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Jim Ellwanger in Jeopardy!

"Noooo. Sorry." -- Alex Trebek

The Tryout

Sometime in March 2002...Finally, after living in the L.A. area for three years, I call the "Jeopardy!" office to see when they're doing tryouts. They give me the choice of one of three times on April 4th or "sometime in May." I pick April 4th, 11:00 A.M.

Thursday, April 4, 2002...Apparently, they used to do the "Jeopardy!" tryouts in the actual studio, but with the way things are these days, Sony Pictures doesn't want a lot of weirdos on the lot, so I dutifully showed up at the Radisson hotel in Culver City at 10:50 for the tryout. Well, first I showed up at about 10:20, thanks to fairly light traffic on the 405 freeway (must have been because of that new carpool lane), but I decided that would have been ridiculously early, so I drove around Culver City for a while. Sony may be able to keep weirdos off the lot, but they can't keep weirdos from driving around the outside of the studios!

I walked into the lobby and spotted a line that I presumed was people waiting for the tryout, but I surreptitiously kept an eye on the "Today's Hotel Events" TV monitor just to make sure. Yes, it turned out, there was a breakfast meeting of Radisson vice-presidents in a third floor meeting room at 7:30 A.M. Oh, and, yes, this was the line for "Jeopardy!" tryouts.

Within about five minutes, the approximately 50 people in line were let into the "Catalina" meeting room, and were given an official "Jeopardy!" pen, a thin sheet of cardboard, a white sheet of paper with 50 blanks, a pink sheet of paper with five blanks, and a green sticker to put on our parking ticket so we'd only have to pay half price when we left. (Some people hadn't brought their parking tickets in with them and had to keep their green sticker somewhere else, but I remembered "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" validating last summer, even though I didn't drive to that tryout. See, I'm a veteran of these tryouts.)

Anyway, we all sat down facing a movie screen in the front of the room. One of the three contestant coordinators (two youngish men and an older woman) identified himself and answered a few questions, which went something like this:

Q. Have the ratings gone up since the dollar values were doubled?

A. That's an excellent question, but I don't know.

Q. Are there more people trying out now that the dollar values are doubled?

A. I don't know. (At which point the woman jumped in and clarified that they don't keep statistics on the number of people who attempt to try out but don't actually get to; they just got back from holding tryouts in New York and had gotten 100,000 postcards from people who wanted to try out there, but that was fairly typical of when they've done tryouts in New York before.)

Q. Is Alex Trebek going to grow his mustache back?

A. I don't know. Probably not.

Q. How much does he get paid?

A. I don't know. A lot.

They asked if anyone had come a long way to take the test. One man had come from British Columbia. A woman had come from New York. Another man chimed in and said he came all the way from Folsom, California, so the coordinator got to scoff, "That's not that far away!"

Finally, it was time for the test to begin...no, wait, it was time for them to show a video of Alex saying he was sorry he couldn't be there today, and then the semi-annoying members of the Clue Crew telling us about the test. At the end, they reminded us it was only a game show, which the contestant coordinators then reiterated ("It's not an IQ test, it's just a test to get on a game show"). "Jeopardy!" used to be adamant about referring to itself as a quiz show, not a game show, but I guess not anymore. Maybe they wanted to make sure all the Emmy voters realized "Jeopardy!" was eligible in the "game show" categories.

Then it was time to put the white sheet of paper with 50 blanks on top of the thin sheet of cardboard, uncap the official "Jeopardy!" pen, and begin the test. It was 50 "Jeopardy!" questions in 50 different categories, displayed on the big screen with announcer Johnny Gilbert reading them out loud, with about eight seconds between each question. Fortunately, we didn't have to write "what is" or "who is" on the answer sheet, just the answer, and there was no penalty for being incorrect.

By the time all 50 had gone by, I was feeling pretty good. I was pretty sure I was correct on 40 out of the 50, including a couple where I was able to go back, cross out what I had initially answered, and write in something else. (For example, I'd guessed Barry Sonnenfeld on one, then later realized I was actually thinking of Barry Levinson, but now that I'm sitting in front of my computer and can check the Internet Movie Database, it turns out it was neither one of them. Sheesh.) There was only one question that I was absolutely not sure of and couldn't even make what I thought was a good guess, and it was because I haven't listened to the radio much in the past three years.

(That previous paragraph is intentionally vague because we were warned about the test being confidential, so I don't want to post it to the Web at large.)

Then the coordinators collected the answer sheets and went off to grade them. From reading other people's accounts of trying out for "Jeopardy!", I knew they already had a passing score in mind, and it was something around 40. They showed us another video while the tests were being graded; it looked like it was this past TV season's "Jeopardy!" promotional video, intended to impress the various TV stations carrying "Jeopardy!" so they would keep paying the big bucks to continue showing "Jeopardy!" It was all about the four members of the Clue Crew and how wonderful they were, and it pointed out the potential opportunities for promotion when the Clue Crew would be visiting your city to tape clues.

