Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How I got there, or my road to Jeopardy!

My first memories of Jeopardy are from when I was working at K-mart. I started my junior year, and worked there until a few months after high school graduation. My evening break was usually during the time it was on, and other people would be watching it in the break room. This would have been around 1989-90. I would call out answers, and amaze the adults, and they would say that I should be on the show.

That was a nice thought, but I never thought of it as a real possibility until my senior year at U of O, when I saw an ad to try out for the college tournament. I did apply, and I was invited to audition. This happened in November 1995.

I actually wrote a little about that time at http://sporkful.blogspot.com/2006/06/my-weekend-with-baywatch-babe.html, but it doesn’t really mention much about the tryout. Obviously I did not get on, and that was discouraging, but one thing I realized is that with a tournament there are only fifteen slots, so your odds of getting in are much worse, though the cash guarantees if you get in are much better. We took a written test on the Jeopardy sound stage, and since I did not get called back to play the practice game, I knew I had missed too many. I can tell you that one of the questions was about the author of Trees, because I could not remember Joyce Kilmer while I was in there, but the moment I left the studio I did.

I was not at my best then. Things on my mind included my father leaving my mother, the dorm RA being missing and presumed dead (that presumption was correct), and desperately wanting to talk to “Mitch”, but also having been stupid with him and being fairly sure that he saw through it. In those ways, it was a kind of rough weekend. On the plus side, I came to an epiphany that we desperately needed a vacation, my family bought in, and that started our Disneyland tradition. Also, life did go on.

I am not sure exactly when I started trying out regularly, but I do remember at one point being discouraged, but one contestant on the show, Wes Ulm, mentioned that he had tried out five times before he got on, and he made it into the Tournament of Champions. Actually, he was in the same tournament as Bob Harris, author of Prisoner of Trebekistan. Also, a few seasons ago a tournament winner, Vijay, had tried out nine times, I think, so part of it is just realizing that it is hard to get on.

The process has changed some now. My first two times at least, there was not an online test, and only people who got enough right on the written test played the practice game. (They stop counting when they hit the right number, and you never find out how you did, if anyone is wondering.) Now with the online test, you still do a written test at the audition, but everyone plays the practice game—maybe I should call it an audition game—but also everyone there has been somewhat qualified by the online test.

So, you take the online test, get a mysterious number correct, and get invited to an audition. At the time you take the test, you are asked to pick which city would be best for you. My first non-Teen Tournament audition was in Seattle, then there was one in Portland on the waterfront, two in Portland on Alder. Those were all pretty easy to get to.

The next invitation was for Los Angeles. This was a concern, especially as I was unemployed, but Julie let me use her frequent flyer miles for the airfare, and I had Travelocity bonus points for the hotel. What I did not have was good health, which was somewhat related to the lack of insurance, but there were some bad decisions there too. While I was in the emergency room, getting IV antibiotics, Mom came in and told me that our cousin had died. I’m not sure how that compares to my first audition weekend, but it ended up not being an audition weekend. I had to cancel, and it was really a bummer. On the plus side, we were still able to use the credits and miles for other things, so that helped a little.

The chance came around again, this time in Seattle. One thing that is really important is that I tried to improve every time. The first few times I did not pass the written test, and then when I did, I did poorly in the practice game. The next time I was looser with that, but I still was not called. All you know is that if you did okay, you are in the file, and may be called over the next eighteen months. I was thinking it could be two things. Maybe I had too many blackout dates (that tryout was the year I was going to Australia), or maybe it was personality.

The dates were easy to fix—I put none. Sure we had booked a trip to Disneyland, but that’s the same area. I would make it work. We were booking a trip to Mexico and a cruise, but we could reschedule. I was going to be free.

Personality was tougher. I told myself that I would have to make small talk with the other people trying out. In a stressful situation, I like to turn inward, but this time I was going to force myself outward. That was a mitigated success, as I did make some small talk, but other people withdraw too, and I can’t handle rejection. I did some visiting. During the interview, though, I was charming. I flashed my smile, made jokes, and when they took my photo I stuck my chin out, lowered my eyes, and started looking up as they took the photo. That’s supposed to be good.

There was one more display of confidence needed. For my five facts about me, instead of just putting that I am an aspiring screenwriter, I put “After you choose me for this, I hope to someday return to the Celebrity Tournament as a successful screenwriter/filmmaker.”

Honestly, I’m not sure that I was doing the eye/chin thing right, but something worked. The audition was on a Tuesday and they called me that Friday. Oh yeah.

Monday, November 28, 2011

I Lost On Jeopardy! (Baby)

In trying to think of those people whom I know read my blog upon occasion, this is old news—it is pretty well known now that I appeared on Jeopardy and then lost. Still, I think it is worth blogging about. For one thing, in the questions that I have fielded since then when talking to people in person, the same things come up over and over, so there may be some value in just putting the information out there.

Also, writing about things is how I deal with them, sometimes via blog, sometimes journal, and every now in then in the random letter to the editor. (I am not usually consciously working out things in my screenwriting, except for that one time.)

