How I Got to Be on Jeopardy!

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I’ve been a fan of Jeopardy! for literally longer than I can remember. When one of my former neighbors, who lived across the street from me for the first several years of my life, found out that I was going to be on the show, she said, “That’s been your dream since you were in a high chair!” My parents tell me that when I was a baby, I would get really excited and kick my feet when I heard the Jeopardy! theme music. Nerdery starts young in my family, for sure.

When I was in elementary school, I enjoyed watching the show, even though I could hardly answer any of the questions. I had a Jeopardy! computer game for Windows 95 with a digital Alex Trebek (still with the mustache and glasses), and I could hardly answer any of the questions even on the easy setting, but I still played it a lot. (I remember one particular game when I was actually certain about the Final Jeopardy answer – Giancarlo Menotti’s operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors – and I felt like I’d won the actual show!)

I didn’t watch the show much when I was in middle school and high school, because most evenings I was either at the dance studio or busy with homework, but I still caught it whenever I could. My Algebra 2 teacher would occasionally give us a break from regular classwork on Fridays and give us a fun math problem to solve, and once she had us figure out the maximum amount of money a contestant could win in a single Jeopardy! game. (I’ll post the answer in my next blog post, in case you’re interested in solving the problem on your own.) I had a bit of a leg up because I was already really familiar with the show, and I remember thinking it was pretty cool that this young, cool teacher whom I really liked was a self-professed fan of the nerdy show that I secretly wanted to go on someday.

My college years were something of a Jeopardy! renaissance – I had a fairly flexible schedule and often wasn’t busy in the evenings except for homework, so I was able to watch the show frequently. Starting my sophomore year, I roomed with my friend Jamie, who was as much a fan of the show as I was, so we watched almost every evening together (doing the dance Jamie made up whenever someone hit a Daily Double) and we began taking the college and adult online tests whenever they were offered.

The online test is the first step to getting on the show, and you can take it once a year for any age group that applies to you (kids, teens, college students, adults). It’s pretty difficult – on the show, Alex takes however long he feels like to read the question, and then you have time to buzz in, but for the online test, you have fifteen seconds to read the question and type your answer. Spelling doesn’t have to be perfect, but your response has to be understandable, and you’re better off guessing than leaving anything blank. The test is fifty questions, each from a different category. Sometimes I would come away knowing I’d done really badly, and other times I would feel like I’d done pretty well. Between the college and the adult tests, I’m pretty sure I did it eight or nine times (I missed a couple opportunities due to schedule conflicts). You’ll never find out what your score is, but if you do well enough, you’ll get an email asking you to come to an in-person audition.

I last took the online test in the winter of 2016 (January, if I recall), and I felt really good about it. The categories had definitely been in my favor that time around. Then I settled back into regular life and didn’t think much about Jeopardy! except watching the show most nights…until I got an email in May asking me to come to an in-person audition!

I actually somehow overlooked the email at first, and I didn’t respond until nine days later. Very fortunately, I was still able to secure a spot for the audition date in Detroit (the city I had marked as my preference when I signed up for that year’s online test, since it was the closest option to where I live). I immediately called my boyfriend, Jeremy, and my parents to let them know. I also told my sister, Alicia, and her boyfriend, Caleb, my grandma, and about ten close friends, and I asked everyone to keep it a secret. I wanted some emotional support, but I really didn’t want a whole lot of people asking me questions or putting pressure on me or knowing if I didn’t make it onto the show. I also told two of my bosses at work, Mindy and Scott, who were able to help me get the right days off even though they were coming up so quickly.

I felt like I couldn’t go to the audition without studying, but I wasn’t sure what was the best way to do it. I ended up making note cards for a few categories where I knew some things really well but got mixed up about other things, such as scientific discoveries and Shakespeare plays. After a couple of weeks, I went through this odd phase where I quit studying for a while, feeling like I already knew what I knew and I couldn’t absorb anything else, but then I did go back to studying the last several days before the audition.

Mid-June was kind of crazy. On June 9, I drove from Columbus (where I lived then) up to Akron to celebrate my birthday with friends. On June 10, Jeremy and I celebrated my birthday together. June 11 was my actual birthday, and also the bachelor and bachelorette parties that Jeremy and I were best man and co-maid of honor for. On June 12, Jeremy and I drove to Detroit, and on June 13, I had my audition, we drove back to Akron, and then I drove back to Columbus. I was home for three days and then drove back up to Akron for the wedding rehearsal and actual wedding. (To be honest, though, most of my 2016 was kind of like that.)

