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I Was a “Jeopardy” Rejekt

‘I could’ve been a contender.’
– Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, 1954

Jeopardy! is a bizarre game show. Whenever I watch it, I can’t help but be amazed: why is it that there’s always some contestant who doesn’t seem to know squat? The brainiacs that win $20,000 a day and put my mind to shame I understand, but how is it that Mr. Joe Silent manages to win a spot at the signaling button, and then inevitably goes home with a box of Lee Press-On Nails?

The answer (in the form of an answer): they come to towns like Austin to pick up schmucks like me.

On July 10 and 11, 1996, the Jeopardy! people came knocking on the doors of Austin looking for fresh meat. Actually, they were knocking much earlier, because in order to try out for the show you had to be ‘randomly’ selected by sending in a postcard that basically proved you watch the show on occasion. In June, when the white package arrived in the mail–‘CONGRATULATIONS! You have been selected to audition…’–I was ecstatic. Here was my chance to prove to the world that I was brilliant, that my two degrees were not earned in vain, that I was not Wheel of Fortune material.

I immediately devised an intense study schedule. I was going to learn everything about my ‘weaker’ subjects: Opera, Ballet, Composers, History, Geography, Musicals, and Early Uruguayan Literature–basically, everything you get tested on during Jeopardy! except Movies and Potent Potables (the alcoholic beverages category).

The studying did not go as well as expected because I’m so lazy. In fact, I never even made it through the entire almanac, and barely cracked the atlas, much less the philosophy and history books I had picked out of the library. Nevertheless, I felt prepared, at least psychologically, when my time in the sun, July 11, 10 a.m., came around.

The way it works is this. Presumably thousands of people send in these postcards to try to get selected to audition. 250 are chosen, and in 4 batches they try out. About 60 people must sit in front of TV monitors and answer 50 questions about the hardest trivia imaginable (this is round 1). About 9 of these are chosen to go to round 2. Of these 9, 3 are chosen as finalists, based on the winner of a ‘mock version’ of the game with the signaling button and everything. Then, after a personality test (which can’t be too difficult if you’ve seen some of the socially marginal types on the show), maybe you get to be on the program. You even have to fly to L.A. at your own expense.

I made all the way it to round 1. Getting to round 1 means you have the ability to properly address a postcard and can follow directions to the tryouts.

Audition day was here. I had learned everything at the front of the almanac, a section which mostly covers various features of the planets and modern agriculture. I am 5 minutes early to the call, which takes place on the UT campus, but I’m surprised to find I’m the absolute last one to get there. The other 59 people are serious about this: so serious that they want to be first in line just to check in–that way, they can sit closer to the TV monitors. But I feel a little better when one guy has to get behind me because he’d been standing in the wrong line. What would Alex Trebek think?

All kinds of people are here, most of whom you would never see on Jeopardy! Long-haired students in shorts. Cowboy types with big hats and belt buckles. There’s even a girl in a halter top. And me.

I am given my ominously blank answer sheet and am directed to the stage, where the 3 monitors are placed, the static on the screens a strange metaphor for what my brain feels like.

Out comes our host, a peppy and friendly guy from the Jeopardy! compound. His job is to make us feel at ease, crack well-rehearsed jokes, and give us the answers to the burning question we all have: How many do we have to get right?

The answer: 70%, which doesn’t sound too bad until I realize it’s 35 out of 50 questions about Opera, Ballet, Composers, History, Geography, and Musicals. Oh boy. And the questions are ‘equivalent in difficulty’ to the $800 or $1000 questions [$1600 or $2000 questions in today’s game]–the questions that I often skip when watching the show in hopes that my televised competitors will guess and get them wrong. AND we get a whopping 8 seconds to answer each one (it used to be 10 seconds). And then it’s time for the test.

The videotape is pushed in and we’re off. No warning. Nothing. Here come the questions, rapid fire: Opera. Ballet. Composers. History. Geography. ‘Characters in Musicals.’ Where are the questions on TV Sitcoms or Pop Music or ‘Calvin & Hobbes’? Or my all-time favorite category: Hitchcock Blondes?

