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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets From Jeopardy

What goes into making the popular game show?

by
Tom Neven

Bio

June 28, 2012 - 7:00 am

Last time, we looked at some of the secrets to winning on Jeopardy. But knowing how to win means nothing if you can’t get on the show. How do I try out for Jeopardy? What should I expect when I get there? What happens during show tapings?

A lot goes on before a contestant ever sets foot on the Jeopardy sound stage in Los Angeles, and once there a lot happens that viewers never see on their TV screens. Here’s a look at a few of those behind-the-scenes secrets.

9. The Highest Hurdle

You can have a head stuffed full of trivia, but if you can’t get on the game, it’s not doing you a whole lot of good short of impressing (or boring) your friends. The first problem is getting the attention of the Jeopardy producers.

In years past, the Jeopardy crew conducted contestant searches in major cities around the country. Local network affiliates announced the upcoming search, urging viewers to send in a postcard with their contact information. Potential contestants were then chosen by random from those cards, meaning the highest hurdle had nothing to do with your Jeopardy skills; it was, quite literally, a matter of luck.

I thought myself clever for sending in 10 cards. I found out later than some people sent more than a hundred. Yet on the first try they chose my card. I received a phone call telling me to report to a certain hotel ballroom at the appointed time to take the first portion of the tryout, a written test.

These days, the random postcards are dispensed with and you can take the test online at the Be a Contestant page on the Jeopardy web site — but only when they announce a contestant search, which is only a few times a year. Still, this method gives you much better odds than hoping your card is pulled from the pile.

8. Patience Required

My initial stage of the contestant search began with about 500 people in a large hotel ballroom. We received a written test: 15 minutes to answer 50 Jeopardy-like questions. (In a concession to time, you didn’t have to answer in the form of a question.) That gave you 18 seconds per question to read, comprehend, and write down the answer. (Sample question: “This state postal abbreviation is an antonym for ‘full’.” Answer: MT.)

They collected the tests, and Alex Trebek came out and schmoozed the room for the half hour or so it took for grading. Afterward, if your name was called, you stayed. Everyone else — better luck next time. There were only 13 of us left. They didn’t tell us what made a passing score. I know I didn’t have a perfect score, as there were two questions I had no idea on. I suspect I was in the 46-47 range, though. Today’s web-based test runs much the same, except you write your answers on your computer. (I haven’t taken the real thing, though, because, by rule, I can’t try out again.)

But a passing grade is only the beginning. Those selected go to the next round, these days held in several cities around the country. (You pay your own travel expenses.) There, the Jeopardy producers look for not just those with trivia crammed into their heads but people who will play well on TV — “play well” as in not embarrassing themselves or the show by cursing, pissing their pants, or otherwise being untelegenic. They’re also looking for a good balance between men and women, and I’m sure they’re looking for some racial diversity, too.

Finding these sorts first involves a practice round. (In my session one of the contestants muttered the queen-mother of all dirty words after a wrong answer. I’m guessing he never got called back.) They then conduct quick, informal interviews. The search concludes with each contestant having to speak extemporaneously for a minute.

The producers then utter the six words guaranteed to interfere with your sleep for the next year: Don’t call us. We’ll call you. In other words, you may have done great on everything, but that still doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily make it on the show.

7. It’s Your Dime

I didn’t hear back from the Jeopardy producers for almost 10 months. At that point I’d sent in my cards for the next contestant search and, amazingly, had my card selected again. But by that point I’d already received the coveted call: Report to the KTLA studios just off of Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard on such and such date.

You’re on your own as to how you actually get there and where you stay once you’re there. Sometimes contestants have to return because, say, their winning streak was interrupted by one of the periodic two-week tournament shows (e.g., Teen Tournament). In such a case, Jeopardy covers the airfare. Ditto for if you are returning to play in the Tournament of Champions. Otherwise, figure you’re going to have to cough up some travel bucks to get yourself to L.A. for a taping.

