Jeopardy! is celebrating its 30th season this year. For the first 21 of those seasons, I dreamed of being a Jeopardy! contestant. For the last nine seasons, I would give my right kidney for a do-over, or my left kidney for that matter. Take your pick. Sadly, there are no do-overs with Jeopardy!.
Young people of today don't understand the frustration smart television viewers felt when watching game shows before Jeopardy! returned to the air. Up until then, the closest pretender to a challenging quiz show was The Joker's Wild. And by closest I mean contestants on each show had to answer some questions.* The similarity ended there. The difficulty of Joker questions ran the gamut from I-learned-that-when-I-was-in-first-grade to my-dog-knows-the-answer-to-that-and-he's-not-even-all-that-smart.
Still, it was fun to be able to impress friends with my first grade education. It would have been even better if The Joker's Wild asked more than seven questions per episode. A contestant could win by answering three questions correctly. Alas, answering questions wasn't the point of the game. The point of the game was pulling on the arm of a giant slot machine and yelling (you guessed it) "JOKER! JOKER! JOKER!" until the contestant won a set of luggage and Jack Barry announced they were out of time. Exhilarating it was not.
I was eighteen when the new incarnation of Jeopardy! premiered. I was elated. Sixty-one challenging questions per game, and no giant slot machines. It was so wonderful, I was sure it wouldn't last. Nothing good on television ever does.
But it has. For thirty glorious seasons.
From the start, I dreamed of being contestant. In those days, either you went to California for an audition (an unlikely scenario for an unemployed community college student) or waited for the auditions to come to you. I only remember them announcing Detroit auditions once. I sent a postcard as instructed. I heard nothing.
Still, I watched. Every episode. When I was home, I mean. I didn't have a VCR back then. But, I also didn't have much of a social life. So, yeah, I watched it a lot.
Finally, in 2000, I got my chance. An audition in Chicago was announced, so I put my name in and crossed my fingers. I got a phone call inviting me to Chicago for the test. I was as excited as I've ever been for anything in my life. I will leave it at that.
I told my husband. He was somewhat less excited.
"Was there a screening process? How do you know you can pass the test?"
After thanking him for his heartwarming confidence in me, I informed him that I was going to Chicago, I was going to take the test, and I was going to pass it. I also told him it was in his best interest to have a little more faith in me if he wanted me to share my winnings--or anything else--with him.
I went to Chicago. The test was at the Sheraton on Michigan Avenue. Very nice. Lots of test takers. Lawyers, doctors, college professors, and me. The contestant coordinator warned us the test was difficult. Fifty questions and they didn't have those hints that point you to the answer like on the show. You either knew it or you didn't. They didn't tell us what the passing score was (I later learned it was 35/50) which made me worry that if I got a single one wrong, I was done for.
I suddenly became desperately afraid that my husband's skepticism was well-founded. What made me think I could pass this test? It seemed like I was the only person there without a college degree. Well, me and the guy with a biker jacket, ponytail and very few teeth. He had confidence though. Mine was slipping away rapidly. I would've traded a few of my teeth for that guy's confidence. Molars, of course. Nothing that showed.
Panic set in. My one consolation was that I'd won the door prize, a Jeopardy! t-shirt. The day wouldn't be a total loss.
The test started. I took a deep breath.
Question one: "Who wrote Tess of the D'urbervilles?"
It was a sign from above!
It wasn't just that I knew Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D'urbervilles.
It wasn't because I thought it was a very easy question.
I took it as good omen because, not only did I know the answer but Tess of the D'urbervilles is my favorite book in the whole wide world.
The first question on the test was about my favorite book. It was as if the Jeopardy! gods were saying, "Don't worry. You got this." And I did.
When the test was over, we were told that fourteen of us passed. Fourteen out of seventy-five. The names were read. Talk about drama. You've seen the the movie Miracle, right? Remember the look on the faces of the hockey players as Kurt Russell called the names of those who'd made the cut? It was like that.
But without skates.
Mine was the last name read. A little too much drama for my taste. I wouldn't have remembered if my name had been called fourth or seventh. It's hard to forget your name being the very last one. All I heard was "Not Beth" thirteen times.
Of course, my name being read meant sixty-one hopes dashed. I felt bad for them. For about a minute. Once they'd all left the room, I got over it. There was a lot of grumbling as they departed, as if somehow Jeopardy! had cheated them. Asked the wrong questions. Some of them even threw down their questionnaires and souvenir Jeopardy! pens indignantly.
I tried really hard not to make eye-contact with any of the doctors, lawyers, and college professors as they walked past. And I tried really hard not to look smug. But, I was so darned pleased with myself. You're probably expecting me to tell you the toothless guy with the ponytail was one of the fourteen. I'm not going to.
When the rejected test takers left, the audition process started. We answered questions about ourselves, and played a mock game. I was feeling really good. My husband sat outside the conference room, and he started feeling really good when I didn't emerge with the first wave. Naturally, he spent the remaining time trying to find the right words to beg my forgiveness for his lack of faith. But then he gave up on that and just decided to deny he'd been anything but completely supportive. I was in a good mood, so I let him slide.
