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Egos Are Put in ‘Jeopardy!’ : Two would-be contestants find that playing the game at home is a lot less embarrassing than trying out for the real TV show.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Robin Greene is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Let me say from the outset that the real reason I tried out for the TV game show “Jeopardy!” was to keep my brother-in-law from doing his imitation of Dino the Dinosaur.

I had no idea that the result of my tryout would be complete intellectual humiliation and a profound respect for the three people who each weekday test their brainpower in front of a national audience.

It all began when my sister and brother-in-law--Meryl and Jon Salmon--arrived for a monthlong visit from New Jersey.

Jon has always wanted to appear on “Jeopardy!” so the first thing Meryl did the day after they arrived was to call the television studio in Culver City to find out if the show would be holding a tryout while they were here. (It was.)

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Next thing Meryl did was beg me to go with Jon. The last time Jon was in California, he came oh-so-close to getting on the TV game show “Tic Tac Dough"--until he did his rendition of the aforementioned Dino.

Meryl really wanted Jon to win so they could remodel their home, so she wasn’t taking chances. Jon needed an escort and, because I supposedly have a head for trivia, she implored me to be the guardian of her husband’s dignity.

Over the next three weeks, Jon and I plotted our strategy. The test, we were sure, would be a cinch. Still, we took no chances. We played the “Jeopardy!” board game and the video game. We pored through trivia books. We watched the show on TV, hollering out the answers before Alex Trebek finished reading the questions.

I did my best to bring Jon up to speed on art and literature (“When all else fails,” Jon said, “answer Somerset Maugham”) while he tutored me in TV trivia (“No, Jon, I don’t think ‘The Three Stooges’ will be a category”). We talked about how we would make our personal lives sound exciting.

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The ride there was uneventful until we hit traffic on the San Diego Freeway. I momentarily panicked, thinking that we would be late. I could see the headlines: “Man Misses ‘Jeopardy!’ Tryout, Murders Sister-in-Law.” Thankfully, we arrived at Sony Studios, where the show is taped, with time to spare.

As we pulled into the gated entry on Overland Avenue, a guard handed us a piece of cardboard with the “Jeopardy!” insignia, then directed us to park above the fourth level in the massive parking garage.

By the time we got to ground level, a dozen or so prospective contestants were milling around. Most were well-dressed. Some read the newspaper; one man furiously studied a dog-eared almanac.

“He’ll get on,” I predicted. “No way,” said Jon. “He looks like an ax murderer.”

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The crowd kept growing, and the appointed start time, 10:30 a.m., came and went. Finally, a perky guy named Glenn arrived about 20 minutes late and gave a little spiel about following him to the sound stage.

As we walked past hangar-sized warehouses filled with movie studio paraphernalia, our anticipation grew. We were ushered into the studio. It was all there--the video board where the categories and questions (or, in the show’s parlance, answers) pop up, Alex Trebek’s desk, the contestants’ desks and the huge “Jeopardy!” sign.

As we filed into the studio, we were handed a piece of cardboard to lean on and a sheet of paper with 50 lines, then directed to take every other seat in the audience. The room was hushed. I felt as if it was 20 years ago and I was taking a college exam.

Susanne, one of the contestant coordinators, gave us a bubbly welcome, then asked how many people had taken the test before. A surprising number raised their hands.

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Glenn told us that two television monitors overhead would flash 50 separate questions from 50 different categories in about 25 minutes. Don’t answer in question form, he offered; you won’t have time. And, he said, it can’t hurt to guess.

“These are going to be the $800 and $1,000 questions,” Glenn warned. “We don’t want contestants who are going to get on the show and end up with minus $80,000.”

With that, the monitors came on, the room got silent and Alex Trebek’s recorded voice read the questions. The first was in one of my strongest categories, British literature. But I had never even heard of the book to which the question referred.

The second question was also in literature. I couldn’t begin to make up an answer. Jon began to snicker. I knew if I wasn’t getting these answers, Jon didn’t have a chance. Third question. Literature. Not a clue. I was doomed.

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The next 47 questions flew by, and I was awed by my lack of knowledge.

But I wasn’t alone in my embarrassment. As soon as the tests were collected, there was a lot of uncomfortable laughter as the bulk of us realized that our collective egos had taken a royal beating. Only a woman in a prim blue dress sitting in the row in front of me looked confident.

Glenn offered that we could save ourselves from complete humiliation by telling our family and friends that we only missed passing the test by one answer. Small comfort to those of us who realized our view of our own intelligence would never be the same.

While Susanne and Glenn (I later found out that Susanne Thurber and Glenn Kagan are two of the show’s three contestant coordinators) went off to some nether land to score our tests, we watched an old “Jeopardy!” rerun. Of course, we all got those questions right.

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A few of us compared answers. Jon confessed that he had responded “Ed” for every question he didn’t know. (The last queen of the Tudor family? Ed. A lake between Italy and Switzerland? Ed.)

Susanne and Glenn finally returned and read the 13 names (out of about 65 people) who could stay for the second phase of the tryout. Of course, Jon and I were not on the list. Neither was the ax murderer.

The woman in the blue dress passed. So did the man sitting in front of Jon. We shook his hand and told him that we’d look for him on TV.

It turns out that we are in good company when it comes to rejections. Kelley Carpenter, the third contestant coordinator, told me that about 25,000 people a year try out for the show. About 5% to 15% actually pass the test and about 400 people a year are chosen.

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Quite a few people who fail return six months later for another tryout. Not Jon and me. One test every 20 years is more than enough.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN:

What: “Jeopardy!” contestant tryouts.

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Location: Sony Studios, 10202 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City.

When: Test dates vary.

Call: (310) 280-5367 between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.


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