I tried out for the show last spring, taking the audition test with about 70 others on the Jeopardy soundstage at the Sony studios in Culver City. Jeopardy holds auditions in L.A. several times a year, in addition to the auditions it conducts in many cities around the country. At each audition, the format's pretty much the same. You've got about 15 minutes to answer 50 (that's right, 50) fill-in-the-blank questions. No, you don't have to phrase it in the form of a question though.
You need at least 35 correct answers to proceed to the next step -- a mock game in front of the Jeopardy contestant coordinators. Don't ask me how many I got right. I don't know. The Jeopardy folks don't reveal anyone's scores -- they simply announce the names of those who passed. According to them, about 15 percent of those who take the test pass it. Many of the folks there the day I took the test were veterans who'd been trying to get on the show for years. Unfortunately for them, Jeopardy allows would-be contestants to take the test just once each year. Miss more than 15 questions and you've got to wait another 12 months before you can try again.
Nine of us played the mock game, and I was called into the first group of three. Good news for any theme park alumni who want to get on the show -- I credit my Disney training for getting me through this step. The contestant coordinators want to see lively contestants -- people who can speak up, clearly and keep the show's momentum going. Just like I was taught in Disney Traditions class and by my Disney attraction trainers long, long ago. Ultimately, Jeopardy is a game *show* and those with show skills get on. Brainiacs who mumble and hesitate get to keep playing at home.
After the mock game... you wait. Anyone who makes it to the mock game is on the show's contestant list for the upcoming season, but there's no guarantee you'll be called. At this point, they know they got smart people, and they're simply casting the show for the most lively, diverse and interesting line-ups they can find. I waited two months before I got the call to report for a taping in late summer.
That's right. My show that's airing January 3 actually taped about four months ago. They tape five shows a day, usually on Mondays and Tuesdays. The majority of contestants called are from out of town, with enough extra locals to cover in case any of out-of-towners don't show. Jeopardy doesn't pay travel expenses for contestants, so many of the out-of-towners I met were staying with relatives, old roommates or other friends they knew in the L.A. area.
I was initially surprised to meet two other people who'd lived in Nebraska at my taping, as well as two others from Indiana. But, after a few moments of introduction, it occurred to me that so many of us had lived in so many places that it was inevitable that most of us would meet up with others who'd lived in the same states they had.
It makes sense. Someone who spends his whole life in one place would be hard-pressed to have the life experience necessary to accumulate the expanse of trivial knowledge one needs to get on the show. Moving around a lot helps you gather quite a load of trivia. One other attribute I noticed among the contestants was that nine of the 12 of us worked as teachers, either full-time or as adjunct instructors. After meeting everyone, let me say that I have no less than immense respect for the people who get on this show. I was humbled to be among them. But not too much. ;-)
We played one test game on the Jeopardy set before taping began. I was in the second group to go and darn near popped my eyes out when they revealed the third category on our board.
"Disney's Animal Kingdom."
I cannot freakin' believe this. I'm on Jeopardy and I get a THEME PARK CATEGORY! Boom. "What is the Tree of Life?" Boom. "Who is Pochahontas?" Boom. "What is the Lion King?" I am KILLING this category. One of the contestant coordinators actually tells me to stop ringing in, so that the other contestants can get some practice.
Oh yeah, practice. And there goes my buzz, ladies and gentlemen, as I realize the odds of me seeing a theme park category in both the practice game and a real show are slightly less than zilch. I take my seat in the audience and settle in to watch four shows get taped before I'm finally called to compete.
I'll come clean. I've really haven't watch this show in years. But I enjoyed watching the process of the show being put together. And I was shocked at the randomness of who won and who didn't. One woman who sat next to me during the second taping spent the half-hour with her head in her hands as the contestants got category after category about Eastern Europe. You see, she's a Ph.D. candidate in Russian history. She reacted to that show the way I reacted to seeing "Disney's Animal Kingdom" in my practice game.
Except, unfortunately for her, she was called for the *next* show, where she ended up down $300 bucks and left out of Final Jeopardy entirely. She gets called one show earlier, and she walks away with $30 grand -- easy. She gets called when she does and ends up the third place prize, a thousand bucks. Which just covered her airfare and hotel bill. Rotten luck. Not just that she's out the cash. But that millions of people will watch her show and think she's not much of a Jeopardy contestant. But they didn't hear her muttering under her breath answers that would have nearly cleared an entire board herself one game earlier.