And the questions aren’t just hard, they’re damn hard. The one I remember so well, because I missed it so stupidly, was #2, regarding the ‘Green Mountain State.’ Now you didn’t have to just know which state was the Green Mountain State (this far I got), but you had to know the largest city in the Green Mountain State! Depressed, I put Ohio–which was also my answer to questions about the capital of Chile, a couple of composers, and one U.S. President.

13 minutes go by, fast, sweating, impossibly difficult. But surprisingly, by the end, I’m thinking I haven’t done all that poorly. I am positive I got at least two: the director of Raging Bull and a question about fortified wine. They take up the answer sheets and retire to quickly grade them to figure out who will be the round 2 contestants.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing to do for 15 minutes or so, so we get to watch a real episode of, you guessed it, Jeopardy!, on the TV monitors. Immediately the room is full of the buzz of conversation. ‘Was the Green Mountain State answer Montpelier?’ ‘Of course it is,’ someone replies, ‘what other cities do you know in Vermont!?’ Ohio. (I found out years later, the largest city is actually Burlington. Montpelier is the smaller capital.)

‘The capital of Chile is Santiago, of course. What other cities do you know in Chile!?’ Ohio.

Maybe these are extreme examples… I figure 15 questions I let slide with my idiot answers. Could be, just maybe, long shot here… potentially I got the 35 I needed to go on. Or maybe I got 2.

While I sweat over this, let me remark that sitting in a room full of Jeopardy! fanatics and actually watching an episode of the show is a unique experience. When the they’re-so-easy-my-cat-could-answer-them $100 questions roll by, everyone rolls their eyes and harrumphs about how simple this is and makes if-we-could-have-had-these-questions comments. They don’t realize that we couldn’t have had these questions, because those low-dollar ones are little more than jokes–a miserable attempt at not making the viewing audience feel totally stupid. We had the big money questions that no one knows. That’s the point. It’s as simple as our host put it, ‘Jeopardy! is the hardest game show in the world.’

As a side note, I’m relieved to know that not everyone here is taking this seriously when a question pops up about a ‘1960 aborted CIA attempt to depose this powerful leader’ when someone yells out ‘Kennedy!’

Then they’re back. Our peppy host has the names of the 9 semi-finalists. No scores are given out to spare our feelings and public embarrassment, and we are encouraged (to believe) that we all ‘missed it by one question.’ I’m absolutely sure this is true–in my case, that is.

When the names are called, what they said in high school is true–they’re almost all people sitting in the front row, and you make better grades if you sit in the front. The winners look more in line with what your typical Jeopardy! contestants look like, except for one guy right in front of me who looks suspiciously like Mr. Clean. The nine people–7 men, 2 women–get to move on to the table in the corner, the table where
the holy grail sits–the signaling button that I was sure I would be pressing so quickly, thanks to my youthful, lightning fast reflexes, beating the other contestants (old folks) to the answers.

Alas, as the ninth name is called, it isn’t mine. It is someone who obviously knows very little about Ohio. The other 51 of us are thanked for our participation and are invited to try again next year. As we file out, cows on the way to the slaughter, I get the sinking feeling that we are being made fun of back on the stage. After all, that’s what I would have done if I had made it to round 2. (‘Why’d they even bother showing up!?’ ‘Try again next year, small brains!’)

There’s nothing left to do but drive home and ponder a few of the most intriguing 45 minutes of my life. I had a lot of fun. The tryouts are also free of charge and really test you, making you realize that if you watch the show at home and ‘think’ you do really well, it’s basically because you’re cheating. (‘Oh yeah, I knew that one…’)

I’m sure my day in the sun will some day come. Maybe I’ll become famous through writing and filmmaking, then go on Celebrity Jeopardy! and win money for medical research. Maybe I’ll make it on the Seniors Tournament in 40 years. Alas, this time, it was not meant to be.

I missed it by one question.

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