The Jeopardy Experience

(To read about the events leading up to this, check out Becoming a Jeopardy Contestant)

So, I was on my way to Greenville, driving around 70 down I-26, when my phone rang.  "Is this Matthew Warren?  This is Corina, with Jeopardy.  Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"  "Uh, sure..."  Basically, the entire form that I had signed at the Jeopardy auditions was read back to me.  No, I wasn't related to anybody who worked for Jeopardy or Sony Pictures.  No, I've never been on Jeopardy before.  No, I've never been convicted of a felony.  "Well, the reason I'm calling is that we'd like for you to be on Jeopardy.  Are you available for taping on August 31 and September 1?"  "I don't know off the top of my head, but I'm pretty sure I can make myself available if this isn't a prank call."  I was told to check and to call back as soon as I knew something for sure.  I called SPAWAR: nothing going on.  I texted Katie: nothing.  I called Mom: nope.  Immediately, I called Corina back and told her that I'd be there.

At this point, the steering wheel was really the only thing keeping my hands from shaking off of my arms.  When asked if I had a paper and pencil handy to write some information down, I saw an oil change receipt on the floor and a Sharpie in the change tray.  Sure!  I don't know why I didn't ask if I could call her back, or pull off of the interstate, or anything sensible like that, but I eventually emerged with a grease-smeared piece of paper marked with barely-legible phone numbers, information about guests I could bring, and discounted hotels to call for a room.  Thank God for cruise control.

A couple of days later, I received my packet of forms in the mail.  Once again, I reaffirmed that I wasn't, in any way, shape, or form, connected to anybody at Jeopardy.  I signed a massive packet detailing that there was no guarantee that I'd receive any money for appearing, I couldn't cheat while on the show, etc., etc.  After that, they fished for facts for the interview portion.  This was, by far, the hardest part of the entire process.  Try this: come up with 10 interesting stories about you that you would want told on national TV.  Then, come up with 10 more.  It's tough.  I faxed everything back and passed the time until the end of the month.  Originally, the news was supposed to be held to close friends and family.  Clearly, that wasn't going to happen.  After a while, it just became part of my introduction to people I didn't know - "Hey, this is Matthew.  He's going to be on Jeopardy."  Everybody had the same questions.  "Are you nervous?"  (really?)  "Do they pay your way out there?"  (not directly)  "Oh man, did you see that one guy who won all that money?"  (yep)  After a while, the novelty wore off, and I was really ready to get the whole thing over with.

So, we flew to LA.  Katie flew out of Charlotte and met Mom, Dad, and me in Atlanta.  Once I got to LAX, I quit preparing.  I had been brushing up on classical music, art history, British and American literature (thanks, Mr. Moore), and a few other subjects in the weeks before my trip, but I was finished at that point.  Whatever I didn't know, I didn't know.  We did the tourist thing for a couple days, and then Tuesday rolled around.  Dad dropped me off at the security gates in front of Sony Pictures, I checked in, and then waited for the rest of the contestants to arrive.  Apparently, I was the only one who didn't stay at the Radisson the night before.  They offer a discounted rate for contestants (and a shuttle to the studio), but reviews were lacking. I was a little surprised at how young the contestants were; the majority seemed to be in their mid 30s - 40s.  We walked over to the studio as a group, hung up our clothes in the green room, and found our seats based on the forms in front of them.  More forms!

We dutifully filled out a few more sheets of paper.  I have absolutely no recollection of what they were.  My stomach was basically doing laps all around my body at this point, and much of the day is a blur.  Maggie Speak entered, and proceeded to simultaneously calm us down and get us energized to be on the show.  She was absolutely fantastic at her job, as were the rest of the contestant coordinators that we interacted with.  I really can't say enough about how well we were treated all day long.  While she was telling us various rules and quirks of the game, the group was being taken one by one into the makeup room.  I was made to look a little tanner, since they didn't want the reflection of the lights off of my ridiculously pale skin to destroy the cameras.  I can recall about 5 minutes' worth of what Maggie said out of the 2-ish hours that we were back there.  Once everybody was made up, we were led onto the set for rehearsal.

I was at the front of the line to be led onto the set, and I'm really not sure what I was expecting.  It's exactly how it looks on TV, and I don't know why I would think otherwise.  Everything is extremely shiny and blue.  The TV wall where the clues are displayed isn't all that big, but it's completely overwhelming when you're standing in front of it.  The entire experience was just watch it on TV for so long, and then to walk out of the green room, down a small corridor, and it's just there.  Once the initial shock wore off (and you could see it on everybody's faces), we sat down in the contestant area and played a few questions in groups of threes.  We got to practice writing our name with the light pen (which I really had trouble with) and buzzing in, and were generally acquainted with the way things happened.

