Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The pen is mightier . . .

This is Jeopardy! Well, the audition anyway. If you've never gone through the process and are interested to know how someone gets to stand in front of Alex Trebek and regurgitate minutae like "The only U.S. President to be preceded and succeeded in office by the same person" (Who is Benjamin Harrison?) on cue, this is what I can tell you so far.

Los Angeles area contestants who pass the online 50-question test may then be invited to drag their asses out of bed much too early on some Thursday morning in the near future. In order that they may arrive at a semi-shabby chain hotel in Culver City, not far from the Sony lot, and subject themselves to the scrutiny of the show's contestant handlers. Although they stagger the auditions over several two-hour blocks during the day, the first round starts promptly at 9:00 a.m.

The handlers, who are very nice, will give you some papers to fill out and take a Polaroid headshot for your file. No matter how well-groomed you are or how much you smile, you will still look awful in the picture. It is, in the end, still a Polaroid. Nerves may start to creep in a bit at this point. But soon enough they herd the 20 or so prospective contestants into a conference room for the audition. The process is divided between another 50-question test, administered live, and then some mock games with players rotating in and out in groups of three.

Before that, however, the very nice handlers go over some of the basics about Jeopardy! gameplay, in case someone has managed to advance to this point without ever watching the show itself. Phrasing of clues and answers, category quirks and rules, and signaling button etiquette. The signaling button, it should be said, is as much a key to Jeopardy! success as knowledge of the facts themselves. If you're contemplating trying out, and play along at home each night as practice, one piece of advice:

Stop yelling out the answer before Trebek finishes reading the question. Here's why. The signaling button is not activated on the set until the entire clue is read aloud. When it is, a backstage lackey will indicate that the signaling buttons are active by illuminating a set of lights on the gameboard and at the contestant podiums. Try and ring in prematurely and your signaling button is locked out for a split second. The more successful contestants on the show get in a zone where their timing is in near perfect synch with the activation of the "go lights." So grab a clicky pen and get in the habit of timing your answer to the reading of the questions to develop your Jedi signaling button abilities.

I didn't find the written test at the audition particularly difficult (the online test felt harder). The disembodied voice of Johnny Gilbert reads 50 questions from a wide variety of categories. Eight seconds a question and just fill in the blank (no multiple choice, c'mon). Supposedly, 35 is the cutoff point for going in to the show's active contestant file. But nobody learns their score, at the audition or thereafter.

Then it's up to the front of the room, where an LCD projector shoots a digital recreation of the familiar gameboard on a white screen and three applicants at a time get to play the game for a few minutes. With real signaling buttons just like the ones on the set. It takes a question or two to get used to the go lights and the pace of waiting for the clue to be read in its entirety. And then it's just a minute or so of patter with the very nice contestant handlers and that's pretty much it. Actually, aside from the signaling button stuff, the patter is arguably the most important part of the audition. Everyone at this point knows most, if not all, of the clues. The determining factor for appearing on the show is the energy a person can bring to the podium and how interested in watching the game they are likely to make the viewers at home. Be interesting and exciting.

Oh, and their last question is what you would do with the money if you won. Most of the other applicants had noble ideas of extensive world travel, belated honeymoons, children's educations, or the purchase/remodeling of family homes. I was quick to reveal my mercenary plans of retiring as much student debt as possible. I don't know if they hold that against me or in my favor. In any event, I'll apparently be in the active file for the next year and subject to being called for the show with a reasonable period of notice. And they even let me keep the snazzy clicky pen.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Trivial pursuits

2007 comes in quietly in L.A. Business takes an extended hiatus after the holiday, with things usually picking up again after Sundance at the end of the month. In the meantime, as I work on more writing and rewriting of several different things, I will be attempting to put the myriad useless facts in my head to good use by auditioning for the game show, Jeopardy!. I took the initial online contestant test last fall and was surprised to find an invitation to the next round of the search in my inbox a few days ago. Although I thought I had done well with the 50-question test -- I knew most of the answers but guessed at a few and didn't even answer a few others in the shortly-alloted time -- I assumed that there were applicants who scored perfectly. But apparently less-than-perfect is good enough to move forward. So in a few weeks I get to fight morning traffic to make it to Culver City for a mock game, take another 50-question test, and do a short personality interview. Even jumping through all those hoops successfully, however, doesn't guarantee a spot on the show itself; merely a place in the contestant pool for the next year.

I have no idea how I'll fare at the audition. I have a pretty broad range of knowledge and I think I'm good at making educated guesses, which is often what many of the question/answers on the show come down to. But my geography skills are pretty atrocious, so I'll spend some time brushing up on that area. And Shakespeare. Trebek loves his Shakespeare. There is also a well-reviewed book by Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan, that I plan on picking up. It details his attempts to become a contestant and what happened after he eventually did. Full of helpful hints on things like buzzer timing, prediciting categories, and the all-important Daily Double strategy. With any luck, I'll make it through this stage and be one step closer to challenging Ken-Jen's record $2.52 million haul.