Yesterday, I went to LA so that I could try out for Jeopardy!. Christopher came along for support, which was really wonderful of him since it meant taking a day off from work to do so. Because testing for Jeopardy! is stressful, he came up with the brilliant idea of taking the train to LA, to avoid as much of the horrible traffic as possible. We had to rent a car in LA for the drive from Union Station to the Sony studios in Culver City (and some other touring about afterwards), but at least we didn�t have to deal with the always packed 405. As I was a ball of nerves, this worked great to keep me from being in a total panic by the time I had to test.
To try out for Jeopardy!, you have to apply online and hope to get asked to come test. I got an e-mail telling me when and where to report, how to dress (like you would for the show) and a general timeline of events to expect. Unless you�re doing a regional test, where Jeopardy! comes to your city, you have to go to LA (on your own dime) to try out.
When you get to the studios (for a film-hound like me, just being at a studio is thrilling) they corral all the invitees in a holding area in the parking garage just inside the entrance. There you wait until one of the Contestant Coordinators comes to lead you to the testing location. There were about 50 or so of us, ranging from grunge-slacker-wannabe-boy (nice way to dress, btw) to an older Navy Officer, about 65% male and mostly white (maybe 10% non-white), waiting when our Coordinator, Glenn (for some reason I think he�s a 2 N kind of Glenn), arrived and gave his introductory spiel.
After a quick intro and welcome, Glenn led us out of the garage and onto the lot. On each side of the roadway there were white-painted soundstages, and I couldn�t help but try to get a good look into each open door. I�m such an old cinema geek that I was excited to see the metal shop on the left and some gaffers catching a quick smoke on the right. There were golf-carts zipping between the various people walking, and us, and the large craft services trailers were already setting up for lunch as it was 11:30.
Then we arrived at the Jeopardy! soundstage. We were going to be taking the test there�right where the show is taped! Holy ground for us Jeopardy! geeks. We filed in and followed the directions to take a Jeopardy!-logoed pen, answer sheet, pink sheet, and piece of cardboard to use as a lap desk, then to be seated (every other seat, to discourage cheating) where the audience usually sits. I, following my Lisa Simpson-esque tendencies, sat in the first row, but slightly off to one side so I wouldn�t appear too eager.
As I looked at the set, I was struck by a couple of things. First off, the board looks smaller in person; not tiny, but definitely smaller. Secondly, the set in general looked cheesy. It has been a few years since I was on a TV set and I had forgotten how crappy they look in person�the mylar and plastic bits looking hot-glued at best. But, as we all know, once they�re lit and on camera, they look pretty impressive.
Set up in front of the set was a projection screen and a table with a computer and a small black box with three corded �buttons� attached. Signaling buttons. The ones contestants use to �ring in.� Behind the table were three chairs and in front were three marks taped on the floor.
By this time everyone was settled in and Glenn was speaking again. He introduced another Coordinator (whose name I didn�t hear which was bad as she seemed to really run the event) and a tech guy who would be running the multiple DVDs needed for the tryout. Then he asked, �How�s everybody doing?� and we all said �Fine,� but apparently without enough enthusiasm as Glenn immediately reminded us that this is a game show. He then asked the question again. The �Fine� was much louder.
It seemed weird to get too hyper since Jeopardy! isn�t Wheel of Fortune or The Price is Right, but I knew that some enthusiasm was definitely needed. I kept smiling and reminding myself to be perky�smart and perky. I thought if I could manage a Diane Sawyer kind of balance that would be good.
We then played a bit of Jeopardy! as a group. Glenn would call on one of us to read the �answer� off the projector screen, then we would raise our hands if we knew the �question.� Surprisingly, the first person called on forgot to word his response in the form of a question. As did the second person. The third got it right and Glenn reminded us all not to forget that. I knew almost all the questions and even managed to be selected to respond out loud (got it right, btw). It was a good way to warm up for the test which soon followed.
They started a new DVD that had the �Clue Crew� explaining the rules and answering common questions for taking the test. No, the responses didn�t have to be in the form of a question. No, spelling didn�t count unless the category was �spelling��it just had to be close enough that the coordinators could understand. Yes, it was important to write quickly, but clearly so that they could read the responses. No, they won�t tell anyone his/her scores, so �if you don�t pass tell people you missed it by one.�
After asking us if we all understood, they continued with the DVD. This time it was Alex himself�the test had begun.
The test is a 50-question written test, with the questions (okay, “answers” in Jeopardy! parlance) being read by a DVDed Alex. Each �answer� appears on the screen, with a line indicating the category, and Alex reads the text. Then, you have 8 seconds to write your response.
I got the first one with no problem, but then brain-locked on the second one. Tiny wave of panic. Got the third and fourth one, and started to feel like I was in a groove. I think I had an advantage because I read very quickly. That means I could read the text and begin writing my responses well before Alex finished speaking and thus before the 8-second time even started. This was particularly helpful on a couple of questions where I brain-locked, though I knew the answer–like the one about the author of Madame Bovary, which, if I had missed, would have been utterly embarrassing since I have an MA in French! In those cases I had time to jot a quick note on the page and come back to it when I got another answer very quickly.
About 13 minutes later, it was all over and we handed in our sheets. The woman explained that they would now go out and grade the sheets, and we should watch the DVD they would play for us while we filled in the pink sheet. The pink sheet was for us to list 5 anecdotes (just the one- or two-line version) to give Alex something to talk with us about if we made it on the show. I had heard about this before I took the test so I had mine jotted in a notebook I brought with me.