There are some lights on either side of the game board that you can't see on TV.  Once the buzzers are activated, they light up.  However, I learned early on that if you wait for the lights to come on to ring in, you'll be beaten every time.  The key is to learn the cadence between when the question is finished, and when the buzzers are activated.  The same guy controls the activator during rehearsal as during the show, so I made sure to concentrate more on this than on answering questions.  I was already there; I didn't need to impress anybody anymore.  By the time the end of rehearsal rolled around, I could beat the other contestants 4/5 times.

After our rehearsal, we went back to the green room.  I had to change my tie because it didn't look great on camera (sorry, MH Frank).  The returning champion had to change his coat, despite wearing it on the show before.  It was really interesting to watch everybody bond during these few hours.  Everybody was just as nervous as the next person, and the whole group coalesced into...not really friends, but something close.  During this time, we practiced our "Hometown Howdies."  Basically, they're little video clips of each contestant saying something corny about their hometown that Sony sends to local stations to promote their appearance on the show.  My understanding is that virtually none of them are used.

Once the audience was loaded in, we were released back out of the green room, and the first two competitors were decided.  Nobody knows who's going to play which game until right before the game.  The contestant coordinators write each person's name on an index card, spread them out on a table face-down, and pick at random.  I wasn't chosen at first, so I went to sit in the audience with the other contestants.  Right before we came out of the green room, they told us that, even though our guests would be sitting literally ten feet away from us, we couldn't make eye contact with them, look at them, or even acknowledge that they were there.  If we did, we would be disqualified.  They told our guests, too.  It was a little nerve-racking, but effective - we all filed in, went to our seats, and didn't dare turn our head or shift our gaze.

The first game was uneventful, and I can't really discuss what happened.  Afterward, we filed back into the green room.  Everybody called the current champion "Champ" and never used their real name.  We drank some water, used the bathroom (I must have used it 15 times before my taping), and waited for the next two names to be picked.  Cards were drawn, and I filed back into my audience seat.  Game two ended, and the process repeated.  I watched game three from the audience.  I tapped my finger against my knee after every question to practice the buzzer during each taping.  I noticed that I was beating the guy sitting next to me every time, so I was feeling pretty good about things.  After game three, we went to lunch.

On our walk over to the Sony cafeteria, Owen Wilson rode by us on a bike.  I had such ridiculous tunnel vision at that point that I didn't even notice until everybody else said something.  Stanley Tucci was eating lunch at a table directly to our right when we entered, but again, my brain was just not in "look around and enjoy things" mode.  I managed to choke down a sandwich, a few chips, and a juice bottle, and then we headed back into the fray.  We rehearsed a little bit, sat back in our audience seats, and then names were called - mine included.  I had always been curious as to how they decide who stands at podium 2, and who is at podium 3.  Turns out, there are two index cards, and each contestant picks one.  Which one they get determines where they stand.  Quite exciting, this computer magic.

We headed back to the green room to be re-made up and to take one final bathroom break.  I remember standing in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, and trying to center myself and calm down.  It reminded me too much of Dirk Diggler at the end of Boogie Nights (with one big difference), so I gave up and went back to the set.  I took my place behind podium 2, they adjusted the lifts behind the podiums so that everybody was roughly the same height, and away we went.

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Becoming a Jeopardy Contestant

Way back in...January, I think, I found out that Jeopardy was doing online tests again.  I had passed my College Jeopardy test and even made it to an audition, but nothing ever came of that.  I registered to take the test on a Tuesday, brushed up on a few things, and completely forgot about it.  Tuesday night, it finally hit that I had missed the test, so I went online to see if there would be others.  Luckily, I could test on Wednesday.  Wednesday night rolled around, and I sat down, ready to go.  Basically, you get 50 questions in a row, all from different categories, mostly from the bottom levels of those categories (second hardest/hardest).  You have (I think) five seconds to type in your answer, with no "who is" or "what is," and then the test moves to the next question.  No indication of your being right or wrong, no encouragements, nothing...just you and a question.  I felt pretty great about my test, and a list of answers and questions posted on the Jeopardy forums told me that I had scored a little better than 80%.

