Maggie Speak, the wildly charismatic contestant producer in charge, helps me find a seat at one of the tables. A bit later, she turns in my direction. “You missed the hug,” she says regretfully. She looks at the guy sitting next to me, a graphic designer named Paul. “Give Emily a hug,” she commands. Turns out, it’s an icebreaker exercise — everyone hugs the person sitting next to them — to make people laugh and calm their nerves before they try out for America’s favorite quiz show. You know, the one watched by millions of viewers that can potentially earn contestants piles of money.
After exchanging an awkward embrace with my new friend Paul, my “Jeopardy!” experience can officially begin.
To be clear — it is reiterated to me several times — I am not actually auditioning for “Jeopardy!” A publicist called a couple days earlier, letting me know that auditions would take place in D.C. this weekend and asked whether I was interested in writing about the behind-the-scenes process. How could I turn down that offer? This season, the always-beloved game show has experienced a rare resurgence beyond people’s televisions at dinnertime and back into the news, with the kind of furor not seen since Ken Jennings stormed the “Jeopardy” universe about a decade ago.
That’s thanks to a couple of long-reigning champions. First was “villain” Arthur Chu, the divisive player that people loved to hate this winter with his unapologetically ruthless game strategy; and more recently there is Julia Collins, the far more low-key contestant who is steamrolling everyone with a 20-game winning streak that ranks second only to Jennings in consecutive wins. Collins is now the most successful female contestant in show history, winning $428,100 so far; she plays again Monday night.
Now, on a Sunday morning at the Westin, a group of people hope they can be next to compete on the famous stage. Everyone (the excitable staffers in the room, host Alex Trebek via a video clip) urges the auditioners to just go out there and pump up the energy and have fun. Still, people here also take their quest quite seriously.
Over my protests that I am terrible at trivia, the producers insist I go through the process as well to see what it’s really like. So, here are the seven things I learned during my audition.
1) You must go through many rounds of tests to even be considered for the show.
These 18 men and women in the Westin — all sitting at small conference tables, varying in age, nearly all wearing suits or dresses because you’re supposed to dress how you would on camera — only got the call to be here because they passed a 50-question online test, only available a few times a year. The most recent was offered in January. If you score high enough on that, you’re invited to regional auditions, held in various cities around the country, where you fill out a lot more paperwork and go through three more rounds of tests.
First, that’s another 50-question clue test, which feels a lot like a pop quiz in high school. Clues are shown on a screen in the front of the room while a computerized voice reads them out loud; you have eight seconds to write down your answer. During a short video featuring Trebek and the Clue Crew, we learn that no points are deducted for wrong answers and misspellings are fine, so you’re encouraged to write something down no matter what. Each category is different, and while we’re under strict instructions not to actually share any of the questions, they’re as varied as they are on the show: History, science, literature, pop culture, etc.
After that, the staffers collect the quizzes; after reviewing them, they divide the people into groups of three, where you play a brief, on-camera practice round of “Jeopardy!” with buzzers and everything. Then there’s a short “personality” interview. After that, you’re officially in the “Jeopardy!” contestant file for the next 18 months. Currently, the show is casting for Season 31, which films for nearly 50 days from July 2014 through April 2015; they’ll try to give you a month’s notice if you’re selected so you can get ready to fly to Los Angeles. (They don’t pay for travel, but you do get a special deal at a hotel near the studio.) If you don’t hear anything after 18 months, you’re allowed to take the online test again and start the audition process once more.
2) Some people try out over and over and over …
Because thousands upon thousands of people audition for a few hundred spots each season, there’s obviously lots of people with “Jeopardy!” dreams dashed — so they try out repeatedly. “Many of our most successful contestants didn’t make it through their first audition,” we’re told. Maggie, the casting producer, actually recognizes multiple people here in D.C. (A dad named Sam reveals during his interview that his daughter just graduated from veterinary school; “When you were here before, she was in her studies!” Maggie exclaims.)
“It’s a little intimidating,” confesses my table mate/hugging partner Paul Bennek, 36. He watches “Jeopardy!” every night and participated in high school quiz show “It’s Academic,” but this is his first time trying out — so he was slightly overwhelmed when meeting people this morning who have been here multiple times and know exactly what to expect. “One person has tried out nine times,” he tells me.
Nine times? I ask around until I find that determined soul, a delightful woman named Jean Westcott. She’s been auditioning for years, and just thinks of trying out for “Jeopardy!” as her hobby. It’s all in good fun, she says. Does this year feel different? No pressure, she laughs. She just enjoys the audition process.
3) Buzzer strategy is real and it’s terrifying.