Meanwhile, everyone was furiously filling in the pink sheets with the five blanks, which were the "what would Alex like to talk to you about during the show?" sheets. (That was really why I hadn't tried out before now, because I hadn't thought of five things for this sheet until recently.)

After that 10-minute video, and five minutes of near silence in the room while people were still filling in the pink sheets, the coordinators came back to read off the names of the people who passed. Applaud for them, we were instructed, and then go away if they didn't call your name.

The first name they read was mine, and I dutifully soaked up the applause, then clapped for five more names, and that was it.

The six of us, all white males between, I would estimate, 25 and 45, were told to move to the front of the room and given new sheets to fill out. These were more detailed information sheets, including such popular blanks as "Social Security number," "occupation," and "dates not available." While we filled those out, one of the coordinators took individual Polaroids of us so they'd remember who we were when they looked at our sheets later.

Then we were split up into two groups of three, and each group played a little bit of "Jeopardy!" In the past, as I understand it, this involved bells and index cards, but now they've gone high-tech and had us holding buzzers similar to the ones on the show while looking at a computer simulation of the show's game board. They didn't have the lockout device like on the actual show, and I have the feeling that they weren't necessarily calling on the person who rang in first; I think they were more interested in whether or not we could speak clearly and enunciate, remember to use the "form of a question" phrasing, and immediately call out another category and dollar amount after being ruled correct.

After each person had gotten three or four chances to answer, the coordinators stopped the game and had us talk a little about ourselves. Unlike the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" tryouts, they didn't look at our information sheets and ask questions; they just had us talk. As far as I recall, this is what I said:

"My name is Jim Ellwanger. I'm originally from Tampa, Florida, but I moved out here after college because a lot of my friends from school had also moved out here. Every month or so, we get together and play broomball, which is kind of like hockey, played on a hockey rink in street shoes and with these plastic wedge-shaped things on the end of broomsticks" --

(At this point the female coordinator sort of interrupted.) "You play on ice?"


"In regular shoes?"

"Yes, but it's usually after hockey practice has chewed up the ice, so there's not too much slipping and sliding."

"And what would you do if you won the money?"

"Travel -- I really like trains, and I would love to go to Europe and ride the trains there, or take the train across Canada, or go to Australia -- I've heard they have some nice train routes there."

During all of this, I should point out, the female coordinator was writing notes on everyone's information sheets while the male coordinators were running the game board. No, I didn't see what she was writing.

The six of us are in the contestant pool for the next calendar year, which works out to the entire 2002-03 season, and they could call us at any time. Or, more likely, not call us, since they end up with more people in the pool, especially white males, than they'll actually need on the show. Other people's web pages have estimated that there's a one in four chance of getting on the show after passing the test, although one of the six of us was trying out for the 13th consecutive year. (Yes, the coordinators recognized him.) Tapings are scheduled to begin in June.

So now we play the waiting game.

The waiting game is boring. Let's play Hungry Hungry Hippos.

By the way, as it turned out, all that rigamarole with the green stickers was for naught, because the booth in the parking lot was unmanned and the gate was open. There was a sign on the door of the booth reading "DROP TICKETS HERE" with an arrow pointing down, but there was no receptacle in which to drop them. The person in the car leaving in front of me just kind of threw their ticket out the window.

Tuesday, November 5, 2002...Election Day, but more importantly, I turn on "Jeopardy!" and recognize one of the contestants as one of the other five white males who passed the test at the tryout I describe above. He's probably the only other one I would have recognized, and it's because I remember thinking he had the best chance to make it on the show. He had flown out to L.A. from South Carolina pretty much solely for the purpose of taking the test. (This episode actually aired Monday in most of the country, but here in L.A., due to "Monday Night Football," "Jeopardy!" goes on a Tuesday-Saturday schedule in the fall.)

A couple of weeks ago, a former co-worker who now works for the company that now closed-captions "Jeopardy!" e-mailed me to tell me about this guy, because he reminded her of me. She said he was a long-lost brother, or at least a distant cousin.

It's nice to know that the files from my audition didn't get lost along the way somewhere, but on the other hand, maybe they've now filled their quota of people who are a lot like me who tried out at that April tryout.

Oh, he lost because he didn't get Final Jeopardy! correct. I got it right, sitting at home. Of course, I can't laugh too hard, because there's a pretty good chance of the situation being reversed someday.

So now we continue to play the waiting game.

I already used up the "Simpsons" reference here, so I'll misquote Boy George instead: "Someday soon, I'm gonna tell the moon about the waiting game."

The Second Tryout

March 31, 2003...I had given "Jeopardy!" every possible opportunity to call me to be a contestant, going so far as to get caller ID in November so I'd know instantly if it was them calling. (Well, after the first ring.) But they hadn't called by now, so I called them, so I could try out again in April, now that the one-year waiting period was up. They were doing tryouts on April 16th, but they only had space in the 9:00 A.M. session. Oh, well, I would have gotten up early to go to work anyway.

