Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Game Show Me the Money!: Kevin
Last August, Kevin F. Sherry was a contestant on Jeopardy!. (It would be unfair of me not to mention that Kevin is a young, scrappy, highly employable, and brilliant newspaper journalist. Someone should hire him.) This is his story.

How did you become a contestant?

To become a Jeopardy contestant, you have to take a 50-question quiz. The Jeopardy folks travel around the country from time to time giving the test, but because I live close to their studios in Culver City, California, I went in and took the test there.

I first took the test two years ago and passed. I was placed into the contestant pool, but they never called. My eligibility expired after a year, and I had to re-take the test. I went back to try again in April 2001.

Test-takers sit in the audience seats for the show. We got a sheet with 50 blanks, and then the contestant coordinators popped in a videotape. The announcer would read the category and the question, followed by the answer. We would then have seven seconds to write our response on the line given. Fortunately, we just had to give an answer, and not phrase it in the form of a question. With just seven seconds to answer, you can see how the test would fly by. In six minutes or so, it was all over. We handed in our tests and waited for the results.

A lot of people say the qualifiying test is more difficult than the actual show because you have to quickly deal with 50 different categories with one question each instead 12 categories of five questions each. A score of 35 out of 50 qualified you to be a contestant. Again I passed. The first time I took the test, about 12 people out of 150 passed. The second time, about six out of 75.

After the others left, those of us who were left tried a few mock rounds of Jeopardy. We got buzzers and were judged on how well we handled ourselves and how well we spoke. I was surprised at how some players mumbled and took a long time to answer or select a category. It seemed like they would never get to the show acting like that. We also had to do a quick, impromptu blurb about who we were and where we were from. And that was pretty much it. I was back in the pool.

How dd you prepare to compete on the show?

I got the call about six weeks before I was going to compete on Aug. 22. I was pretty excited and began a lot of preparation. I checked out some Web sites run by former champions. I read the entire "Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," which helped with literary references, religion, myths, geography, history, and a dozen other topics. I also found a book about the show written by a former producer, as well as a 1990 book "written by Alex" that contained a bunch of questions and answers from past shows. On top of that, I purchased four Jeopardy "What is..." quiz books, each of which had more than 300 pages of categories, questions and answers from past shows. I bought the home board game, which had an additional 48 complete games. And of course I watched the show every day and marked my progress, which helped me remember always to respond in the form of a question.

In all, I probably reviewed about 8,000 individual Jeopardy answers. From that, not only did I learn about topics that I was weak on, but I was also able to see phrasing quirks of the Jeopardy writers. For instance, any time the answer mentioned a "cubist painter," the answer would always be "Who is Pablo Picasso?" Anytime an answer mentioned a "U.S. commonwealth," the answer was always "What is Puerto Rico?" It was good to know that I had at least a few tricks that could possibly help.

I had to be at Sony Pictures Studios at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Because Culver City is about an hour and a half away from me, I decided to get a hotel close to the studio the night before, rather than trying to brave the rush-hour traffic heading to Los Angeles in the morning. I wanted to reduce the variables that might increase my aggravation.

Tuesday night I hardly slept at all. All these questions and answers kept flying through my head. I would try to think of the name of a particular actor, and it would get lost. I had to check my almanac to remember the heads of state of France and Canada. I think I slept from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., then maybe from 5-7 a.m. Not the best preparation before a mental contest, but I figured the other contestants were probably going through the same thing.

What was it like at the studio before the show?

At 9 a.m., I joined the other contestants on the studio lot. There were 13 of us, including the champion from the last taping series and two alternates, who would step in in case someone finished as a five-time champ or if one of us passed out, I guess. The mood among us all was very supportive. There was no trash-talking or challenges of arcane trivia to undermine our confidence. Everyone wanted everyone to do well, and that was nice. The people came from all over too. Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, Nebraska, Iowa, and Canada were all represented.

We all had to dress nicely and bring two changes of clothing. This was in case whatever we chose to wear didn't look good on camera, or if we became a champion. The show tapes five games a day, two days a week. If you win, you have to run back and change into a new outfit for the next game so it looks like 24 hours have passed. Alex Trebek does this too.

Eventually a contestant coordinator put us on a shuttle bus to take us to the Jeopardy set in Studio 10. We went into the "green room," which is where they had us fill out forms promising that we had no prior knowledge of the questions, that we didn't know anyone affiliated with the show and so forth. They had comfy couches, snacks and drinks for us to enjoy while we waited.

Other than the returning champion, no one knew who would be picked for any of the five shows until 10 minutes before they went on. That made things a little nerve-wracking for everyone, but the coordinators tried to keep us calm. One by one, we all went to get made up for television. Because of the bright lights in the studio, any white person without makeup would come accross as ghostlike. So we all got some makeup to give us some color, smooth out blemishes and remove shininess. The makeup lady told me I had nice skin.

