Monday, June 25, 2018
Pop Culture

I went through 'Jeopardy!' auditions in Tampa, and I have a few questions

TAMPA — What’s it like to audition for Jeopardy!?

What kind of questions are you asked? What realms of trivia must you master? How deep into your life should you expect producers to dig? Can you keep your cool with the buzzer in your hand, or will you flop-sweat right through your Jockeys, fumbling with the button like the mopes on TV, the ones you’re always dressing down through a mouth full of Hungry-Man?

And is it possible for one of those Hungry-Man schlubs — a guy like me, let’s say — to make it through with zero prep whatsoever?

Did Jeopardy! producers consider any of this when they set up shop in Tampa Thursday, welcoming 40-odd potential contestants to a final round of auditions at the Westin Tampa Waterside? Were those hopefuls — some on their second or third audition, some who’d flown in — likewise in the dark about the process?

Or was it just me?

I was only there for what was essentially a media photo op, invited to sit in and report how Jeopardy! obsessives become potential Jeopardy! champions, but even so, wouldn’t you also have questions?

Can I name all the presidents and state capitals? Is my conversational knowledge of Central Asian mountain ranges on par with that guy’s? When I’m standing there holding the buzzer in my right hand, what on earth should I do with my left?

And the rule they gave me beforehand, the one about not revealing specific questions from the audition — was that really necessary? Are people so desperate for a leg up that they’d use my report as a cheat sheet?

Actually, what am I saying? With Jeopardy! accepting only about 400 contestants per season, out of countless online applicants and about 3,000 who make it to this level, wouldn’t fanatical Trebekkies seek every advantage? Because, honestly, who wouldn’t want to appear on an American institution like Jeopardy!, a Peabody-winning tussle of armchair academics?

"How many of you," contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan asked, "play Jeopardy! against your friends and family members? How many of you do not wait for Alex to finish reading the clue?"

How many hands do you think shot into the air?

"Everyone have your application," said contestant coordinator Ryan Keller, "and your five interesting stories?"

What would you tell Alex Trebek in that half-minute he greets contestants early in the show? Would you tell him about your disc golf team, or your Yoda collection, or the time Slash played your guitar? You’ve got to have a quick anecdote chambered, because how else are you going to stand out among all the other quirky, curious Jeopardy! wannabes at auditions?

Will producers find you as fascinating as Barbara, the purple-haired lady who might be a descendent of Confucius? Or Nick, the metalhead hacker from Atlanta? Or Fiona, an aspiring professional calligrapher who dreams of honeymooning in Mongolia?

"When you come down today," said Jimmy McGuire of the show’s "Clue Crew," "why don’t you be the best version of yourself?"

As for the actual trivia? It starts with a 50-question written pop quiz, and when’s the last time you took one of those? We weren’t required to begin each response with "Who is..." and "What are...," but when you’re playing Jeopardy!, don’t all answers start to sound like questions?

What is New Hampshire? What is Nutella? Who is Neil DeGrasse Tyson? What are onions?

When Kagan called me and two others to grab buzzers and step up to the "podium" — actually just strips of lime green duct tape laid out on a grid in the carpet — was I prepared for categories like "Ex-Members of the Band" and "There’s a Bug in My Book Title?" Probably not, but when you’re up against fans who have been studying for years, does it really matter?

What is Mt. McKinley? Who are the Grateful Dead? What is a bulldog? What is Zionism? Who is Reggie Bush?

Out of 13 questions, I knew answers to nine, and buzzed in first on four — not bad, right? Unfortunately, when your opponents are racking up $600 answers, and you’re stuck on the $200 boxes, who do you think is going to come out on top?

But isn’t there more to landing Jeopardy! than book smarts? Aren’t producers looking for contestants like past champs Ken Jennings and Bob Harris and Arthur Chu, engaging personalities who can not only boost ratings, but inspire fans to take time off work just for a shot at being called to fill their shoes?

Aren’t they looking for people like Kelly Adams, a 40-year-old executive assistant and Animaniacs podcaster who drove from Atlanta because she’s "watched this show since I was in elementary school"? Or Steve Carney, a 41-year-old host on Tampa’s 620 WDAE, who said that "even if I never make it to television, I will try out every 18 months, because I love it so much"? You think they haven’t been dreaming of this for decades?

Is Jeopardy! looking for people who know all the answers, or for people who want to ask all the questions?

"Would you want to tune in," McGuire said, "to see someone not having a good time?"

Can I get an amen for $1,000, Alex?

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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