Nerd Auditions

When I heard “Jeopardy!” was holding a contestant search in my area, I knew my moment had finally arrived. Why, even ugly people can win big money on “Jeopardy!”! This is not true of other game shows, nor of contest-based reality shows. On those programs, having a dull personality or zero enthusiasm is a death sentence. On “Jeopardy!,” it is a one-way ticket to Ken Jenningsville.

You see, the cruel irony of my life is that while I have always loved game shows, having spent my childhood watching at least 11 hours of them per day, my chances of ever appearing on one are limited by the fact that I do not hoot and cheer every time I do something right.

COMPUTER: You have successfully logged in to your Paypal account.

If I were suddenly awarded a huge cash prize, I would be excited — make no mistake, I would be thrilled. But would I jump up and down? Would I pump my fist in the air? I should say not. And this puts me out of the running for most game shows.

But “Jeopardy!” favors people who are smart, regardless of how chubby, unattractive or foreign they are. It is one of the few institutions in this world that actually reward nerdery. And since I do pretty well when I watch the show at home, I figured I had a decent chance of making it on as a contestant. It was worth a try, right?

Having registered for the contestant search, to be held at a conference center in Seattle, I arrived at 8:30 a.m. to find the lobby filled with a lot of people who looked like “Jeopardy!” contestants. There were two or three smart-looking men wearing dark blazers and sporting graying, close-trimmed beards. Turn on “Jeopardy!” any day of the week and you’ll see a guy who looks like that.

They had told us to dress the way we would if we were appearing on the show, and right away I could tell who belonged and who didn’t. Not to turn the meritocratic “Jeopardy!” into a shallow beauty contest like everything else, but if you’re a fat guy, don’t wear a polo shirt that you have unsuccessfully tucked into your pants, sans belt. In fact, don’t do that at all, no matter who you are. Of course they’re not going to let you on “Jeopardy!” if that’s how you show up to the audition! How do they know you won’t wear the same outfit on taping day? I mean, come on.

Everyone sat around chatting nervously, reading newspapers, drinking coffee. Some people were doing a last-minute review of lists of facts they’d been cramming. Having already mastered my lists of U.S. Presidents, Scandinavian Rivers and Things That Start with “R,” I glanced at the list of World Capitals I’d printed off. Sure, the capital of Djibouti is a city called Djibouti. But that formula doesn’t hold true in every case!

It occurred to me that this was one of the few times in my life that I was actually one of the coolest people in the room.

At 9, a man in a turtleneck shirt that was too tight and accentuated his nipples welcomed us into the conference room. There were 57 of us. The nipply man, whose name was Patrick, said he had been with “Jeopardy!” for 19 years and that he loved doing contestant searches. He had an energetic patter that was friendly and full of well-honed, well-practiced jokes that have been getting laughs from groups of would-be “Jeopardy!” contestants for nearly two decades. I could tell that some people were laughing harder than they ought to, perhaps trying to seem more effervescent and game show-worthy. This isn’t “Wheel of Fortune,” people, I thought. No one ever laughs on “Jeopardy!”

Patrick was accompanied by two men who operated the technical side of the audition. We were each given a sheet of paper on which to write our answers, a cheap “Jeopardy!” pen, and a piece of stiff cardboard to serve as a writing surface. Patrick showed us a DVD in which Alex Trebek and the show’s “Clue Crew” (those dorky men and women who pop up “on location” in some clues) explained how the written portion of the tryout was going to work. And then we began!

It was fast and efficient and, once again, pre-recorded on DVD. There were 50 clues, each appearing on the screen and read aloud by “Jeopardy!” announcer Johnny Gilbert. (Why not have Alex read them? I’m guessing Johnny works cheaper.) You have the time it takes him to read the clue, plus eight seconds after that, to write down your answer (which did not have to be in the form of a question, thank goodness). You can skip one and come back to it if you want, but with no lag between clues, there’s not really any time for that. There’s also no time to cheat by looking at other people’s answer sheets, as I learned when I tried to cheat by looking at other people’s answer sheets.

We were warned that these 50 questions would be a little harder than what’s normally on the show, to make sure they really get the cream of the geek crop. To pass, we had to get a certain number of them right. They wouldn’t tell us what that number was, however, nor would they tell us, when it was all over, what the right answers were. I believe this was just to annoy us.

The questions ran the gamut of typical “Jeopardy!” categories, though I noticed there were no sports questions and only a few science questions. Most of them dealt with history, geography, entertainment and literature. There were a few of the show’s jokey categories, too, like “Before & After”: “Mr. Romano’s TV show that was also the author of the Philip Marlowe stories.” (“Everybody Loves Raymond Chandler,” of course.)

Of the 50 questions, I left five of them blank because I had NO CLUE what the right answer might be, not even a wild guess. Considering how much TV I watch, I was embarrassed that one of these was a TV question: They wanted the name of Noah Wyle’s character on “ER.” Having never watched “ER,” I didn’t know that it was Dr. Carter. I also didn’t know the name of Lebanese-born author Kahlil Gibran’s book of poetry (“The Prophet”), nor the name of the book that brought Norman Mailer to prominence in the 1940s (“The Naked and the Dead”). In my world, Norman Mailer STILL hasn’t been brought to prominence.

