"Jeopardy!" contestant wannabes Greg Smith, Liz Martin and Bill Sage clutched their buzzers as they played a mock game last week. Sage has reached the final stage in the tryout process four times but has never been called to the show. This was Martin's second audition.

No-so-final 'Jeopardy'

You need brains and personality
to make it on the quiz show

Jeopardy trivia

By Tim Ryan

That test was sooo easy!" says the tall, 30-something guy with the physique of a body builder in an Armani sports coat. "Come on, questions about 'The Full Monty,' 'Key West,' 'Mozart,' 17th-century literature, 18th-century music. Pretty basic college stuff, don't you think?"

"Uh, sure," I said, thinking about my master's degree in English and his most likely in physical education. "So what was the island just south of Florida where Hemingway lived?"

"Key West, man. Jimmy Buffett territory," he says. "Who wouldn't know that?"

I slumped in my chair. I'd missed it and my thesis was on Hemingway.

I'm in a ballroom at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Thursday, with 65 "Jeopardy!" contestant hopefuls. They're what's left of 1,100 who took Wednesday's first-stage, 15-question exam. Today is a far tougher 50-question test.

To get to the next round -- a mock "Jeopardy!" game where personality and speed are judged -- you must correctly answer a minimum of 35 questions. Everyone is busy writing after each audible question. I seem to be the only one groaning.

Coordinators Maggie Speak and Glenn Kogan, top, delivered the good and bad news to potential "Jeopardy!" contestants, announcing who was qualified for the next round of testing.

Despite the chill from the air conditioning on an unusually cool Honolulu afternoon, I'm sweating when I count my blank answers. Where the answer was "The Full Monty," I had written "Frontal Nudity." And I saw the film twice.

What's going on here? I do so well at home when I'm in shorts and a tank top and drinking wine. But history is repeating itself: Several years ago, I flunked the first round at a "Wheel of Fortune" contestant search.

The wannabes are annoyingly chirpy when we're done.

"I think I missed four," my new friend says.

I want to tell "Bluto" to get back to the gym. As it turned out, he didn't make the final cut.

Mercifully, contestant coordinators Glenn Kogan, who's been with the game show nearly 17 years, and Maggie Speak reveal neither test scores -- "Just tell your friends you missed by one," she says -- nor especially stupid answers, of which I assume "Frontal Nudity" is one.

About 20 members of the "Jeopardy!" Los Angeles team arrived in Hawaii on Jan. 11 to film video clues on Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island and to select potential contestants from Hawaii. (The syndicated show airs on KGMB here.)

Only 400 contestants out of more than 10,000 applicants are selected. The 16 finalists -- 14 men and four women -- have reached the final stage, where Kogan and Speak are looking for outgoing types "who are playful and can talk about themselves."

Ron Blood posed for a photograph after he qualified for the second round. All those trying out are die-hard fans of the quiz show.

I feel hopeful: I can do playful. I'm outgoing. I, uh, also like to talk about myself. I also didn't pass the test, but they let me stay to watch for the sake of this story.

I learn from a "Jeopardy!" staffer that contestants on the show receive their winnings two months later with taxes deducted. An impeccably dressed man who didn't make the cut asks Kogan to recheck his test. He's still history.

Contestants from among these finalists are selected at random to stand near Kogan and Speak, buzzers in hand, facing the video "Jeopardy!" board. Most are too focused on getting the answers right and have trouble in the "bubbly and talk about yourself" parts.

"Tell us about you," Speak says to one man.

"Uh, not much to say, you know, really. I like to fish and paddle."

"Paddling must be hard," she coaches.

"Uh, yeah," he says.

I can almost see a hook coming to get him out of there.

These 16 are put in the active file for the taping year, but that does not guarantee they'll be invited to appear on the show.

Bill Sage knows that all too well. This is the fourth time he's gotten this far in the testing, and he still hasn't been called up to the big leagues.

Only 16 people remained after the second round of testing Thursday, leaving many empty chairs in the Hilton Hawaiian Village ballroom where auditions were held.

He started watching "Jeopardy!" two decades ago when working at KHON.

"I yell at the television because I know the answers before the contestants," Sage says. "But I haven't gotten so far to pretend I have a buzzer."

This is Liz Martin's second audition. The 33-year-old Kona teacher began watching the show at age 13 and tapes it when she can't be home.

"I have a lint-trap mind, so I collect a lot of garbage and it just seems to stick, but I tell you I couldn't answer anything about relativity," Martin says.

The pair agree that the test was "pretty easy."

"When I was a kid, before we got a TV, my dad got us a World Book encyclopedia, and I read it cover to cover three times," Sage says. "I didn't have a life as a skinny teenager with braces, so I was a voracious reader."

Why does he think he hasn't been called? "They only select 400 a year -- but then again, I'm a bit of a nerd," Sage says.

Martin, in her mock test with two other contestants, correctly answers all six questions she was able to buzz into first. And she was bubbly. Later, she said she focused on being perky, to show "more of my real personality and not be as cowed like the time before."

Joan Souki, 68, of Wahiawa, decided to audition on the advice of friends.

Souki, who is an avid reader -- "I read everything, even labels on the ketchup bottle" -- tried out for "Wheel of Fortune" a few years ago. "Boy, did I get a nice dose of humility."

But this time, some questions were too easy, Souki says. "The Key West and 'Full Monty' answers were freebies, don't you think?"


Bonus round

>> "Jeopardy!" was created by Merv Griffin in 1964 in the dining room of his apartment. He also composed the show's theme music.

>> The show has 29 million viewers on average.

>> Since its 1984 syndication debut, "Jeopardy!" has been the recipient of 21 Daytime Emmy Awards, including eight Emmys for Outstanding Game Show/Audience Participation.

>> The highest cumulative amount won by a single "Jeopardy!" player is $1,155,102 in cash by Brad Rutter of Lancaster, Pa., during the 2001-02 season.

>> The quiz show's production staff includes six full-time researchers and nine writers whose job is to create and assemble categories and questions for the show.

>> "Jeopardy!" surpassed the 4,000th episode last May.

>> The Web site receives more than 500,000 visitors monthly. An online version of the game may be played at the site.

>> Anyone 18 or older may audition for the show. There are special tryouts for the Teen, College and Kids Week competitions. Register via the Web site.


Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --