Saunders: "What's harder than it looks, Alex?"

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2014 

Dagnabbit. This is a lot easier when you’re sprawled out on the sofa in your SpongeBob jammies, mainlining peanut butter straight from the jar and washing it down with a two-liter Diet Coke.

That’s what you realize the moment you’re facing the genial inquisitors from the game show “Jeopardy!”

For someone whose goals in life include being able to say “I’ll take ‘Shakespeare’ for $1,000, Alex,” it was an assignment too inviting to pass up. When my editor asked for a volunteer to stroll over to the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel to see what it’s like to try out for the show, I rang in.

If you are as full of useless information as I, you’d have given it a shot, too.

I joined about 120 people from North Carolina and surrounding states who’d taken an online quiz and been invited to Raleigh on Friday and Saturday to take a mock test and be interviewed.

Funny thing, though. You don’t count on your brain being impeded by flop sweat and cottonmouth each time you try to press the little clicker and provide the correct response.

Someone – OK, I – once said there are two types of people in the world: those who watch “Jeopardy!” and those who watch “Wheel of Fortune.”

“Jeopardy!,” a game show that began in 1964, allows you to exercise your brain. It’s hard to say what “Wheel” exercises. Maybe it stokes your sense of superiority over the intellectually unexceptional contestants who struggle despite being given clues as large as the Grand Canyon?

On “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek provides the answer and you have to give the question. For instance, if Trebek says “The N.C. newspaper columnist did this when taking the quiz for “Jeopardy!” the correct response would be “What is ‘Choked,’ Alex?”

And I did. I mean, how do you miss a question about your favorite author? Oy!

Trust me. When you stand there and grab ahold of that clicker, you quickly realize that just because you’re a genius on your couch doesn’t mean diddly when you’re standing in a room facing three “Jeopardy!” contestant coordinators from California.

Your audience during the audition consists of about 20 other contestants – quizzes and interviews were split into five sessions – awaiting their turn. There is also a camera recording your interview. If that makes you nervous, just imagine what it’s like when you’re facing the intimidating Trebek, a studio audience and cameras that will beam you into millions of living rooms and you’re standing between two people who probably also know the sun’s surface temperature – “What is ‘10 million degrees, Alex?” – or what year Teddy Roosevelt got his first wisdom tooth.

Aspiring contestant Robin Devereux of Durham can imagine what it’s like. “The only part that was nerve-wracking was the interview part,” she told me after trying out. “I had a lot of fun actually playing the game.”

So did Kathy Fitzgerald, a weaver from Oak Island. Glenn Kagan, “Jeopardy!” senior coordinator, had to tell Fitzgerald, Devereux and many of the bookish, soft-spoken contestants – that describes many of us at the tryout – to speak up, to project our voices.

For both of the North Carolina women, this is the second time trying out, but Kagan said that’s nothing to worry about: some big winners had to try more than once.

“Jeopardy!” is the only American television show Fitzgerald and her husband watch, she said. “He comes up with the more bizarre answers. I’m constantly asking him ‘How do you know that?’ Together, we make one good brain.”

Trying out for “Jeopardy!” can turn even a good brain into mofongo. It is a humbling experience, one that teaches you that you’re not as smart as you think you are. That doesn’t mean I won’t take the test to appear on the show: I will.

Only next time, I’ll ask Alex whether I can wear my lucky SpongeBob jammies.

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