/ Glenn Fleishman / 11 am Fri, Oct 19 2012
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  • What it's like to be on Jeopardy

    What it's like to be on Jeopardy

    A spam filter almost scotched my chance to be on television. I was scanning through the usual detritus of offers in July 2011 to enhance body parts and transfer large sums of money from people in distant lands, and spotted this subject line: "Jeopardy! Contestant Audition in Seattle"

    A spam filter almost scotched my chance to be on television. I was scanning through the usual detritus of offers in July 2011 to enhance body parts and transfer large sums of money from people in distant lands, and spotted this subject line:

    Jeopardy! Contestant Audition in Seattle

    Ha! That's a new scam, I thought, before I recollected that I had taken the Jeopardy quiz show's online screening test earlier in 2011. While I have been told my entire life that I would be perfect on Jeopardy due to my ability to retain and produce (on demand or in spite of protestations not to) trivial information, I thought I scored poorly on the online test. Apparently not.

    I called the number in the email after first confirming via Google that it was actually connected to Sony Pictures Entertainment, which produces the show, and was told that, yes, it was legit. A year later, I found myself at Sony Pictures in a suit and a tie shaking hands with Alex Trebek, and hearing the dulcet tones of announcer Johnny Gilbert say my name.

    If you have access to this quaint thing called "broadcast television," whether over the air or through cable or satellite receivers, you might have seen me win $15,199 last night by ultimately correctly recalling Karl Marx's name in the nick of time. That was a squeaker. I'll be on again this evening, and you'll see how I perform this time around.

    Jeopardy is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Everyone I know seems to have watched it as a kid, and some friends and colleagues' parents continue to watch it every night. The show had a top viewership of 50 million in the 1990s, but has declined to about 9 million today. The last time you may have thought about it, if you're a typical Boing Boing reader, is when you heard that Ken Jennings won 74 episodes in a row after the program lifted a five-win maximum. (Ken was an outlier. Few people have won more than five episodes since, and no one has come close to his run.)

    Because it's in syndication, you can't stream it online. The show must police its copyright quite rigorously, too, as it's hard to find more than a handful of short bits on YouTube and elsewhere. Thus, the only way to experience it is to watch or record it when it's broadcast. (Someone uploaded a few minutes of last night's last clues and Final Jeopardy to YouTube, where it's still available at the moment.)

    Achieving an ostensible lifelong goal was just as good as I'd hoped, especially since I won. The show requires that contestants be coy since it's taped two months in advance. We're not supposed to disclose outcomes, and I even waited until this week, when contestants' pictures are posted on the Jeopardy Web site, to promote my appearance. All I can say as this is published today (Friday) after winning a single game, I may lose tonight or I may still be flying down every week or two to record more shows. You won't know I've lost until you see a putative future episode in which I am no longer champion.

    After my first (and only?) stint on the show, a friend of mine pointed out that while Jeopardy appears to be a quiz show, it's really a very particular form of a reality show. It's like The Amazing Race with most (but not all) of the personality stripped out. Instead of competing Survivor-like in physically intense challenges with deprivations and also trying to manage the social calculus of not being voted off, Jeopardy reduces us mostly to brains and reflexes.

    This starts with the selection process. For decades, Jeopardy had cattle-call auditions in which interested people were called in to take a quick test. Those that scored well continued on, and some made it on the air. But most people were sent away. This is, of course, highly inefficient. Three years ago, the show switched to an online screening test, and now has 100,000 people take that quiz each year.

    From the 100,000, the contestant coordinators winnow out about 2,000 to 3,000, they say, for in-person auditions, like the one I went to in August 2011. The audition is intended to make sure that people perform well on the show, and starts out with a 50-question rapid-fire exam in which answers don't have to be in the form of questions. It then proceeds into a quite realistic simulation of the show with signaling buzzers, a game board, and an interview section.

    (Quick Jeopardy review: Three rounds. Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy, Final Jeopardy. First two rounds have 30 clues each divided into six categories, hidden on the board behind dollar amounts. Jeopardy questions are $200, $400, $600, $800, and $1,000. Double Jeopardy doubles that. Clues are in the form of an answer to which an appropriately phrased question must be posed by the contestant when called upon by Alex Trebek. A hidden Daily Double (one in the first round, two in the second) allows a contestant to bet either as much as they have accumulated so far, or, if a low or negative amount, up to the top dollar value on the board. In Final Jeopardy, you may bet up to whatever you have in your account on a single question with 30 seconds to answer. The show's winner by dollar amount keeps those funds; second and third prizes are $2,000 and $1,000. The one-day record is $77,000, but $15,000 to $20,000 is a more typical haul.)

    The show wasn't and isn't looking solely for smart people who test well. Rather, they want people with a combination of traits: a deep knowledge well, the ability to retrieve an answer quickly, unflappability, a decent personal presentation and personability. The 21 people in my audition slot in Seattle (including an old friend I ran into who had auditioned before) for the most part had those characteristics.

    If contestants were cast simply by rote memorization and rapid-retrieval abilities, you know the result, because you see it at technology trade shows and engineering colleges: a row of people, mostly men, would affectlessly and rapidly answer every question as fast as possible and seem somewhat unsympathetic. They might not even scream or smile when they won. That's not good TV. The show wants people who have a few interesting stories about themselves, and to whom the 10 million or so home viewers will be able to relate. They can't be super-brainiacs, because that deflates viewers playing along at home.

