ASSOCIATES (2006, November, v. 13, no. 2) -

Steven Bingo
Von Kleinsmid Center Library
University of Southern California

If you’re a Jeopardy! fanatic—as in, has-Alex-Trebek’s-voice-programmed-into-his-ringtone fanatic—you’ve probably come across, which archives most every Jeopardy! episode in the Alex Trebek era. Next time you’re there, check out show #5050. You’ll notice that one of the contestants is a “library assistant originally from Seattle, WA”. That’s me, and show #5050 marked my first appearance on this much-beloved quiz show. I won’t spoil the ending…at least not yet. All I will tell you is that aside from this article, my Jeopardy! experience is pretty much over. Over the course of ten months, I tried out, played the game, watched myself on TV, and received my check. In retrospect, it all feels surprisingly short and to this day, even though I know better, a part of me feels as if this chapter is still unfinished.

A library assistant, originally from Seattle, WA…

Would you have blamed me if I chose to identify myself as a librarian instead? After all, how many folks outside libraries know the difference between a library assistant and a librarian1? Is there a difference? Nevertheless, I simply wanted to hear Johnny Gilbert, in his velvet baritone say “library assistant”2 for all us underpaid, overworked souls who deal with angry patrons on a daily basis or slog through hours of copy cataloging. I guess it is also a shout out to underutilized or overcompensated library assistants, but we’ll just keep that to ourselves.

The Tryout

As it turns out, I was selected from Jeopardy!’s first online contestant search. The basic idea is that an online test of 50 questions is scheduled for a specific date and time. I think mine was at 7 o’clock on a Thursday. If you’re interested in taking the test, you register at least 30 minutes before the test and make sure you’re at a computer when test time rolls around. You get fifteen minutes to type your answers and you don’t have to answer in the form of a question. Although typos do not automatically count against you, it helps if the spelling is close.

Traditionally, Jeopardy! holds cattle-calls, where hundreds of people who have registered through the mail or Jeopardy! website are called and subjected to a 50-question test, much like the online test and, if they pass, a live audition. In essence, the online test allows the folks at Jeopardy! to deal with far fewer applicants in person, which I imagine is far less taxing on the poor individuals who must figure out how to keep a room full of people fired up as the tests are being graded—I’ll talk more about these individuals shortly.

The common rumor is that 35 out of 50 is a passing grade. This I’ve gathered from the unquestioned purveyor of all truth, the internet. If I would have known this going into the online test, I would have felt much better about my performance. I thought for sure the question that I skipped and the handful of answers I guessed at would dash my chances of advancing further in the process. After a couple of weeks without hearing a peep from Jeopardy!, I thought my pessimism was confirmed, until…

The E-mail

Congratulations! You have been selected for a follow-up appointment at an upcoming Jeopardy! contestant search for the Los Angeles area, exclusively for those who successfully passed the online test.”
               --from an e-mail sent on February 1, 2006.

What can I say, I hoard e-mail. Needless to say, I was totally stoked!

Ten Tips for Jeopardy! Auditions

  1. Have fun
  2. Do as Simon says
  3. Speak clearly
  4. Project
  5. Looks count, dress sharp
  6. Stand out
  7. Buzz in selectively
  8. Think about what you would do with the money, because the contestant coordinators will ask
  9. Breathe
  10. Have fun

The Audition

The audition consisted of three main parts: an orientation, a written 50-question test, and a live audition. During the orientation, the contestant coordinators, who I would get to know really well, explained the general ins-and-outs of the game as it’s played on stage and told us what they were looking for in a contestant. Specifically, they wanted someone who spoke clearly, could follow directions (i.e., someone who would answer when called upon and select a question only after being prompted by Alex), and could at least pretend like they were having fun. In addition to describing game play, the contestant coordinators got us pumped up by asking if we wanted to be the next Ken Jennings and having us answer a few softball questions. Of course, none of us wannabe contestants needed too much encouragement as we were all eager to strut our stuff.

Years ago, I turned out for a cattle-call for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and failed the initial test. I can only imagine how satisfying it must have been for those who passed to see over a hundred other hopefuls take the walk of shame out of the audition room. Well this time, there were only about 30 applicants and all of us more or less passed the test. Although we were all asked to take a written test, it seemed merely a formality as nobody was asked to leave the room after the tests were graded.

The real meat of the audition was the mock game. The contestant coordinators called us up in groups of three where we would play a mock game, which usually consisted of about 10 questions, and we were given a brief interview consisting of questions much like Alex would ask after the first commercial break. The primary difference between the audition and the actual game was that nobody kept score and the buzzers did not have a lockout mechanism. Basically, the contestant coordinators will give everybody a chance to answer at least one question regardless if you buzz in first or not. The buzzers are to make sure that you don’t try to ring in when you’re not supposed to, that is, before the question has been read completely.

