’t hear from the show in twelve to eighteen months, I was welcome to take the online test again. After a few weeks, I put it out of my mind.
I checked my email one afternoon in May 2014, and, lo and behold, an email from “Jeopardy Contestant Search” was sitting in my inbox. My heart beat a little faster as I opened the message to read, “Congratulations! You have been selected for a follow-up appointment at an upcoming Jeopardy! contestant search …”
Truly, I couldn’t believe it – I had done well enough on the online test to make it into the second round of the audition process.
When I signed up for the online test, I was asked to pick a city in which I would like to audition in person, should it come to that. The show holds auditions in several different cities each year, and they were in San Antonio the previous year. I texted my husband and asked if he was up for a trip to Portland, Oregon, a city neither of us had ever visited. I figured the odds of getting an audition were pretty low, so why not? But all of a sudden I was filling out paperwork and planning a trip to Oregon for my June 24 audition.
The auditions were held in a hotel conference room where about thirty hopefuls gathered on a Tuesday afternoon. We took another written test and then got to participate in a practice round – with real buzzers and everything.
The show’s producers mentioned several times that knowing the answers is only half the battle. Games are won and lost all the time on contestants’ buzzer skills. You can’t just ring in as soon as you know the answer – you must wait until the question is read in its entirety before pressing the buzzer. It’s harder than it sounds.
There was also an interview portion of the audition, during which the producers asked potential contestants about their jobs, interests, and families. Among the people in my group, there was a young lady who sung opera as a hobby, various runners, cyclists, and athletes, a woman who made artisan jellies and jams, a guy who built his own house “off the grid” (he watched the show with friends), and then…me.
I actually tried to make a joke out of how uninteresting I was, hoping my self-deprecating humor might win them over. But at that point I really thought I had no shot. At the end of the audition, we were once again told that we may (or may not) hear from the show in the next twelve to eighteen months we also got a Jeopardy pen and earbuds as souvenirs. After eighteen months, we were free to take the online test again and rejoin the applicant pool.
Audition notwithstanding, I enjoyed my visit to Portland, so the trip wasn’t a total loss. Once again, I put Jeopardy out of my mind, for good. Or so I thought.
At the end of the school day on Oct. 30, my phone showed a missed call and a voicemail from a Culver City, Calif. number. Sony Pictures and Entertainment, the parent company of Jeopardy, is located in Culver City. Glenn Kagan, contestant coordinator for Jeopardy, had left a message asking for a call back. When we spoke, he told me I had made the show. How, I still don’t know – I thought it better not to ask too many questions. I was scheduled for the Dec. 3 taping. He emailed me all the necessary materials: applications and contestant forms, legal documents, and travel information. I, almost in a daze of disbelief, began preparing to go to Los Angeles.
At 7:15 a.m. on tape day, the studio sent a van to pick up the day’s out of town contestants at the hotel. People had traveled to LA from all over the country –Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington. The show tapes two days a week, five shows a day, and since they never know how many shows a contestant will win, they always have a local player who can get sent home and return another day.
When we, 11 players total, arrived at the studio were ushered into the green room for makeup, more paperwork, and a debriefing from the show’s staff. After an hour or two, we were led into the studio, which looks just like it does on TV. Bigger, actually. We sat in the audience section, and took turns standing at the podium and answering practice questions. During my turn, I was doing great – I knew the answers and rang in at just the right moment.
Perhaps this early success proved to be part of my ultimate undoing…
At around 11 a.m., the taping began. Johnny Gilbert, the show’s announcer, welcomed the studio audience, outlined a few etiquette rules, and introduced the host, Alex Trebek, who spent a few minutes chatting with the audience. The producers selected two contestants to compete against the returning champion (again, I don’t know their methods), and they lined up at their podiums. The show progressed much like it does on TV – there are breaks during which the players are given water and makeup touchups, and Alex Trebek takes a souvenir photo with each contestant.
I was chosen to play in the second show of the day. My opponents were the previous game’s champion, a “retired housewife” from Greenwich, Connecticut, and a management consultant from Boston. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I thought I would be, and I was still pretty confident from the practice rounds. But I found myself outplayed on both sides. Bryan, the contestant from Boston, was crazy fast on the buzzer, and Christine from Connecticut was almost as quick. I frantically tried to ring in on questions I knew. When I watched the show later, which aired Tuesday night, I could sense my growing desperation. I was almost always beaten to the punch.
I was a distant third heading into Final Jeopardy. Category: Best Actor Oscars.
Since I was so far behind, I had nothing to lose by betting it all. The clue (I’m paraphrasing here): One of two actors who won the Best Actor award twice, each time for a film that also won Best Picture honors.
I take small consolation in the fact that none of the contestants got the correct response. Even more consoling was the fact that Bryan, who had a sizable lead throughout the game, lost by a single dollar.
Contestants are cautioned not to reveal the results of their game, so as not to spoil the surprise when it airs – about six to eight weeks after taping. However, I couldn’t stand the thought of people actually thinking and hoping I won, so I pretty much told everyone that I lost. Some people were impressed that I made it onto the show at all; others offered sympathy for my failings. For myself, I was proud to be chosen as a contestant – I’m not a terribly competitive person, so my only goal going in was to have enough money to participate in Final Jeopardy.
After playing (and losing), I have a few regrets: I wish I had played more aggressively and less defensively – because while it was fun to play, it would have been more fun to win. But my biggest regret is that I can only play once because, win or lose, I would definitely do it again.
*Featured/top image: Alex Trebek and Jennifer Hindert. Courtesy of Jeopardy!/Sony Pictures and Entertainment.