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Backstory: 'Hopeful game-show contestants for $600, please'

Who takes a day off and pays $40 for parking for a chance to put their intellectual dignity on the line?

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2006


If you don't have fun trying out for "Jeopardy," you have only yourself to blame. Even if you don't know your Rhine from your Rhone, you'll have fun. Even if you haven't smiled since you got your second PhD, you'll have fun. That's because contestant executive Maggie Speak won't have it any other way.

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"This is not 'Masterpiece Theatre,' it's a game show!!!" she shouts, trying to convince 21 hopefuls who showed up for the lunchtime audition during the search team's three-day stop at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel here late last month. Earlier, they'd passed an online test and become part of a group of 160 called back for the last round of screening in New York City before being invited to be on the show in L.A. Filling out forms, just off the bustling lobby of the famous hotel, they are neatly dressed, serious-minded, self-conscious, and perhaps, but not noticeably, nervous.

Kalman Socolof, a community college professor from Ilion, N.Y., confesses that he "went down in flames" during a contestant search some years back. "I've been watching 'Jeopardy' since Art Fleming and Don Pardo in the 1960s," he says. "If I know the stuff, I know the stuff. If I don't, I don't. Obviously I'd like to get on the show." If nothing else, he'll pick up material for the radio and TV broadcasting classes he teaches.

Priscilla Miller, a real estate agent from Cornwall, Conn., notes that she gets about 60 percent of the questions correct watching at home. "I've always wanted to see if I could get on. Now that I'm here, I'm a jellyfish."

Her fear? "Looking stupid."

If they were barely distinguishable from one another when they arrived, by the time two hours pass, under Ms. Speak's tutelage they take on personality. At least some of them do. At least for awhile.

First she and her loosey-goosey staff have to see who can play the game. "Some people who test really, really well get on their feet and they can't put it all together," she says.Some can't answer under pressure. Some are too slow or too dull. Some aren't having fun. With her assistants, she gives tips on categories and clues, on not ringing in too soon and – of course – on posing answers in the form of questions.

When the sample questions begin, you quickly realize why this group has made it this far. Sometimes all hands go up. Sometimes just half go up. There's at least one person who can come up with even the most obscure fact. The written component, the contestants agree, is easier than the one they took online.

During a season's 40 weeks' of shows, "Jeopardy" uses about 400 players, and New York is the show's best market for contestants. Speak guesses that maybe 100 of the 160 auditioning during this second New York stop this year may be invited to play. "If they're all great, we'll try to use them all on the show," she explains.

The search seeks out diversity in age, occupation, gender, and geography, but contestants share two things, says Speak. "They all love to read and they all love to travel." About 100,000 took the on-line test this year, the first time it was offered.

This fall marks the show's 23rd season of syndication, and its 5,000th show. With 37 million viewers weekly, it's been Nielsen's top-rated quiz show for more than 1,000 weeks, and the No. 2 series in syndication for 87 consecutive sweeps periods.

If anyone can make a nerd have fun it's Speak – well, everyone calls her Maggie – a former actress who's worked on game shows for 28 years, 10 of them for "Jeopardy." She does everything but put on a chicken suit to make 'em laugh, bantering nonstop with the delivery of a seasoned stand-up comic. Uploading a career's worth of stories and jokes, caveats and one-liners, she's relentlessly self-deprecating and slightly off-color – the better to unbutton that starched shirt at the table in the rear.