Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jeopardy Audition Rundown

Note: UPDATED! See below.

Web-logged accounts of auditioning for or appearing on Jeopardy are thick on the ground, but dammit, it looms large in recent events, so it's my turn.

My Jeopardy audition happened back on March 10th in downtown Minneapolis. See also my previous post about the online test and my invitation. Thanks to the efforts of Kathryn Kienholz, a fellow invitee to the same session, and knitting blogger extraordinaire, there's photographic illustration of our audition experience. All photos in this post are by her, and used with permission.

My appointment wasn't until 3, but I took the afternoon off so I wouldn't be hurried and stressed on my way in. I showed up to the swanky, new Hotel Ivy a little early, and immediately wished I'd shown up even earlier so I could take a quick bathroom break. As it was, I didn't think I had time before things were going to start. They had me fill out a contact info form, including times you know you're definitely NOT available to go to LA for a day or two and, oddly enough, asking if you were involved in Quiz Bowl in high school (I was, and I suspect a lot of contestants have come from that background). They also asked if I'd had any contact with previous Jeopardy contestants, which I had to admit I had (a brief weblog-based exchange with Kate Pedersen, a fellow Grinnell alum who congratulated me on my audition and who had very recently played on the show). They took a Polaroid of me, and soon ushered the group of hopefuls into a small meeting room.

There were twenty of us in a room that could hold twenty-seven of us. An LCD projector and speakers were rigged up to a laptop up front. Head Contestant Coordinator Glenn Kagan (pictured) and associates Corrina and Laurie and tech guy Carlos ran the show. Here was our itinerary:

1. Introductions and description of what is about to happen (Glenn)
2. Showing us how the mock game board works (Corrina)
3. 50-question contestant exam
4. Q&A about the show (Glenn)
5. Rolling mock game and interviews (everybody)

The exam was similar in structure to the online qualifier I'd passed in January. 50 questions, 12 seconds each. However, since it was written, we had the opportunity to correct ourselves as we went along. Thank goodness, too, because it took a while for my brain to warm up. There were two or three extremely basic questions in the first ten that I knew, but couldn't produce to save my life. Once I got going, and those previous answers came screaming back into my forebrain, I was able to fix them. In the end, I felt at least as good about this test as the previous one. Giving a quick glance at my answers once time was up, I counted only ten or eleven questions that were educated or out-of-my-ass guesses. Although they'll never admit it, rumor says 35 is a passing score. So I like those odds.

While Corrina and Laurie scored our tests in the hall, Glenn answered every question anyone's ever had about the show. What's with Trebek's sling? He had an accident puttering around the house. Have you ever had blind or deaf contestants? Blind yes, deaf no. Do you pay for our airfare and hotel if we get on the show? No, unless you win and have to come back another day -- they had to fly Ken Jennings back & forth between LA and Salt Lake City week after week while he was on his streak. And so on... Many of these questions were paired with amusing anecdotes. Glenn's been in the game a long time, and accrued plenty of stories.

The stuff I was curious about was related to the competition to get on the show. How many people took the online test in January? I didn't write it down, but I think they said 11,000. How many of these sessions were they doing in Minneapolis this week? Five. Ok, so that means I was one of no more than 135 to be invited to a Minneapolis audition, which draws not only from MN but the whole upper midwest, since there were folks there from WI, IA, and as far away as St. Louis. That's pretty sweet.

In the mock game, they invited three of us up at a time to get on the buzzer and try our hand. The game board had six categories of three clues each, and every time one was depleted, a new category popped up. They gave each trio about 10 clues each, and may or may not have actually called on people based on buzzer timing -- we couldn't see or hear the buzzer signals, and they seemed to cycle to allow all three folks a chance to show they can speak loudly and clearly. After the questions, they had us put the buzzers down and interviewed us briefly about who we are, what we do, what our interests are, and, vitally, what we'd do with the money if we won. The whole mock game isn't about scoring or otherwise answering correctly. It's all about whether you have any presence or personality, can handle the buzzer, and can follow directions.

I was in the first group up, along with Susan and Norman. We traded questions back & forth. I misidentified the famous guitarist who owns the guitar named Lucille. I got control of the board on a question about the year 1961. And then I got a question nobody else knew the answer to. After the clue was revealed, everybody stared blankly. A beat or two later, I managed to scrape the name of a two-time Bond girl (whose movies I've never seen) out of the back of my skull and coupled her with our first one-term president to get fake presidential couple "Maud and John Adams" (Who are Maud and John Adams, indeed?). This earned me a little round of applause from the room, which felt pretty great.

After being interviewed, I sat down and observed the rest of the mock game and interviews. It was cool hearing everybody's back-story. There were a lot of new or recent empty-nesters and a lot of lawyers. I was definitely the only engineer with improv comedy experience in the bunch. Lots of people who would use Jeopardy winnings to travel, and a couple folks who would use it for a wedding or honeymoon. Since I was in the first group, the idea of using the money to pay off loans and maybe pay a down payment on a house was way less played out when I said it than it was by the end of the session.

I was disappointed that they didn't tell us whether or not we passed the test, which I guess they do at their big contestant calls in LA, in order to cut down the number before playing mock games. I suppose that makes sense, given the relative numbers. Anyway, if I passed the test, which I feel safe in assuming, then I'm in their "active contestant file" for the next 18 months. Anytime during that period, they could call me to be a contestant. They told us in no uncertain terms: do not call or email us; we'll call you. If they don't decide to put me on the show, I'll know after 18 months have passed, at which time I'm free to take their qualifier again.

At this point I've accomplished what I feel I needed to. I still count being on the show as a life goal, and I hope it happens and that it's a lot of fun and I win at least one game, if not seventy-five. But having passed the January test, I felt I needed to have a good showing at the audition and have fun. And I've done that. Hoo-plah!

UPDATED (3/28/08):
I forgot to include two points. First was one of the most interesting bits of Glenn's Q&A. Someone asked if the specifics of the answering in a form of a question are parsed for grammar. For instance, if you responded to He opposed George Westinghouse in the so-called War of the Currents with "Where are Thomas Edison?" or the less weird "What is Thomas Edison?" Apparently not only is that sort of thing ok, but you could also say "Is it Thomas Edison?" They discourage such flippant games, but if you stumble into something like that, they're not going to dock you for it.

Second is that the day after my audition, my wonderful wife sent me delicious brownies at work as congratulations. In the parlance of the medium, she is teh awesome.


Anonymous said...

You know what's fun? Knowing someone else who is going/has gone through this whole Jeopardy thing. I enjoyed reading your account of the audition; you remembered a lot more details than I did. (Maybe because I did the audition on the fly between tax returns?) Anyway, thanks for the shout-out, and I will be reading your blog to know when (not if) you are on the show.

Nora Rocket said...

Well done, Fred! I am sure you carried it off very well. I hope you get a call from them and I can tune in with friends and say "Hey, I KNOW that GUY, that guy THERE! On the TEEVEE! HIM! I KNOW him!"