Headline Schmeadline

This is the subhead treatment.

By Timothy O’Brien

On a drizzly but warm May morning I push through the door of the Westin Hotel on North Michigan. I’m a little sheepish about asking the hotel staff for directions to the Jeopardy! tryouts, so I blunder into a Hispanic job fair, then through a Doc Martens regional sales meeting.

Finally, in a quiet corner on the third floor, I find a sign on a door that says, “Jeopardy! tryouts. Doors open promptly at 10:00 a.m.” Milling around are other people like me–well scrubbed and reasonably well dressed and a little embarrassed to be here. I hunker down on the floor to wait.

I’d generally kicked ass when playing Jeopardy! at home–my brain retains a lot of useless information. And I’d figured I’d win about half the time, so when they mentioned at the end of a show that they were holding a contestant search in town I signed up. I thought it was my daughter’s best shot at a college education.

The people waiting don’t talk much. A guy in a polo shirt with an electric-company logo reads the Tribune sports page. Other people stare out the window at the rain. A heavyset young guy talks into a tape recorder held by another guy, apparently a radio reporter. “I think I’ll do all right,” he says. “I do OK at home.” Just what I would have said. “I’m hoping there aren’t too many questions on literature,” he adds, “like Shakespeare and stuff.” I’m hoping there are lots of questions about Shakespeare.

I talk to the heavyset guy, a waiter from a little town west of Elgin, who says he left about 5 AM to make sure he’d be here on time. Traffic was pretty bad.

“Oh, traffic was unbelievable,” says a housewife from Iowa. Then she asks, “Have you read that book, How to Get on Jeopardy! and Win!? The guy who wrote it took the test three times before he finally passed. Then he got on the show and became a five-time champion.”

I ask her what the author’s most important advice for tryouts was.

“Sit down front where they can see you,” she says, “and do what they tell you to do.” She says the written test is really hard–all $800 and $1,000 questions. She’s taken it a couple of times but hasn’t passed.

A little after 10 o’clock the doors open. A trim, efficient woman comes out and lines us up. As we go in, she tells us we’re to take a white answer sheet, a pink information sheet, and a pen emblazoned with the Jeopardy! logo. “Just one pen, please,” she says, “to make sure everybody gets one.”

Sixty-one of us file into a nondescript hotel conference room with rows of chairs facing a long table and TVs to the right and left. I sit close to the front, behind the waiter. After we settle in, a well-tanned guy wearing a checked jacket over a black T-shirt steps up and says, “Good morning!”

Some of us mumble in response.

“OK,” he says good-naturedly. “This is television, folks. When we say good morning, we need you to show some enthusiasm. Now, let’s try it again. Good morning!”

We dutifully respond, “Good morning!”

His name is Glenn, and he’s a 20-year veteran of the game-show business, a career path I’d never thought about before. He talks and takes questions for a few minutes, trying to loosen us up. The tryout procedure, he explains, is the same as the one they use in LA. They test between 20,000 and 25,000 people each year, but only 400 to 425 will actually get on the show. There’s a 50-question written test, and you have to get 35 right. If you pass, you go on to play a mock game. If you fail, you can take the test again in six months.

Glenn plays a short video in which Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek explains that we’ll have eight seconds to answer each question. We don’t have to phrase the answer as a question, spelling doesn’t count, and there’s no penalty for guessing. They won’t tell us our scores, just whether we pass. And if we fail, we can tell people that we missed by just one question–Alex told us so. The crowd titters politely, nervously.

The questions on the test are fairly tough. I definitely boot a few. I can’t remember the name of that Pat Conroy book, and I’m damned if I know who plays Mimi on The Drew Carey Show. I don’t know the name of a city in Tennessee whose name means lookout point. Suddenly I remember The Prince of Tides, so I go back and write it in. John Brown led the raid on Harpers Ferry. Prospero is a character in The Tempest. Lahore is in Pakistan. Count Basie played the piano.

It’s a relief when it’s over. We pass our papers to the center, and the people from the show go out to grade them. While we’re waiting we fill out our pink information sheets with little tidbits that Alex could use to interview us between rounds. For most of us it’s just busywork, because most of us are going home after this.

Everybody has relaxed a bit. I talk to four or five different people, all of whom think they did pretty well. The waiter says, “I was nervous, but I settled down around question 15.” The computer salesman on my left took the test once before and failed. He thinks he did OK, though he left five blank.