It had been years since I’d been to Detroit, and I was really glad to have Jeremy with me, for emotional and navigational and waking-up-on-time support (my audition started at 9 AM). We stayed at a really cheap, but clean and safe, hotel. I decided to relax and watch the HamilTony awards the night before, and I slept decently well. The next morning, I put on one of the dresses I use to cosplay DC Comics’s Felicty Smoak and tried to channel her intelligence and wit. Jeremy and I checked out of our hotel, and he dropped me off at a much fancier hotel in downtown Detroit for the audition.

In the hotel lobby, there was an electronic sign listing various events happening that day. There was a listing for “Game show audition” or something like that in a conference room a few floors up, so I took the elevator with another young woman who had walked in at the same time as me and was also there for Jeopardy! A number of people were waiting in a lobby outside the conference room, filling out forms that were sitting on a table or talking quietly. I filled out my forms, and very shortly thereafter Corina came out to talk to us.

Corina is a contestant coordinator for Jeopardy! She’s petite, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and absolutely bubbling over with energy. Her resemblance to Mindy, my favorite boss at the job I had then, was uncanny. She called us in alphabetical order by last name (meaning I was one of the last couple of people) to turn in our forms, get our photos snapped with a Polaroid, and go into the audition room. Inside, there were about twelve long tables, each with three seats facing a projector screen and another table at the front of the room. In a classroom setting, I probably wouldn’t choose to sit right in the front row, but I knew I was there to show off my smarts and personality in the hope of getting on national TV. The middle seat at the front, middle table was open, and I took it.

Almost immediately, we took a fifty-question test, which was pretty much exactly like the online test, except that the questions appeared on the projector screen, and we recorded our responses with pen and paper. (They just wanted to make sure that we could do about as well in a room where we had no access to reference materials as we did when we took the online test.) Again, the categories were in my favor, and I was confident that I had done well.

After Corina collected our tests, she introduced Glenn and another crew member (whose name I sadly cannot remember), who were sitting at the front table with her. She talked for a while about different kinds of Jeopardy! answers and the sorts of clues that are often hidden inside them – references to other topics, letters in quotation marks – and rules that have to be followed for things such as “before and after” responses. Corina and Glenn talked a little bit about what it’s like to be on the show and how the signaling devices work, and then they called three people to come up and play a brief mock game. I was one of those first three, which I was actually really happy about.

We each stood on a tape mark on the floor, and we each got to hold a buzzer exactly like the ones used on the show. Categories appeared on the projector screen (Glenn read them out loud), and we played through probably twelve or fifteen questions. Sometimes Glenn or Corina would interrupt and tell someone they were ringing in too soon or too late or that they needed to speak louder, or they might ask someone else to call a category if one person had answered the last several in a row. Basically, they were just looking to see how well we could take direction and how we would sound on a TV stage. It was not the first time in my life that I was incredibly grateful to Ruth and Bo Rabby, who taught me how to speak loudly and clearly on stage or in front of an audience from the time I was about seven. After we had gone through several answers and questions (as the Jeopardy! folks like to say), they interviewed each of us briefly, asking us to say a little bit about ourselves and then asking some specific questions from the “interesting facts” page we had each filled out. Corina noticed my earrings (Golden Snitches that Jeremy had bought for me at GeekyCon) and asked if I was a Harry Potter fan. Once my group of three was done, I was able to sit back and watch everyone else go without feeling nervous.

After the last group had done their mock game and interviews, the audition was over. We were told we could be called to be on the show any time during the next eighteen months; if we didn’t hear anything during that time, we were free to take the online test again and start over. We got to keep the Jeopardy! pens we had used for the written test (clicky pens, ideal for practicing ringing in), and we each got a pair of earbuds in a little pouch that said Jeopardy!

As we walked out into the lobby, the next group was waiting to go in (I think there were three groups that day in all), and I was very surprised to see one of my former grad school classmates standing there! They were surprised to see me, and we talked briefly and wished each other luck. (I’m not going to say who it was because I don’t know whether they’ve told any of their friends and family about their audition or not – I know they haven’t yet appeared on the program. And to any Jeopardy!/Sony/CBS executives who might be reading this, this person and I still haven’t had any contact since that day except that they liked my recent Facebook post announcing my episode.)