    The questions on Jeopardy are difficult across the dimension of time and context, but typically not hard at all in the wider world of trivia and knowledge competitions that Ken Jennings (the 74-time Jeopardy winner) documents in his neat book Brainiac. (The book alternates covering his Jeopardy career with deep book and on-site research into the history and current practice of trivia competition.)

    Rather, the combination of competition among well-matched players who are very good at this form of testing, but not ridiculously perfect at it, combined with the physical task of depressing a signal button, and the rapid pace of the show produces something people watch night after night.

    From the auditions, Jeopardy calls up about 400 people a year from the general pool across 47 weeks of taping. There are also kids, teen, college, military, and teacher competitions now, as well as an annual tournament among the top-earning or longest-winning players in the season. Every week, 10 new people cycle through; some win and stay on longer as champions, while others appear and disappear in a single episode.

    I thought incorrectly that the number of contestants in a week varied by who won, but my friend Paul Kafasis, a software developer, showed me some queueing theory on a piece of paper that made me smack my head. Every week starts with a returning champion, and each day two new people appear. It's thus nearly always 10 new people each week.

    The exceptions are that it is both possible for everyone in Final Jeopardy to wind up with $0, in which case Alex dismisses them all, or for two or three contestants to finish with exactly the same dollar amount in that final round, in which case the tying parties keep the money and return the next day to battle again. It's rare. The show calls up 12 people for each taping day in which five episodes are recorded in case of illness, ties, or even disqualification. (Eligibility requirements have to be met, such as not having family working for Sony and a number of other companies.)

    I knew my general knowledge was rusty, and consulted piles of almanacs, watched the show, and went through the J-Archive, a compendium of every clue and question ever posed on Jeopardy, run by fans and unaffiliated with the show. I read the three best-known Jeopardy books, too: Secrets of the Jeopardy Champions (1992), Prisoner of Trebekistan (2006), and the aforementioned Brainiac (also 2006). I had coffee with Jennings, who lives in the Seattle area, just before appearing, which was a nice morale boost. (I have an article about the studying process over at The Economist's Babbage blog.)

    Contestants from outside the area tend to all stay at the same hotel a few miles away using a group rate from the studio. Jeopardy doesn't pay expenses to appear, although if you win over a gap in taping and need to return in a week or two for the next show, the program starts picking up airfare. We gathered in a group the Tuesday morning I arrived, all of us dressed nicely for TV and clutching garment bags with the requested outfit changes the show wanted us to bring to make it seem like shows are taped on separate days instead of back to back.

    As expected, it was a lovely cohort. Matt gives away teddy bears for a living. Shaanti works in climate change research. Jan teaches physical education in a college. Abby is a senior at Rutgers University and towered over me. And then there was Stephanie. We arrived in the green room, where pastries, fruit, and caffeine awaited, and were introduced to the...five-time returning champion. Polite, forced smiles.

    Stephanie, we shortly witnessed (as anyone who watched her 8-show run of 7 wins can attest), demonstrates how a human buzzsaw works in practice. She was fast, bright, and brassy, and as an American history professor with a clearly remarkable memory, gave us all whiplash. But she was also great. The secret of Jeopardy, what defuses the reality-show aspect, is that we all universally wanted each other to win even though we knew that only one person took home the big money and would return to fight again. (Don't cry for Stephanie. She won a pile, finishing at about the 12th position among regular season play, and she'll be back for this season's tournament of champions.)

    The show's staff are also fantastic: Glenn, Robert, Corina, and their amazing chief, Maggie, made us laugh, cajoled us, encouraged us, and made sure the game is played fair. Everyone is looking out for fairness, both because of the laws around quiz programs, and because of basic decency. However they hire staff on the show and however they run the program day to day, they do it right. Everyone I had anything to do with was delighted to be there. They give money away every day, and that's their job.

    There's a bit of the reality-show part in just the waiting. You're nervous the night before (or weeks before, even). Then you have to get dressed neatly and hang out with other people, some of whom you will be pitted against in combat. There are hours of briefing and rehearsals. The adrenal gland can only produce so much before it gives up. I developed something I will politely call a "gregarious bladder," which necessitated possibly 30 bathroom trips in the space of a few hours. The other contestants may still wonder if I was a drug addict.

    The actual game play goes by faster than you can remember it happening. Clues come up an average of one every 12 seconds. If played well, you enter a sort of fugue state in which the board and Alex's voice and the signaling button in your hand are all that you hear, see, and feel. When they break for commercial spots, the coordinators and other staff come up with water, make us laugh, give advice about the buzzer. They can't offer tips on information or wagering, but they can help people for whom ringing in isn't going well.

    You can't ring in for regular questions until both Alex finishes reading the clue completely, and then one of the writers presses a release button to unlock the signals. Lights light up on either side of the board when that released button is pressed, but if you rely on the lights, you're too late. You have to time it to start pressing madly at the right millisecond after Alex stops talking or, when competitors also know the right answer, you won't be the first to ring in. Ring in too soon and you're very briefly locked out, giving the edge to someone else with better timing.

    We all get rehearsal time with the buzzer in the morning, but playing the real game is a different experience. Once you've played a game and return, you have more confidence with the device, and are facing other contestants who know you've just won. In Ken Jennings' run, a combination of preternatural signal reflex and the fact that people arrived and were told, "Ken has just won X dozen shows" seemed to give him the edge along with his extraordinary depth of trivia knowledge.