I finally got to play on the fifth and final show of the day. By this time, I was overdosed on Jeopardy and in somewhat of a funk. I thought about changing my outfit, just to shake things up, but decided against it. But I wished I had when I was onstage and saw Alex Trebek walk out... wearing the same suit I was wearing. No, I'm not superstitious, but it can't be good karma to be wearing the same thing as the host.
Most of my game's a blur. I fumbled an easy answer when my mouth went dry and I added an extra "and" in the middle of one answer as I tried to clear my throat. (Nitpickers!) After that, I was certain to take a swig of water at each commercial break.
They tape the show in "real time," pausing only for commercial breaks and flub-ups in crediting answers. At one point, the defending champion gave an answer I knew to be wrong. The other challenger and I were ready to buzz in, when Alex gave the guy credit! The producers immediately called a stop to the tape, and let Alex know he'd goofed.
So, since there are no "spare" clues on the board, they back up the tape and reshot Alex telling the champ that his answer was wrong. But now that we all know that what the right answer is, the other challenger and I were instructed that we were not to buzz in, and instead let the time expire on this now invalid clue. So when you see me standing there like an idiot, not answering an easy clue... it's 'cause they wouldn't let me.
All through the day, the contestant coordinators kept reminding us to stay focused on our strategy. And I kept thinking to myself, "What strategy? All I've got to do is get the answers right."
Halfway through the Double Jeopardy round, I recognized what the contestant coordinators were trying to say. And I cursed myself for not watching the show more often. I'd been happily buzzing in, as if the clues were still worth $200 and $400, even as they became worth four and five times that. So my occasional wrong answers were killing me. Worse, I was losing track of the board. All these shows I'd been watching all day were running together in my mind.
The nadir came when I saw Alex asking me for the answer to a question I hadn't even heard. Heck, I didn't even know what category we were on. The time was ticking down, I didn't have time to look over at the board and read the question. I remembered something about "alliteration," and remembered the word "deciduous" in the clue, so I blurted out something that started with a "D."
That's when I decided "It's wake-up time, Robert." Fortunately, I got command of the board, and I went on a tear. I felt like Elway marching down the field in Cleveland, mounting a legendary two-minute drive. I was climbing out of the pit and getting back in the game. The other contestants disappeared as I took control.
Final clue. And it's a daily double! Here's my chance. All I have to do is bet more than $4,000 and if I get it, I'm back in the lead. I draw my breath... and the producers hold the game. Stop tape.
Apparently, there was some question about the accuracy of a previous answer, which affected our current scores. Since our scores determine how much I'll bet, they hold the tape while the judges review the answer in question. (To this day, I don't know what it was.)
PAGING DR. HEIMLICH
And that gave me time to do some math in my head. You see, I realized that if I bet more than $2,000, and missed the clue, I'd be left with less than half what the leader had. And since the third contestant and even less than that, Final Jeopardy would be meaningless. Even if I bet it all, I wouldn't have enough to catch what the leader had now.
I'd come all this way, getting on the show on my first try and all, and I wasn't about to be a spectator in my one any only shot at Final Jeopardy. No, I'd bet the $1,000 bucks and get the leader in the final.
Which is, of course, stupid. If I'd been paying attention all day, or watching the show at all, I'd know that the leader going into Final Jeopardy almost always ends up winning the show. And that by betting the smaller amount, I'd essentially be betting on myself to miss. And what's the point of that?
Maybe if I'd had a couple more minutes to think, I'd have realized the stupidity of this strategy, But I didn't. The judges decided whatever they decided, no scores changed, and it was time for me to make my bet. So instead of betting the $5,000 grand I planned, I opted instead for a guaranteed meaningful Final Jeopardy and bet the thousand.
I got it right. My wife said afterward that she saw me shaking my head when Alex read the clue, so she was shocked when I got it right. I told her I wasn't shaking my head because I didn't know the answer. It was because I knew I'd made the wrong bet.
The end result? I answered enough questions to win, but took home second place. Two grand's nice money, don't get me wrong, but it took me two weeks to get over the fact that I could have been out of student loan debt if I'd said "five" instead of "one" when I had the chance. Plus, I lost the opportunity to come back and play again.
