Friday, March 06, 2009



People always expected me to be on Jeopardy!. I wasn't good at sports, or any other discrete activity, so people assumed I must be good for something--and that something was a brainy game show. At age three, when my mother was quizzing my six-year-old sister in math, my mother heard me in the next room, mumbling the answers. So I must be good at Jeopardy!, right? Nope. What I'm good at is first grade arithmetic. I've never had much respect for game shows--they're something you watch when you're sick. The Price Is Right stood as a milestone of my childhood sick days--its 1100-1200 time slot segued between morning news shows and afternoon soap operas. There wasn't much to it--just guessing, which anyone can do. Game shows like that were the embodiment of the American dream: a mix of anti-elitist democracy and consumer-oriented capitalism--like playing rock paper scissors for a welfare check. Sometimes the puzzles were weak--like Bumper Stumpers, where contestants deciphered vanity license plates--and sometimes the veil of gimmickry slipped altogether, and you got Shop 'til You Drop, which appealed to our basest instincts to charge through a supermarket putting the most expensive items, tomato juice, laundry detergent, and pork loin, in our carts. The shows ran the gamut from respectable to chaotic, from The $64,000 Question to Let's Make a Deal, the Jerry Springer of game shows, with costumed audience members crying out for Monty Hall's attention. Then there was the MOAG--the Mother OF All Game shows. Press Your Luck had questions, but they were a mere vehicle to drive the contestants to a roulette-like game board, where they could win big, or be mocked by a cartoon devil, the Whammy. "No Whammy!... No Whammy!... No Whammy!..." the contestants incanted before shouting "Stop!" This was real-life drama. Suddenly, we didn't care about seeing someone win big--in this pre-Donald Trump, Pre-Hell's Kitchen age, we wanted to see someone beset by Whammys, not the least because we ourselves, the sick and the jobless, had ourselves been assaulted by those same Whammys.

Jeopardy! wasn't like those shows. Jeopardy! aired after the evening news, and stank of sophistication. Contestants wore tweed jackets and suits. These people weren't the salt of the Earth--they were the saffron.

In 2006, Jeopardy! offered an online challenge. I passed the challenge and was invited to an audition in Philadelphia. "Good luck," my wife said, as I climbed into my car.

"Wish me no Whammys," I replied.

The audition was held at a hotel on Market Street. We few (we selected few, we band of brothers) gathered on the second floor, sizing each other up--seeing who had the largest elbow patches. Some were studying almanacs and dictionaries. As on the show, most of those present were men, which puzzled me--most of the smart people I know are women. The gathering was also mostly white. My mother once attended a play with an acquiantance, who, before the lights went down, craned ner neck around, scanning the audience, before loudly inquiring, to no one in particular--"why don't black people go to the theatre?" My mother shrank down in her seat. But now, I found myself with a similar question--do black people watch Jeopardy!? My co-worker and I used to have discussions about this sort of thing, him calling up clips of Cedric the Entertainer, me quoting Monty Python, then each shaking his head at the other. "I understand it. I just don't get it."

"So, is the parrot dead or what?"

We never discussed Jeopardy!.

One by one, we signed in, filed into the audition room, and took our seats. First, a videotaped message from Alex Trebek. Then, Jeopardy! Q&A , where we got to ask questions about the show. I learned that the shows are taped back-to-back, but to give the illusion of time passing, contestants must arrive in LA with three outfits--after the third show, we were assured, people would forget what we wore the first time. The show isn't nearly as seamless as it appears, either. Contestants are often helped to figure out their final Jeopardy! bids, which is why people often win or lose by a dollar--they don't necessarily think as fast as the commercials roll. You pay your own way to get to and from L.A., but if you're champion when a break hits, they fly you home and back on their dime.

We were then called to the front of the room three by three, where they asked us a question to prompt an anecdote we'd mentioned in our registration forms.

"I see here one of your hobbies is driving."


"Would you like to tell us about that?"

"I like to drive."

After a couple more awkward prompts, I started into a story about driving the Trans-Labrador Highway in my mother's car.

