Tina Nguyen of our sister site The Braisier achieved nerdvana last night when she appeared on Jeopardy! and was able to show off her smarts and bask in the presence of Alex Trebek. Here she explains how you can achieve the same.
“Oh my god!” people gush whenever they learn that I’m appearing on Jeopardy!. “Are you super smart? Are you like some sort of braniac? Did you tell Alex Trebek to suck it?”
Ideally, the answer would be “Yes, yes, and absolutely.” In reality, the answers are “Sort of, Jeopardy! requires more computer-esque skills, and if I had actually pretended to be Darrell Hammond pretending to be Sean Connery, Trebek would probably punch me.” What I don’t tell them—and what I will reveal to you now—is that it took me four attempts to get on the show. Yes. Four.
This is how I got onto the greatest game show on television, and this is how you can, too.
So you’re the cornerstone of your quiz bowl team, the annoying person who corrects everyone mid-conversation, the human geyser of useless knowledge, and you’ve considered turning that social handicap into liquid assets. Hah. You and thousands of other people.
Every year, 100,000 people take the online test to appear on the show. Out of that, the producers of Jeopardy!—a small team whose names are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever appeared on the show (“Oh, say hi to Maggie for me!”)—select up to 3,000 people to audition in various cities throughout the country.
Obviously, the first tip I can give you is to pass the online test, administered only once a year. (I’ve actually missed many chances to audition for the show, simply because I forgot to take the test that year. Don’t forget things.) The test goes by incredibly quickly: The successful test-taker has about seven seconds to provide a short answer to each question, written in that twisted, convoluted Jeopardy! way. The good news is that your answer doesn’t have to be in the form of a question (or even spelled correctly). The bad news is that you barely have enough time to Google “Which state’s motto is ‘Ad Astra per As-‘” BUZZ. Sorry. You have to go to the next question. And the answer was Kansas. You lose.
Convention would dictate that speedreaders have an advantage, but—and this was a hurdle I had to overcome—read the entire question through, because reading a question too quickly can trip you up. Jeopardy! writers have a tendency to layer clues in their answers, like a verbal nacho dip. You think you’re getting cheese, but really, you’re also eating a mouthful of guac. Similarly, you’d think that “this tragic Shakespearean prince” is Hamlet, but it’s actually Troilus. You lose. Again.
Allegedly one has to correctly answer 35 out of 50 questions to even be considered for an audition, according to the Jeopardy! nerds at J-Archive!, a website that records every game of Jeopardy! that has ever been played, even the ones from the Art Fleming era. If you know who Art Fleming is, congratulations—your chances of getting into the audition are marginally higher than the rest of the population. For everyone else, you have… a 3% chance to make it to stage two.
After the producers select their elite 3,000 they spend weeks reviewing dozens of people at a time, herding them into hotel conference rooms around the country and making them run a battery of tests: a written quiz of 50 Jeopardy! questions, a live round of Actual Jeopardy! with Actual Buzzers, and an interview Q&A. From this, they winnow the would-be contestants to the 400 people who actually appear on the show during the season—a .4% acceptance rate overall. (For comparison, Harvard accepts 5% of its applicants. See, Dad? I could have gone to Harvard WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME MORE?!)
Everyone in that room will be extremely intelligent. They passed the test, after all; they know as much about 19th century Impressionists as you do. Everyone will likely pass the second quiz, exactly the same as the online test but given on pen and paper. Not everyone, however, can actually play Jeopardy!.
A very energetic woman, likely the aforementioned Maggie, will summon three people to stand in front of a projector, thrust buzzers in your hands, and ask you to play like they do on TV—mashing buttons, yelling “What is X!”, and picking categories for $400. No one keeps score, and no one cares if you answer the questions incorrectly: The only thing that matters is that you don’t dawdle with your answers. (“What is…um…it’s on the tip of my tongue…Oh! I know, it’s Madagas–” NO JEOPARDY! FOR YOU.) They only have 22 minutes to tape each episode, after all. They’re looking for people who can keep pace.
But don’t buzz in or yell out answers before they’re done reading the question. That’s forbidden, and punishable by being denied the chance to appear on Jeopardy!, which is a fate worse than death.
Stand Out, But Don’t Be a Weirdo
Before your audition, the producers will take a quick photo of you with the last Polaroid camera in existence. This is a good opportunity to dress like a Cool Person, since showing some sign of hipness will automatically get you cast: When I ended up filming my episode, I competed against a large bloc of young men with cool beards and hipster glasses.
After the mock game, the producers will interview you in front of everyone else in the room to see whether you are personable and can talk to people, or some weirdo serial killer. Now you can shine like the beautiful snowflake you are—that is, if you prepare your anecdotes ahead of time.
Case in point: An extremely handsome young management consultant auditioned in my group, one I thought was a shoe-in (and one whom I considered asking out later), until he reached the interview segment.
“You didn’t have any anecdotes prepared, did you,” the producer drawled, “so I have to ask about the one thing you did write down.” He looked down at the sheet, quizzical. “It says here…that you were a sperm donor, and have fathered ten children.”
That’s an extreme example, but boringness doesn’t help much. In my first audition for the College Tournament I was a Tulane University freshman with terrible hair and questionable sartorial choices, quivering in some Sheraton in Nashville. Nothing changed the second or third times, except for the fact that I’d transferred to a college in California, I’d chopped my hair seven inches shorter, and the Sheratons were in different cities. But each time we reached the interview portion of the audition, I was just some average college student with some average college stories.
The fourth time was different: I had perfect makeup, excellent hair, an Armani sheath dress in electric royal blue, and an opening line I’d worked on for days. “Hi,” I said with the most charming smile I could summon. “I’m Tina Nguyen, and I get drunk with the world’s best chefs for a living.”
(Many weeks later, I got The Call while at a nightclub opening. “I’M GONNA BE ON JEOPARDY!” I screamed to a tall, blonde model in a Russian hat who handed me a vodka tonic. She looked at me, puzzled, wondering how this nerd had mistakenly wandered into New York’s Hottest Club. I am probably the only Jeopardy! contestant to whom this has ever happened.)
If you’re lucky or conversationally gifted, you’ll have a natural conversation with the producers, and they’ll remember you for your sparkling wit and interpersonal warmth. (I got peppered with questions about restaurant recommendations, which, well, that’s my life.) If not, prepare sparklingly witty and personally warm answers to the following questions:
- What is it that you do for a living? (HINT: The answer is “I’m an astronaut.”)
- Where would you like to travel? (HINT: The answer is “space.”)
- If you won serious Ken Jennings money, what would you spend it on? (HINT: The answer is, “I’d like to buy a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight, and take a dog with me to honor Laika, the first animal in space.” But seriously, say anything that is not “I would like to pay off my college loans and start a 401k.” You don’t deserve to be on Jeopardy! if you say that.)
Try Again in the Future
If you’re one of the lucky chosen, at some point in the sixteen months after your audition a producer will call you and rock your world to its nerdy foundation. If not, don’t despair: Failing your Jeopardy! audition isn’t actually failing, it’s practice for the next time.
It’s not just that I knew what the producers were looking for the fourth time, though that really did calm my nerves. When I look back on it, it took me six freaking years to make it onto the show, and in that time, whether I realized it or not, I lived a pretty rad life and became, if not a cooler person (as if that’s ever going to happen), someone confident and collected enough to be put on national television in front of stern knowledge-master Alex Trebek.
Preventing yourself from looking like an idiot on national television, though—that’s another story, one for tomorrow, when I’m legally obligated to talk about driving to Culver City, competing on Jeopardy!, and catching a glimpse of Huell from Breaking Bad on the Sony lot.