Monday, February 1, 2010


My friend Suldog has recently blogged about his game-show experiences, and that poked my memory-banks for my own one-and-only, once-upon-a-time game-show fling. . .

I have long been a fan of the quiz-show, Jeopardy!, going back to the days of Art Fleming, when I was a kid in the 60s, that had the manually-operated board, where some guy in back had to pull out the dollar-value card to reveal the answer (just to get Suldog's heart beating faster, I'll note that the system was pretty much identical to the one used in the scoreboard of Fenway Park's Green Monster; I think they have the same system at Wrigley Field). The new, slick Alex Trebek version that debut-ed in the late 70s (with all the values multiplied by 10) was just more of the same, with cool high-tech TV monitors in place of the cards in slots.

Since the syndicated show came on our local station at 7PM, just after dinner, but usually before I had to be anywhere else in the evening, I easily incorporated the habit of catching the show most nights, into my regular routine. After a few years, Jen started to notice that, as I watched, I would often know more of the questions, and sooner, than the TV contestants did, and she would casually encourage me to try out for the show, whenever they would announce a contestant search on the program. But I generally just blew her off. I had plenty of other things going on in my life (raising our ever-expanding brood of progeny, just for one example; although I was also busy with searching for birth-parents, and sundry other projects, at around the same time), and didn't need another time-filler in my schedule, just yet.

It must have been 1996, though, that things in my life changed enough - mainly, I lost my job - that I crossed over to being willing to seriously consider trying out. So, when a contestant search was announced in Chicago (only a four-hour drive, and besides, my parents live in the metro area, so I wouldn't need to book a hotel), I said to myself, "What the heck," (I don't recall what, if anything, myself said in reply), sent in an inquiry, and received a confirmation back from the show, giving me a date and time to appear at a hotel in downtown Chicago. So, I arranged for the time off work (I had a new job by then, but it was a contract position, so taking the time off wasn't a problem, so long as I was willing to not be paid for the days I didn't work), set it up with my folks to stay at their place, and I was on my way.


I really didn't do a lot of 'preparation' beforehand - I figured that my head was already full of plenty of useless knowledge, and at any rate, it would be impossible to predict which categories might be included in the test. Based on my experience of years of playing Trivial Pursuit, I knew that I was generally weakest on the 'Arts and Literature' categories, so I did a little boning up on Academy Award winners, and a few things like that, but really, I didn't 'study up' much at all. I would go in with my existing treasury of useless facts, and it would either be good enough, or not.

The night before my tryout, I left work, stopped home to kiss Jen and the kids goodbye, hopped back in my car, and drove down to my parents' house in the Chicago 'burbs. The following morning, I got up early (I vaguely recall being a little short on sleep, and having a bit too much coffee trying to compensate for that, so I was in that edgy, nervous 'over-caffeinated' state as I boarded the commuter train downtown). I made my way to the hotel, and was directed to the conference room where the tryouts were being held.

Arriving at the site, the room was closed for the session prior to mine, and the atrium outside the conference room was filling up with the would-be contestants for the next session, myself included. It was really kind-of amusing - one woman was sitting off to the side, along the wall, frantically flipping through a stack of encyclopedias. Another guy was leaning against a pillar, glaring at the 'competition' (trying to intimidate us, maybe? But honestly, the effect was more hilarious than threatening). The general air was tense, and borderline hostile. I tried to strike up a couple casual conversations, since I've always felt that being in a relaxed frame of mind was generally helpful when I was taking tests (even when I was in college, I always made sure, on the night before a big test, to get a good night's sleep, much more than any extra cramming); and I figured hey, we're all in this together, and isn't it just a cool experience, whether or not any of us gets on the show? But no one in my immediate vicinity was willing to relax enough for that (or maybe, they didn't want to fraternize with 'the enemy'; I don't know), so I just bided my time quietly by myself.