The DVD was of outtakes of the Clue Crew, but no one seemed to pay much attention to that. Instead, we started nervously comparing answers and generally chatting. I learned that one man near me had come all the way from Myrtle Beach, SC just to test. Another was from Ocean Beach here in San Diego, but he and his wife had moved there about when I did and they were from Cincinnati. A woman behind and to the left of me mentioned how she had tried out for Wheel of Fortune (apparently unsuccessfully) and �it was much harder than you think!� I didn�t hold much hope for her and Jeopardy!, for some reason.
The rumor is that you have to get 35 correct to pass the test. I find that hard to believe since that means you could miss 30% of the questions (35 is 70% of 50). If you could miss that many, then why do so many people talk about how hard the test is and its very large failure rate? People talk about having to take the test several times before passing (and, btw, you can only test once every 12 months). At my test, close to half raised their hands when asked, “how many people here have tested before?” And, I have to say, I didn�t think it was that hard. Not that it was easy, but it was broad-based knowledge, just like what you get on the show. If you do well playing at home, you should do well on the test. I knew I missed two, probably three (came close on that third one), but I felt pretty sure of the rest. So, I still think that the �35 correct� number just has to be wrong.
After about 15 minutes (I�m guessing�it was all a bit of a blur, time-wise), they came back in and announced that out of the whole group, 11 had passed. Eleven. I started to panic. They said that was a good number, and it is about 20% (the average pass rate is rumored to be 10%), but the pile of sheets Glenn had in his hands seemed awfully thin. They were going to read the names of the people who passed. Those folk should raise their hands, and we should congratulate them. Afterwards, those people should stay, and the others should leave�but �test again in twelve months.�
Glenn started reading names. A guy two rows behind me. Smile, clap, clap. The guy next to him. Clap, clap. Another guy in another section. Clap, clap. The names kept coming, but mine wasn�t one of them. Keep smiling, keep clapping. By this point I was on auto-pilot. Another guy in the other section. Clap, clap, clap. The pile of papers was down to two or three when I heard Glenn�s voice say, through the fog, �Leslie Burns Dellsomething.�
I passed. I clapped automatically twice before it fully registered�that was me. �Don�t clap for yourself, silly, that�s tacky� a voice in my head said. Oh, but who cares�I passed and on my first try! I was one of the 9 men and two women who passed! Somehow, I smiled and said �Dell�Acqua� and Glenn smiled back and said �I knew I�d get the Burns part right.� The guy from OB said �Congratulations� and smiled at me. I just sat there stunned, but still clapping for the last name (or was it two after me) read.
By the way, the Wheel of Fortune woman wasn�t the other woman who passed. It was a librarian from Vista with whom I chatted a bit after we were all done. Nice lady, maybe 5 years older than me and not very librarian-esque. The man from South Carolina didn�t pass. Neither did the nice guy from OB. I felt bad for them. They filed out and those of us who passed were told to get in line for photos and another sheet to fill out.
The woman then took bad polaroids (are there good polaroids from non professionals?) of each of us, and just before me she had to change film packs. I made small talk with her saying �So it�s you guys who keep Polaroid in business!� and she shared a story about buying the stuff in DC. I thought that was good�I schmoozed well. Off I went to fill out my sheet. That one asked for as many different methods of contact as you could provide, as well as asking if we knew anyone who had been on the show. Of course, I noted that my brother had been on last season, but that shouldn�t be a problem as I�ve heard many contestants mention knowing people who had been on.
We handed everything back in and listened eagerly while they explained how the signaling devices worked and how we�d play a mock game. The buttons are not activated until the answer is read completely and there are lights to indicate that your buttons are now active. If you don�t wait and ring in too fast, you are locked out for a quarter of a second�a deadly mistake.
In groups of three, they called us up, handed us a button, and had us play. I was in the third group. The board was projected on the screen again, with values from $200 to $600 only. As a category got used up, they just replaced it with another, so the board never ran out. After each group finished, the others would say things like �good job��people were really encouraging.
My turn came and I jumped right in. I remembered to say things like �Before and After for $200, please� to keep the game moving. I got in several times, and didn�t miss a response. I used the �read the question yourself� method so that I had my response in my head and could concentrate on ringing in at the right moment. The best part was when I got the right question for:
Before and After
Cole Porter gets “Shakespearean” with this actress from Voyager.
�What is Kiss Me Kate Mulgrew?�
And Glenn said �Very good! That�s a hard one!�
After the mock game, each person in the group of three had to tell a bit about him/herself. This was an important bit to see how articulate you could be as well as how perky, upbeat, funny, etc. I was really surprised when one guy spent his time talking about how he had lived in Southern California for 7 years and how he absolutely hated it. Nice way to NOT be positive. Another one said �I work with lasers. I use things to measure lasers…like testing. I dunno…I spend a lot of time online…� Ugh. Really? Maybe you might want to get out a bit more and interact with humans. Anyway, I felt like I did well. Concise, upbeat, happy, made a little joke that went over well.
Then I sat down and the last two guys had their turn. When none of them could answer the question (movie quotes) about a watery tart and a system of government, the librarian and I almost exploded when the coordinators asked if any of us knew the correct response (What is Monty Python and the Holy Grail?).
The last two finished and joined the rest of us in our seats. The coordinators asked if we had any last questions. We didn�t. Then they explained that they usually contact contestants at least a month in advance of taping, but that they had been a bit short of that lately. Regardless, if they chose any of us to appear, they would definitely hunt us down so we shouldn�t just sit by the phone. Lastly, they emphasized that just because we passed the test that doesn�t guarantee that we�ll get to appear on the show.
So now I just have to hope and wait. I think I have a good shot since I�m a woman and they don�t have as many female contestants and I�m close enough to be able to get there easily. In the meantime, Christopher is already plotting out a study plan for me.