    The strangest thing about appearing on Jeopardy is just how not strange it is. There's no green screen or artificial bits to it. The set is precisely what you see in the broadcast program, with all the lighting and game board and whatnot. It's like stepping into the television set to play. It's more surreal than real. Even the awkward banter with Alex is actually awkward. (If you want to know what I talked to him about over the credits Thursday night, I asked how he wound up at JPL's Curiosity rover landing event alongside our own Xeni Jardin. He's got the space bug, and was invited to be there. He also answers questions from the audience during breaks, and is a very witty and smart guy.)

    Even though I can't tell you what happens next, beyond the fact that I'll be on the air on Friday, too, I can admit that it was a singular experience that stands outside what most of us might expect in a normal, quiet life. The money is nice, and I don't want to pretend it isn't. But I didn't need to win to enjoy being on the show. Jeopardy is a cultural phenomenon, even if its ratings have lagged, and while I may never meet an American president, I got to shake hands with Alex Trebek, look deeply into his eyes, and tell him a ridiculous story about breaking an iPod.

    / / COMMENTS

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        1.  I was told roughly four months after the air date! Which is weird, because you figure they have the money.

          1. Probably has something to do with quiz show laws to prevent money laundering or to run deeper background checks on winners or some such reasoning. Do they pay interest since they pay so late?

          2. I was on in July, coming in 2nd place.  I received my winnings last week, almost 3 months to the day after air date.  I wasn’t expecting it until next month!

          3.  Actually, I suspect it was primarily an accounting/tax issue, since their season spans 2 calendar years.

    1. I was a contestant on JEOPARDY! in 1992, and your account of your experience is nearly identical to mine, twenty years earlier.  Except that someone pilfered my luggage in the Green Room and stole a bunch of stuff.  I haven’t watched the show even once since my episode aired (October 9, 1992), but I hope you did well and enjoyed the lovely parting gifts.

      1. That’s so weird about the pilfering. I’ll note that the contest coordinators very carefully locked the green room and checked that the door was locked every time we went in or out, possibly because of that? We don’t get parting gifts any more (or at least, I haven’t seen any). I got a very nice Jeopardy baseball cap, and that was that!

            1. Amongst my parting gifts: an entire case of Werther’s Originals candies, a case of assorted Little Debbie snack cakes, a box of assorted first aid products, an electric sandwich press, a case of Paul Mitchell hair products, a shirt and pair of pants.

    2. ” If contestants were cast simply by mental skills, you know the result, because you see it at technology trade shows and engineering colleges: a row of people, mostly men, would affectlessly and rapidly answer every question as fast as possible and seem somewhat unsympathetic. ”
      Technology trade shows and engineering colleges are not the only place to find smart people who can answer questions quickly. There’s a lot more social influence here than pure “mental skills” and saying that such a filter would result in “mostly men” is speculation based on spurious correlations. 

      1.  I’m referring to the prevalence of autism-spectrum diagnoses among men, and the correlation at technology trade shows and engineering colleges for a personality that can be affectless and the tendency of such places to be mostly men.

        It is a credit to how the show has set up its testing and casting system that they have a remarkable diversity of gender and ethnicity, although the age skews young. In my group, there were two college seniors, in fact.

        1. Well, you did say that if they cast *simply by mental skills* than the contestants would = the people at those trade shows, i.e. mostly men, etc etc Which is a kind of problematic, as the reasons that tech trade shows and engineering colleges skew towards male demographics is likely due to more factors than just intelligence, but by stating it that way, it kind of implies that it skews male because men are smarter, and thus, if casting was done by intelligence alone, it would also skew male. 

          1. This is bad phrasing on my part. I meant more “mental tricks” — the kind of rote memorization of tedious information that seems more the province of nerdy, autism-spectrum males than women. My apologies, as I certainly don’t think there’s a mental skew among men and women. There is a trivial-knowledge-interest skew unrelated to intelligence or performance.

            Very inartful of me. I’m going to edit that to make it clearer, because I certainly don’t want to imply what I clearly seem to be implying with the current phrasing!

          2.  If you remember from the first couple years of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, when the selection process was completely based on a series of phoned-in tests, women were at best 20% of the possible contestants. I was on in 2000 with 3 other women and 6 men and as I recall, that show had more women than usual. This could be self-selection bias among those who attempted the tests, of course. (Only one woman won the million dollars, before the show switched to a different method of contestant selection, while the men kept adding up.)

            People sometimes asked me why there were more men than women on the show, and my best theory was that men are more likely to be sure they’re right (whether they are or not) and that split second of sureness vs. hesitation makes the difference.

            What this says about me and other women contestants is another question.

            Congratulations, Glenn. I always wanted to be on Jeopardy.

            1. Try out for Jeopardy! The show folks were implying that the new online screening really changes the pool. There are frequently shows with three female contestants, and the split backstage was 50-50 during my first taping day (beyond which I can say nothing).

            2.  I may go try the online quiz… didn’t know they were doing it that way. A lot has changed within my brain between the age of 41 and 53, though, so I don’t hold out much hope. Just reading through the sample quiz questions, I could feel the lag in my response times.

    3. I live In Italy and I’ve never watched a single Jeopardy episode, but who cares. Your writing’s so good I read the whole thing anyway. 

    4. I went through the old-style Cattle Call auditions Glenn describes twice, once for the College Tournament in the early 90’s (weekend trip to DC, woo!), and once at the end of 90’s in Atlanta. The second time around I made the big test cut, hung out for a few ‘test rounds’, then got a Polaroid snapped and told them a couple of ‘interesting stories’ about myself. I was told I’d be in the contestant pool for the next couple of years, but I never got the call. I caught my first episode of Jeopardy in a couple of years the other day, and started playing the slightly cheesy Facebook game. Now after reading this I think I have the bug bad, may have to try out again…

    5. I’m curious about what you said about disqualification – if someone in your game is disqualified post-taping but before broadcast, is that whole game null? Do the “legitimate” contestants get another chance to play? What if you were the winner of the disqualified match (but not the disgraced un-contestant)? Would you still get to collect your winnings? I wonder how often it happens? 

