September 15, 2004,
I'd sworn off Jeopardy! because of our long, humiliating relationship. But then came phenomenon Ken Jennings, the record-setting champion from Utah whose winning streak came to an end last week, according to spoiler reports. (Shows are taped several weeks in advance, and contestants aren't allowed to reveal what happened before they air.)
My own Jeopardy! experience is considerably less impressive than that of Ken Jennings. Trying out for these shows is a tradition with low-paid Hollywood wannabes. Two decades ago, for instance, Paul Feig, creator of the one-season cult-hit TV show Freaks and Geeks (now enjoying renewed life on DVD), was a struggling stand-up comic who won big on The $25,000 Pyramid. The money allowed him to quit his script-reading job and become a working actor.
I first made a stab at Jeopardy! years ago, when I was in my 20s and still filled with naive optimism.
"We'd better go in separate cars," I happily instructed the friend who came with me, "in case I pass the quiz and get to stay and play a trial game and you don't."
But neither of us made it past the first selection, a long, non-multiple-choice, fast-paced quiz that typically clears out three-quarters of the room. Many a semi-employed actor has discovered the same hard truth: Unlike the rest of show business, in the quiz-show world the currency of youth and good looks isn't worth a Confederate dime against a room-full of weird, leisure-suited guys who really know their dead presidents.
I knew I was in trouble when I realized I couldn't answer what male contestants seemed to think were pretty easy sports and military questions.
"What did you put as the highest military award?" I plaintively asked the tobacco-stained geezer next to me. "Is it the Purple Heart?"
His astonished response is still seared seared! in my memory. "Purple heart?" he wheezed in disbelief. "It's the Congressional Medal of Honor! Any poor bastard who manages to catch a piece of shrapnel with his butt gets a Purple Heart." I guess so.
Still, I made another Jeopardy! try not long after that, this time with my then-husband and his dorkiest friend. I didn't pass the first cut, they both did, and, of course, the dorky friend got picked to be on the show.
A few years ago I decided to give Jeopardy! one more shot. By this time I'd developed a cynical, fatalistic attitude about the whole thing, so I ignored friends' suggestions to study encyclopedias and almanacs beforehand. ("I'll take Doris Day hits for $400, Alex. What is Que Sera, Sera?")
But much to my surprise, that time I passed the quiz and got to stay and play a trial game with other would-be contestants. I got some hard questions right too, judging from the little impressed murmur I heard from fellow players when I knew the name of Alexander the Great's horse. (Bucephalus.)
At that point I figured I was a shoo-in, because like all of the brainiac game shows, Jeopardy! has a notoriously difficult time getting women contestants. Of the 20 who passed the test that day (out of more than 60 who showed up to try), only three of us were women. But I was never called!
Who knows why? Probably I shouldn't have mentioned the piece I'd just finished for Penthouse in the getting-to-know-you part of the audition, even though of course it was a perfectly wholesome story, like everything I've ever written for Penthouse.
Probably, in fact, I shouldn't have admitted I was a writer at all. Apparently game shows get too many writer contestants and also contestants who live in L.A. and it's better to fudge a little so you sound like someone the audience can identify with. For instance: "A mom and apartment manager originally from Winnipeg, Canada!" Well, I was born there. And I do own a duplex I rent out.
Ken Jennings is going back to Utah as much $2.5 million richer, according to the latest reports. Now that's serious money and actually has me thinking about trying out again. Oh, I know I'm probably fooling myself, like those Wheel of Fortune fans who think they're getting smarter from the puzzles. But if I can work up an appealingly middle-American story about my life maybe I've got a shot!
O.K., probably not at getting on and winning, exactly. But at this point I bet I could be the bizarro Ken Jennings: the undefeated Jeopardy! loser.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.