Brent Minor lets out an involuntary "Oh my goodness" as "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek reads his name off a list of those eight people, among the 50 potential contestants in the room, who'd made it through a 13-minute, 50-question written exam.
Trebek looks up and smiles. "Did I hear an 'Oh my goodness'?" he asks.
There is only the slightest pause.
"Ah," says Minor, intimately familiar with the game's answer-with-a-question format. "What is 'Oh my goodness'?"
Even in its first Art Fleming-hosted incarnation on NBC from 1964 to 1975, "Jeopardy!" was never the game show for screamers. You hollered, you were encouraged to be on "Let's Make a Deal." Nowadays, substitute "Wheel of Fortune."
Despite the exclamation point, "Jeopardy!" is for the bright, quiet, intense type.
This is pretty much how you'd describe the crowds that filed into a meeting room at the Sheraton Grand yesterday as the new "Jeopardy!" -- which was reincarnated two years ago with a more amiable and puckish host in Trebek, who also produces the show for Merv Griffin Enterprises -- brought its contestant search to Washington.
Most who showed up, either on time or as much as 40 minutes early, arrived in professional garb suitable for any morning's Orange Line run from Ballston to Farragut West. Many wore briefcases, eyeglasses or both. Quite a few were lawyers. Most said they'd been watching "Jeopardy!" since they were kids.
"I tried out for the show back in 1969," said native Washingtonian Donald A. Tracy, a 37-year-old attorney at the Agriculture Department. "Then it was either be on 'Jeopardy!' or go to law school at Yale or Columbia." Tracy chose Columbia -- only partly because the "Jeopardy!" audition didn't pan out -- but returned yesterday, he said, to "round out" his education.
Tracy has, as they say often in television and once in a while in courtroom spectator galleries, lots of "energy." Talent scouts, whether for quiz shows or "Star Search," love energy. Yesterday, Tracy became a finalist.
So did Pam Quillin, a 34-year-old technical writer from Germantown, who was certain she'd have to name the capital of Missouri and wouldn't be able to remember it. Fortunately for Quillin, the capital of Missouri ("It's Jefferson City," she says, mostly to comfort herself) was among a very few elements of trivia and esoterica not covered by the killer written test administered to all potential contestants.
Brent Minor, a 26-year-old fund-raising consultant from Arlington, was relieved that he was not asked anything about the Seven Wonders of the World. "The Hanging Baskets of Nebuchadnezzar," he said, shaking his head. "That one gets me every time."
But Minor made it -- unlike roughly nine-tenths of the nearly 300 potential contestants "Jeopardy!" expects to have tested by the time the auditions are over this afternoon. (The 300 were chosen at random from more than 5,000 postcards sent to Channel 7, which carries the show -- rated No. 2 among syndicated programs, just behind "Wheel of Fortune.")
What Minor and the other "finalists" made it to is mostly a waiting game. The program tapes only from August through January, and even then there's no guarantee they'll ever be asked to pay their own way to Hollywood.
"If you don't hear by the beginning of January," contestant coordinator Greg Muntean tells a group of finalists, "have a very happy New Year" -- he pauses here to smile, amid scattered nervous laughs -- "and feel free to visit us in Los Angeles. There's nothing that says you can't try out for the show again there."
The final decision on who appears on the show, of course, is a subjective one, based as much on those "energy" readings as on the general-knowledge test scores.
"The test was just like, you know, taking a test," said finalist John Greenlees, a 39-year-old Treasury Department economist. "But after that . . . I don't know. We had to stand up and tell about ourselves -- you know, kind of project your personality, so they can judge what kind of player you'll be. I'm not sure how that went."
Those who didn't pass the test varied in their reactions. Some hung their heads, visibly upset. (Trebek had warned earlier that "Jeopardy!" contestants, being often bright and just as often successful, are not experienced losers.) Others, like 52-year-old writer Ruth Darmstadter of Bethesda, who appeared on the original show in 1966 and won $1,460, cheerfully said they'd probably try again sometime.
After not passing the "incredibly hard" written test, Hilene Flanzbaum, 27, a Silver Spring teacher who'd sent Channel 7 a couple of hot-pink postcards, seemed to take the defeat in stride. As she left the room, she sort of winked and said:
" 'Super Password.' That's next."