After the audition, it was just a waiting game. I still watched the show most nights, sometimes with a clicky pen in hand to practice buzzing in, but I had too much going on to study all the time or obssess about getting that call – my grandma, whom I lived with at the time, however, was very concerned that they hadn’t yet called me, and I had to keep reminding her about the eighteen months and the fact that they might not choose me at all. I moved to Akron in October and emailed Jeopardy! with my change of address, as they’d told us to do if we moved, but I didn’t hear back.

On the first Monday in November, I was making dinner when my phone rang with an out-of-state area code, and I chose not to answer it. I heard the ding that meant the caller had left a voicemail, which I checked about an hour later. It was a lady named Lauri who said she was calling from “a program called Jeopardy!” (I still have the message saved on my phone) and asked me to call her back. I called back right away, but it was after 5:00 in California by then, so I left her a voicemail. She called me back the next day and said I had been selected to appear on the show, with a taping date of December 7. She reviewed my personal information and the eligibility criteria and gave me some information about flights and hotels and bringing guests to the taping.

I immediately called Jeremy, my parents, and my grandma. I waited a few days to tell my sister and her boyfriend, since Jeremy and I were going to visit them in Chicago that weekend, and I wanted to tell them in person. I told that same small group of friends, and after a couple of weeks I told my Thursday Night Dinner family as well. I still didn’t want the whole world to know (and ask me how it went afterward, since the results have to stay under wraps), but I definitely needed some emotional support.

Thanks to some major financial support from my grandma, I was able to pay for my flight and hotel, and Jeremy was able to squeeze one more vacation day out of the year to come out with me. I started making note cards in earnest, focusing on categories I routinely struggled with when watching the show – U.S. cabinet departments, Canadian provinces, international currency, poets and poetry, rivers and seas of the world. I had kept the note cards I had made for the audition, so I studied those too. My great-uncle passed away right before Thanksgiving, and I made plans to drive down to North Carolina with my dad and my aunt Kathy for the memorial service – well, I would sit in the back and study, while my dad and Aunt Kathy took turns driving. The night before we left for North Carolina, I drove down to my parents’ house in central Ohio. When I got there, I realized I had left ALL my note cards in Akron! My dad, my hero, volunteered to keep me company in the car as I drove the two hours back up to Akron and then back down to his house so I could get the note cards.

I was worried about how I would handle the pressure leading up to the taping – I’ve been dealing with some anxiety issues more and more over the past few years, and one of the side effects of anxiety is feeling anxious about when your anxiety is going to kick in. I mostly did okay – I had one big meltdown while visiting my sister, convinced I was going to look like a complete fool on national television, but Alicia calmed me down and reminded me what a big deal it is to even make it onto the show. I was really worried about being able to wager smartly, so I contacted my friend Beth Anne, a math professor from Thursday Night Dinner, who found some great resources and had me message her every night after I watched the show to tell her what the pre-Final Jeopardy scores were and how I thought the contestants should each wager. We were instructed to take several outfits with us, in case something didn’t look good on camera or we had to play in more than one game, so my friends April and Kayla came over to help me choose what to take. In some ways, the hardest part about preparing for the show was getting out of the habit of doing my roommate Jamie’s Daily Double Dance.

It became harder and harder to concentrate on anything but studying as December 7 got closer. I was kind of a wreck when we left for the airport on the sixth, and I was so grateful to have Jeremy with me. (Also, we were traveling with only carry-on suitcases, so I needed to put some of my liquids in his bag!) We couldn’t leave until Jeremy had finished work for the day, so we were on the last possible flight from Cleveland Hopkins that would still allow us to get to LAX at a semi-reasonable hour. We first tried to check in with the wrong airline, and then when we got our boarding passes, we discovered we weren’t sitting together. I developed a migraine but was able to keep it under control. When we got to the gate, a wonderful United agent named Linda J. was able to move things around so Jeremy and I could sit together. We made the tightest connection of my entire life at Chicago O’Hare and had to check our bags planeside, which made me really nervous, but it ended up being okay. We bought snack boxes on the plane, and then Jeremy zonked out, but I couldn’t sleep. I got bored with studying and wrote letters to a couple of friends. We finally landed, got our suitcases, and took an Uber to the hotel.