Of all the applicants, I remember one woman who was sharp as a whip, but spoke a million miles a minute and two fellows who used to be in radio, each of whom had speaking voices to die for. My primary advantage was that I was young (one of maybe a couple gen-Xers in the room), and silly. Case in point, the final question asked in my practice round concerned an adjective that described both smelly garbage and the music of George Clinton. When the lead contestant coordinator asked “Why don’t you answer it Steve?”, I responded in a deep, gravelly voice from the nether reaches of my 70s soul, “What is da fonk?” Even though I technically gave the wrong answer—funky being the correct answer—my response got a rise out of the room, which probably helped put me over the top.

Game day

About a month after my audition, I received a call from Sony Studios. When Sony came up on my caller ID, I literally started to shake. At the other end was an ebullient voice asking me if “it wasn’t about time that I appeared on TV?” He didn’t need to ask me twice. Basically, the ebullient voice broke it down as follows: I was invited to a taping in May as an alternate, which means that I would have a one-in-three chance of playing that day, but if I didn’t get on, I would be invited back the next week, when I would be guaranteed a spot on the show. Sounded good to me, so I called my folks and told them for what date they should book their flights to L.A.

The contestants are asked to show up at the Studio around 8 AM. In all, 13 contestants are invited to film 5 episodes. Among the 13 contestants are:

The champion from the previous day of taping
9 new contestants who are guaranteed a chance to play that day
3 alternates, usually locals to Southern California

Unless one of the shows taped that day ends in a tie, 2 new contestants will get a chance to play the next game, which means 10 new contestants a day, so long as the 5 game/day quota is met. That’s why as an alternate, one would have a 33% chance of participating in the taping.

During the 2-minute ride from the parking garage to the sound studio, we were told that we were not to talk to anybody save each other and the contestant coordinators. In a way, I felt as if we were a jury in sequester, a random bunch of strangers bound together by forces larger than us. Only we weren’t exactly random, and certainly not a representative cross-section of America. The personalities ranged from a very gregarious NPR reporter from New York to an unassuming medical coordinator who could lay on a quaint southern accent with the best of them.

Once in sequester, it was clear that wheels were in motion and the contestant coordinators were turning up the steam. When the contestant coordinators dove in to their orientation about all things Jeopardy! I felt like I had grabbed on to a moving carousel and was holding on for dear life. Don’t get me wrong, the Jeopardy! folks certainly had us excited to play the game, but I think one could sense that the machine was in motion and we had best enjoy the ride.

My favorite part of taping was the practice rounds. After all the details of the show were explained to us, we got to play a whole round of Jeopardy! with different players rotating in and out of the game. This was a chance to get us comfortable with the game and to make sure that the AV equipment wasn’t on the fritz. What I liked about the practice rounds was that it was like playing at home because there was no pressure, with the added element of the buzzers and having to beat two other contestants to the punch. With the practice rounds, you know you will get another chance to play. In a sense, it’s like a never-ending game.

As the games are actually taped, the contestants waiting to play sit in a designated corner of the studio. Naturally, I played along, like I would at home, only I had to keep my answers to myself. It nearly killed me to see 4 of the five questions from “World Series MVPs” go unanswered. I so would have swept that category. Perhaps the biggest surprise was when Susannah, a two-time champ, who was a buzz saw in both games in which she had played, missed the Final Jeopardy question and, due to the size of her wager was overtaken by Michelle, the medical coordinator with the thick southern drawl. Unfortunately, I did not get to play that day and would have to wait another week.

The next week went pretty much like the previous week, except there were an unusual amount of technical difficulties, and, since I knew I was going to play, each game that I had to watch seemed to take an eternity. When my name wasn’t called for the fourth game of the day, I started to get a little paranoid. What if they don’t call me for the fifth game? Wasn’t I promised a chance to play? At some point during that fourth game, I decided that I needed to get my money’s worth, as it were, and try to get in on as many questions as I could and milk my fifteen minutes for all it was worth. So I did get called for the fifth game, where I freewheeled my way to defeat. Aside from my quiet finish, I don’t think I would have played it differently. Sure, it would have been nice if my Double Jeopardy question3 was about Lolita instead of The Great Gatsby, but even though I ended the game with zero dollars, I didn’t end with nothing.

First of all, I came away with a check for $1000. More importantly, for the majority of those 22 minutes I was truly in the moment, confused at times, but in the moment nonetheless. While I still wish that my Jeopardy! experience was at least a little longer, I can still feel the on-stage jitters as I write this, which is similar to the electricity of a new experience, and I quite like it.

1 To give credit to where credit is due, Robert, one of the Jeopardy! contestant coordinators, was able to identify a library assistant as the person who does most of the work at a library while receiving little of the recognition. Go Robert!
2 If you’re keeping track, there have been at least two other L.A.s on Jeopardy! Nancy Burns, an L.A. from Chicago, appeared on episode #59, which aired on 11/29/1984. Although I cannot say for sure, she may very well be the first L.A. to appear. Ron Trigueiro, an L.A. from San Antonio, earned $49,401 in 1988. Not too shabby.
3 I bet everything on that Daily Double. They say that with great risk comes great reward. Nobody ever mentions the flip side of this axiom.

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