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Trivial Tales: Being on Jeopardy, Pt. 2

One thing that being in a rock and roll band for any length of time requires is the ability to endure disappointment. Constant, bitter, crushing disappointment. If you take it to heart every time you get passed over for a gig, ignored by a crowd, or rejected in any of the million other ways a musician can get a thumbs-down, you won’t last long. It was my degree from the “school of rock” that, more than anything else, helped me reach the goal of becoming a contestant on Jeopardy. Lots of people are smart, and lots of people are good at trivia. But I took seven tests and traveled to 3 regional auditions over the course of 10 years in my quest to be a Jeopardy contestant. I’m smart, don’t get me wrong – a dummy isn’t going to make it to the Jeopardy stage, no matter how hard he or she tries – but it’s my extremely hard head, not the spongy stuff inside it, that got me to the show.

While I was good at games like Trivial Pursuit, and had been an enthusiastic participant on my high school and community college’s quiz bowl teams, I’d never considered trying to be on Jeopardy until I was in my mid-30’s and the show held a “contestant search” event at a local shopping mall. There, I aced a short trivia quiz and was given an invitation to attend a second test and possible audition at a local hotel and conference center.

If I remember correctly, there were 50-60 of us who took the longer contestant quiz (50 questions) that day. Out of that group, about a dozen lucky souls were called up by name and asked to participate in the screen test/mock game that is still part of the audition process. I was not called.  But, for me, that was the motivator … I’d finally caught the bug: I wanted to be on Jeopardy!

The online tests started a few years later, and from 2009-2015 I took the online test three times, and was invited to three regional auditions: Charlotte, NC; Nashville, TN; and, finally, Atlanta, GA.

At those auditions, I took yet another test — that year’s “contestant quiz” — and participated in a screen test that consisted of playing a few minutes of Jeopardy with two other wanna-be contestants, and being interviewed — usually by Maggie.

Each time I thought I did reasonably well, but I probably got a little better through the process: I know that I was less nervous and a little less personally invested each time.

Looking back, I think it was my experience as a musician that allowed me to continue testing and auditioning, year after year, with no way of knowing if I’d ever make to the ‘big show.’ Knowing the drill from years of working with booking agents, club owners, and various entertainment industry functionaries, I took the Jeopardy staff members who’d conducted the auditions at their word when they said that if we didn’t receive a call in the next 18 months we should try again, that contestants often audition several times before being selected.

Also, I listened to, remembered, and took to heart the coaching that Maggie and other Jeopardy staffers provided at the auditions, tips such as:

  • Speak up
  • Be yourself
  • Have fun

… and more specifically …

  • Always identify the category and dollar amount (not: “That one again for $400” or “the same category for $1000”)
  • Shorten the category name to keep the game moving
  • Wait until the clue has been read in its entirety before trying to buzz in (hitting the clicker early results in a “lock out” of a fraction of a second — an eternity in Jeopardy time)
  • Click that buzzer and keep on clicking until someone’s name is called
  • Wait until you are called on to answer
  • Give your answer in the form of a question, and …
  • Give your answer in the form of a question!

I mention that last one twice because, well, it’s important, right?

What is “yes?”

At the third audition, in Atlanta this past spring, I found myself more interested in the behavior of the other potential players than in my own performance. I was thinking a bit like a casting director, I suppose, with an eye towards who had an interesting story, a unique vocal inflection, or a particularly quick buzzer finger. There were some standout characters, so while I was pleased with how I did, I wasn’t particularly hopeful about my chances of being selected.

I was both surprised and pleased when, only a few weeks into the new season of Jeopardy, my phone lit up with a caller ID reading “Culver City, CA.” It was Glenn, one of the show’s producers, with an invitation to be a contestant on the show in about three weeks.

Sure thing, I said.

Here goes nothing, I thought.

Rob Russell

One sweater vest to rule them all!



2010 Christmas Mix

Artwork by my son K, age 11

My family followed the theme of “Homemade Xmas” pretty closely this year — my wife spent hours (days!) baking and making cookies, candy and other treats for family. My contribution, assisted my son, was a little less time intensive: mix CD’s (and a few custom jobs) for family — with artwork by K.

Here’s a YouTube-ized version of the mix, along with some of K’s artwork. Merry Christmas, Y’all!

1. We Wish You a Twisted Christmas – Twisted Sister. From TS’s Christmas record, which is mainly unlistenable. I thought this made a nice introduction to a not-so-serious Christmas Mix CD, and one that, I hope, is both a bit off-the-wall and enjoyable to listen to.

2. Christmas All Over Again – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. A sixties-style Christmas party anthem that was TPHB’s contribution to the second “Very Special Christmas” compilation.

3. Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas – The Decemberists. From the “Alternative X-Mas” compilation. Folksy and funny (or maybe not). Originally recorded by John Denver, of course!

4. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch – Aimee Mann with Grant Lee Phillips. The very thought of Aimee Mann making a Christmas record seems ridiculous; her image is so dour and her song subjects typically rang from depression to murderous depression. Still, the record — mainly traditional tunes — works, and this version of the song we all know and love from The Grinch is my favorite track.

5. Christmas – The Who. From “Tommy.” You get some religion, some Tommy back-story, some rock and rool, and a little opera-lite, all in 4 and a half minutes. Can’t beat that. Video from the Ken Russell film.

6. River, Skyway /Little Drummer Boy – The Bleeding Heart Show. Our (Tracey, Chuck, Stephen and

Rob) version of the Joni Mitchell tune; yes, we’re trying to out-sad Aimee Mann on this one. “Skyway”: We worked up this mash-up of the Replacements tune and the Christmas classic for the Down Home Christmasshow that was snowed-out last year. Luckily, Chuck caught a decent rendition during a practice, so now at least someone will hear it. That’s Tracey rocking the glockenspiel.

7. Santa Baby – Everclear. The Portland neo-grungers swing this version of the classic bo-bo-pe-doop Christmas classic. Also from the “Alternative X-Mas” compilation.

8. Joseph, Who Understood – The New Pornographers. An original Christmas tuen from Tracey’s favorite band. I like this song more and more every time I hear it, not only for the great melody but because of it’s take on the most ignored member of the nativity scene, Joseph, whose wife has give birth to the messiah — a child who is not “his.” In my opinion, the greatest faith shown by any participant in the entire Christmas story was shown by Joseph.

9. The Dreidel Song – Julie Silver. A blues version of the traditional Hanukah song. Seriously.

10. Spotlight on Christmas – Rufus Wainwright. A great, heartfelt tune, and a vocal that goes from off-hand conversational to transcendent. Absolute Rufus. It originally appeared on an Elton John Christmas compilation; my version comes from Mojo Magazine’s 2002 “Blue Christmas” CD. This video is from an A&E Christmas special.

11. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. No explanation needed!

12. Father Christmas – The Kinks. Saint Nick gets mugged in this 1977 single. Awesome.

13. Jingle Bell Rock – The Ventures. Short and sweet, with some fine picking. Merry Christmas from East Tennessee!