Jonathan Competes on Jeopardy: Trying Out

For years, I’ve been telling myself I really should try out to be on Jeopardy! To qualify for the show, you need to take (and pass) a fifty-question test. They offer the test year-round in Los Angeles, and at various times in other cities throughout the country.

Signing Up

August 2004

While watching Jeopardy!, I notice an announcement that their contestant search team will be in San Francisco this fall. I look at the website for more information; there’s a simple online form, and I figure – what the heck – I might as well put my name in. Probably nothing will come of it, but there’s no commitment and nothing to lose, right?

August 23, 2004

I receive an email message inviting me to an appointment to take the Jeopardy! qualifying test. They offer me an appointment on Friday, September 10th, at 9 am in San Francisco, and request an RSVP to confirm that I can make it. Since I’m not working on Fridays at the time, I’ll have no problem making that time, so I confirm that I can be there.

They say, “The written test takes approximately 45 minutes. If you pass we will ask you to stay for approximately one more hour. This is the complete interview; no other interview will be necessary. Come dressed as you might for an actual appearance on the show.”

Taking the Test

September 10, 2004

I take BART over to San Francisco, to the W Hotel, south of Market, where the tryouts are being held. There are about 100 other people there for the tryout, and we all take seats in the conference room.

The tryouts are run by Maggie Speak, of the Jeopardy! contestant department. If there’s a more outgoing, extroverted person on Earth than Maggie, I haven’t met them. Maggie is great at getting people excited and great at putting you at ease. Before giving you the test, they spend about half and hour warming you up, giving you a chance at practice questions, giving you tips about answering Jeopardy!-style questions, and answering your questions. Then, when you’re good and ready, they give you The Test.

Everybody gets a single sheet of paper with 50 numbered blank lines. The test is given on video: you see the written categories and clues (just like on the gameboard), and Alex Trebek reads the categories and questions (I mean, answers). The fifty questions are in fifty different categories: New Testament, Shakespeare, On the Map, Literature, Potent Potables, and the like. All of the questions are quite challenging. They’re all short answers (a few words), and they allow you about 8 seconds between clues – plenty of time if you know it, but not a lot of time to ponder. It goes pretty quickly!

The collect the papers and leave you while they correct them. They won’t tell you the exact cut-off for passing, but they say it’s at least 70% – 35 of 50. After about 10 minutes, they come back and read the names of the 11 people in our group who passed. (Eleven out of some 100 or 150 people – a pretty low pass rate!) They never tell you the correct answers; they never tell you your score.

They encourage the people who didn’t pass to try out again – most contestants take the test several times before passing. (You have to wait a year before retaking the test – presumably to ensure that you get new set of questions.)

I am honestly surprised – even stunned – to have passed the test on my first try. I know how long the odds are, and I had worked hard not to get my hopes up.

The Interview

After everyone else has left, they spend another hour or so getting to know the eleven who have passed. They spend some time chatting with each of us, take everyone’s photo, and we play a couple of mock games with the video screen and the buzzers. They explain how the buzzers work and offer tips about the buzzers and about playing the game.

I think they’re looking for people who are comfortable playing the game, who can respond quickly, who have a bit of personality, and who won’t crumble under pressure.

All of us are now “eligible” to appear on the show, but there’s no guarantee. Every year, there are 400 slots for regular, adult contestants, and there are always more qualifiers than that. They refuse to tell you your exact odds (which obviously depend on how many people qualify), but rumor has it that your odds are about 1 in 3 of appearing on the show. They’ll keep you in their files for a full calendar year, and you’ll either get called or not. If you don’t appear on the show, they encourage you to try out again.

The Call

October 19, 2004

I get a telephone call at work, inviting me to come to LA to be on the show. They’re taping on November 8 & 9, and ask if I’m available. Of course, I am!

Later that week, I get a big packet in the mail. Most of the packet is a big contract to sign and fax back, verifying your eligibility for the show. You are not eligible to be a contestant on Jeopardy! if you have appeared on a game show/dating show/relationship show/reality show in the last year or three game shows/dating shows/relationship shows/reality shows in the last 10 years. You are not eligible to play on Jeopardy! if you are employed by, related to, or within the last five years known anyone who works for Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., The Griffin Group, King World Productions, Inc., American Airlines, Sullivan Compliance Company, television stations broadcasting Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy!, or game show prize suppliers. Got it?

The packet also has information about what to wear, when and where to show up, and what to expect. And they ask for interesting anecdotes to use in the “meet-the-contestants” segment (they offer suggestions and leading questions).

They recommend the Culver City Radisson Hotel; it’s close to the studio, and they offer special deals and a free shuttle for Jeopardy! contestants.

I make reservations at the Radisson, and make plans to drive down with John & Natasha, my sister and brother-in-law. My mother can’t be there on Monday the 8th, but she’ll fly down on Tuesday the 9th, if I’m going to be on Tuesday.

Next: At the Studio

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