SAN FRANCISCO -- As James Holzhauer continues to dominate on "Jeopardy!", making more than $1.2 million in his current 16-day winning streak, a less-successful contestant reflects on her time answering in the form of a question.
As a lifelong insufferable know-it-all whose friends long ago lost all interest in playing Trivial Pursuit with her, I knew that eventually I'd try my hand at the big show: "Jeopardy!"
I tried out for "Jeopardy!" in 2013 by taking an online quiz, setting off a journey that took over a year and a half from hitting "submit" on that first quiz to seeing myself on TV. Every year, when the online tryouts come around, I try to encourage my friends and family to give it a shot. Not everyone can be a James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, or Julia Collins - but you can have a great time, and end up with a little cash and fun story to tell.
Here's my advice for getting onto "Jeopardy!", during each stage of the long audition process.
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1. Relax, it's just a Buzzfeed quiz
The initial "Jeopardy!" screening process used to be done in person. Now, "Jeopardy!" qualifies contestants with an online quiz. The tests are held twice a year, and contestants must register for the quiz in advance. The quiz is only open and active at designated dates and times - to me it seemed quaint and old-fashioned to have to sit down at the computer at a specific time. But once the test started, it felt like just any other online quiz you'd find on BuzzFeed or Sporcle.
The test takes less than 20 minutes, and spelling doesn't count as long as you get the name phonetically correct. You don't even have to answer in the form of a question, so just relax and do the best you can. They don't tell you your score at the end of the test, so remind yourself it's only a game and then maybe find out what kind of pizza you are on BuzzFeed instead.
2. Practice, don't panic
Three months after the online test, I received an email inviting me to an in-person audition. It was really happening.
Many people have asked me if I studied for "Jeopardy!". The answer is, "Not really." I've done trivia contests all my life, from the National Geographic Bee in school, to making spending money competing in radio trivia contests in college, to being on a championship pub quiz team. So I just kept on doing those things - and watching "Jeopardy!", of course. It comes as a surprise to some that I wasn't actually a regular watcher of the show before auditioning. I watched it every night with my family growing up, but once I was living on my own, I just didn't make time for TV.
That changed when it was time to practice for my audition. I stood up in front of the TV every night with a ballpoint pen in my hand. I practiced the entire process, from ringing in to saying the answer out loud in the form of a question - it's a lot different than sitting on the couch and muttering the answers under your breath. But mostly, I tried not to panic. I knew what I knew - any info I tried to cram probably wouldn't stick. I just needed to get used to the mechanics of the game and get into its rhythm.
3. Show them you won't totally bomb on TV
Once you get to the audition, pretty much everyone can answer the questions. That's the easy part.
The hard part is convincing the contestant coordinators that you'll make good TV - or at least that you won't totally melt down and embarrass yourself in front of a national audience. The three contestant coordinators run the audition like they could do it while sleeping, they've gone through the motions so many times. The "Jeopardy!" contestant team consists of fewer than a half-dozen people, but most of them have been around so long that even "Jeopardy!" nerds on online message boards know them by name. They're equal parts brusque but helpful; they know you're nervous but they've got hundreds more people to see after you.
Make their job easy by dressing neatly and professionally, smiling big, and speaking loudly and clearly. The in-person audition consists of more written tests, a mock game, and telling your "contestant stories." When you stand up in front of the coordinators, they're making sure you don't crack under pressure.
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4. Make your "contestant stories" unique and funny
The "contestant stories" on "Jeopardy!" can be notoriously bad. There's a whole twitter account, @CoolJepStories, dedicated to making fun of them. "Jeopardy!" wants to provide a little bit of personality to its contestants, but they give you only a couple of seconds - they know the audience just wants to get back to the game.
So, make your story as unique and funny as you can. Don't tell a story about how you met your spouse, your cute cat, or your vacation to Hawaii. You can tell those stories if you: met your spouse while escaping from a prison riot, your cat knows how to drive a car AND was your getaway driver from the prison breakout, or if your vacation to Hawaii was actually when you were hiding out when you were on the lam.
You submit three stories to the producers ahead of your show, and host Alex Trebek is the one who makes the final call on which one to read. My stories were about a small-space interior design blog I used to run called "Tiny-Ass Apartment," how my voice was used on a talking spatula made by a company I used to work for, and how I was an amateur boxer when I lived in Los Angeles. The producers knew Alex would like that last one because Alex loves boxing, and they were right - that's the one he asked me to tell on the show.
5. Get your thumb ready
My episode of "Jeopardy!" was on reigning champ Julia Collin's fifteenth game. She'd go on to win five more. By this time, she had practice on the most important part of "Jeopardy!": the buzzer.
The buzzer is a tricky thing. Ringing in to answer a question must be timed carefully. Alex Trebek must finish asking the question, and then a ring of tiny lights - off-screen to the audience at home - light up around the gameboard. That's when you're allowed to ring in - ringing in before that gets you locked out. You're advised to just mash the buzzer over and over with your thumb as fast as you can, because if all the contestants get locked out, you won't know when the lockout will expire. Better to just keep pressing.
A trick I was too nervous to execute was to just ring in for everything. As I said before, at this point most people know the answers to the questions. So, if you ring in even if you're not totally sure of the answer, you buy yourself a few more precious seconds to pull the answer from the deep recesses of your brain.
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6. Know what to expect
"Jeopardy!" has an entire culture built around it. You may think you're a "Jeopardy! nerd" because you watch the show every night, but trust me: there are people who take it very, very seriously.
There are message boards for past contestants and current enthusiasts to discuss the show. There are websites that analyze game strategy, like The Final Wager. Famous past competitors like Ken Jennings and Chuck Forrest have written books about the game. And then, of course, there are online essays like this one, that tell you how it all goes down.
If you're lucky enough to get onto the show, read as many of these as you can. Knowing what to expect when you step onto the stage at the Sony lot will remove the anxieties that can keep you from remembering the answers you need.
7. For the love of God, answer in the form of a question
This one seems obvious. It isn't.
The stress and nerves from the entire audition and taping process can make you revert back to your old couch-watching habits, including just blurting out the answer without the crucial question structure. You can phrase the question however you want, even if it's not grammatically correct. You can say, "What are George Washington?" and it's acceptable. And the only time they stop the taping of the show (which is shot pretty much in real-time) is to give you time to write down your Final Jeopardy wager and the beginning of the written question-answer. You take a little stylus and write on the video screen "What is..." - then, when the cameras come back on, you finish writing your answer.
Get used to answering in the form of a question, because once you're on "Jeopardy!", it'll follow you the rest of your life. As a part of the ABC7-KGO trivia team this past February, we were asked to give one of our answers in the form of a question... and both me and my colleague, three-day-Jeopardy! champ Jericho Saria, totally forgot. We were the only team with two "Jeopardy!" alums, and we were never able to live down our mistake.
So take it from me. If you want to get on "Jeopardy!", relax, practice (but not too hard), smile, and make sure everything that comes out of your mouth starts with, "What is...?"
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