Eventually I found a guy wearing a Red Wings jacket (maybe it was '97, the year of the first of the most recent set of Stanley Cups. . .), who had come down from Detroit, who was trying out for something like the sixth time, and we had a pleasant conversation. At length, the doors to the conference room opened, and we all went in and claimed a seat - there were maybe a couple hundred chairs arranged in simple rows (no desks or tables), about twice as many as there were contestant-wannabes for that session, so we were seated in roughly every-other chair.

At the front of the room were a few TV monitors. Once we were more-or-less settled in, the staff-persons came in and passed out sheets of paper, which contained 50 numbered blanks. Then one of them turned on the monitors, and suddenly, we were being addressed by Alex Trebek himself. He explained that we would be given 50 questions, and we were to write the answers in the blanks on the sheets we'd been given. We didn't even have to phrase them in the form of a question. And if we managed to answer three-quarters or more of them correctly, we would pass on to the 'next round'. But we wouldn't be told our specific scores; it was pass/fail - you either got 38 correct answers, or you didn't. Alex told us that that meant that even if we didn't pass we could tell our friends back home that we'd only missed by one.

And then the questions commenced, appearing on the monitors on the familiar (and oddly comforting) blue background, just like on the TV show. I recall that I answered something like 44 or 45 of the questions; the other five or six, I couldn't even think of a suitable bluff, so I just waited for the next question. At the end, the staff-persons picked up our answer sheets and took them off to be graded, leaving us to our own devices (although we weren't allowed to leave the room). So Red-Wing-Guy and I talked some more hockey, until the staff-persons returned. They called out the names of those who passed - ten people, out of a room of 100 or so - and I was among the 'chosen'. Woohoo!

The ten of us stayed while the others were thanked for their time and their interest, and encouraged to try again, etc, etc. Then we were taken to a corner of the room and given little 'bio cards' to fill out, including five interesting things about ourselves, for when we were interviewed at the beginning of the show (if we ever were). Having passed the initial test, we were In the Contestant Pool, and would remain there for one year.

Then we were called, in groups of three, for a series of 'mock games'. We were given a buzzer, and some basic instructions on how to use it - basically, the buzzer is set up to discourage 'ringing in early'. Off to the side, there was a row of lights, and (rather like the start of a drag race), you couldn't ring in until the last light was lit. If you did press your buzzer early, you were locked out for one second from ringing in again. Which resulted, at least at first, in some adjustment to the Rules of Ringing In. At first, everyone instinctively rang in early, which resulted in some frustration as their early buzzes weren't recognized, and lots of right answers were never given. And folks started to get a little flustered, as their attention was required to be divided between giving the right answer, and waiting for the proper moment to ring in. So the ones who knew the answer first didn't necessarily get credit. It ended up being a little like the dog with the biscuit on his nose, but he has to wait for the command before he can eat it. (If you know to look for it, you can see the effect sometimes, even on the TV show, where a contestant will vigorously shake their buzzer, or react with subtle - or not-so-subtle - frustration when their ring-ins aren't recognized)

And the whole time, the staff-persons were taking notes on our little cards. It occurred to me, about halfway through, that these mock-games had little-or-nothing to do with showing anybody how smart we were, or how many useless facts we had at our command - it was a screen test, pure and simple. We were being evaluated not on how many correct answers we could give, or whether we were quicker or sharper than the other contestants - it was purely about what we might look like if we ever got in front of a camera on the set of the show. And once I realized that, the magic was kinda over for me. It helped me relax, and I finished better than I started (as did most all of my fellow-contestants). But I realized that I had 'peeked behind the curtain', and like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, it was a bit less impressive than I'd hoped. I had wanted it to be something like a Pure Meritocracy, where, if you're smart enough, you get to play. But the knowledge that even a 'Nerd Show' like Jeopardy! was all 'Image Is Everything' behind the scenes, kinda ruined it for me, and after I got back home, I didn't watch it nearly so punctiliously anymore.

