A Jeopardy audition begins with a hug.
I learn this after arriving in a basement conference room of a Washington hotel on a Sunday morning, several minutes late thanks to a hideous parking situation. I run into the room with about 20 people, all dressed much more nicely than I am.
Maggie Speak, the wildly charismatic contestant producer in charge, helps me find a seat at one of the tables. A bit later, she turns in my direction. "You missed the hug," she says regretfully. She looks at the guy sitting next to me, a graphic designer named Paul. "Give Emily a hug," she commands. Turns out, it's an icebreaker exercise — everyone hugs the person sitting next to them — to make people calm their nerves before they try out for America's favorite quiz show.
To be clear, I am not actually auditioning for Jeopardy. A publicist called days earlier, letting me know that auditions would be in the District of Columbia that weekend and asked whether I was interested in writing about the behind-the-scenes process. How could I turn down that offer?
I'm with a group of people who hope they can be next to compete on the famous set. Everyone (the excitable staffers in the room, host Alex Trebek via a video clip) urges the auditioners to just go out there and pump up the energy and have fun.
Here are the six things I learn during my audition.
1. You must go through many rounds of tests to even be considered for the show.
These 18 men and women here only got the call because they passed a 50-question online test, which is available only a few times a year. If you score high enough on that, you're invited to regional auditions at which you fill out a lot more paperwork and go through three more rounds of tests.
First, there's another 50-question test, which feels a lot like a pop quiz in high school. Clues are shown on a screen in the front of the room while a computerized voice reads them; you have eight seconds to write down your answer. During a short video featuring Trebek and the Clue Crew, we learn that no points are deducted for wrong answers and misspellings are fine, so you're encouraged to write something down no matter what.
The staffers collect the quizzes. After reviewing them, they divide the people into groups of three, where you play a brief, on-camera practice round of Jeopardy with buzzers and everything. Then there's a short "personality" interview.
After that, you're officially in the "Jeopardy" contestant file for the next 18 months. Currently, the show is casting for Season 31, which films for nearly 50 days from July 2014 through April 2015. They'll try to give you a month's notice if you're selected so you can make plans to fly to Los Angeles. (They don't pay for travel, but you do get a special deal at a hotel near the studio.) If you don't hear anything after 18 months, you're allowed to take the online test again and start the process once more.
2. Some people try out over and over and over . . .
Because thousands upon thousands of people audition for a few hundred spots each season, lots of people obviously have their Jeopardy dreams dashed — so they try out repeatedly.
"It's a little intimidating," confesses my tablemate/hugging partner Paul Bennek, 36. He watches Jeopardy every night and participated in high school quiz show It's Academic, but this is his first time trying out. He was slightly overwhelmed when meeting people this morning who have been here multiple times and know exactly what to expect. "One person has tried out nine times," he tells me.
3. Buzzer strategy is real and it's terrifying.
All those rumors you hear about the buzzers locking if you ring in too early? They're true, and in the moment, it's pretty scary. We all get special Jeopardy clicky top pens to practice with. Before we're even allowed to rehearse with the pens, Corina Nusu, one of the other contestant coordinators, leads a simple hand-raising exercise with some practice questions projected on the screen. "You were way early with your hand, sir," she tells one man. "I'm just trying to make you a better contestant."
You're not allowed to click your buzzer until the question is read and a small light goes off on the screen; then you must frantically click over and over and pray that your buzzer went through first. It's tough to get the rhythm down and tenths of a second can make all the difference. Plus, there's a dreaded lockout if you hit the button too soon. Though it's brief, no one wants the lockout.
4. Everyone is encouraged to be very high energy.
You know what doesn't make good TV? People whispering, "Um, I'll take (this category) for $200? I guess?" Nope. Behind the scenes, they want LOUD VOICES and LOTS OF ENERGY.
"Nice big voice, pump it up for us!" Maggie tells everyone. Some people are born to do this, confidently booming, "Let's finish off that category for $600." Others are a bit more timid, but are quickly encouraged to amp up with volume. Some of us forget to start an answer with "What is," a rookie mistake.
5. Personality is crucial.
Even if you kill it during the on-camera practice round (I got two questions correct, thank you very much), we're told that it doesn't matter all that much — a crucial component of the audition process is personality.
This is especially evident after people put the buzzers down — Maggie asks each of the three to tell a little about themselves and what they would do with the "Jeopardy" money if they win. Here, it's important to be as witty and funny as possible. Just don't be creepy: Once, someone responded that they would take the money and "Buy a cave in which to make goat cheese." Corina shudders at the memory. "It was disturbing."
6. The categories are about luck.
Things I don't know much about? Russian literature. Things I know far too much about? Celebrity break-ups. Guess which category came up during my practice round?