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.