I waited out my year in the Contestant Pool, ever-hopeful to get a call (even realizing that I was on my own nickel for transportation and lodging, if I ever did get called), but it never came, and I went on with my life. My friends will, from time to time, encourage me to try again, and maybe, armed with the knowledge from my first tryout, I might do better the second time, but I just can't muster up the motivation, like my Red-Wing-Guy friend, to go back for seconds or thirds, much less fifths or sixths. It was a cool experience, and I'm glad I did it, but now it's 'Been There, Done That', and I'm fine with it. I get a certain satisfaction from the 'gee-whiz' reactions I get from people when they find out I was an honest-to-gosh member of the Jeopardy! contestant pool, but knowing what I know now, actually getting on the show isn't such a big deal for me anymore. . .


  1. Good story, Craig! One of my friends tried out for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" last year and he described the process to be exactly as you found for "Jeopardy."

  2. i think that buzzer thing is the part that would drive me right out of my mind.

    i always knew you were a schmartypants.

  3. Good for you for being smart enough to make it through that first round! That's where it really is a meritocracy.

    I had some of that look-behind-the-curtain reaction when I lived in Southern CA for a while, was unemployed, and attended some show tapings. No game shows, but things like the Tonight Show and such. It was a big disappointment to me to see how cheesy everything looks on set, not at all like it comes across on the TV.

  4. Thanks so much for posting this! I'm always interested in any behind-the-scenes info concerning these shows.

    (I've actually printed it out for reading at my leisure - very busy at work right now - and I'll be back later to comment, if I have anything useful to say. That's always a longshot, of course :-) )

  5. I am always amazed at the amount of life-stories you manage to entertain us with! I'm glad you have so many interesting memories; so far, I've pretty much just got birth stories!!! :D lol

  6. Cocotte - Well, you know what they say about sausage and the Law. . .

    Lime - It pretty much drove me out of mine. . .

    And listen, I've been called a Smartass many a time; so maybe I should get me a pair of Smartypants. . .

    Jan - I suppose, on the whole, it's better to see things as they truly are. But that disillusionment can really be a bear.

    I keep thinking about a 'Dilbert' comic, where the janitor invites Dilbert to join his Mensa group, and he says, "Superior intelligence has much less practical application than you might think."

    Suldog - So now you know - it's all about timing the buzzer. That, and perkiness. OK, so you're screwed. . .

    Flutter - Sometimes I amaze myself, too. I'm really pretty much a boring person, but like Bilbo and Frodo, I keep having these adventures, whether I want 'em or not. . .

    And hey - did you know Alex Trebek is Canadian? Eh?

    And anybody who skates Roller Derby in her spare time can't plead a boring life. Sorry; you just can't.

  7. Cool story, I've wondered what that would be like, and now I know, and don't have to do it myself even!

  8. Hi, Sailor!

    Tell you what - since I've saved you all the travel/lodging costs for your tryout (and heck - you'd certainly have passed both the test and the screen-test, so let's include the cost of appearing on the show, too, shall we?), I'll split the difference with you. . .

    You can keep everything you would have won. . .


  9. Well, this probably qualifies as the longest time between me saying I'd read something and comment on it, and my actually doing so. I did read this before, just so you know. Then I became self-absorbed again, as is my wont, and never returned to make some salient comment.

    The buzzer set-up was the same on "Think Twice", the game show I qualified for and appeared on in the 90's. I found that to be a distinct advantage. I think I'd have an additional advantage appearing on the real "Jeopardy", as I'm trained, from my voice-over work, to be able to read ahead while still processing what is being said to me. I can absorb the information on the board before Alex actually says it, then be ready to anticipate the lights. All theory until I get a chance to do it, of course.

    1. Sully! Since you took nearly two years to comment, I won't feel bad about taking a year-and-a-half to reply. . .

      Because I now understand the buzzer, there's reason to think that I might actually fare better at a second try-out. But then, I doubt I'm any more telegenic than I was in those days. . .