Beyond the five that I didn’t know at all, there were maybe 10 where I had an idea but was uncertain, clues I probably would not have rung in on had I been a contestant on the show unless I had a commanding lead and a wrong answer wouldn’t hurt me much, or unless I had been drinking heavily. On the remaining 35 questions, I felt extremely confident, sometimes even positive, that I knew the answer. But still: Would 35 out of 50 be good enough?

When it was over, we handed in our papers, and Patrick and one of the other men exited to grade them. While they were gone, the third guy showed us a DVD of behind-the-scenes “Jeopardy!” shenanigans, but no one watched it. We were all busy asking each other the answers to the ones that had stumped us. (“‘The Prophet’? I’ve never even HEARD of that!” “Who watches ‘ER’ anymore?” “Wait, there are FIFTY states now?!”) And then we were very excited when Kelly, the newest member of the Clue Crew, appeared live and in person to take our questions and to distract us with her supernaturally bubbly persona!

My goodness is Kelly ever perky! She is three liters of perky in a one-gallon container. She told us her background was in customer service for Nordstrom (of course it was), and that she got her “Jeopardy!” job at an open audition. Now she travels the world most of the time, appearing in exotic locations to add a little variety to the show’s clues. For example, a clue like “This river is the longest in Europe” might be boring by itself. But if there’s video of a Clue Crew member standing next to the river in question (the Volga, of course) saying, “This river — THAT I AM STANDING NEXT TO RIGHT NOW — is the longest in Europe,” well, now you’ve got something. It would be the most useless job on TV, except that Vanna White is still alive.

Not 20 minutes after they’d departed, Patrick and the other guy returned with our graded tests. Kelly had the honor of reading the names of those who would be going on to the next level. Anyone whose name was not read had not passed the test and had to leave in shame for being too stupid. They made a big show of telling us that the questions were extra-hard and that we shouldn’t feel bad, but I knew what the subtext was: Get out of here, loser. Go peddle your idiocy to “The Price Is Right.”

Kelly read only eight names out of the 57. There was no maximum number of winners; in theory, all 57 of us could have done well enough on the test to proceed. But only eight of us did.

And I was one of them.

Holy crap is right! I was stunned, especially when I realized I only had seven fellow graduates. Usually when I do something noteworthy, there are hundreds of other people who do it too, like the time I committed suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in Jonestown in 1978. Yet here I was in a small, elite group!

The other 49 people graciously congratulated us as they filed out the door, where they were issued dunce caps and sent out into the freezing rain, urged never to darken the “Jeopardy!” doorway again. We eight giggled and chatted excitedly amongst ourselves, like we’d all just been chosen prom king or something. There were five men and three women. Two of the men were two of those blazer-wearing bearded guys I’d noticed earlier. One of the women was a portly, friendly gal with fashionable eyeglasses and a hipster look about her. She and the blazer guys will almost certainly appear on the show.

Once we eight were the only ones left in the room, Patrick had us take turns playing a mock version of the game, mainly to see how we did in an actual game setting. Someone might score well on the written test but turn out to be a total retard when you put him behind a podium and start firing questions at him. They also said they want people who will be somewhat interesting to watch on TV. I assumed they were joking about this, because have you SEEN “Jeopardy!”? The woman who’s been winning the past several days, the monotone-voiced Latin teacher named Maria — she has the personality of an extension cord, yet there she is, soaking up money day after day. If she can be on TV, so can I. After all, we both passed the 50-question written test. You expect me to be believe she watches “ER”? Please.

So my name goes into a pool for 12 months, and I might get a call sometime during that period inviting me to be on the show. Until that day arrives, I will continue to watch the show, memorize trivia, and pray to Ken Jennings, the patron saints of nerdy Mormons. Djibouti!

A little-known fact is that it was not actually Kool-Aid that the Jonestown victims drank, but Flavor Aid, a cheap Kool-Aid substitute. Considering Kool-Aid costs like a nickel per pack and is itself a cheap substitute for soda pop, you have to wonder why it was necessary to produce a cheap substitute of it. ("No, I don't want the generic drink. I want the generic rip-off of the generic drink.")

This is the second column in the space of six months that I have written about "Jeopardy!," yet I watched it every day for two years before that, too, and never wrote about it once. What is the deal with me?

When I called my friend Luscious Malone to tell her the outcome of the audition, I left her a voice-mail that said: "The category is Famous Authors. The clue is: He auditioned for 'Jeopardy!' and was one of only eight people to advance to the next level." Luscious Malone called back and said, before anything else, "Are you calling yourself a famous author?" To her, that was the main thing we needed to talk about.

Alas, the 12 months passed and "Jeopardy!" never called. They gather thousands more potential contestants than they actually need, so the odds of being chosen even once you've passed the test are slim. To be considered again, I would have to re-audition, and perhaps one day I shall.