So, I did not win. There were some negative emotions about that, even to the point of wondering how much I should publicize it. It turns out, people generally think it is cool to see someone they know on television, and no one has been too mean about the not winning part.

Also, I did not really embarrass myself. Most people who were watching thought I did great, and this is an area that I want to write more about, especially because I have a greater appreciation now for what it is like up there.

I answered seventeen clues correctly. There are sixty-one total clues, counting Final Jeopardy!, but of course everyone gets to answer in Final, so lets call it sixty, with me getting just under a third. Not bad, though of course which ones you get are important for point totals.

I knew twenty-two other correct responses, but I just could not ring in quickly enough. It is a game of general knowledge, but it is also a game of speed. As Alex finishes reading the clue, there are lights that go on. Ring in before, and you are locked out for half a second. Wait too long, and someone else gets in. It turns out, and this should not be a surprise, that I am slow.

Well, that’s physically slow, not mentally slow. When I was practicing at home, I would practice identifying the correct response right away, then focusing on the last syllable of the clue (then pressing on the side of the remote—I did not really have any good approximations of the clicker). I was good at this, and when I knew the answer I would start clicking right away, but my timing was just not great. As it was, I was shocked any time I actually made it in.

We play practice games before filming, so you can try different things. Some people do better using their non-dominant hand. Actually, Ken Jennings is one of those. He is right handed, but plays left-handed (probably to keep from ringing in too early). Maggie (the contestant coordinator) was telling us this in the green room, and I suddenly had this vision of him playing Watson, and in a Princess Bride moment suddenly saying “I am not left-handed!” then switching to his right and winning, but it didn’t happen. (Actually, I was rooting for Brad, but Watson played like a machine.)
Anyway, I mention this because I think most players up there are in the same boat. In any given game, probably all three contestants know a good 60-70 percent of the board, but they may not be able to prove it. The third place contestant in the game after mine ended with fairly low points, but I saw him in the practice games and he knows plenty of stuff, and he was not even terrible with the buzzer—it’s just how things worked out.

In other statistics, there was one where I guessed, but got it wrong (auger shell), three where I could have gotten it right, and probably even rung in first, but I was unsure and hesitated (oil as an export of Angola, conch shell, and Charms Blow pops), and six answers that I absolutely should have known but could not think of, and eight that I simply did not know. I did know all the daily doubles, even though I did not get them.

My two worst categories were Hospitals and Follows the Band. No one did really well in Follows the Band. I had no idea on Little Monsters (Lady Gaga) and Apple Scruffs (the Beetles), and I did know Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett) but was not fast enough. I should have been able to figure out that Blockheads was for New Kids on the Block, but was still trying to figure out the category at that point. I’m embarrassed that I did not realize that Phans was for Phish, because I have seen Phish Phans before, but I thought it was someone being clever, and did not realize it was a thing. The only thing I could think of was Liz Phair, and I knew that was not right, so I did not ring in.

That brings us to Final Jeopardy. This is also somewhat embarrassing to admit, but the truth is, I was already mentally defeated at this point. I had 10600 points, but I was in third, by a fair amount, so the only chance to win was if I could get the response right while the other two missed, which was a long shot. I wagered accordingly, but I was not mentally there, and I made a key error.

Some of it was contextual. The category was 19th-century quotes, and it referred to the goal of a certain group being the abolition of personal property. It has been a Civil War Anniversary this year, and I had just read articles about the raid on Harpers Ferry and the attach on Fort Sumpter, and of course a big issue was that the slaves were considered to be the property of the owners, and abolitionists were a threat to that mindset, so that’s what I put down.

If I’d had my wits about me, I would have realized that when the correct response is “Abolitionists”, there is no way that “abolition” is going to be in the clue, because that’s way too easy.

I don’t know if I would have been able to come up with the correct response regardless. If I had been in the middle of my progressive reading month, maybe. If I had ever read the Communist Manifesto, probably. I had some economic theory reading coming up, but I had not gotten to it yet. Also, I tend to associate Communism more with the early 20th century, but yes, the thoughts were already out there long before they became a major influence on world history, and that’s good to remember.

The thing is, even if I had gotten it right, so did the other two. The scenario I needed happened in the next game, where only one person knew the answer, and it was one I knew, but if we had gotten that clue in my game, chances are that Sunny the English professor would have known it too.

For irony, a few days after filming, I clicked on a link that someone had posted to Mental Floss. It was a list of words with no counterparts in other languages, but it linked to one on nicknames for fans of musical acts, and every single one was on there. Seeing that earlier might have helped. With the other things though, like if I had not hesitated on those three, and gotten them, well, the impact on the score would have been minimal.

Really, the only thing that could have changed the outcome would have been for me to be faster, and have gotten more of the responses that I knew. That not only raises the score, but being in control of the board increases your odds of getting the daily doubles. Those have a huge impact on Evan’s score.

Genetically, I’m pretty sure I don’t have much in the way of fast-twitch muscle fibers, but I can’t help but think that maybe I should have spent more time playing first person shooter games.