One of the first questions many people ask about Jeopardy! is: how did you get on the show? It used to be that you had to catch one of the traveling audition roadshows. The production crew would stop in various cities around the country and open up a cattle call for contestants. My dad was actually selected to be part of one in our hometown in northeast Tennessee back in the late 1980s.
In the old auditions, a group of hundreds of potential contestants would be given a quiz. As I remember Dad telling it, they'd show someone (maybe Alex) reading a series of questions on a television, and each player wrote down their answers on paper. Once it was complete, the contestant coordinators would gather all the sheets, grade them, and then invite those who had scored above a certain threshold to stay and play a mock version of the game. Anyone who didn't make the cut would be sent home with their thanks, which is what happened to my dad. I remember him saying that there were quite a few literature questions he didn't know.
With the advent of the internet, however, the audition process has changed. Starting in 2006, Jeopardy! began conducting an online contestant search. Once a year, over three nights, potential contestants take a fifty question quiz online. You get fifteen seconds to type each answer (and no, it doesn't have to be in the form of a question). The coordinators mentioned at my taping that over a hundred thousand people took the online quiz in 2011.
There's no official word on how many answers a player must get correct to progress to the next stage of the audition, but the general wisdom is that 70%, or thirty five correct, is a passing score. If you manage to get that many correct your name goes into a hat. Then, if you're selected at random, you receive an invitation to the second step of the process: an in-person audition.
An audition group consists of about twenty people. My first audition, in 2007, was luckily held in my hometown of Atlanta. I was surprised to find out over the course of the tryout that I was the only local in my group; most people had traveled at least a few hours, with some coming from hundreds of miles away! At my second audition in 2011, however, I became one of the travelers. The three closest tryout cities to me were Orlando, Washington D.C., and Lexington. As it happens, my parents live an hour south of Lexington, so that became a simple choice. Still, it means I had a seven hour drive both to and from my tryout instead of simply catching the train into downtown.
At the audition, the contestant coordinators start by greeting everyone and taking a Polaroid headshot of each person, usually outside the room. Then, once you're invited inside, they give an introductory talk and then administer another fifty question quiz. The quiz this time is presented similarly to the original audition process: the questions are asked by someone on a screen and each person writes down their answers on paper. Presumably this second test is to weed out all the cheaters whose five best friends had been supplying them with answers at home.
After a ten minute break during which the coordinators collate all the quizzes, headshots and paperwork, they invite players up to the front of the room in groups of three to play a portable version of Jeopardy! With just a few differences this version works just like the real thing. The game board, which is shown using a digital projector, is shortened so that there are only three clues in each category. There are no Daily Doubles, and when a column is finished it's automatically refilled with a new category and three new clues. The signalling buttons don't show which player was first; pressing the button just activates a small light. Lastly, the coordinators pick players to answer so that most everyone gets the same number of chances to respond.
There are a few things that go into a successful Jeopardy! contestant that the crew is looking for here. First, they want to see someone that knows how to play the game and will keep things moving. Players should be proactive and eager to choose the next category and clue after getting one right. They're also looking for people with a clear speaking voice rather than someone who talks quietly or mumbles. In addition, they want players to have fun, and so they're looking for people who are having a good time, or even taking the opportunity to laugh or joke if one comes around. Lastly, and this is just a theory: I think they're looking for each player to just wail away on that button every chance they get. During my first audition, I didn't ring in at all on clues I didn't know. I wonder if I wouldn't have been better off going for it and being wrong, because that gives off a better impression than being gun shy.
Once all the players have four or five chances to play, they get a round of applause and then the coordinators move into the interview portion of the tryout. As part of their paperwork, all the auditioners come up with five facts about themselves that would make good interviews with Alex. The coordinators chat with each player, using their ideas to guide the conversation, and always finish up with the question: “What would you spend the money on if you win?”
The worst thing an auditioner can do in this part of the process is to give one-word answers. The story nuggets are ways to get people talking, and that's precisely what the coordinators want people to do. They're looking again for energy and enthusiasm, and fortunately this is something that can be practiced before the audition itself. Particularly when it comes to the question about the prize money, it helps to be interesting. Most everyone would really use the money to pay off debt, or save, or maybe take a trip. If you can, come up with something unusual. One lady at my audition wants to open a candy store. Another guy wants to complete his tour of all the Major League Baseball stadiums. It's okay if your idea isn't true so long as it's genuine.
Once everyone has been called to the front to play and chat, there's a short moment for questions and answers and then it's done! The whole process lasts about two hours, and then the waiting begins. See, when the coordinators like what they saw and decide to choose someone for the show, that person gets a phone call… sometime in the following year and a half. Everyone they decide to pass over, which incidentally is about 85% of those who are invited to the audition, simply never hear anything. Once each auditioner's eighteen months are up they're welcome to start the process again with the online quiz, but apart from that it's just a matter of waiting and hoping.
With enough luck, though, one afternoon your phone rings…
jeopardy/audition.txt · Last modified: May 23, 2012 by Dave Leach