IN THE BEGINNING: THE 25-YEAR AUDITION PROCESS
My first audition for Jeopardy! was for the college tournament, about 25 years ago. Back in those days, there was no online test—you had to travel to Los Angeles on your own dime to take a written test in a huge room with tons of people; then they scored the tests and whittled the group down from there. I combined the audition with a trip to visit a friend, so I wasn’t just traveling from Seattle to L.A. for the audition alone. Good thing, too, since I took the test, and was immediately sent away.
I kept an eye out over the next decade for auditions, but was never able to catch them. I didn’t really want to travel again for one (nor could I really afford it); I think there was at least one that I heard about in the newspaper the day after it happened, which was a bummer. I did make it into the contestant pool for Weakest Link (remember that show?) when their audition tour came to town; unfortunately, the show didn’t last more than a year after that in the USA, and most of those episodes were celebrity editions or theme episodes (in an attempt to boost their slipping ratings).
Fortunately, Jeopardy! started to do their preliminary testing online in 2006, so there was no more need to travel for the first part (though you’d still have to travel for the second part of the audition). In the new online testing era, you take a 50-question test (covering 50 different categories) in the comfort of your own home; if you get more than a certain number of the questions right (some say 30, but most sources say 35; the J! team will neither confirm nor deny either number), you could be invited to audition in person.
I took the test whenever I heard about it, and ended up making it to the in-person auditions three times. In 2010 I was invited to audition in person in Miami (we were living in Orlando at the time, so it was an easy overnighter trip), and in 2014 I made it a second time, when I only had to travel 10 miles or so to the in-person auditions in Orlando. (They change the cities around every year.) And in 2017, I made it to the in-person auditions and opted to go to their Seattle stop, even though I now live in Phoenix. (The actual closest city this year was in Texas, I think. But since it’d been 10 years since I’d been back to my old hometown, I chose to go to Seattle instead, since it’s a town I know.)
If your brain full of knowledge is more specialized, it takes luck to get a good online test. For me, the ones I did well on had lots of pop culture, and not a lot of sports questions. (Some years, after taking the online test, I knew for a fact there was no way they’d call me. As with so many aspects of this game show, there’s a lot of luck involved in what categories get picked.) For this most recent 2017 online test, I knew I’d done well enough to move on to the next round. There was only one sports question, and I actually got it right! And the turnaround was fast: I took the online test June 1, and was contacted in late June to attend a late July in-person audition.
When you get to the in-person audition, there’s a second 50-question test (in, again, 50 different categories) waiting for you. After you take that, you then get to go up to the front of the room in groups of three, and play a mock game. Then you get to do a mock interview as well, where they ask you about some interesting facts about yourself. (One of the things you bring to the audition with you is a form where you supply five fascinating tidbits.) I’ve always done well at the mock game and interview portions—my years as a performer have me well-trained to speak loud and clear, and show my personality. (I’ll never forget a poor guy at one of the Florida auditions who probably creamed the 50-question test, but during the mock game and interview, mumbled all of his answers while looking at the floor.)
In my previous two in-person experiences, I also had the issue that I worked for Disney, which is a part of the ABC television family. And in most places I’ve lived, Jeopardy! airs on the local ABC station. I have no idea if my 2010 and 2014 auditions were invalid because of my performance on the live 50-question test, or if it’s because of who I worked for. Since I’m now a self-employed freelancer, I didn’t have to worry about that during my 2017 audition.
I thought I did all right on the in-person test this time, but I figured it would be a close call—if a passing score is 35, I knew I’d be right on the edge, but I wasn’t sure what side of the edge I was on. When they take your answer sheets away to go score them in another room, the people auditioning always immediately turn to each other, asking, “What did you put for this one?” Which is always the time when I realize that my knowledge base is weirdly different from most people there. They’re all nodding their heads about knowing the capital of a certain Eastern European nation, which I would never be able to guess, while I’m slack-jawed that nobody else seems to have known the answer to that pop singer question. (This also surprised me when the audition team asked, “Did you think this year’s online test was harder than usual?” And a lot of the people there said yes. For me, it was one of the best online tests ever.)