April 16, 2003...Back to the Centinela meeting room at the Radisson in Culver City. Everything was run pretty much the same as it was last year, although there were different contestant coordinators, Tony and Maggie. Before the test started, Tony asked if anyone had been on a game show before, and a surprising number of people raised their hands: someone who had been on "Debt" and "The Weakest Link," a man who had been on "Press Your Luck," a man who won $125,000 with his wife on a couples' edition of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" ("You've spent it all already?" "Uh, yeah."), and a man who lost on "Jeopardy!" in 1994. This is a problem, since anyone who's appeared on the show since it was brought back in 1984 is ineligible to reappear. There's a brief discussion in which he swears the contract he signed said something about "five years" and he drove down from San Francisco, but eventually, they give him a "Jeopardy!" baseball cap, and he goes away.

They don't do a general question-and-answer session this year, they just go ahead and start playing Johnny Gilbert reading the questions on the video screen. The test seems a little harder than the one I took last year, but I manage to slog through. While they're being scored, this year, they don't show a promotional video, and I end up having a conversation with a couple of the people sitting near me about the alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules in New York, among other things.

Out of the 48 people there, 8 people passed, and mine is the sixth name read. It turns out that, unlike last year, the group includes two actual non-male female-type people. All the non-passers file out, and we all fill out the information sheets, have our pictures taken, and so on and so forth. By luck of the draw, they call me up to play the mock game with only one other potential contestant (necessary because eight isn't an even multiple of three), so I guess I get a little more buzzer practice than most of the others. Some of the mock game questions were ones I'd seen a year ago, but I guess that doesn't really matter in this part of the tryout. In the interview, since it's different contestant coordinators, I just say basically the same things I'd said last year: I'm originally from Tampa, I'm living in North Hollywood, I'm a closed captioner, I play broomball occasionally (and here, it turns out one of the technicians running the game board played it intramurally in college), and if I win, I want to spend the money traveling by train.

So now, on to another year of coming home from work and, when there's a message on the answering machine, thinking, "Oh, boy! Maybe it's 'Jeopardy!'"

When I got home, I checked on one question from the test: in the category African-American Women, it was something like "this former Miss Black Tennessee started her own magazine in 2002." My first thought was Oprah, of course, but I thought "O" had started a couple of years before 2002. So then I started second-guessing that, thinking, "Wait, wasn't Halle Berry a beauty queen? Did she start a magazine last year? But isn't she from Georgia, not Tennessee?" (Yes, all of this in the 8 seconds or so between questions.) Eventually, I shrugged and stayed with Oprah.

After doing a little Internet research, Oprah was clearly who they were going for, since she's the only Miss Black Tennessee to ever start a magazine (as far as I can tell), but "O" started in 2000, not 2002. I think they check their facts a little more carefully in questions used on the actual show, fortunately for everyone involved.

The Third Tryout

March 31, 2004...This year, they actually have upcoming tryout dates listed on the "Jeopardy!" web site. But when I call to ask about the April 14th tryout, they tell me it's full, but they're doing tryouts on April 20th (not listed on the site).

April 20, 2004...This time, the location of the tryout was Stage 10 at Sony Pictures Studios, the actual home of "Jeopardy!", and Sofia and Jimmy of the Clue Crew were there. Other than the literature questions, the test seemed a bit easier than in 2002 and 2003. Oh, and I didn't mention broomball in the interview portion. Here's what I wrote about the tryout on my blog:

I tried out for "Jeopardy!" for the third time today, and once again, I passed the test and now get to wait up to a year for them to call me. Actually, while I wait, I should probably study literature, which is what I had the most trouble with on the test. Like perhaps I should try to remember that Mark Twain didn't write "House of the Seven Gables." (No, my misses on the test weren't quite that bad, but I'm not posting actual test questions on the Internet.)

The previous two times I had taken a test, it was in a hotel, but this time, post-9/11 security concerns at Sony Pictures Studios seem to have eased enough for them to once again do the tryouts right there in the audience seating area of the actual "Jeopardy!" set. Which, by the way, was not all that impressive without the lights on and with plastic over everything. I'm enough of a veteran of TV studios that I didn't think it looked smaller in person than it does on TV, and, in fact, the distance from the back of the contestant podiums to the wall behind the contestants is greater than it looks on TV.

This time, 12 people passed the test, 11 men and one woman. I will be very surprised if one particular person doesn't get on the show...he's the director of sales for the Uncle Milton company, and had a very different personality from all the other engineers, computer programmers, and closed-captioners who were there (i.e., a lot more outgoing, like they like on game shows). Unfortunately, I don't remember his name, but if there's someone on the show in the next year who talks ant farms with Alex, I'll know.

One more note: while we potential contestants were waiting in a waiting area on the bottom floor of the parking garage, a man answered his cell phone with, "Whassup?" At that moment, I predicted he wouldn't pass the test (correctly); a true "Jeopardy!" contestant would answer "Ahoy," in a simultaneous tribute to Alexander Graham Bell and C. Montgomery Burns.

(For future "Jeopardy!" updates, as well as updates about my efforts to get on "Super Millionaire," the place to be is my blog.)

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Page Last Updated: May 1, 2004