Saturday, June 30, 2012

Getting There, Part I

The famous Jeopardy! pen, not acquired until long after the audition.
Being on Jeopardy! was not something that I'd ever seriously considered. I liked the show and enjoyed seeing how many clues I could answer when watching at home, but actually being on it? Yeesh. So much potential for public humiliation! Who wants that?

So I'd never looked into the tryout process and remained wholly unaware of its existence, until one night when I randomly saw someone mentioning they'd just taken "the online test" on a message board I was reading. (This is the official test that Jeopardy! offers several times a year as the first step toward winnowing out potential contestants. If you're interested in trying out—and you should be!—watch the website or the show's Twitter feed to see when the next one is announced.) I thought, 'Hey, I like tests!'; and even though I'd just missed the designated time for my geographical region, the website gave me the go-ahead to sign up. All I can remember about taking it was that it was the middle of the night, I was in bed in my pajamas, and I wasn't sure if I'd gotten the 35 out of 50 correct that is supposedly needed to move on to the next round—not that I even necessarily wanted to get there!

A few months later, in April 2011, I'd more or less forgotten about the whole thing when I got an email inviting me to an in-person audition in downtown Boston. My sister was visiting that day, so I immediately ran into the next room and was like, "Aaaaa, should I do this??? What if they want me to be on TV??" While I was obviously getting way ahead of myself, I still had serious doubts about whether I'd ever want to be a contestant. I mean, gahhh! Surely, I wasn't smart enough or interesting enough or impressive enough or decent-looking enough to go on television—ugh, there's no way I could possibly ever go on the show! But she convinced me I was being silly and of course I should go try out and just have a good time. (Thank you, Melody!)

The in-person audition was at the beginning of May, a short bus ride away at the downtown Sheraton in Boston. The hotel also happened to be hosting the 11th National Conference on Anticoagulant Therapy at the time, so I wandered around for some minutes, very nearly ending up trapped in some meeting room staring at slides of platelets, before I finally caught another guy asking about Jeopardy! at the concierge desk. Following him upstairs, I found a group of about 20 people awkwardly hanging around and filling out paperwork in a little sitting area. I joined them and tried my best to look very smart and mysterious while we waited to get called in.

What happened next was sort of a blur, in no small part due to the boundless energy and cheer on display by the wonderful contestant coordinators, Maggie and Robert. (Every contestant will tell you about Maggie and Robert because they are just endlessly friendly and upbeat and utterly delightful people to spend time with. I would say it's worth trying out just to get a chance at meeting them—they really are the best!) We handed in our applications and had our Polaroids taken (... yay...) and then shuffled into the next room for a second 50-question test. Apparently, this is where people usually get the famous Jeopardy! pen, but I don't remember seeing any around in the room and obliviously dug into my giant purse o' everything to find a pen of my own. Booo! Anyway, this time the clues were read and displayed on a screen at the front of the room, and you had about 8 seconds to answer each one. Since, unlike the online test, we were writing our answers on paper, it was possible to go back and correct or fill in missed responses as we went along. I think this actually ended up being worse for me since I kept getting hung up on past clues and half missing the new ones as they would come up (note to future test-takers: don't do this!); but I guess I ended up doing well enough. After they collected our exams, everyone in the room started to compare notes, and I found myself with a few forehead-slappers: I remember putting down "dowry" instead of "trousseau" on a clue that mentioned French word origins (duh) and for an Elton John-scored musical about ballet, I'd written "Tiny Dancer" instead of "Billy Elliot"—definitely one of the clues near the end when my mind was stuck on an earlier response and I just had to scrawl down whatever I could! (Though I bet a "Tiny Dancer" musical could be hilarious. Like, "Lalala, have you seen the new ballerinaaa?" "Oh my, yes tra-la, she is so tiiiii-nyyyy!" Try to tell me I'm wrong here.) Again, the word was that 35 was the cutoff point for passing; but they never said anything about how we did, and we never saw our tests again (dun dun-dunhhh!).

Then came the mock games. We got called up to the front of the room in threes, where a partial game board was thrown up on the screen, and there got handed our first shot at mastering the signalling devices. For those of you who aren't aware, being able to ring in at exactly the right moment is one of the biggest parts of the game, and it's not as easy as it might seem! If you've ever watched a show where one contestant doesn't seem to be answering anything, or you can even see them frantically clicking and waving their buzzer around to no effect, they're having trouble with the timing. On the show, no one is able to ring in until Alex has finished reading the entire clue and a stagehand has turned on a set of lights on either side of the board (you can't see these on TV). Ring in too early, and your buzzer gets disabled for a fraction of a second—an eternity in Jeopardy! time; too late, and one of your competitors has almost certainly gotten in before you. Really, for the vast majority of clues in the game, I would guess that every contestant on the stage knows the answer, and it just comes down to who can time their buzzing right. Easily the hardest part of the game as far as I'm concerned.

For the mock rounds, though, the questions were meant to be fairly easy, and it was all just so they could see that we were able to speak loudly and clearly, keep the game moving along from clue to clue, and not look deathly uncomfortable in the process. Once everyone managed to get a few answers in, Maggie and Robert would stop the game and ask us a few getting-to-know-you questions just like Alex does after the first commercial break. Again, the goal here was to make sure we could all seem (relatively!) normal and engaging if we were ever on the show. It was interesting to hear the stories everyone had about Jeopardy! in their lives and all the exciting things they were doing in their careers or travels. There was a fairly diverse range of men and women, older and younger, who'd shown up, some of whom had traveled quite far to get there—I think there was even one guy who'd driven in from Canada just for the audition! So once again, I found myself really lucky to have been so close to an audition site that I was able to drop by without rearranging my schedule, especially given how hesitant I was about coming at all. (Luck was a huge part of my Jeopardy! story—of anyone's really, as Maggie will tell you if you ever make the show—but your own luck always seems the most surprising and extraordinary, doesn't it?)

Before wrapping up, we heard a bit more about being on the show and got to ask a few questions, and then they told us we were all in the contestant pool for the next 18 months, after which point we'd be free to try out again if we didn't get chosen. And that was that! We were released back into the wild to find our way past the hordes of Anticoagulationists and into the bright Boston sun. I ended up walking most of the way back to Somerville because I was just so excited. Yes, I wanted to be on the show! Absolutely! Call me anytime! I'll be there! When can we go?? What else can I tell you about myself? What do you want from meeee?? Of course, at that point, there was nothing left to do but go home and wait for The Call.

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