      I love Jeopardy! – so glad you had a great experience and I hope you win tonight!

      P.S. Posted by Susan, a friend of Jeff’s (I didn’t mean to post anonymously, I used my FB account and it didn’t pull my details.)

      1.  That’s a great question. They did several stages of prequalification: you are asked, I think, four times before you actually get to Los Angeles about various things. Have you been convicted of a felony? Do you work for or are you related to anyone who works for Sony Pictures and several other companies? Have you been on another game show in the last year? A reasonably long but not exhaustive list. You have to provide a valid social-security number and proof of it, because it’s like a temporary “job”. When they called to invite me on, they also ran through the list.

        Now, I don’t know what would happen if, between the taping and the airing, someone were found to be ineligible. I’m sure they have a series of procedures for it, as they have for everything. If that person won and kept on winning…wow, I’m not sure what they’d do. They might have to run a disclaimer, “So and so was found to be ineligible for prizes.” It would be kind of ugly.

        1. There was an episode of The Price Is Right a few years ago where, during the closing credits, there was a voiceover announcement that one of the contestants was found to be ineligible, and would not receive the prizes she won on the show. 

        2. You can also be found ineligible when you arrive at the studio. I know of at least one poor guy who showed up for his taping, only to learn that Ken Jennings was the defending champion…and they knew each other from the college quiz bowl circuit. So he couldn’t play against Ken, and since Ken won all the games that day/week, he wasn’t able to play period. As far as I know, he never got to play post-Ken. Clearly this rule was relaxed for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, since a number of the better players do get to know each other after through various means, or already knew each other from quiz bowl, various message boards, or the like.

    6. Glenn, thank you for this article. I’m wondering a couple of things. Do you have to quickly do the mental math when wagering on Daily Doubles or Final Jeopardy? Or does the scoreboard that the players see also show how far behind the leader they are? Also, on Final Jeopardy, I sometimes get the idea that the contestants already know ahead of time that the answer will be a person or a thing. It seems that the contestests have already written during the commericial ‘Who is’ or ‘What is’ and all they have to do after hearing the Final Jeopardy Answer is to write in the last word and a question mark.

      1. Part of the TV magic, and a great question. The players can look up to the left of the game board (you can see it in some transition shots to and from commercial breaks) and see a display from left to right of the current dollar scores. In the game last night, I looked up at the first commercial break, not having breathed, and saw -$200 for Erin, $3,400 for me, and $0 for Meredith and nearly flipped out. Of course, they caught up later and Erin smoked me nearly.

        For Daily Doubles, you are actually allowed unlimited time, but contestants feel under pressure to keep up the pacing of the show, and Alex will sometimes nudge you along. I can’t recall if they stop the clock (and edit out the time to decide), because you could use this as an effective stalling tactic if you were ahead or had a lock on the game and then took forever to come up with a DD wager. In my game last night, I think Erin was swept up in the timing and conscious of only having a single clue on the board after the DD. If she’d had another moment to think, I’m sure she would have wagered $99 (the least you can wager is $5), and had a lock. She may have been worried there was time for the final $2,000 question to be picked after her DD, in which case she needed to be up more to lock the game. I’ve seen Roger Craig (an amazing risky player) pause for a really really long time to do a DD calculation.

        With Final Jeopardy, they show the category and break. We contestants have to wait until they put up the partitions between us, and then we are told if it’s What is or Who is so we can write that in, because that doesn’t affect the game’s outcome, and it just makes sure that nobody is disqualified as a result of not phrasing a question.

        Then we have, essentially, unlimited off camera time to figure out our wager, which we have to show the staff and confirm with a button on the podium’s tablet screen. (They use Windows XP for the podiums! I saw it reboot!) At that point, you can’t change the wager.

        When they start rolling cameras again, Alex reveals the question, and then 30 seconds passes. (The theme song, Merv Griffin’s “Think” for which he earned tens of millions in royalties, changes key 15 seconds in as an aural cue.)

        I will tell you that last night, I thought long and hard about the wager, and in tonight’s game, well, I’ll provide some Twitter commentary afterwards.

        1. You get unlimited time on DDs?  Is that a newer thing?  I don’t remember it being that way when I taped my episode, though anything’s possible – I was so keyed up and hyper-focused that I think Charlize Theron could’ve walked past and pinched my ass and I’d have not noticed.

          1. Yes; might be for fairness’ sake? Not sure. But they were pretty clear in the briefings that you could take as long as you wanted within reason, but “reason” wasn’t defined. I suspect if you just said I need more time for two or three minutes it would get really weird.

            There’s a Roger Craig episode (the guy who built software to test him on the most frequent Jeopardy clues from the J-Archive) where he takes an incredibly long time, and gets prodded by Alex twice. I don’t know if they technically stop the clock or edit out long pauses. If it doesn’t affect game play, they can change what’s broadcast.

      2. I’m offering another reply here now that the 2nd episode that I won has aired. So in this one, it was roughly me at $18,000, Abby at $12,000, and Matt at under $6,000. I knew after a lot of pen-and-paper calculations (they give it to you on set before they come back) that the winning scenario would let me have the right amount of money if I were right (that part is easy) or if Abby and I were both wrong (harder). I also had the scenario that Abby might bet just $0 to $1,000 to hedge her bets, and she’d assume that I might bet too much, and thus she could win if I were wrong and she were either right or wrong.

