If you’re like most Americans Jeopardy! is a longstanding resident of that sliver of your cultural consciousness reserved for game shows, sharing space with Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, and maybe a later innovation like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, if you happened to catch its blaze of glory in the early oughts.1 Depending on your affinity for the quiz format and the vagaries of local syndication schedules, your childhood memories might even be tinged with the electric blue glow of Jeopardy’s set.2
From elementary through high school I was a regular viewer, even becoming sufficiently invested to try entering the annual Teen Tournament, wherein high schoolers get their turn behind the iconic podiums, like Little Leaguers playing their championship game in the big league ballpark. In that pre-Snapchat era the application process required sending in a postcard and waiting for an inscrutable process to spit out a lucky fifteen students.3 Like the overwhelming majority of entrants I heard nothing afterwards, and that was that.
The 15-plus years since then involved college and work and marriage and multiple moves but precious little Jeopardy watching. There was no academic bowl or Tuesdays at pub quiz, no weekend evenings spent hovering over a Trivial Pursuit board. Life moved on, and the precise Canadian enunciations of Alex Trebek were very seldom heard.
Yet the wiles of Jeopardy were not to be resisted, and a few years ago I found myself once again paying attention. Like reconnecting with a childhood friend it was surprisingly easy to get back into the rhythm of the show. This was no doubt helped by the fact that Jeopardy has remained essentially unchanged for over thirty years, aside from minor concessions to inflation in the clue values and a spiffier set to meet the demands of high-definition broadcasting. The more salient upgrade was the one off-screen, in the form of a greatly democratized entry process.
The gatekeeper for the contestant pool is now a free and short online test, available to everyone roughly once a year. (If you’re at all interested, register for it here.) Just manage to be at your computer for the scheduled fifteen minutes, and you’re already running equal with the other thousands of would-be contestants.4
Throughout the entire audition process Jeopardy maintains an aura of secrecy, but that may be because keeping so many applicants informed would be a profound hassle. There is no official scoring or any indicator of what test score gets you to the next stage of the process, or even what that step entails, but some casual Googling suggests you need to be hitting 35 of 50 to make it through this first screen. After that you wait for a call to an audition that may never come, and if it doesn’t you take the test again. I took the test once in 2013, heard nothing, duly signed up again in 2014, and in early 2015 received a call inviting me to try out in person.
Jeopardy auditions are distributed across the country, and fortunately mine required bus fare and less than an hour’s commute to a downtown Chicago hotel, while some fellow contestants came from neighboring states and even as far away as Texas. No dress code instructions are given other than to wear what you would on Jeopardy, which is oddly tautological for people who are auditioning to be on Jeopardy.
The 21 hopefuls in my batch were all men, and although this may have been an outlier it’s likely representative of the skew in the applicant pool. They seemed primarily middle-aged, with plenty of gray hair, and while you wait to enter the testing room you’ll hear stories of how many times people have tried out. Some have been trying out for years, such that the quest might be part of their identity; at this point actually being selected for the show might be too disorienting to handle.
Upon entering a conference room—temporarily diverted from its normal use for assorted corporate conclaves—and having a Polaroid taken to simplify contestant tracking, we were given a written test that ensured our performance on the online test wasn’t a fluke, or something more nefarious. We then had our chance to play a collective mock game at our seats, triggering a zealous show of hands from those who knew the responses. The effect was not unlike placing all the teacher’s pets from an entire school district into one highly concentrated classroom.
The warmup complete, we were randomly called to the front and formed into the standard Jeopardy triad to try our hand at a passable simulation of the actual game setup. These practice games are now videotaped, lest another Ken Jennings slip through the process without evidence of his novice attempts at the buzzer (think American Idol audition rounds, but far more gentle).
Assuming you can maintain a 70% success rate on clues, the most basic rule of the audition is simply to be an amiable human being, and work on your nerves if that’s something you’re susceptible to.5 Specifically:
- Dress presentably
- Smile and make eye contact
- Have the self-control to sublimate any indecorously competitive and/or painfully nerdy tendencies
Or to put it more simply, don’t be a dorfbucket.
When asked what they would do with any potential winnings travel took the top slot by a comfortable margin, and many talked about fixing up the house. One mentioned that it would go to his child’s college fund. These aspirations have the virtue of being accurate and the drawback of being pedestrian. This is television after all, and you will be expected to win eyeballs in competition with the latest reality show or unadulterated binge drug imported straight from Netflixia.6
Throughout the process expect to be moved along with the practiced efficiency of people who have done this many times before. The lead coordinator, Glenn, has been working on Jeopardy for over 30 years, stretching into the Art Fleming era pre-dating Alex Trebek (and he will reappear at key moments in your Jeopardy journey). Aimee, another contestant coordinator, managed the warmup and judged responses, although at this stage there’s no real scoring—the online and paper tests are sufficient to gauge your knowledge base, while the rest is a test of your gameplay and presence.
Although you’ll be there for a few hours the sheer newness of it all ensures they pass quickly. And then you’re back out onto a busy city street, with no feedback on how you’ve done or what to expect, which is soothing in its own way, for once completed each step in the audition process is well and truly out of your hands. So you took another test, played a mock game, shared some nervous banter, tried to (or ideally did not try to) one-up your fellow contestants, and now you’re done, waiting for a next step that may never materialize, but that was fun wasn’t it?
But roughly a year later, you might get a call from a Los Angeles phone number, and as soon you answer you’ll know exactly why they’re calling.
- I’ve dispensed with the signature exclamation point after Jeopardy. It may transgress the style guide but it makes it seem like we’re shouting, and Jeopardy is actually a supremely calm environment.
- Though for pure nostalgic appeal nothing will beat The Price is Right, whose defiantly retro set seems like a dare to a set designer that’s now gone too far for anyone to back down with dignity.
- So basically the Hunger Games reaping, but for mid-1990s kids who were really into school. Also possibly less cutthroat.
- Crew chatter during my taping suggested the most recent number was roughly 70,000 applicants, down from 100,000 or so, for reasons unknown.
- This applies to Jeopardy, and also most other scenarios in life where you’re presenting yourself in consideration for something.
- In reality the median age of a Jeopardy viewer is well into AARP territory at 64, despite attempts to be down with the kids.