I got in bed a little after midnight, and I think I got up around 5:30 AM. I showered and dressed, Jeremy and I had breakfast in the hotel lobby, and I went back upstairs to get my extra outfits. Jeremy waited with me in the lobby, and we talked a little, but mostly I just sat in silence and tried to keep myself calm. About five other Jeopardy! contestants, including the person who had won the last game the day before, gathered nearby, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to them. Our van arrived, having already picked up contestants from another hotel, and I ended up sitting in the front seat next to the driver. It felt good to finally be on the move — no turning back now! — and I relaxed as I listened to the other people in the van talk and laugh.

When we got to the Sony lot, the van let us off between the Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! buildings, and we were met by Glenn, from my audition, and Lauri, who had called me. Lauri was petite, quiet, and very reassuring — it took me all morning to figure out who she reminded me of, but it finally came to me: the great Bebe Neuwirth. All the contestants (I think there were twelve of us) had to go through a metal detector and have our bags checked, and then we went inside.

When you enter the Jeopardy! studios, there’s a model of the three contestants’ podiums and a cardboard cutout of Alex Trebek. We went past these things into a green room, where Corina was waiting for us. We took seats around a table and double-checked the information the show had on us while Corina had us each practice talking about our interesting facts. There were two makeup artists set up in a room just off the green room, and we each took a turn in one of their chairs. Sometime during all of this, the Maggie whirlwind blew into the room. Maggie is another Jeopardy! contestant coordinator, and she is loud, hilarious, and full of stories, which she tells a mile a minute. In between giving us advice for the day, she told us all kinds of fabulous behind-the-scenes stories about former contestants like Ken Jennings, Roger Craig, Julia Collins, and Arthur Chu.

After a while, we went across the hall to the sound stage, which weirdly felt exactly the size I expected it to be and also a whole lot bigger than I’d expected at the same time. The number of seats for the audience was definitely smaller than I’d expected. They gave us a brief tour of the podium area and had us film our Hometown Howdies (very short promotional segments they send to your local TV station — “This Jeopardy! contestant is a writer from Akron.” “Who is Madeline Wilson? That’s me!” I’ve never actually seen one get used). Then we played mock games in groups of three to get used to the podiums, hanging out in the house seats when we weren’t on stage. Everyone got to go up at least twice, which meant we got to practice writing our names on the screens at least twice. I was grateful — my name is long, and I didn’t leave enough space on my first attempt to write it like I’d wanted.

We went back to the green room, and a lawyer came in to speak to us briefly. The contestant coordinators had already emphasized how random everything is — the categories are randomly assigned to each game; six questions are written for each category but only five are chosen at random and used; which game each contestant is assigned to is completely random. The lawyer reviewed the randomness, and we had to verbally agree that we understood it all. We had a few minutes of down time to use the bathroom or get a snack, and then the contestants were chosen for the first game, and we all went back to the sound stage. We sat on the far right side of the audience, and our friends and family guests were led into the section across from us, although we weren’t allowed to speak to or look at them. People who had purchased tickets, including a middle school class, filled in most of the rest of the seats.

I watched some of my new friends play the first game, and then I watched some more play the second game. (Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune both film a week of shows in a day, so the first game is a Monday show, the second is a Tuesday, and so on. Jeopardy! films on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and Wheel films on Thursdays and Fridays. Although the two shows have separate staff, they share a stage manager and a lot of the same technical crew.) During the commercial breaks, Alex would re-record questions he’d flubbed the first time, and sometimes he would answer questions from the audience. During the first break, he also took a posed photo with each contestant at their podium (and then the contestants would take a solo photo too — they’ve started doing this because they noticed people often cropping Alex out of their photos when they were posted online. It took a while before someone pointed out that, thanks to the professional makeup artists, those photos were the best the contestants had probably ever looked!) Between the first and second games, Johnny Gilbert, the show’s announcer, gave us some background about his life and took some questions from the audience, which was really interesting.

I was getting very antsy sitting and waiting, so I was really glad when Corina called my name to be a contestant for the third show! But I’ll write about that next time. My episode airs this Wednesday, March 22, if you want to watch it. I’ll post another blog a few days after that to tell the rest of the story!

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2 thoughts on “How I Got to Be on Jeopardy!

  1. Hi Madeline,
    Congrats for being on Jeopardy! I read the Akron Beacon Journal article today and would like to talk with you regarding writing internet content and social media postings. Please contact me via email (ohiospn1@gmail.com).

    Like

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