        I wrote down a lot of numbers. In the final scenario, I bet enough to finish with over $13,000 being wrong; Abby bet all but $1 and she was wrong; Matt was right and bet it all, but it was below $13,000.

    7. This description jibes pretty well with my memories.  I was lucky enough to get a couple of bites at the J-apple.  Back in the cattle-call tryout days I got selected and played in 1993 and got into the TOC. (Luckily for me, they seem to have overlooked the personability requirement mentioned above.)  Then after the show got Jenningsed, they set up and invited a bunch of us back to an uber-tournament in 2005.  The only mildly unpleasant part of the whole experience was doing those blasted interview segments, which were like being on a blind date with a heffalump.

      I’ll make a point of watching tonight and wish you luck, which is pointless because it’s been on videotape for weeks by now.

        1. Yes it was, although in the first rounds they brought us in as smaller groups, so I missed meeting some of the better-known alumni (Chuck Forrest et al.).  Plus most people were fairly guarded — understandable, because people were nervous about getting bumped out in the first round ( I know I was).  But when it was winnowed down to 18 we all seemed pretty relaxed about it and just hung out, much like I imagine the survivors of the Titanic might. 

          Ken Jennings was absent until the final, which was filmed on a closed set, so I never got to meet the Man himself.  He does, however, have a pretty entertaining Twitter feed.

      1. “The only mildly unpleasant part of the whole experience was doing those blasted interview segments, which were like being on a blind date with a heffalump.”

        Concur.  The hardest part of appearing on as many episodes as I did was having to come up with that many anecdotes.

        (I started reading this and thought, “Is it that bemo?”  And then kept reading and, yes, it’s that bemo!  Another Elite 18er here.)

        1. Hey, I know this guy!  We move among this story like Cylons, except that our musical cue isn’t “All Along The Watchtower” and we don’t have a plan.

    8. I found Trebek deliciously perverse during the moments between tapings. He was closer to Norm’s Burt Reynolds than Will Ferrell’s version of Trebek.

      Also, re. winnings, the mileage at job interviews and grad school applications that I have gotten out of the Champion designation has been worth way more than the actual money winnings.

      1. I love how Alex answers audience questions. He’s pretty hilarious, very self-deprecating, dry witted, and smart. He loves his work, and he doesn’t take any crap, either.

    9. Even people who are fans of the show may be surprised to learn about the world of Jeopardy messageboards and other online sites that keep track of the episodes, the categories of questions asked, etc.

      I took the online quiz as a lark in 2010, and a few months later was invited to audition. I had a bit of an advantage in that someone I went to high school with was a champion (as well as her husband, who was part of the Tournament of Champions a few years before she won). About a week before I went in for the audition, I asked her what the process was like. When she started talking about the messageboards and what people study, I started getting nervous. My approach was one of just going in with what I knew, and even after talking to her, I didn’t decide on studying any more (I don’t know too much about opera, ballet, or the Bible now, and there probably wasn’t a whole lot that I would be able to pick up while in a nervous state). When I was in the room after the initial test of 50 questions, we started talking to each other. I was disheartened to meet people who were in there for their 5th auditions and who were more smart than I was. 

      The actual audition went well, but here’s another thing people don’t know–at no point during this process do you ever find out how you do. You don’t know if you pass the online test. If you do pass the test and get called in to audition, you don’t know how you do at the audition until you’re called in to be on the show. If you do audition and don’t hear back from them in 18 months (I think it’s this long, I may have tha wrong), then you have to start the whole process over again. Never heard back from them, took the test back in January, and I didn’t get called in for an audition, so I’ll be doing it all over again next January…

      1. 18 months is what it was for me the one time I got to the audition stage. That meant I did *not* take the online text the next year, but I’ve been trying to keep up and do it every year since. At my audition, they pointed out that some folks have gone through as many as 6 auditions before getting on the show.

    10. Hi Glenn, thanks very much for your article, it was enlightening and entertaining.

      Just an FYI though, you do not have to be a US Citizen to appear on Jeopardy!. Many Canadians and other nationalities have gone on to become Jeopardy! champs.

      1. Strange. I just re-read the eligibility requirements, and you are, of course, correct! I knew Canadians had been on the show, but they said we needed to bring a social security card or proof of our social security number to the taping. I wonder what happens if you don’t have such a thing?

        1. I’m sure there’s few enough of them that they get a special briefing, including what bits to ignore when addressed as a group. :)

        2. We have Social Insurance Numbers, and they come on cards. Broadly speaking they’re the same as SSNs except Canadian.

          I don’t know that Jeopardy would take it, but I know that at least a couple major US cell carriers will accept a SIN instead of an SSN for a credit check because they have connections to the Canadian credit reporting services as well as American ones. If they run you through background checks and such, I imagine that’s part of it. Although these days, you need a passport to cross the border period, so it should be as simple as not leaving it in the hotel room when it’s time to go in the morning.

    11. As far as the set goes, Wheel of Fortune is also pretty much the same way in so much as what you see is what you get (and is shot on the next stage over)…  In fact most typical TV sitcoms use conventional sets as well with minimal use of green screens.

    12. Jeopardy’s big with inpatients.  If you work in a hospital long enough, you’ll find yourself humming the theme song every time that you sit down to dinner.