The audition this year was on a Friday, and we flew home on Saturday. I told Scott, “I think this is the last time I’ll travel for these auditions. In the future, I’ll only take the test if they’re going to be holding the in-persons near us.” As with the other two times I’d made it in-person, we were all told that we could possibly be called any time in the next 18 months. They also let us know what great odds we’d already beat; it was something like 100,000 people who’d taken the online test this year; around 2,000-3,000 make it to the in-person auditions, and only 400 make it to the show every year.
I didn’t have to spend too long wondering how I’d done this year. I auditioned on a Friday, got home on Saturday, and got a call from Jeopardy! that following Monday morning.
MAKING THE SHOW: A FEW WEEKS OF PANIC
I was completely floored at the fast turn-around, having auditioned on a Friday and then been called by the casting department the following Monday. We went over a few things, and they had to check with their production team and get back to me before making a firm offer, because I answered “yes” to the question “do you have any friends or family who work for [insert list of a dozen companies],” since I do still have many friends who work for ABC/Disney. Turns out having friends working at WDW wasn’t a problem, so they booked me to appear in around a month.
Cue a pile of paperwork: a fresh sheet for my interesting stories, as well as another big questionnaire that they could pull more interesting stories from; tax information; a big sheet of instructions about my taping day; social media guidelines; and of course a huge contract. I filled out forms and emailed them back, booked a hotel and flights, and hunkered down to try and brush up my knowledge.
Of course, there’s really no way to efficiently study for Jeopardy!, because you have no idea what kind of questions they’re going to ask you. Most sources say, and I agree, that you shouldn’t worry too much about gaining new knowledge before going on the show. It just won’t stick. The best bet is to refresh yourself on stuff that you’ve already known, and may have just forgotten, so that it’s fresher in your memory. I did some research to find out what categories come up the most, and so I refreshed myself on US presidents, state capitals, the periodic table, Greek and Roman gods, major rivers, major mountains, and a few other large, broad categories.
Not that any of that mattered for my particular game! I didn’t get any questions about presidents or elements or state capitals. (I did get a world capital question, and we’ll talk about that later.) For the most part, my game (and the other games taped on the same day) covered a very wide variety of categories. Some contestants lucked out and got categories that fell into their specialized areas, but I got the feeling that most of us were all over the board.
I also visited the J! Archive most days, and read through old games. It was probably a better use of my time than boning up on specific topics, really. Not only did I get to go over some of those topics through old game questions, but it also helped me get a feel for the way the writers phrase things. Often there will be extra clue words worked in to give contestants more to work with. For example, this question from last season: “It’s the triangular section of a wall at the end of a pitched roof; your house might have 7.” The inclusion of the number 7 there is to jog your memory about the book The House of the Seven Gables, so even if you aren’t well-versed in home-building terms, there’s a chance that your knowledge of American literature could get you to the right answer.
I also watched Jeopardy! every night, but instead of sitting on the couch shouting out answers, I stood up with my souvenir pen in hand and practiced ringing in and answering things in the form of a question. (The shows were in reruns at this point, but it was kind of nice to play along with the high school and college tournaments; they made me feel smarter.)
The timing with the signaling device is one of the most important things you can practice. Just as Alex finishes reading the clue, a set of lights are turned on along the sides of the game board. When those lights go on, the signaling devices go live. Click too early, and you get locked out for a fraction of a second, allowing your competitors to ring in first. Click too late, same problem. The other guys get to answer instead of you. Jeopardy! actually just posted an article about buzzer timing a couple of days ago!
Without being able to see the lights on the game board (they aren’t shown to the home viewer), all I had to go by was listening to Alex’s voice, and ringing in just as he stopped talking. But here’s the challenge: you actually need to speed-read the text yourself, figure out the right answer, and then keep an eye on the last word of the clue and listen for Alex to say it. The home viewer has a little extra time to figure out an answer while a contestant rings in and Alex calls their name.
During the month of study, I also had a previously scheduled appointment to get my hair colored. I was going to go blue, but realized that the background behind the contestants’ heads was the exact same color I was going to use on my hair. So I switched it up and went with pink ends and purple roots instead. (I’ve since gone to blue, and it turned out exactly the color I thought it was. I love it, but it would have blended in with the background in a really weird way.) The producers were delighted with whichever way I went; I think they’re happy to have people on the show who aren’t stodgy sticks in the mud.
After as much review as I could stand, and going bleary-eyed from reading over old games, it was time to fly out to Los Angeles.