So, I waited.  One day in late March, I got an e-mail.  I had officially been invited to come up to Raleigh in June to audition!  I immediately made arrangements to have a day off of work, and read some accounts online as to what exactly the audition would entail.  It didn't appear to be any different than the College Jeopardy audition, so I wasn't all that nervous.  I booked a hotel, packed my sport coat and an orange and purple-striped tie, and headed up to Raleigh.

First off, I signed in.  It was very easy to find the conference room where the Jeopardy auditions were, because milling around outside is a large group of people who look exactly like the type of people you'd expect to try out for Jeopardy.  I signed my soul away to Sony Pictures (with a complimentary Jeopardy pen) and took a seat next to a middle-aged woman and man.  We made small talk for about an hour, and then everybody had to line up down the sides of a hallway.  The Jeopardy contestant team came out, introduced themselves, and simultaneously tried to put us at ease and pump us up for the audition.  Polaroids of each contestant were taken, and then we were ushered into the audition room.

Another 50 question test awaited.  Basically, they want to make sure that you didn't have help on the online test.  From what I read online, only people who passed this test were invited to audition further in years past.  Now, everybody continues past the written test, but it is graded later and cuts are made after the audition.  You get a sheet of 50 blanks, and a recorded Johnny Gilbert (the announcer) reads you questions.  5 seconds pass, and then the next question starts.  You can go back to answer something you passed, but it's tricky.  I felt fantastic about the written test.  Pop culture was everywhere, I was positive on the first 25 questions, and a quick count at the end revealed that I only guessed at about 8 questions.  After the tests are collected, we had approximately 15 minutes to get some water, stretch our legs, talk to the other potential contestants, etc.  The coordinators came back in and called three people at a time to the front for a mock game and interview.

Of course, I was the last person called.  Once I got up to the front, they explained how to use the buzzers (signaling devices, if you want to be proper about it), and how they work on the show.  Basically, contestants have to wait for Alex to finish reading the question before they can buzz in.  There's a guy sitting at the producers' table who activates the buzzers.  If the button is pressed too early, that contestant is locked out for a quarter of a second - which is why, if you watch the show, you'll see people frantically pressing the button.  Once that lockout period is done, the buzzer is reactivated.  They encouraged me to press the button as many times as I could for the best chance of success.  One of the categories I could choose from was "Musical Numbers" - and despite not being a fan of Broadway by any stretch of the imagination, I had to try it.  The clues were all band names who had performed a song with number in the title, and we had to provide the number.  I ran the category - Tony Orlando & Dawn's "Knock Three Times" and U2's "One" are the only pairs I can remember.  I was pretty confident on the buzzer, I made sure not to bounce around like some of the other potentials were doing, and I spoke loudly and clearly - and most importantly, I smiled and reacted when something happened.

After the mock game, we were interviewed in front of everybody.  Once again, I took care to enunciate and to keep myself still.  It was hard to believe how many people were up there bouncing around, shifting back and forth, or constantly fidgeting.  Since I was going last, I had plenty of time to rehearse my answers in my head.  "What do you do at your job?"  "What are your hobbies?"  "What would you do if you won a ton of money?"  I had to distinguish myself from everybody else to be memorable.  Everybody says the thing for what they'd do if they were rich - travel.  "Ha ha, if I told you what I did every day, I'd have to kill you."  "Oh, I play a lot of bar trivia, I just bought a house that I'm slowly remodeling, I try to play golf even though I'm terrible at it, and I'm building my own arcade machine."  "Well, first off, I'd have to give some money to my church.  After that, I'd probably buy my girlfriend a ring, and then I'd buy a boat and we'd see how far around the world we could get."  I got a reaction on almost everything I said, and I made sure to provide enough detail that they didn't have to prod me to keep talking.  Game shows want people with personality, so I made sure to provide some.

Afterwards, they answered a few questions, thanked everybody for coming, and said goodbye.  I got back in my car, headed to a store that sold beer I can't buy in South Carolina, and headed back home.  I felt good about the audition, but only 10% of people who make it to an audition get chosen to be on the show, so I wrote it off as a fun day spent away from work and didn't think any more about it until I got a call from a 213 area code on the way to Greenville one weekend.  I had no idea who'd be calling me from a 213 number, much less what city it was.  Turns out, 213 is the area code for Los Angeles - which includes Hollywood.

(To read about the rest of the story, check out The Jeopardy Experience)

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