Our drive back to Michigan was joyful. I was sure the call would come soon. I half expected there to be a message on the answering machine when we walked through the door. I was going to be on Jeopardy!. Hurray!
But the call didn't come. I was told they keep your name on file for a year.
A year passed. Disappointment set in.
Then came the summer of 2001. Another Chicago audition was announced. Again, I submitted my name. Again, I was selected to take the test. Again, I made the road trip to Chicago. This time we took the kids. Family fun time in Chicago.
On the morning of the test, my skirt was wrinkled. There was no iron in the room and I didn't have time to wait for one to be sent up. It's hard to ooze confidence with a wrinkled skirt.
When the test started, I didn't know the answer to the first question. I didn't know the answer to the second question. Or the third. I was going to fail the test and have to leave, ashamed (I would've kept the pen, though). But, saints be praised, I knew the answer to the fourth question and the next several. I was doing okay. I hoped. I tried to keep track of the ones I didn't know, and the ones I had to guess at. Five blanks. Ten guesses. I didn't like the odds.
This time, we were told that only five people passed. Seventy people would have to leave. I steeled myself for a big letdown.
Mine was the first name called. Big letdown averted.
I wondered why I'd doubted myself.
After the indignant pen throwing and grumbling subsided, it was time for the audition. I was inexplicably nervous this time. I can only attribute the nerves to my wrinkled skirt. I remember my hand shaking as I poured myself a glass of ice water. My throat was dry and I wobbled when I walked.
I hope I have conveyed the importance of travel irons and amenity rich hotel rooms to would-be Jeopardy! contestants. If only I'd known then.
During the interview and mock game, I was a red-faced, tongue-tied, weak-kneed mess. I blew it completely. I was mad at myself, and knew they wouldn't call this time either. I was right.
In 2004, I went for my third and last Jeopardy! test. We took the kids again. And just to mix things up, I was pregnant. Visibly. Something fun to talk about during the interview.
The test was at Navy Pier this time, and everything felt different, in a good way. I readied myself for the test to begin, hoping for a good omen. I got it with the first question. "In the bible, who was Esau's brother?" The question might as well have been "What is your son's first name, Beth?" because the answer would have been the same. Might have been a little unfair to the other test-takers, though, so it's probably good they asked the bible question instead.
Definitely a good omen.
I knew they'd call my name. They did.
This time I was not going to let my nerves get the better of me.
They called me forward to chat.
I was all smiles and confidence.
On the questionnaire, next to "how many children?" I had written 2.5. The contestant coordinator loved that. Making the interviewers chuckle is a key factor in getting selected for the show. And, clearly, it's not that hard. I thought it was fairly lame joke myself. But I was grateful for the chuckle.
He asked me to tell him about myself. I said, "I work as a lunch lady in a middle school cafeteria, so nothing scares me anymore."
I got this.
More chit-chatting, more laughs. Bring on the mock game. I was on a roll.
I was killing it. I found out later that my husband and children were listening through the door. They were feeling pretty good, too.
The only clue I clearly remember was "He was the narrator of Treasure Island."
I buzzed in.
"Who was Jim?"
Hawkins. Jim Hawkins. I remember it now. I didn't then. Not knowing Jim's last name worked in my favor. Here's another piece of advice for potential Jeopardy! contestants,
if you can't be right, be funny.
"Jim the narrator."**
Laughs galore. They loved me. Oh, I was going to get called this time. I felt it in my bones.
I really wanted them to call me right away. After all I was very pregnant. Timing was crucial. I guess the staff of Jeopardy! didn't share my concern. In retrospect, I'm glad they waited. If they had called me right away, I would've been one of Ken Jennings' many victims. Then again, maybe not. Maybe you'd be saying Ken Who?
Who can tell?
You'll have to wait for the rest of my Jeopardy! saga. If you're wondering if the call ever came, I will say...what's the matter with you? Do you have straw for brains? I gave you the answer to that in the first paragraph. There's a picture of me with Alex Trebek right down there, for heaven's sake.
So, now that I've hurt your feelings, you'll probably Google my name to make sure I'm not making this up. You won't find anything though, because I use my maiden name for writing and my married name for everything else, including game show appearances.
I sincerely hope you'll check back for the next part of Jeopardy! story. Oh, and I didn't mean anything by that "straw for brains" remark. No hard feelings, okay?
*Please don't feel the need to point out Jeopardy! gives the contestants the answer, and the contestants supply the questions. I know. Everyone knows. It's just easier and less confusing this way. No one likes a smarty-pants.
**If you appreciate foreshadowing in storytelling, make sure to read part two of my Jeopardy! adventure (coming soon). It's funny how the event that's been foreshadowed never turns out to be a happy thing. Well, not funny really. Tragic is a better description. Horribly, horribly tragic. Have a nice day.