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?

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.

"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.

"Who did the online test in their boxers?" she wants to know, learning that one did it in his altogether. To another: "You're pregnant? Honey, I just thought you were built like me."

The material that goes over best is the insider stuff – the common culture in a crowd that sees money in Elizabethan poetry and nuclear physics. There are the Alex Trebek references, the shared "clue frustration," when a player leaves one answer unrevealed in a category otherwise exhausted.

These are not your Hollywood types. Coming to the front in groups of three for a few trial questions and an interview, some demonstrate personality, while others seem nervous and flat, and still others are a little too obviously trying to "sell it."

Maggie, the booster, calls out: "Nice energy!" "GOOD!" "With a big voice, Christopher!!!"

Ian, his trio up to the buzzers, quickly jumps right in with jokes of his own. Bobby, as it turns out, has a low, very interesting voice and a classic knowledge base. Jennifer starts out stiff and quiet, picking up by the end of the round. And when they finish, there's Maggie: "Applaud that group!!!" And everybody does.

Already, she is getting to know this seemingly undistinguished roomful of hopefuls on a buddy-buddy level. In her "interview," she teases them, sings to them, comes at them this way and that trying to pry a personality out of that striped tie, that blue blazer. Her questioning starts a rapid-fire "chat" about everything from real estate values to grumpy teenagers, turning at one point to how one stays married for 31 years. ("Listen to what your wife says and do it," according to Steve, from New Jersey.)

She again takes the temperature of the room: "Everybody having fuuuun???"

Last names have been shed at the door – soon Dan and John and Maureen ("Can I call you Mo?") blossom under the rat-a-tat of Maggie, who now wants to know what they'd do with their winnings. "I'd take my mother back to Ireland." "I still have college tuition for my wife and two children to pay." "Maybe retire a few years early." "I'd stop worrying."

Thus takes shape the on-air factoid that might be elicited by a single question from Alex Trebek someday: "You rode a horse once. Tell us about it."

Though indulging Maggie her shtick, the players listen intently. When they laugh, it's with the laugh of the not-quite-convinced. After all, just as the show takes its fun seriously, so do the hopefuls. Several have tried out before, and three have auditioned for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

And money is no small factor, says hopeful John Stanczak, a high school principal from Pompton Lakes, N.J., and father of two young children. "For 17 years, I've been driving the same car I bought when I graduated from college."

Two-and-a-half vaudevillian hours after she starts, Maggie tells the group they'll get an e-mail if they're needed, and that they can try out online again in a year, if they don't. She says she doesn't yet know who'll make the cut. "We bring everybody home, and then we discuss who to choose."

Afterward no one seemed to mind having taken a day off to come to New York. Jennifer Nield Cameron, from Nova Scotia, feeling confident, says the try-out "was more energetic and exciting than I'd thought it would be."

Maureen North, from Syracuse, N.Y., says even though she doesn't think she made the cut, she'll try again the next chance she gets. "I had a blast.... I spent $40 on parking and eight hours in the car, but I still had a blast."

Make sure you tell Maggie.

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