I’m thinking, 15 questions to settle down? Five blank? You guys are toast.

The electric-company guy has gone back to the sports page. He whistles in amazement. “Look at this!” he says. “The White Sox are plus 180 tonight. That means you make $180 on a $100 bet! The Yankees must have El Duque going.” He took the test once before and passed it, though he never got called for the show. He can afford to play it cool.

The Jeopardy! staff come back in. In his left hand, Glenn holds a frighteningly thin sheaf of test papers. He says, “You all did really well. When I call your name, raise your hand, and everybody give ’em a nice round of applause. If I don’t call your name, thanks again for coming out this morning. And how long before you can take the test again?”

“Six months!” we respond, enthusiastically.

He starts reading names. People identify themselves, and we all oblige with applause. The sheaf is getting thinner, and I haven’t heard my name. Another guy named Tim is called, and my heart leaps. When I signed on I kind of assumed I’d make the cut.

My name is the 15th one called. Out of 61 of us, 17 have passed–28 percent. That’s high, the Jeopardy! staff say. All the people who told me they did OK are gone–the waiter, the computer guy, the lady from Iowa. The electric-company guy made it again. He’s finally put down the sports page.

Among us survivors, the mood is pretty convivial. They move us down front and have us fill out another, more official form that asks for phone numbers, ages, times we won’t be available. They take Polaroid pictures of us. And they set up the practice games, laying out cards with category names: soap opera roots, political lingo, the Supreme Court. With categories like that I’m going to get smeared. Fortunately they’re not keeping score.

“We’re going to call you up in groups of three,” says Glenn. “Try to keep up the pace–if you get a question right, move right on and pick another one. Show some energy. And remember, your answers must be…?”

“In the form of a question!” we answer, showing some energy.

They hand us buzzers–just like the ones on the show, they assure us. They’re little black doohickeys with red buttons and cables leading to a black box on a table.

“Wait until I finish reading the question before you buzz in,” Glenn says. “And don’t just click it once–click it a bunch of times. Practice a little bit. One contestant carried a ballpoint pen around with him for a month just practicing clicking–and he went on to be a five-time champion!”

I’m in the second group, along with the electric-company guy. The whole thing is kind of a blur. A couple of times I have absolutely no clue, but I get my share. The electric-company guy misses one, answering, “Who is Barney Fife?” I pick it up: “Who is Don Knotts?”

Up comes a question about the name of Alexander the Great’s horse. I’m thinking, nobody can possibly know this. The electric-company guy buzzes in: “Who is Bucephalus?” He’s right. Later somebody asks him how he came up with that one. He shrugs like it was nothing. “I always think of Hank Williams Jr.’s nickname. You know–Bocephus!”

After a dozen or so questions, they ask us to talk a little about ourselves, ask what we’d do if we won the big money. Most people say they’d go on a trip. A few would fix up the house. I say I’d save it for my daughter’s education, mostly because I would. When it’s the electric-company guy’s turn, he says, “I’d take bobsledding lessons!” Later he nods approvingly when another contestant says she’d use the money to go on a storm-chasing vacation. I’m thinking, jeez, I need the money.

We stay around to watch each other’s practice games. I’m wondering if the buzzers are jiggered, because it seems like everybody gets an equal chance to answer questions. I wonder if they’re just trying to take a look at us. Some are pretty stiff. One older guy with a hangdog expression says he expects to get laid off soon, so the money would come in handy. A little too depressing for TV.

Finally we’re done, and we get debriefed. We could get called to appear on the show anytime during the next year. We’d get at least a month’s notice, but we’d have to pay our own way out to California. They usually shoot on Tuesdays and Wednesdays–a week’s worth of shows in two days. “But you only need to bring two changes of clothes,” says Glenn. “If you make it to Thursday, who’s going to remember what you were wearing Tuesday?”

We’re all feeling pretty chirpy as we go out. A young woman from the Doc Martens meeting looks up from her cell phone and says, “How’d y’all do?”

We give her the thumbs-up. “All right!”

On the crowded elevator going down we say, “See you in California.” “Or on the show!”

It suddenly hits me–some of these people really are going to get called. There’s real money at stake here. I walk down Michigan Avenue clicking an imaginary red button with my thumb.