Like a lot of underemployed, useless-fact-retaining adults, I’ve always dreamed of trying out for Jeopardy!. My combined love of data with no application in my everyday life and the smooth, reassuring voice of Alex Trebek (the man I would prefer to announce the apocalypse) makes the show a powerful draw. Add to that the fact that a successful run on the show can generate more income than an honest man—or, in my case, a lazy man—can earn in a year’s toil, and “Jeopardy! contestant” ranks somewhere between “inheritor of family fortune” and “taste tester of new strains of marijuana” on my list of dream jobs.
This year, I finally got my chance. Alerted by this very site (read the Newswire, people!) to the existence of a round of online try-outs, I decided to give it a whirl. Right away, I knew I’d do well; my nerdy retention of obscure trivia aside, I figured that most of the other people who intended to try out would either forget or be distracted by more important things in their lives. Since I have no life, this was not a risk for me; I logged on at the appointed time and aced the 50-question test just like I’d have aced the SATs if I hadn’t been too hung over to take them. About a month or so later, I received an e-mail from the show, asking me to come to my old home town of Chicago for an in-person audition.
I jumped at the chance; not that I had any particular confidence in the notion that I was smart, coordinated, or telegenic enough to get on the show, but it was a chance to get the hell out of Texas for a while and hang out in a real city. Flying up the weekend before (the test, inexplicably, was scheduled for a Tuesday morning at 9am, when no decent human being should be doing anything but sleeping), I enjoyed a happy drunken couple of days with friends before steeling myself for the try-out.
That Monday, I hopped in the absurd car the rental agency gave me; despite the fact that I am not a balding 56-year-old investment banker, I found myself driving around a cherry-red 2010 Mustang convertible. I headed straight for the A.V. Club offices; my plan was to eat my pop-culture-savvy comrades, and, a la a planarian worm, gain their great knowledge. Fortunately, just before I was about to slaughter them, bossman Keith Phipps reminded me that I shouldn’t get all my true science facts from old Swamp Thing comics, and a bloodbath was averted. Instead, a bunch of us dined on encased meats from Hot Doug’s, which is the next best thing to eating the freshly slaughtered corpses of human geniuses.
Tuesday morning, I arose bright and early, and, having done exactly nothing to prepare for the audition, I headed downtown to the Westin Hotel. Lots of people asked me if I was “studying” for the try-out, but, since I had no idea what the questions or the process would be, I’m not sure exactly what I could have done, other than frantically clicking a garage door opener and practicing my unctuousness. Instead, I approached it the same way I did important tests in high school: I ate junk food and watched shitty movies. The biggest decision I had to make was what to wear; the guidelines sent to me by the show suggested I wear whatever I might if I were an actual contestant on the show, but I didn’t have a clue as to what that might be. Since Jeopardy! is taped in Los Angeles, I decided to forgo my normal outfits and go for a rollicking little number that suggested that I might be a coke dealer. Selecting a handful of the few amusing anecdotes about myself that do not involve felonious violence, I took the elevator to the third floor, fully expecting to come back a star.
As the first potential contestant to arrive – because that is how I rizzoll – I killed about a half an hour eating complimentary mints and watching delusional suckers jog in front of the John Hancock building on a rainy, chilly Chicago morning. When the other try-outs began to arrive, I was alternately relieved (I wasn’t the fattest or most socially awkward person there) and terrified (the presence of so many bad haircuts and shabby gaits was a guarantee I was up against some brilliant titans of trivia). I was also briefly shocked by the appearance of someone who was the spitting image of a woman I dated almost a decade ago, but then I realized that she probably would have aged, also. Good thing for me, since she always smoked me at Jeopardy!.
A pair of contestant coordinators, both of whom had that preternaturally chipper demeanor you get from repeating the same things over and over again until you essentially become an animatronic President, were our hosts, and believe me when I say, these guys were utter pros. Sure, this might seem like I’m sucking up to them, since they even now hold my fate in their hands, but keep in mind that I also nearly jumped one of them in the hallway in order to steal his super-awesome Jeopardy! baseball jacket. (All of us who tried out did at least get a dandy Jeopardy! pen, hand-made in communist China.) One of them had been with the show since the Art Fleming days, and he had the serene joviality of a man who has seen everything and is ready to greet Satan with a smile should he suddenly pop out of the ground in front of him; the other, younger man was the designated enforcer, meaning he made gentle fun of us if we botched some key element of the process (usually that universal bugaboo, failing to answer in the form of a question). They were both consummate swells in a job that would have had me screaming like Eugene Levy in the old SCTV parody of the show.
The conference room at the Westin was filled with an assortment of overeducated ne’er-do-wells from locations as far-flung as Winnipeg, which is apparently some sort of foreign country. Sizing up my competition, I figured that the only thing I had going against me was being ugly and stupid, and that’s never stopped me before. After a run-down of some key game-play elements, discussions of the selection process, and all sorts of witty banter, we got down to business. First, another 50-question test, to ensure we didn’t just Google our way through the on-line quiz; most everybody seemed to barrel through this one with guns blazing, and afterwards, they had the air of collegiate hopefuls, all bragging on their prowess. I’m pretty sure I smoked most of the questions, with the exception one concerning those goddamn British royals and an inexplicable blank on the name of the author of the Twilight series, which I cannot have seen more than a hundred billion times in the last week.
We were then called up in groups of three to do a mock round of Jeopardy!, in which we got to handle the actual buzzers used on the show and practice our timing, as well as face down our fellow hopefuls. Not surprisingly, no one—myself quite especially included—did as well here as they did on the written test, what with the performance anxiety being ramped up and everyone trying a little too hard. One bit of advice we got from the contestant coordinator was to stick with the categories you feel most proficient at, but this absolutely backfired in my case: I went a dismal 1-3 in the “Wild West Outlaws” category, despite doing fairly well overall. We were also encouraged to show some personality (although, you know, not too much personality, like we were on fucking Wheel or something), so when we were asked what we would do with that sweet, sweet Jeopardy! cash, I eschewed the standard, and sort of depressing, answers about paying down debt and eradicating student loans, and instead enthused about my plans to visit a tropical island where the only living natives were employed bringing me alcohol.
It was repeatedly made clear to us that the audition wasn’t being scored; instead, they were assessing our personality and play to determine if we’d be good contestants. (They also took washed-out looking Polaroid photos of us, and mine had the unusual quality of appearing to have been taking in 1973, but with me at my current age.) So we left for the day not knowing how we did, or if we’d ever be called on the show; if we did well, we were told, we’d be put on a list for a year and a half (!) from which actual contestants will be selected at some mysterious future time. It’s sort of like being a doctor on call, but instead of rushing out to do heart surgery, you would rush out to tell a reassuring Canadian compère who invented the roller pump. So I still don’t know if I’ll ever appear on the show, but rest assured, if I do, you’ll hear it here first, and will have every opportunity to mock and deride me and shatter my confidence before I go.
Did I learn anything from my try-out for Jeopardy!? Surprisingly, yes: I learned something so valuable that even if nothing else comes of it, I will consider the audition time well spent. And that thing is this: the Westin Hotel does not validate parking. That answer is phrased in the form of an outrage.