The Jeopardy! auditions are held once a year in five US cities, for a week. Mine was on a Thursday morning in June, one of three sessions that day.
The auditions took place in a small, plain conference room in a swishy midtown hotel. A battered little foam-core sign on an easel outside the room was the only clue of what was going on.
Not very high-tech!
As the candidates milled around, we were handed a Jeopardy! pen, along with an information sheet and release form to fill out. The pen turned out to be our sole souvenir of the audition—nothing more but our memories. It was the usual type of release form: I release Sony Corp from any claims blah blah blah I won’t sue them blah blah personal injury blahblah indemnify blah blah, etc. The usual sign-here-in-blood contractual stuff.
We also had to list any relatives or acquaintances who work for the show, the production company, Sony Studios, or any television stations broadcasting the show.
Uh oh… I expect the CBC counts as a “television station” 1, and having a father who hosts one of the most respected shows in the country might count as “works for”. I dutifully filled that in, and upon asking, was told that that wouldn’t be a problem; they were more concerned about people who actually worked or appeared on Jeopardy! itself. We also had our pictures taken, and had to provide five cute facts/stories about ourselves (the kind that Alex Trebek makes contestants blab about during the most squirm-inducing part of the show.)
Once inside the conference room I surveyed my competition as we chit-chatted amongst ourselves. There were 18 of us. Six women. Over half of the participants were youngish (30s), clean-shaven, nerdy-looking men, with the occasional older professor-type, or matronly woman sprinkled into the mixture. Mostly white-collar professionals (accountants, academics, teachers). A South Asian fellow (the only visible minority other than me) was scruffily dressed in a tee and cutoff jeans (we were told to dress business casual, as you would on the show); it turned out he was a pediatrician, so obviously he wasn’t too fussed about the whole business!
The contestant coordinators were Corina and Glenn, and what consummate pros they were! Corina briskly went through the rules and regs of the game (as if anyone in that room wouldn’t know them off by heart), in a loud, firm voice, punctuated by the occasional corny joke or wry comment. She was likeable in a slightly terrifying way. Glenn was more laid-back, and had a friendly, understated way of talking to all these wannabe contestants without seeming condescending or jaded.
The session started chattily with the coordinators asking us who came from furthest away. My being from Toronto, Canada elicited a few “ooohs” (because, apparently, we live among the polar bears). But a guy from Texas had everyone beat, so he won a Jeopardy! Wii game. (He said when he did the online test in February he thought he was going to get a job in New York, but ended up in Dallas instead.)
We were exhorted many times to “have fun! This is NOT an exam; it’s a game show!”, which we all mentally registered and then promptly ignored. Then we all took another 50-question test. The questions were projected (in Korinna, the typeface used for Jeopardy! clues) on an old-fashioned slideshow screen, and read out by a recording of a Clue Crew member.2 Like the online test we were given 15 seconds to write down our answers, so the test went quickly.
We were told not to divulge any of the questions to outsiders because they are reused, but were encouraged to talk about them amongst ourselves while the tests were being marked. On chatting with everyone else I didn’t think I did any worse than the others, and I was quite sure of some of answers that others blew. It seemed a smart bunch, though; not a dummy in the lot.
After the tests were marked—we weren’t told our scores—we went up to the front of the room in threes to play a mock Jeopardy! game with buzzers. In order to forestall a competitive nerd panic the coordinators took care to tell us that the order they called our names was only a function of where our answer sheets happened to be in the pile, and not an indication of how well we did. I happened to be in the first group, so I went to the front with queasy insides and sweaty hands.
I needn’t have been so nervous; the coordinators didn’t care whether or not we got right answers (and I do remember getting at least one wrong). They were looking for confidence, an ability to speak strongly and clearly, and reasonable poise. (As other threesomes performed I was happy to see that many of them were asked to “speak louder!”, whereas I hadn’t been.)
After the short game (probably only about 10–12 questions for each threesome), each of us were encouraged to talk about ourselves, or asked about one of our prepared stories. My story was about how Photon had once gotten “ottered” (sort of like getting skunked, but not nearly as bad) at the cottage, and I think I blathered something vaguely coherent. Glenn was kind, and made sure to smile warmly and thank every person after their stories.
About the “buzzers”: They don’t actually buzz. Or click, or ring, or do anything that lets you know if you got there first. They feel a bit like a faulty ball-point pen (except twice the size and several times as heavy), where the button-spring is still firmly springy, but nothing goes click. Officially they’re called “signalling devices”. When you play along to Jeopardy! in front of the TV you usually yell out the answer while Alex is still reading the question. In the real game (or our audition mock games) you have to stifle that impulse. You wait until the whole question is read, then look for some signal lights to flash on. As soon as they’re on, you mash your signalling device as many times as is humanly possible. The key to winning Jeopardy! is in the split-second timing between when those lights go on and you mash your button. Mash too soon and you’re locked out for a split-second period—enough for someone else to beat you to the answer.
After the mock games the coordinators answered every question we could come up with.
How long after taping is the show broadcast?
It ranges, from 2 months to 4 months, depending on when in the season it is.
When do you get paid your prize money?
120 days after air date.
I asked something along the lines of: Do you plan the games so that you don’t have people with the same first name, and what happened when Ken Jennings had his streak? No other Ken could appear? They never did give me a straight answer, but Corina told an entertaining story about how intimidating it was for new contestants to see Jennings on TV (remember, shows air 2–4 months after they’re taped), then go to their taping and find out that he was still on! A lot of his competitors pretty much gave up on the spot.
So a little more than two hours after we started we were sent off with a cheery reminder that we were in their files and could get “the call” to appear on the show any time during the next year and a half. After that time we could try out again. It turns out this was the most likely fate of all of us, and some in my group had auditioned previously. As we filed out of the conference room, the next group of people waiting outside were already filling out their information forms.
I walked around Midtown uncomfortably for a few hours in the 37°C heatwave, grabbed a deli lunch, took the train back to Newark, and flew home.
End of my adventure.
…or was it?
- Actually, not any more. CBC declined to pick up Jeopardy! as of this season, in order to better fulfill its Canadian-content-only mandate. Somehow, they hadn’t noticed that Coronation Street is also not Canadian… ↩
- The Clue Crew are an attractive, fresh-scrubbed bunch of young roving correspondents that Jeopardy! added to the show in 2001 to add some visual pizzazz to the otherwise staid show. They tape video clues in exotic places, which gives the audience something more interesting to look at than Alex and three dumpy contestants. ↩