Producers of ‘America’s Favorite Quiz Show’ set up camp in Seattle, testing and interviewing potential contestants in the city ‘Jeopardy!’ champion Ken Jennings calls home.
This wasn’t just a game-show audition. This was a hallowed crowd.
Every season, some 70,000 people take an online test in the hopes of gripping a buzzer and asking a question of the silvery, stoic host Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!”
But only 2,500 to 3,000 — just 3 percent — make it this far: A windowless room at the bottom of the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle, where “Jeopardy!” producers have set up for three days of formal, in-person testing and interviews with those who have made the cut.
They were young and old, men and women, teachers on summer break, programmers and planners from Seattle, Portland, Bellingham and Berkeley. One woman flew in from Reno, and another walked four blocks from her apartment.
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The 34th season of “America’s Favorite Quiz Show” (it’s trademarked) is already underway, and there is only room for 400 contestants.
But if chosen, the people summoned to the Westin this week are put into a contestant pool for 18 months, and could get a call to appear on the show as soon as next week.
A successful “Jeopardy!” contestant has to be able to know “difficult material,” said Maggie Speak, a gregarious, pistol of a producer who has been running “Jeopardy!” auditions for 20 years.
“It’s more recall than anything else,” Speak said. “Good players are usually well-read and interested in a wide variety of things.
“We’re also looking for people who play well and have something that people want to watch.”
Down in Hollywood, the “Jeopardy!” folks see Seattle as a place teeming with potential players of all stripes.
“You have tech types, fit types, the very well-read. Gamers,” Speak said. “The term ‘nerds’ is not what it was when I was young.”
Most people who audition aren’t in it for the money.
“It’s a matter of pride,” Speak said, then paused. “They’re not going to turn down the money, but it’s a matter of pride.”
Seattle is also known as the hometown of legendary champion Ken Jennings, who in 2004 set a “Jeopardy!” record for the most consecutive games played while winning 74 games in a row. He’s also the second highest-earning contestant in game-show history.
“I’ve seen people around him,” Speak said. “He’s like Paul McCartney.”
Speak is the one who handed Jennings his $2.5 million check. Jennings joked that he was going to put it in a jacket pocket and then put it in the laundry for his wife to find.
Speak advised against it.
Each hopeful stood for a photograph and was given a “Jeopardy!” pen to fill out a questionnaire that included “five interesting stories or lies.” (The pen’s oversized red clicker doubled as a practice buzzer).
They then completed a 50-question quiz (they had eight seconds for each answer) before participating in a mock round of “Jeopardy!” Three at a time, just like on TV.
In between, Kelly Miyahara, a University of Washington graduate who is now part of the show’s “Clue Crew” — three show “ambassadors” who deliver clues from around the world — opened the floor to questions.
They film a week’s worth of shows in one day: three in the morning, a break for lunch and then two in the afternoon. So contestants are encouraged to bring a few changes of clothes.
There isn’t really a dress code, Miyahara said, but be careful with patterns.
“The moires,” the man beside me said to no one. I had to look it up. (“ … an independent usually shimmering pattern seen when two geometrically regular patterns are superimposed especially at an acute angle.” Thanks, Merriam-Webster!)
And for Pete’s sake, Miyahara said, remember to eat.
“We had a fainter, years ago,” she said. “A man worried that the camera added 10 pounds, so he had been starving himself. We had to stop tape.”
The categories on this day: “Italy,” “Notable Birthdays,” “TV IQ Test,” “Ends in ‘N,’ ” “Student Aid” and “The Old Testament.”
It wasn’t easy up there. One man who said he was a science buff couldn’t remember the name of astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, and despite a clue that contained the word “crisp,” couldn’t come up with Sir Francis Bacon.
“Sir Francis … Toast?” he asked.
The room groaned.
Then Speak asked the contestants about themselves: what they did, hobbies, how they would spend the money if they got to the end of the game-show rainbow.
Donna Brown of Seattle told Speak that her mother had appeared on “Sale of the Century” when she was pregnant with her (she still uses the luggage she won on the show) and that her brother, Eric was a “Jeopardy!” winner who took her on a trip to Mexico.
“I have to fulfill this destiny,” Brown said about why she auditioned.
Portland schoolteacher Scott Montanaro said if he wins, he’d love to take his students on a trip.
“Every time I show them a photo of a pyramid, they say, ‘field trip!’ So I’d love to do that.”
I skipped the mock round, but not the test. On my way out, I had to know if I was Trebek-worthy.
“So, how’d I do?” I asked Rebecca Erbstein, one of the producers who tallied the results. “Did I bite it?”
“No,” she said. “You did … very well.”
“Come on,” I told her. “I didn’t even fill in 14 of the 50 answers.”
“You did do very well,” she said, then all but patted my arm.
“You don’t need a perfect score.”