What was I thinking?
When a publicist for “Jeopardy!” e-mailed to ask if I’d like to go through the audition process for America’s favorite quiz show, I should have said no. Unless the categories are “Bourbon,” “Bob Dylan Lyrics,” or “Maine Mill Towns,” I really have no business holding one of those buzzers.
But I was curious about the obsessives who want to be “Jeopardy!” contestants, the multitude of puzzle geeks, librarians, teachers, research assistants, retirees, and others who watch the show religiously and audition, in some cases over and over, for the chance to answer clues in the form of a question and, just maybe, win a mountain of money from host Alex Trebek.
So on a recent Tuesday morning, after a late night and a breakfast of coffee and Ibuprofen, I trundled into the Sheraton Boston to match wits with dozens of adults from New England and beyond. Unlike me, they had each been invited to the tryout after scoring high on a 50-question test posted online a few times a year by “Jeopardy!” producers.
The selection process is serious business. More than 70,000 people took the online test last year, but only about 3,000 were summoned to one of the regional auditions, and just 400 of them will be selected to be on the show, which begins taping its 32d season in Los Angeles in August. In other words, you have to be smart and lucky to get on “Jeopardy!”
But there’s more. It’s not enough to know Hannibal Hamlin was vice president under Abraham Lincoln, or that “Northanger Abbey” is the shortest of Jane Austen’s six novels. That helps, of course, but Maggie Speak, the show’s tireless contestant producer, and her team of talent scouts are also looking for players with personality: a Boston accent, an amusing back story, a goofy grin. That’s what makes “Jeopardy!” compelling television.
“We want somebody who makes you want to watch them,” says Speak. “During the audition, you can get a feel for what people may be like onstage.”
She cites Arthur Chu, one of last season’s big winners whose unorthodox strategy of jumping from category to category exasperated — and attracted — many “Jeopardy!” viewers, and the unflappable Ken Jennings, whose 74 consecutive victories is still the longest winning streak in the history of “Jeopardy!” Speak recalls both players’ auditions well.
“Next to Ken’s name, I wrote ‘Plays!’ with a big exclamation point,” she says. “It was breathtaking to watch.”
Speak has been leading “Jeopardy!” auditions for more than two decades, and she runs the two-hour sessions like an aerobics class. In the overly bright ballroom, she begins with an impromptu dance party as the “Jeopardy!” theme plays, ecstatically waving her hands in the air and exhorting everyone to get pumped up.
“Let’s see you move!” she admonishes. “ ‘Jeopardy!’ isn’t ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ This is supposed to be fun!”
We all introduce ourselves and then take a written test. The clues, worded as they would be on the show, are displayed on a screen at the front of the room. A recorded voice reads the questions, and we have eight seconds to scribble an answer. Topics range from politics to the periodic table, biology to the Bible. Alas, there is nothing about bourbon.
I do poorly and feel embarrassed when one of Speak’s assistants comes around to collect the quiz. Meanwhile, my seatmate, a retired physician named Bruce, looks pleased.
“That was easy,” he says.
Next are a series of practice rounds. Three at a time, we’re called to the front of the room and given buzzers, just like the ones used on the show. Timing is everything, we’re told. Click the buzzer before the question has been read, and you’ll be locked out for a quarter of a second, plenty of time for your opponents to buzz in. A camera is recording our performance, and Speak and her lieutenants are at a table taking careful notes.
Watching others play, I start to get nervous. These folks aren’t fooling around. “Shorter than radio waves, this useful type of radiation has a frequency of about 1 to 300 gigahertz.” Wait, that’s the clue?
“What are microwaves?” hollers Al, a graphic designer.
“Correct. Great energy, Al,” says Speak. “But I want to see you smile!”
Finally, my name is called and I walk to the front. I’m playing against Amy, a program director of an agency in Medford, and Deirdre, a psychotherapist from Cambridge. Both are inveterate “Jeopardy!” watchers and it’s clear by the way they clutch their buzzers — like they’re detonators — they want very badly to be on the show.
I click too soon on the first couple of clues, whiffing on questions I know the answers to. But I’m encouraged. The board includes “Famous Women,” “Actors and Biopics,” “Nonfiction,” and “NFL Stadiums,” categories that favor a dilettante like me.
“ ‘50 Shades of Grey’ actress Dakota Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and this famous actress.”
“Who is Melanie Griffith?”
“Correct,” says Speak. “Keep it going, Mark. I love your voice.”
I’m on a roll, buzzing in with answers to clues about “Selma” actress Carmen Ejogo, actor B.J. Novak, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play their home games. But then I get cocky.
“In 2012, the classic manual for job hunters that asks this title question came out with its 40th edition.”
“What is ‘What Color Is My Umbrella?’ ”
“No,” says Speak. “It’s ‘What Color Is Your Parachute.’”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Mark, let us do that,” says Speak.
And so it goes. Speak likes my voice, but that’s about all I have to offer. I didn’t know Oliver Wendell Holmes called the USS Constitution “the meteor of the ocean air” or that Saskatchewan is, alphabetically, the last of Canada’s three prairie provinces. I didn’t even know Canada had three prairie provinces. Oh well.
Among those who tested into the audition process, the mood is more upbeat.
“I thought I did pretty well,” says Erik, a medical journalist who traveled from New Jersey to audition. “I’m somewhat introverted, so I tried to turn on the extrovert part of myself. They don’t want people who answer mechanically.”
During a short “personality interview” afterward, Speaks asks what we do for fun and how we might spend our “Jeopardy!” earnings. Some would pay off student loans; Al’s taking his wife to Poland; one guy wants a pizza oven; I’d buy a place in Maine with a big porch.
“The oddest thing we’ve heard was a young man who wanted to buy a cave in which to make grilled cheese,” Speak says.
And then it’s over. Speak says everyone’s name will be entered in the “Jeopardy!” contestant file, where it will remain active for 18 months. If you’re not asked to be on the show during that period, you can start the audition process over again. That, I assure her, will not be happening.