Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 5: The 21st Century

Where was I? Oh, right, high school.  Let’s move along, shall we?  My episode airs May 11 and it’s not as if I get to write in this thing every day.

I first auditioned for the show in 2002 or 2003, when the process began with a written test instead of the online one it currently uses.  My husband, daughter, and I had recently moved back to Los Angeles from the Bay Area; I didn’t have a job yet, and auditioning for Jeopardy! seemed like a fun thing to do that might eventually lead to some cash. I went to a meeting room in a hotel in Culver City with a lot of other people and took a pen-and-paper test that might have been 50 questions, which is the length of the online test now.  The only thing I remember about that test is that there was an opera question that I got even though I knew (and know) very little about opera–an example of the oft-noted truth that the pool of knowledge for Jeopardy! is wide but shallow.  More on that later, though.

As we waited while the staff scored the test by hand, I noticed that my throat felt a little scratchy and my ears a little stuffy.  Oh great, a cold coming on, or maybe allergies?  Well, the test was over, and I tried not to breathe in anyone’s direction as we listened to the staff call out the names of those who had scored well enough to stay for the audition.  Through increasingly plugged-up ears, I heard my own.

Then as now, the audition featured a mock show set-up, with questions (“clues,” in Jeopardy! parlance) projected onto a screen and a buzzer (“signaling device”) array.  The staff began calling people up three at a time to play the game and talk about themselves, including the perennial audition question–What would you do with the money if you won?

By the time I went up, I was feeling distinctly infectious.  I apologize from the distance of fifteen years to anyone I managed to give my nascent cold that day.  I was hearing through fluid, my voice sounded thin and scratchy, and instead of being all excited about auditioning, I wanted to lie down on the gaudy hotel-meeting-room carpet and take a nap.

I now know that the audition is where the staff sizes you up for energy and effervescence.  And if you’re thinking that you’ve seen many Jeopardy! contestants who evince neither of these things, you’re not wrong.  The pressure of the situation–the actual game, the TV set, Alex Trebek peering at you from his podium–squeezes the juice out of the average person.  I assume that what they’re trying to do in the audition is to eliminate the people who don’t have much juice to begin with, the ones who, however brilliant, might look so flat and unhappy on TV that they make viewers change the channel so as not to witness their discomfort.

And, by now robustly infected with an upper respiratory virus, I did a terrific job of being one of those flat and unhappy people.  When asked what I did, I lamely replied that I was looking for a job, maybe teaching again. (I had just won a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.) When asked what I’d do with the money if I won, I said um, I don’t know, maybe a college fund for my daughter? (She was three.)  Then I buzzed in on a clue about the French word pamplemousse (which I knew from the Monsieur Pamplemousse mystery series written by the creator of Paddington Bear*) and, instead of saying “What is grapefruit?” said “Grapefruit?” and was gently mocked by one of the contestant coordinators**: “We’re not playing Trivial Pursuit here, this is Jeopardy!

They said they’d keep me in the contestant pool for a year, but I’m pretty sure they say that even if they’re marking a large red X over your audition form.  Which I’m pretty sure they did.  I didn’t get what is referred to in the Jeopardy! community as The Call.  I went home, went to bed, got over the cold and got on with the next twelve years or so.

*Michael Bond.

**Almost certainly Glenn Kagan, although I had no idea at the time.

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