Next we moved onto the actual set, where we learned how to operate the little screens that sit on each podium. You have to sign your name with a little wand at the start. At the end of the show, the screen goes blank, and that's where you put your Final Jeopardy wagers and questions.

We also got a quick lesson in how to work the buzzers. They resemble clicker pens, but with the thickness of a fat magic marker. Once a contestant chooses a category and dollar amount, the answer appears and Alex reads it. Once he finishes speaking, two rows of lights, one on either side of the game board, go on, indicating that the contestants can now buzz in (you never see these lights on TV). If you buzz in before the lights go on, you're locked out for half a second. So you have to have good timing to make sure you ring in after Alex finishes talking, but before your opponents. Often you'll see people clicking their buzzers furiously to ring in. We were told to click the stick repeatedly, in case someone else gets locked out. If the person who rings in gives the correct question, you move on to another answer. If the person gets it wrong, those lights come on again and the other contestants can ring in. We took turns at the podium, going through easy categories to get the feel of the buzzer and the timing of the lights. Each person answered three questions, then stepped aside for the next person.

One thing all the contestants had to do was come up with a series of interesting anecdotes, so that Alex would have something to ask us about during the little chat sessions he has after the first commercial break.

No matter where the contestants went during the day, we were always under tight security, a lasting result of the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. We always went from place to place in a group. When some contestants went to smoke, a coordinator went with them. When we broke for lunch, we had a special table set aside in the Sony comissary just for us. The point was to make sure that we did not have any contact with anyone who might know what the questions and the answers for the day might be. That included Alex and the writers.

That's a lot to take in. What was it like during the taping -- and during the game itself?

A little before noon, we went back into the set area. The audience had already been brought in. I had my own special cheering section, with Mayrav Saar, Glenn Gaslin, Steve Lynch, Rick Porter and Eric Carlson, who braved Spirit Airlines to fly in for the day from Chicago. It was comforting to see them out there for me. The morning audience got to see three shows taped. Then the set broke for lunch and a new audience came in to watch the last two shows of the day. Any contestant not competing sat in the audience.

Jeopardy has a few changes for the 2001 season, its 18th since it began in its most recent incarnation. The most obvious is that Alex Trebek has shaved his moustache, on a whim, he says. The show also has hired four young folks to travel around the country to provide video clues for the show. They're called the "Clue Crew," and did things like "Hi, I'm here at the San Diego Zoo. This animal here..." and so forth. The clips seemed to slow the show down a bit, and they seemed designed to get younger people interested in Jeopardy. Although no one mentioned the words "Regis" or "Millionaire," one of the contestant coordinators said they like the attention that the new quiz shows get, because it also draws attention to Jeopardy, which many people had begun to take for granted. She also said they all love the Jeopardy skits on Saturday Night Live.

The show also has improved its prizes. A long time ago, the show gave "prizes" like Rice-A-Roni to the second- and third-place folks. More recently, the second-place person won a trip, while the third-place person got a TV, stereo, or some kind of electronics thingy. But they've upgraded again. Now the first-place person still keeps the cash, while second place gets an international trip and third place gets a domestic trip. So that was pretty cool.

It was difficult to tell the selection process exactly, but it seemed that each show had a male and female contestant selected to go up against the champ from the last show. Once those two were picked, they would select slips of paper that had either "2" or "3" on them, indicating which podium they would stand at. Then the makeup lady polished them up, and the microphone guy clipped a pager-sized box to their belt with a tiny wire microphone that clipped to a blouse or lapel. To make sure everyone looked about the same height, shorter players stood on wood blocks at the podiums.

The show is taped in real-time, meaning that they start off just like on TV, take a few minutes for a commercial break, come back and continue until 30 minutes have expired. All the contestants agreed that the show just flew by, and most couldn't even remember their categories or answers. Sometimes there would be a glitch (Alex accidentally read the response in the question) or a disputed response (Is "William the Orange" the same as "William of Orange?") and the show would stop. The contestants would turn their backs to the game board, in case another answer was revealed. The producers would get everything fixed and they'd start again where they left off.

During commercial breaks, Alex was a bit corny. He would wander around stage, making comments and answering questions for people in the audience. He seemed a little goofy, but I guess you have to find ways to amuse yourself after doing that kind of job for 18 years. Announcer Johnny Gilbert has a great voice, and always keeps his enthusiasm high for his opening "This! Is! Jeopardy!" Other times, though, he just played emcee, answering crowd questions and talking through every second of down time. His ability to chatter was impressive, if repetitive.

But how did you feel?

Being on the show was great. I learned a lot in preparing, and am pleased overall. Did I have fun? You bet. But my palms were incredibly sweaty, and the makeup lady had to keep dabbing my forehead to wipe the sweat.

This all happened in August. How long did you have to wait to see the show on TV?

My show was on Friday, Oct. 19 last year. Everyone's local time and station was different. Because of Monday Night Football, ABC stations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets bumped their five days of Jeopardy to a Tuesday-through-Saturday run. In those markets, I was on Saturday, Oct. 20.

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