    13. I was an audience member on Jeopardy! a couple weeks ago. The thing I thought was interesting, that I had never thought about before, was that a couple times the contestant answered correctly but flubbed the answer by coughing or whatever, and they had to re-record the answer and subsequent category choice during the commercial. Alex flubbed a question as well, and they re-recorded that, too.

      They also told us that if they heard any of us blurt out an answer under our breaths or whatever (it’s your natural instinct), that they would stop the show and ask a different question. That didn’t happen, of course.

      1. Yes, I watched Alex and Johnny re-record a few things (“pickups”) after the show. We also had the “judges” moment in one program I watched tape. You know how Alex says, “Judges?” and it’s set up as if it’s 1 second. It’s really anywhere from a few moments to 30 minutes. I saw one that lasted 10 minutes as they listened to the tape. Sometimes there’s an issue as to whether a question that wasn’t accepted is, and during a break (not during taping) they will do more research to confirm if that’s accurate.

        A Jeopardy champ told me he was part of a 30-minute break where they had to get everyone off the set into the green room (to avoid hearing too much writer/producer conversation), and then finally brought them back. While a lot of stuff doesn’t affect game play, awarding dollars at the wrong point or taking them away can really change Daily Double wagering.

        1. I’ve certain seen episodes where the judges have changed their mind about whether an answer was wrong after several answers have passed and they’ve given the money and control of the board back to the contestant that was right after all…

          1. Yes, I’ve seen that, too, which is a little weird given that at the tapings, they stop everything until it’s resolved. I can only think that in some cases, they’re still researching? Which doesn’t make sense as they are watching the show very carefully to make sure the answers are correct.

            1. Hi Glenn!

              Just wondering, if they “stop everything” for the judges to figure out whether a question is correct or not, how does Trebek “know” when there is less than a minute left. It seems like it would be a bit of a nightmare to try to figure out how much “edited” time had elapsed while the show was being taped. Is there a big timer in view that they stop every time someone gets a daily double, or during the “judges” moments?

            2. I’m a little confused even having been on set about precisely how the clock works. The contestants don’t see it, and I’m not sure how malleable it is. For instance, people can take as long as they like coming up with a Daily Double wager and answering it (that’s not emphasized), and I’ve wondered if they trim that time when it’s very long since it doesn’t affect game play? Or if you can purposely run down the clock by delaying there if you’re ahead (which I think is the case).

              With the question dispute, they definitely stop the clock. I saw a few that were under a minute, and then one I witnessed took at least ten minutes. They stop the clock, and often ask contestants to turn their backs to the game board and not talk to each other to prevent any advantage in seeing what the judges are working on or seeing the game board categories and remaining values.

              Then they restart the clock and typically do a pickup from Alex in which he says, “Judges” and so forth.

              Alex has some kind of timer. He can try to pick up the pace. At one point in my third game, airing tonight, during a break the contestant coordinators asked us to stop using extra words because we weren’t clearing the game board! They emphasize this throughout, actually. I found myself unknowingly saying things like, “May I have ‘thoroughbred thurgood marshalls’ for $1,000, please, Alex,” which wastes a lot of time!

    14. I too appeared on an episode of Jeopardy! over a decade ago.  Wound up drawing a guy who was a four-time champ (back when you could only win 5 games), who beat me and later went on to win the Tournament of Champions.  I was quite bummed, because watching the rest of that week’s episodes, I coulda been a contender and have won 3 or 4 games.

      The fact that the guy who beat me ultimately won the ToC assuaged my bitterness a bit, but I would give damned near anything for another crack at it.  Sadly, you only get one shot.  Ever.

      1. When they called me in July for August, I had to turn down the first taping date, and they did have room for the time I appeared in August, thank goodness. Had I taken that first date? I would have been up against Stephanie Jass, and she would have whupped my ass.

      2.  Actually, that wasn’t true in the past, which means the old, cruel rule might have changed: Contestants could appear one time per *host* — which means there are folks who appeared during the Art Fleming years, have already appeared during the Trebek reign, and are desperately hoping to keep sharp for the entirely non-health-related and un-sad next hostly succession.

        Like I said — cruel.

        1. This is true: the coordinators told us we can only appear once in regular season play ever on “Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek.” Alex is 72 and has had two heart attacks, and is in his 29th season, and is apparently very happily planning to retire soon, maybe after season 30. So. Hat back in ring…?

        2. Well, yes – you are correct in that.  I suspect, however, that the “one Trebek-Era appearance per person” is more about the version of the show, given the fact that the original Jeopardy! wasn’t produced contiguously with the current iteration.  

          I strongly suspect that when Trebek moves on, the rule will be modified to exclude anyone who’s been on since 1984, full stop.   If not…yeah, I’ll be scrambling to audition again.  

          1. I’m doubting a rule change because the contract signed is very specific and the show staff really emphasized it. They could, of course, change that, but it was strange how often they talked about it.

        3. I believe most quiz shows limit you to one regular shot on that particular show (not counting all-stars productions).  They also ban you if you’ve been on more than one or two other shows in your life. In other words, no professional contestants allowed.

          1. The Jeopardy rules say you can only appear once on “Jeopardy with Alex Trebek,” and that you can’t have been on another quiz show within the last year, plus a number of other limits. However, several people I know of who have been on Jeopardy have appeared on one or more other quiz shows, including Millionaire!

    15. Glenn – any insight why there are so many bible related categories?  The religious content, and especially the overtly christian focus, is getting old….