That said, I got to be on Jeopardy. I had a great time. I did well and didn't sit there in a meaningless Final Jeopardy.
And... I'm now looking forward to a year passing so I can try out for "Millionaire."
* * *
Want to learn from a loser? Here, too late to help me, but in time to help you is...
ROBERT'S BELATED JEOPARDY STRATEGY
* Don't spend too much time studying for the audition, or the show. You can't learn all that you need to know if you don't know it already. But you can refresh your memory on some basic trivia that will likely show up. Take a look at the following lists: Oscar and Emmy winners, U.S. presidents and state and world capitals. Don't bother trying to memorize them--just give them a few looks in the days leading up to the test or the show.
* Whatever you do, do not think about the money. Play to beat the other contestants, not to win any cash. Unless you are independently wealthy, the minute you start thinking about what you'll buy or what bills you'll pay off, your brain will freak out on you. Trust me, I've seen too many people do this.
* Get to know your fellow contestants, especially what they do for a living. That'll help you on the show. Because if you are competing with a nurse and one of the categories is medicine, you'd do best to stay away from that category if you've got control of the board. And if you don't, just let the nurse clear that category quickly, giving you time to recover someplace else. The last thing you want is to waste money and valuable show time buzzing in and getting questions wrong in a desperate attempt to wrest control of the board. Punt, and try to get possession back later.
* Buzz away in the first round. You want to get in the flow of the game, lose your nerves and (ideally) intimidate your opponents a little bit. You can't do any of these things by staying silent. You've got to buzz in to play. And don't worry about losing money or going in the hole at this stage. The dollar amounts get so much bigger and the competition slows down so much in Double Jeopardy that a few good answers there can quickly get you back in the game.
* That said, don't worry about buzzing in first on clues worth $1000 or more in Double Jeopardy. At that level, no one's gonna want to risk the cash buzzing in on questions they don't know. Pick your spots, and buzz in only when you are reasonably sure of your answer. Playing first-round strategy too late into Double Jeopardy's the surest way to throw your money away. I waited too long to switch to a more conservative playing strategy, and it cost me.
* Do everything you can to be in the lead come Final Jeopardy. Odds are, either everyone will get the question right, or everyone will miss it. The odds of the second-place person catching the leader are minuscule. The third place contestant's only hope is to *bet nothing* and hope the question's impossible, so that the leaders both lose their bets and end up behind the third-place contestant.
Anyhow, unless I am certain I would win, I ain't going near that show. I mentioned my time in the hot seat at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire here (the Disney/MGM version, of course) and I was a nervous wreck. Though, everyone said I didn't seem nervous and was quite funny. Whatever! Between shows I looked down and my leg was all bloody! I had cut it somehow and never felt a thing. So you won't see me on no Jeopardy.
Survivor on the other hand... or The Mole. I would ROCK on The Mole!
I kid you not, he told me, "You really should have bet more on that Daily Double." And I'm thinking to myself, "Well, thanks for telling me that *now*, bub. Where was that advice when I needed it?!?" Instead, I said something appallingly meek like, "Um, yeah."
On Kevin's comment about nervousness: I wish had been nervous. In fact, I had the opposite problem. I was so spent that I couldn't keep my head in the game.
I'd watch four shows already that day, each time wondering if I'd be called to be on the next show. After all that, plus the down time in between tapings, my mind was beat.
I'm surprised the three of us could answer anything after sitting around all day. Give me the excitement of walking in (or tuning in) and playing right away over the tedium of taping a week's worth of shows in one day.
I immediately thought of the answer given as "scorpio" when the correct answer was "scorpius". I'll bet that was what the judges were mulling over!
Also, I just looooooove it that Alex was wrong on something. He always acts so perfect.
Andy from PA
Well, you saw how I lost a clue because I threw in an extra "and" when my throat went dry on the Sgt. Pepper question. So at that point I made sure *I* overenunciated everything. I'm sure Alex does the same.
That said, I really don't know anything about Alex because I didn't see him at all either before or after the tape rolled. The coordinators made sure that we had no contact with anyone else on the show, including Alex.
Either way, I'm sure it was an experience.
I am watching you on Jeopardy and reading your page at the same time. The details of your show were great. Thanks for sharing.