Then it was buzzer time. The three at the front played a mock game, to understand the protocol and get used to using the hand buzzer. When the question comes up, it must be read fully, then a light around the edge of the monitor comes on to let you know you can buzz in. You can hit your buzzer before the light, but it won't register and it takes a fraction of a second to reset, during which time someone else might beat you to the buzz.

Finally, we took a proctored fifty-question re-examination, in case we had assistance during the online test.

After the audition, I dropped by a friend's house. When she found out why I was in town, she recalled how impressed she was when we watched a game of Jeopardy! together in college. "You knew final Jeopardy!--FINAL JEOPARDY!"

Jeopardy! doesn't tell you how you did at the audition. If you pass, your name enters the contestant pool, which has more contestants than will be necessary. For the next year, you wait for a call that may never come--"No Whammy ... No Whammy ... No Whammy ..." At the end of the year, the pool is drained. You're purged. Back amongst the masses. Normal. I didn't get a call. I got stood up by Jeopardy!.

A few months later, while visiting New York City, I made arrangements to attend an open tryout for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, then hosted by Meredith Vieira. I'd only seen the show once or twice, enough to feel intellectually superior to many of the contestants. WWtBaM? tries out about a hundred contestants in a sitting--first a thirty question multiple choice test, then those who fare well enough move on to a personal interview (just to make sure you're TV-worthy and not totally creepy). They wouldn't tell us how many answers we had to get right on the quiz portion, but I was feeling pretty confident. We were packed in at close quarters on folding chairs at long tables.

At each spot was an envelope, a WWtBaM? pencil, and a Scantron form. The guy across from me introduced himself--he was from lower Delaware (or "slower Delaware" as it's known in-state).

"Open your envelopes."

I breezed through the test--I knew most of the answers--The U.S. Secretary of State born in Czechoslavakia is Madeleine Albright; 2T, 3T, and 4T are standard sizes of toddler wear; cerulean is considered to be blue; mules usually can't reproduce (thank you, Liberty Heights, for that factoid), and there have been three U.S. presidents named George.

I found most of the thirty questions easy, a few at least logically deducible, and there were only about five where I was forced to guess. Of those five, I guessed three wrong, giving me a 90 percent score--not high enough, apparently, to move on to the personality interview, where I was bound to impress with my fondness for driving.

But--I now know these things:

1. Barbie's middle name is Millicent. I didn't even know Barbie had a middle name. Her full name, for the record, is Barbara Millicent Roberts. She has six siblings (Skipper, Tutti, Todd, Stacie, Kelly, and Krissy). I swear I must have gone to school with at least one of these WASP-y bitches.

Barbie and Ken dated from 1961 to 2004, when they broke up. Ken has a brother named Tommy, and I'll bet he had something to do it.

Two of the other choices were Martha and Ruth. I figured Ruth was a trick, going for the sound association with Baby Ruth (it was a different trick, I later learned, because Barbie was created by Ruth Handler). I chose Martha instead. If I'd known that Barbie had a sister named fucking Tutti, I would have chosen Millicent.

2. Oprah Winfrey is one of the founders of Oxygen Media. My other choices were Quincy Jones, Martha Stewart, and Emeril Lagasse. I didn't even know what Oxygen Media was, but it sounded like it had something to do with cable TV, and I associated it with SpikeTV, another cable channel I'm too cheap to spring for.

I logically deduced (incorrectly) that if Martha or Oprah were going to start a cable channel, it would be part of their existing media conglomerate. That left me with Quincy Jones and Emeril Lagasse (the two choices I would have immediately eliminated had I ever seen the Oxygen network). I knew Quincy Jones is a musician and that Emeril is some kind of celebrity chef, and cable TV loves chefs, so that sort of made sense. Pretty flawless logic--even though it was WRONG.

3. The powder inside the Etch-a-Sketch is aluminum powder. Maybe it was the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? logo pencil I was using that chose for me, but I picked graphite powder.

When my number wasn't called, I pocketed the pencil and left. At least Jeopardy! gives you a pen.

That night I was haunted by a Barbie-wielding Whammy, dancing across the bottom of my dream screen.

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