      1. I’d guess it has to do with the home audience. The demographic is “older”; when they had 50 million viewers years ago, it was a broader swath. So, now, Biblical stuff plays well. And, honestly, the contestant pool comes from all walks of life, so a good percentage have a church background, and it’s part of general knowledge. I’m Jewish, but wasn’t raised in a strict faith, though I know the Bible reasonably well. I definitely studied names and people as part of my prep.

      2. No matter what you think about religion, the Bible is a foundational document in western civilization. It’s referred to in countless other books, and phrases from it pop up regularly in conversation, etc. If you want to be on the show, it’s one of the categories in which you should have some basic knowledge.

    16. Congrats on your win, Glenn! I missed the episode, but I had a question about your wager. If you and Abby had both gotten the FJ question right, would you have lost because you hadn’t bet enough?? Obviously you made the right decision, though… so nice job! 

      1.  No, I bet enough to beat her by a dollar if we’d both been right. I would have had $24,001 and she would have had $24,000 (or $23,999). The reason to bet a dollar short is that if everyone bets everything, you can’t win with $0 in Final Jeopardy. So it’s critical to have at least $1 left in case everyone winds up with $0 or $1. If your opponents all have $1, you all win; if they all have $0 and you have $1, you win.

        1. So if you had roughly $18,000, then you bet roughly $6000? How did you have over $13,000 when you missed the question? Sorry I didn’t see the episode, but I’ll be sure to catch it Monday. Hope you won again!!

          1. More exactly, I had $18,600 and I bet $5,401. That would have given me $24,001 (twice Abby’s score + $1) if she and I were both right and she’d bet everything. But it assured me of more than Matt’s score (as I wound up with $13,199) if he bet everything and he were right and I were wrong.

            1.  Oh my god, we were playing Prisoner’s Dilemma and I thought it was Jeopardy!

              Seriously, though, if you have a competitor who is strong enough to tie with you at a high dollar value, that’s not the person you want to compete against on the next show, because fickle fate won’t smile on you.

              Also, I had to assume she would bet 100% ($12,000). I couldn’t assume she’d bet $11,999 (which she did). Thus, if I’d tried to make sure I tied or won at $5,400, and we were both right, I would still have won at $24,000 to $23,999. If I’d bet $5,399 and she’d opted to bet $12,000, I would have lost. We are not allowed to collude, so couldn’t discuss that strategy. Thus, it made more sense for me to play to win instead of play to tie.

              The short game on Jeopardy is to win first place. The long game on Jeopardy is to win at least three games and enough money to be invited to the Tournament of Champions each year which carries with it a $5,000 minimum appearance fee and top prizes of $250,000, $150,000, and $75,000.

    17. As a lifelong Jeopardy fan, I always think “someday” about auditioning, but I *did* audition for the Clue Crew back in the winter of 2000/1.  I borrowed my uncle’s camcorder and made a tape of me presenting the three sample questions (well, answers, actually.)  I remember one of them was the answer to “what is a turnstyle?”  so I cued up my DJ decks with I think it was KRS saying something with “turn” in it on the one, and Phife from A Tribe Called Quest’s famous lyric “styles upon styles upon styles is what I have” on the two.  Then I read the answer while juggling “turn”-“styles” back and forth while I read for the camera, and perfectly on-beat, too, though it took me a few takes.

      In seeing the dorks they ended up hiring, I obviously never had a chance.  And my emcee bugged out so hard over the dub that I kept for myself, he “borrowed” it (like Method Man “borrowed” Rae’s Killer tape) so I haven’t seen it since probably that Spring, but I reckon it gave the audition staff a welcome chuckle.

    18. Glenn,totally enjoyed both shows thus far. Your writing is still wonderful. I don’t see you slacking just yet, no matter what Jean says! ;) Also love Colleen’s comment of being “smart by proxy” for knowing a Jeopardy champ.

      Looking forward to Monday’s show (3-peat?)…the weekend waiting is tough…I can only imagine what it’s like for you with real friends prying for info.

      Don’t feel too bad about that GWTW question. Granted, it’s basically a bedtime story for us Southerners from birth, but look at it this way: it’s a great trivia question and you’ll never forget it again.

      Best wishes for your ‘reign’. I’m going to take the online quiz now ;)

    19. Another point-of-view on being on Jeopardy: http://frontpsych.com/2012/07/30/how-to-win-and-lose-on-jeopardy/

    20. I wanted to point out a typo only because it’s a piece of trivia….”queuing” is spelled “queueing” when it refers to queueing theory which makes it one of the few words in English with 5 consecutive vowels as this XKCD comic nicely points out: http://xkcd.com/853/

    21. Surprised no one’s asked this. You refer several times (in article + comments) about having studied. Did even one question hit upon a studied fact? I’d be surprised….

      1. That is a great question — I answer it in passing in my Economist item, but, in fact, I think 25% of the clues I saw had something to do with what I studied. Now, in some cases, I already knew the information, and the studying refreshed it in my head. Part of the studying had to do with making sure I could quickly recall a datum instead of having it in deep storage. You know, the difference between recalling it in 1/2 to 2 seconds and within a few seconds. (Jeopardy questions apparently come at an average of one every 12 seconds, too!)

        The secret of Jeopardy, as Roger Craig discovered, is that it has a relatively frequently re-used corpus of facts because the clues and questions have to appeal to a general audience. You can’t ask questions about Huguenots (although I did see an entire category of that a few months ago watching the show that, I believe, only one clue even had a contestant ring in on). The Daily Double that tripped up my co-player Erin, for which the question was “what is dendrochronology,” apparently has been used as a clue/question in some form three times in Jeopardy history! I found that in watching the show before I was on it, German leaders and wars around 1900 came up multiple times.