I'll end this by echoing what others have said. I take my hat off to you for your appearance and enlighting the masses about the experience.
I didn't see any earpiece. Alex has a large sheet of paper in front of him, on which he marks out the clues as they are answered. I suspect that any extra info is printed there, though I wouldn't put it past him to ad lib now and then.
When the producers needed to say something to Alex in the middle of the show, they'd stop the tape and and announce whatever they needed to say over a loudspeaker. A few times, someone also would walk up to Alex and they'd talk.
As for the Web site, I'd told the contestant coordinators that I didn't want to mention the site, so I guess Alex didn't get the message.
In the weeks leading up to the show, we submit half a dozen vignettes or anecdotes about us that we think would be interesting for the "interview" part of the show. Plus, we fill out a survey about embarassing things we've done, interesting people we've met -- that sort of thing. From that, the contestant coordinators cull three interesting little stories to pass along to Alex. He decides during the commercial break before that which ones he will use.
Oh, well. I'm always happy to welcome more folks to our sites. Take a look around. No one here bites.
Okay, maybe Kevin after Disney does something *really* stupid -- but he's been tested for rabies. And he's clean! Really.
So, I tuned in over here and I remembered you saying something about changing your suit. And that you were wearing the same suit as someone else. Well, I saw 11 people wearing the same suit and 11 other people wearing a different suit. Couldn't figure out which one was you, though. Take off the helmet next time!
I hope some of these new people hang around a bit... hint, hint. Check out Rate the Rumors!
Thanks for posting the info in advance. I taped the show and watched it when I got home late last night!!
Too bad you couldn't plug the site, eh??
That's how I felt by the time we got to my show on taping day. It was a thrill being there, but man it was a lot to go through in one day.
As for plugging the site, the coordinators are quite adamant about us not plugging or promoting anything, including Web sites, during our chats with Alex. Like I said before, we weren't supposed to mention my son's name, which is also the domain of his Web site. But Alex brought it up, and that's how it got on the air.
The amount I bet would have given me enough to beat her if I was right and she was wrong, even if she bet nothing. I also assumed that she would bet one dollar more than the amount I'd have if I bet it all and got the question right. (Which she did.)
Therefore, had we both got the question wrong, we'd have tied, given my bet. And we'd both kept our money and gone on to the next show.
My betting error was on the last Daily Double, where, as I mentioned above, I should have bet at least $4,001 -- not the $1,000 I did.
Oh, and because a few people have asked: Let me clarify what people win on Jeopardy.
Only the game winner gets to keep his or her money. The person in second place gets $2,000 and the person in third gets $1,000. And everyone on the show also gets a Jeopardy CD-ROM game. They used to give prizes to the second and third place contestants in lieu of cash -- second place usually got a cruise. But arranging trip dates and dealing with taxes got to be such a hassle that they dropped those in favor of the cash prizes. (I'm sure that sponsorship issues also played a part.)
So, no, I didn't get to keep my 12 grand. Which makes sense from the show's perspective, because if people got to keep the money they'd "won," everyone would play *very* conservatively toward the end of the show. And it's no fun watching Alex trying to get answers out of three people who're just standing there, staring back, not wanting to risk any of their cash.
I think you may have made me more nervous though.
I have an audition/test date in Washington, DC this month. Thanks for the info. The letter they sent doesn't get into too many details of what to expect, so it's helpful to read your story. But even though you said not to bother any studying, I am planning on refamiliarizing myself with some factoids I don't think about often, including world capitals and anything relating to math (yuck). I watch the show a few times a week, so I'm pretty sure of how it works. If I can only get past the audition. How important is it how you dress? Business dress or casual? Wish me luck?!
Your dress obviously makes no difference during the test. And if you don't get past that, it won't matter how you look. But if you do get past the test, you are then auditioning for a part on the show. They don't have to take you, and they won't if they think you won't provide a good "show" when you are on camera. So dress the park, don't hestitate when you pick categories or answer questions, project your voice, and -- as the coordinators say -- "don't kill the mo(mentum)."
For Daily Double wagers, however, you don't get the scratch pad and you do have to decide on the spot. In my case, I got more time to make my (bad) decision, due to a hold on the game, but I did have to do the math in my head.
Now open, or date announced:
Still waiting on these: