Film and TV

Confessions of a Failed Jeopardy! Contestant

Recently, I received an e-mail from Jeopardy! telling me that there’s still time to register for the show’s online test, which runs from October 4 through 6 (for details go to I get e-mails from the show every now and then, and they always bring up some stinging memories.

In 1973, my eldest sister was on the old daytime Jeopardy! The one with Art Fleming. In my sixth-grade class, on our classroom TV, we were allowed to watch her win three straight days.

Then, in 1979-80, I was captain of the Harbor Creek High School team for High-Q, a local quiz show for high school students in Erie, Pennsylvania. I led our squad to second place in Erie County. Fairview High School’s team beat us, narrowly, in the televised championship. We would have won, if I hadn’t missed two questions. One concerned the clarinet, the instrument I played in band. The other concerned Robert Burns, the poet of my ancestors.

My mom never let me live this down. Years later, I went to my 25-year class reunion, and the High-Q team’s coach, Mr. Marshall, also reminded my classmates of my choke-up while giving his toast.

Then, in the summer of 1993, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Phoenix, I auditioned for the current yuppified, big-money, syndicated version of Jeopardy! No online tests in those primitive days; here’s what auditioning for the show was like then…

Day One
I arrive on time, just barely, and take literally the last seat in the Sundance Ballroom, at a table in the corner. In front of me is a pink sheet of paper, face down, and a Channel 10 News pen (Jeopardy! was on Channel 10 in Phoenix in those days) which our host, an LA smoothie named Glenn wearing a vinyl Jeopardy! jacket, tells us we can keep. So, I think, the day won’t be a total loss.

Glenn is fielding questions from the seated crowd, who, just as you’d expect, look like every Jeopardy! contestant you’ve ever seen: between 30 and 60, sort of nerdy professional types. Lots of horn-rimmed glasses, plenty of tweed, plenty of Amy Tan paperbacks sticking out of purses. Yes, Glenn is saying, if you’re over 50 and qualify as a contestant, you automatically qualify for the Senior Tournament. No, Glenn is saying, they don’t pay your airfare to LA.

We will be given a 10-question pre-test, Glenn then explains, and if we pass it with 70 percent correct, we’ll be invited back tomorrow for the full 50-question test and a mock game. Spelling doesn’t count (thank God), and since it’s only a pre-test, we don’t have to phrase it in the form of a … what? asks Glenn. Anybody?

“Question!” we all sing back dutifully.

We’re told to begin. I turn over the pink sheet of paper. Question No. 1: “She sang ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder.” “Diana Ross,” I write down confidently. Two: “The language of Belgium, also called Netherlandish.” I freeze for a second, then it comes: Flemish. “Brisbane is the capital of this Australian province, named for Victoria.” Queensland.

And so on. A couple are familiar ground for me: “Shakespeare play in which the Duke of Naples is shipwrecked by a sorcerer’s magic.” The Tempest. Others I’m not sure of: “The first psychologist to use the term ‘complex,’ he worked with Freud for five years.” Jung seems obvious, but you never know, could be a trick question. I put down Jung. (I’m right.) Another one throws me for a moment: “In a mock trial, a class of sixth graders acquitted her of breaking and entering and thievery.” Again I draw a blank, but after a few frantic seconds it hits me. Goldilocks.

Just one left — I can’t remember the name of the first nuclear-powered submarine. While I’m straining for it, Glenn calls time (we’ve had three minutes), so for the heck of it I scribble in “the Enterprise.”

Glenn tells us to feel free to talk among ourselves about the test, but it’s unnecessary; we’re all talking already. I’ve learned of my error on Question One — it’s Dionne Warwick, not Diana Ross. I hated that song. The woman next to me, an elementary school teacher from Prescott, knew the name of the submarine — the Nautilus — but missed several others. She doesn’t think she passed. After conferring with my neighbors for a minute or two, I begin to think that maybe, by the skin of my teeth, I did.

A brief silence falls at our table. To fill it — I must be trying for Mr. Congeniality — I say “Gee, how could they not convict her of breaking and entering?” Trying for then-topicality, I add “It’s Simi Valley all over again.”

“She’s too young,” an impeccably dressed man nearby says blandly. “She didn’t have the capacity to form criminal intent.”

The tests are graded quickly. The whole process is incredibly efficient. Glenn instructs us that if we don’t hear our names called to tell our families and friends that we missed it by just one. Then he reads the names of those who passed. My name is called, about eighth or ninth. All guys so far, and just as I’m called, a woman says indignantly “What is this, all men?” But then quite a few women are called, including a whole table of four.

“We cheated!” shouts one of these ladies cheerily.

Glenn is not amused. “Well, folks, wait’ll you see 'em on the show, then,” he says. “‘Jane, you’re $30,000 in the hole.’ It doesn’t help, folks, it doesn’t help.”

All in all, out of a crowd of more than 100, 36 have passed. Those who didn’t are dismissed and leave, quite a few of them visibly disappointed. Those who did pass are gleeful. It’s clear to me that the people who gathered here would really, really like to be on Jeopardy! This competitive spirit intimidates me, and I fear I’ll be mowed down in Round Two.

We who made the first cut line up to receive our Xeroxed instructions for the next day. While we’re waiting, I actually hear a guy behind me wonder aloud if he should go home and study.

“How are you gonna study for this?” says the woman next to him. “You know it or you don’t. What’re gonna do, go home and memorize your Funk & Wagnalls?”

I don’t have a Funk & Wagnalls. If I did, I might give it a shot.

Day Two
The form they’ve given me says that they cannot admit anyone who comes late for Day Two, so I go a half-hour early. In the Hyatt lobby, I chat with another hopeful, a 40-ish bartender in a Hawaiian shirt. He’s telling me about his travels in Franco’s Spain. Then, the Sundance Ballroom doors are opened, and the remnants of the first cut crowd in.

The second test is administered from video, and I muster enough competitiveness to fight my way to a seat near the monitors in front. Glenn is back, today sharing the hosting duties with other Jeopardy! munchkins. They tell us that today’s test will consist of 50 questions, tougher than yesterday’s, intoned by the ghostly voice of none other than Alex Trebek himself. If we pass, we’ll stay to play a mock game. Somebody asks by what percentage we must pass, but unlike yesterday, for some reason today the Jeopardy! folks prefer not to tell us.

They have us fill out contestant applications, with plenty of space for “Hobbies, Interests, Achievements.” I try to make myself sound interesting, even though I haven’t been to Franco’s Spain. Glenn and pals take another question or two — a woman asks how tall Alex is (about 6-foot-1, Glenn authoritatively tells her; it’s clearly not the first time he’s heard the question) — and then the test is commenced.

The silky tones of Alex fill the room. I’m getting a lot of the answers. She leaves her husband for Count Vronsky. Setting for the final scene of North By Northwest. The “tamer” in Taming of the Shrew. In the 1950s, he developed the “box” as the perfect environment for a child. He was President [H. W.] Bush’s press secretary. Anna Karenina, Mount Rushmore, Petruchio, B.F. Skinner, Marlin Fitzwater. Piece of cake. Title of Picasso’s masterpiece on the Spanish Civil War. Guernica. I hear the Hawaiian-shirted bartender chuckle on that one. Familiar ground for him, I think.

We’ve been told we’ll hate this test compared to yesterday’s, but I like it better than those three high-pressure minutes. With 10 seconds for each answer, you can always at least guess, and I’m doing a minimum of guessing. Here and there — the big lake on the German/Swiss border — I draw a blank, but overall, I think, I’m rocking and rolling. I’m beginning to wonder who has the cheapest fares to LA.

Then it’s over. The tests are collected, and while they are graded and a rerun of Jeopardy! is played for our entertainment, I chat more with the bartender. He tells me he’s a game show veteran, having been on The Joker’s Wild and Sale of the Century. He gives me buzzer-pressing tips. I tell him I remember The Joker’s Wild very well: a fifth-grade pop quiz with questions like “In Moby Dick, what color was the whale?”

“Did you boot ass?” I ask the bartender.

“I booted ass, man,” he says. “I was on Joker’s Wild in 1978, the year they took the legal cap off how much you could win. I cleaned up, man.”

Then he tells me the story of the all-time Joker’s Wild champion, an overweight woman who won more than a quarter-million dollars. Three months after being on the show, he says, she died of a heart attack. Sounds like an apocryphal tale to me, but I don’t press it, since I think there’s a cautionary message in it for us all.

In this chat, I also learn of at least two errors I made. For the architect who designed Chelsea Hospital, I put Christopher Fry. The playwright. The architect, of course, was Christopher Wren. In Potent Potables — a weak category for me, since I rarely drink — I recognized the recipe offered as being either for a Black or a White Russian. I put Black. The horse’s mouth tells me I should have put White. It turns out, too, that the bartender chuckled over Guernica not because he knew it, but because he couldn’t remember it. He put down something resembling Cuernavaca.

Glenn comes to the front of the room. The cut must have been very high, because the sheaf of passing grades he has in his hand is small. He thanks us all for coming, and reads off the names of the six people — four men and two women, including a married couple — who have passed. I’m not one of them. Neither is the bartender.

“That sucks,” he remarks, not in a whisper. I’m disappointed, too, because I know I did well, and it made me feel like I do when I’m on a roll at home, shouting at the TV — like I could have been a contender.

But I refuse to be a poor loser. I get up, tell the bartender it was nice meeting him, gather up my magazine and my second Channel 10 News pen, and head out.

Where am I heading?

Metaphorical Destinations for 400, please, Alex. The answer is: city to which Marlon Brando felt he’d been given a one-way ticket in On the Waterfront.

What is “Palookaville?”