6. Bring Extra Clothes. Hope You’ll Need Them.

Players are told to bring several changes of clothes with them. That’s because they tape more than one show per day. In fact, they try to do a week’s worth—five shows—per day. But to pretend it’s the next day, the winner goes upstairs to a dressing room and changes.

To make the five-a-day schedule, they try to tape in real time, i.e., a two-minute commercial break is a two-minute break on the set, too. Of course, they have the luxury of stopping to fix a problem if necessary, but the stage manager got really irritated the one time they had to do that the day I was there.

The contestants-in-waiting sit with the studio audience. They don’t know when their turn will come, so it makes it a bit suspenseful to watch the games in progress and gauge your chances against Contestant A or Contestant B.

5. Six Months

They tape several months in advance. It varies, but it’s generally five to six months out. (My shows taped in mid-May and broadcast in early October.) Watch for a contestant wearing a sweater in a June broadcast or letting slip about the icy roads back home in a July broadcast. I’ve always wondered when a specific date reference is made, e.g., a birthday or anniversary, whether it’s in the taping-date universe or the broadcast-date universe. The producers tell you when your show is scheduled to air, with the caveat that that can change.


4. Alex Isn’t Your Buddy

Alex Trebek seems amiable enough on the TV broadcast, and during the contestant search he was very friendly. (From my vantage point in the ballroom I saw mostly his back, but I do remember that he had on a gold Rolex big enough to choke a dinosaur.)

But when you get to the studio for taping he seems cold and standoffish. He does very little interacting with the contestants outside that actual taping of the game. That’s not because he’s a snob. While I’m speculating here, I think he acts this way to prevent any hint of his showing favoritism to any contestant.

During the on-set lunch break he sat by himself. He engaged in no small talk during the set-up for the game as the contestants were prepped and was instantly “on” as soon as the stage manager counted down to the show’s start. Then he became the Alex Trebek most people know from TV. A bit disconcerting but understandable, I think.

3. They Don’t Trust You

While at the studio, contestants are chaperoned everywhere — even to the restroom. (They try really hard not to seem too creepy about it.) They never say why, but I suspect it’s because they don’t want any possibility that someone can slip a contestant inside information—or even the perception that this would be possible. After the game show scandals of the 1940s and ’50s — which today would lead to criminal charges — the Jeopardy producers go to extraordinary lengths to reduce the possibility of cheating.

2. Surprise!

Some people wonder if the contestants are given at least a heads-up on what categories will be on their game. Nope. They have no idea what the categories will be until they’re revealed at the start of each round.

At the beginning of the day, before they taped the first show, we all got a chance at a few practice questions so we could get a feel for the buzzer and the timing—about five or six questions each. Those questions were not remotely related to any of the categories that would appear on that day’s tapings.

1. You Don’t Have to Keep the Prizes

For the first 18 seasons of Jeopardy, the second- and third-place contestant got prizes, not cash. It could vary anywhere from a set of flatware to a trip to some exotic locale. In fact, on the day I won the guy who came in second got a set of vertical blinds. On the day I finished second, the prize was a week in Hawaii. Go figure.

Everyone was offered a variety of other prizes that were little more than advertising plugs for various products such as spray starch, Pop Tarts, and Doan’s Pills. You have to pay tax on the value of the prize, so if you didn’t want it, you could check a box on a form that all contestants sign after their game. I accepted the case of Pop Tarts — we were eating the things for months — and the $250 certificate for women’s clothes from a chain store that no longer exists.

In May 2002  Jeopardy switched to cash prizes of $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third place and completely eliminated the junk prizes.

It took almost four months for my prize check to arrive—sans taxes, of course. Because I worked in New York City, lived in New Jersey, and won the money in California, that year I had to file five tax returns: Federal, New York City, New York State, New Jersey, and California. Of my $12,600 winnings, I netted less than $10,000. (And people wonder why I’m a conservative!)

Tom Neven has written for, among other publications, The Washington Post, The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Writer's Digest, Time-Life, and First Things. He's a Marine Corps veteran and lives with his wife of 30-plus years, Colette, in the Tampa Bay area.
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