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Game show comes to Tampa to audition contestants: What is 'Jeopardy!'?

TAMPA — All around me, people are biting their tongues.

So am I. It's what longtime fans of Jeopardy! do when they're invited to an audition for contestants. During the mock competitions at the Westin Tampa Harbour Island on Tuesday, we aren't supposed to shout out the answers the way we do at home in front of our TVs — whether we phrase them as a question or not.

The people who attended the three rounds of auditions Tuesday already had taken the online test for Jeopardy! and done well enough to be invited for the next step. Maggie Speak, the contestant producer who ran the session like a cross between stand-up comic and cheerleading coach, said about 100,000 people take an online test each year in hopes of appearing on the syndicated quiz show, which has been on the air in various incarnations for 49 years. Between 2,000 and 3,000 are called for auditions to select the approximately 400 contestants for each year's episodes.

The 19 aspiring contestants in the session I sat in on included five teachers, three members of the military, two lawyers, a doctor, a librarian, a retired farmer and several graduate students. Producers aren't just looking for folks who can answer the questions — they're casting a TV show, and they encourage energy. "This isn't Masterpiece Theatre," says Corina Nusu, the contestant coordinator. "You can never be too loud for us."

After a warmup round during which we shout out our answers and get it out of our systems, we quiet down long enough to take a 50-question, 50-category written test, about which we are sworn to confidentiality. While tests are scored, Jimmy McGuire, one of the show's three-member Clue Crew, regales the room with stories about his travels to film video clues, like the time he was holding a nurse shark in waist-deep water and its trainer told him if it got agitated, he should just drop it in the water.

Then it's on to mock rounds of Jeopardy! Three at a time, we stand before the production team, buzzers in hand. Forget about the questions; that buzzer is tough. Although the object is to buzz before your opponents, we're warned not to touch the button until the clue has been read. If we were actually on the show, buzzing too soon would get us locked out for precious seconds.

So, watching the board, watching for the light that tells us when to buzz, hoping my brain is going to kick into gear … on my first attempt to answer, I make the goof I just knew I'd make. "Longfellow!" I shout. Speak gives me a stern look. Argh. "Who is Longfellow?"

The rounds are not scored, but there are almost no wrong answers. Each round is followed by brief interviews with the contestants, with Speak coaxing out quirky background stories, like the man who met his wife in an X-Files chat room, the woman who met her boyfriend when they were duct-taped together during a college prank, and the guy who once had a job at what he described as a "bar slash petting zoo."

These auditions will go into the Jeopardy! files for 18 months, during which participants could get a call to appear on the show at any time. Several people at the Tuesday session have auditioned two or three times before.

What brings people to the auditions when they know it's a long shot? Richard Romine says, "I've been a game show freak since I was a little kid. During summer vacation, if it was raining, I would plan my day around them," watching from morning to night.

Romine, 31, a Navy reservist and a civilian consultant for U.S. Africa Command at MacDill Air Force Base, and a fierce Jeopardy! competitor, said he appreciated the relaxed atmosphere of the auditions. "They want you to have fun and come out of your shell."

Melanie Burkalter, 36, a third-grade teacher who lives in Sarasota, says she always has loved game shows, too, as part of her "insatiable curiosity."

"It's great just to be in a room with other people who probably grew up nerdy, like I did," she says. "You're always encouraged to hide that. I remember hiding my school papers when I got an A."

"Yeah," Romine says, "nobody likes a curve-buster."

But Jeopardy! loves them.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Game show comes to Tampa to audition contestants: What is 'Jeopardy!'? 03/19/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 3:00pm]

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