        The one that stood out for me was the Alien & Sedition Acts, which I had studied once, but read an entire American almanac entry on, and which I made $3,000 on with a Daily Double. It was absolutely fresh in my mind. Another was “Sooners” as a nickname for Oklahomans, which I’m sure I knew at some point, but I wouldn’t have gotten it that fast except for my study of state nicknames and mottos.

        As an exercise, I should probably go through and score which things I knew and didn’t from the game boards on J-Archive.

    22. Nice article.  I was on in 1991 and my experience was nearly the same.  (came in second).  Great people, kind of filthy set. 

      The funniest thing I remember though was during the audience Q&A after our show when an audience member asked Alex how tall he is.

      Alex replied 6’2″.  Since I’m 6’5″, and was standing beside him I think he may have misspoke in the heat of the moment.  Or he may be that height in Canadian.

      1. Even IMDb says 5′-8″.

        I’m 6′-2″, and I’ve had several gentlemen shorter than me try to convince me that I must be 6′-6″, since they were 6′-4″.

          1. IMDb is usually accurate or taller for men. He’s not listed on http://www.celebheights.com/ , which is odd as it’s quite comprehensive. Really, really comprehensive. And Alex Trebek has vastly more people standing around next to him than most celebrities.

    23. I’ve done the tryout three times, and thought I really stood a good chance the last time, since I was comfortable and it went very well.  But nope.  I suspect part of it is that they don’t want any more lawyers if they can help it.  Firemen, bear distributors, sure, but no attorneys or librarians need apply.

      1. Mark, you may be right. I think we had two attorneys (maybe three) just in the first-day group I was in, and I suspect there’s a very strong correlation between a good memory, rapid retrieval of information, and the kind of gregariousness that plays well on TV (and in court). However, some people only get on after 4 or 5 times, and some of them become big winners! Lots of stories like that. I got very very lucky in terms of timing and, I think, profession.

      2. Also, geographic distribution’s a bear. If you live in NYLACHI, you might be called, but those from flyover states will have a leg-up. (Listen to the show or online intros — often when someone’s from California or New York, they’ll phrase it as “originally from Butte, Montana….)

    24. The results are in: I won two episodes (“Thursday” and “Friday” last week) and lost tonight (“Monday”) in a heartbreaking moment…well, not so heartbreaking. I could have won quite handily, but I couldn’t recall “George Sand” correctly. My brain told me her name was “Sands”, and that’s a no-no. In any case, I had a great time, and retire with two wins and some nice cash to finance my family’s future.

    25. I was on the show about 18 months ago.  We taped it February, but it didn’t air until June.  I won one game, but lost badly the next. Still it was a great experience and something I will never forget.  I finally saw my winnings in September or October of that year; it takes a while for whatever reason.  

    26.  Everyone I know seems to have watched it as a kid, and…

      I did as well, but the host was someone named Art Fleming, the announcer was Don Pardo, and the amounts played for were a bit smaller.

    27. Some friends and I used to play a Final Jeopardy Game of Games, where an answer/question is given with the category announcement. I’m a three-time winner with Harrison (U.S. Presidents), twice, and Scott (Explorers). They like both Harrison and Scott, a lot.

    28. Good summary of the process.  I appeared on the show once in late 2004 (came in 2nd), just after K. Jennings’ run, although his loss hadn’t aired on TV yet.

      There were a lot of relieved contestants in the green room when they introduced someone else as the returning champion, believe me.

      One thing I remember from the day is the presence of a chaperone with contestants who hadn’t taped their episodes yet.  Because of the game-show scandals from the 50s, there’s a third-party company that ensures you have no contact with the writing staff (which includes Alex) prior to taping.  A number of us had afternoon tapings, so even during lunch at the Sony studio, there was someone there keeping an eye on you.  They were perfectly nice, of course, but the show folks do take that aspect seriously.

      1.  Yes, I heard a lot of people would walk in, see Ken (even before it was public how many games he had won), and hear, “This is our 30-time returning champion,” and just sink to their knees. I think he had 40 episodes before the first ones aired? (They tape about 20 episodes in an average month.)

        They still do the chaperone thing, and, as you say, everyone is incredibly nice. The part I didn’t expect, but made sense, was that the minute you lost, you had to leave the cocoon because you were technically no longer a contestant. You were escorted in to the green room to gather your things, could wave goodbye, and off you went! By the end of the first day when there were just five of us left before the last game, it was a little peculiar. Very Hunger Games-ish.

    29. I was on Jeopardy in my mid-twenties (a number of years ago now).  I too had watched it loyally for years and wanted to be on it. I made it via a contestant call in DC.  I actually found it to be somewhat fixed.  They asked the contestants what their interests were, so we all gave a fairly long list of topics.  Surprise, surprise – many of those topics showed up as on air categories,  And they were slanted to favor the reigning champion.  I went against a guy from the military and there were military-related categories in every game he played…  I will say it was fun to do, and I did get a case of:  Turtle Wax, Lee Press-On Nails, and PopTarts as some of my prizes.  But oddest of all — after I was on, I never watched the show again.  Been there, done that.

      1. Peculiar. We had a lot of compliance information, and had someone we could complain to if we thought the games were unfair or some decision had been made against us. In particular, they said that the writers gave an independent compliance person six game boards each day, one of which was discarded. The games were then shuffled in order, and we witnessed the contestants being picked from slips of paper for each game.

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