All those rumors you hear about the buzzers locking if you ring in too early? They’re true, and in the moment, it’s pretty scary. We all get special “Jeopardy!” clicky top pens to practice. Before we’re even allowed to rehearse with the pens, Corina Nusu, one of the other contestant coordinators, leads a simple hand-raising exercise with some practice questions projected on the screen. “You were way early with your hand, sir,” she tells one man. “I’m just trying to make you a better contestant.”
You’re not allowed to click your buzzer until the question is read and a small light goes off on the screen; then you must frantically click over and over and pray that your buzzer went through first. It’s tough to get the rhythm down and tenths of a second can make all the difference. Plus, there’s a dreaded lock-out if you hit the button too soon. Though it’s brief, no one wants the lock-out.
Note: Even if you’re not really auditioning for “Jeopardy!” no one wants a tablemate who is fascinated by the pen and keeps clicking it repeatedly. Apparently that’s “annoying.”
4) Everyone is encouraged to be VERY HIGH ENERGY.
You know what doesn’t make good TV? People whispering, “Um, I’ll take [this category] for $200? I guess?” Nope. Behind the scenes, they want LOUD VOICES and LOTS OF ENERGY. We’re told this over and over, particularly during the on-camera practice round. Three people head up to the front of the room, facing the big screen with buzzers and real “Jeopardy!” board as they play a rapidfire round for a few minutes, with four staffers watching and taking notes.
“Nice big voice, pump it up for us!” Maggie tells everyone. Some people are born to do this, confidently booming “Let’s finish off that category for $600.” Others are a bit more timid, but are quickly encouraged to amp up with volume. Some of us (won’t share who) forget to start an answer with “What is,” a rookie mistake. The mood is light (people at their seats can shout out the answers if it’s clear no one is going to get it) but simultaneously intense as the potential contestants click those buzzers with everything they’ve got.
5) Personality is crucial.
Even if you kill it during the on-camera practice round (I get two questions correct, thank you very much), we’re told that it doesn’t matter all that much — a crucial component of the audition process is personality.
This is especially evident after people put the buzzers down — Maggie asks each of the three to tell a little about themselves and what they would do with the “Jeopardy!” money if they win. Here, it’s important to be as witty and funny as possible. Just don’t be creepy: Once, someone responded that they would take the money and “Buy a cave in which to make goat cheese.” Corina shudders at the memory. “It was disturbing.”
Beforehand, contestants fill out multiple application forms, including a piece of paper where they can share fun anecdotes, embarrassing moments and fun facts about themselves, so Maggie has some ammunition to prod them with questions. (“Tell us about the time you met Justin Bieber”; “How was your wedding almost ruined?”) Some are just funny on the spot when talking about their backgrounds: “I was a history/theater major, so obviously I’m working in retail now,” one woman explains.
The “What would you do with the money?” question is important, too — many respond that they would travel, pay off student loans, spoil the grandkids, start a nonprofit and/or a Dunkin Donuts franchise. Though one guys goes with: “I would like to set up a fund to bring back the dodo bird, because I hear it tastes delicious.”
6) The categories are all about luck.
Things I don’t know much about? Russian literature. Things I know far too much about? Celebrity break-ups. Guess which type of category came up during my practice round?
7) Potential contestants think Arthur Chu and Julia Collins are inspiring, not intimidating.
As the morning wrapped up and I talked to more contestants, I couldn’t help but ask if they were intimidated by the fact that contestants like Arthur and Julia were dominating the game. Who would want to compete against them?
However, the majority of the people at the audition are simply in awe of both of them, and their success was even more of a motivation to get on the show. And most seemed to prefer Julia over Arthur; while they admire his zealous game strategy, she’s the mild-mannered contestant that everyone wants to succeed.
“It’s inspirational,” says Allison Solomon, 27. She and her friend, Abby Zaniel, 26, are both auditioning, and talked in the car ride on the way over about how the show has needed a solid female winner for a long time. So it’s great to see Julia take the prize.
Their tablemate, Adam Patterson, 31, agrees, managing to sum up the addicting nature of “Jeopardy!” at its core. “She’s just so damn likable,” he says. “I want her to keep crushing people.”
As people leave after the two-and-a-half-hour process, most exit quickly — it’s been a long morning. Some joke with each other and chat with their fellow competitors. “You definitely got it,” one man says enviously to a woman, who admittedly did have a great practice round and eclectic anecdotes about traveling with her mother and grandmother to India. She deflects him modestly. After all, the odds are pretty small.
But who knows? That’s what it’s like in the “Jeopardy!” world. So many questions and a roller coaster of emotions; a bit overwhelming, pretty nerve-wracking, a little surreal.
Mostly, though, it’s just a lot of fun.