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.
I’m a two-time “Jeopardy Champion.” I’m a lot of other things, too — a husband, a Dad, a musician, a writer, a teacher, an administrator, a cynic — but being a winner (and, eventually, a loser) on Jeopardy is one thing I honestly never thought I would be, or could be. Pretty surreal stuff!
I thought I’d write something to try to answer some of the questions friends and family members have asked about getting on the show and playing the game, including the most important question of all:
What’s Alex Trebek really like?
So, let’s start there.
Honestly, I don’t know enough to say. I was in his presence about six hours total, and only exchanged a few words with him during, and briefly after, each of the three shows on which I appeared. He was friendly, handsome, and very good at his job. He’s got a dark, but not unhealthy, tan. He smells nice.
His exchanges with the studio audience were mostly humorous and low key. Between shows (the Jeopardy crew tape a week’s worth of shows — five — in a day) he walked to the edge of the stage and took questions. His wit is clearly on the dry side, and he seemed just as pleased to let a seemingly off-hand joke bomb as he did when it hit. He’s comfortable in his polite, slightly aloof Canadian skin.
As to his intellect, staff members have said that Alex has taken the new contestant quiz (the one we take at the actual auditions) himself almost every year the show has run — going on 21 now — and done quite well.
What I was most impressed with was his ability to navigate the categories and clues during each game so smoothly that his delivery appeared rehearsed. But there was no way it could be, as Alex does not get to see the games — which are selected at random for that day by a third party — or the categories and clues within them until the morning of each day’s taping. He has all of three hours to go through five games’ worth of categories and clues and scan for possible pronunciation or delivery trouble spots.
When I was there, Trebek misspoke or slightly garbled clues only twice that I can recall during the six games I watched or was a part of. These slight errors didn’t affect game-play in the least, and during commercial breaks they were “fixed” on the spot by speedily orchestrated live voice-over dubs by Alex himself. I was impressed. The man is smooth!
On top of that, during the games he has to quickly identify and read the clues as they are called, in no particular order (and sometimes in purposefully weird order, e.g. by Arthur Chu) by each contestant. All he appears to have in front of him is a stack of papers, so what he does to organize the material or anticipate the next clue, I have no idea. Whatever his method, it works, and it appears effortless.
He does seem a bit standoffish regarding the contestants, but that could be to avoid any appearance of favoritism, to allow the producers and make-up artists to get to the contestants and do their jobs, or just to keep himself un-frazzled and in his own zone. As I learned, the energy generated behind the contestant podium is viral, and different in every game, based on the personalities and attitudes of the players involved. I’d wager that a host would be just as likely as a contestant to get swept up in this energy and get ‘thrown off their game.’
More over the next few days regarding how I made it to the show, what my preparation was like, what happened on the days of the tapings, and how good In-N-Out Burger really is.