Dazed, Confused and Humbled

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What is “crash and burn,” Alex?

The question: What happened when I tried out for “Jeopardy!”?

I’ve been watching that smart quiz show since it came on the air in 1964. I’d rush home after school to watch in those pre-VCR days, reassured about my educational proclivities by the game show’s original host, the avuncular Art Fleming.

I grew up reading atlases, the World Almanac (remember THAT?), and encyclopedias (!) in pre-Wikipedia days back when the earth was still cooling. I could have done worse in high school. By, say, reading The Daily Racing Form.

I loved “Jeopardy!” I knew arcana like Bolivia having two capitals, for example.

Years later, when Alex Trebek had taken over the show and I was TV critic at the San Francisco Examiner, I cadged a ticket for the touring “Jeopardy!” contestant tryouts in SF. (But I couldn’t be on the show. Conflict of interest).

I was cocky. It would be fun to beat the other hopefuls and easily answer most of the questions, as I often did at home.

I ended up with more egg on my face than a two-year-old at breakfast.

Some 200 of us were summoned to a hotel ballroom. We got 50 questions — you could answer in the form on an answer! — with 30 seconds to answer each.

I knew from the first question I was in trouble. It was about “Billy Budd,” a Melville novel that’s almost as much of a chore as “Moby Dick.”  Next, I knew the ruins of Troy were in Turkey, not Greece, so I got one right. But then the siege (of brutal questions) continued.

Where does linseed oil come from? No idea. A. flax.

What is our most eastern state? A. Alaska (because the Aleutians stretch across the 180-degree line of longitude)

I moped out. I’d gotten only eight of 50 right. I was Homer Simpson.

I commiserated with a retired schoolteacher. She admitted, ”I’ve never felt so stupid in my life.”     

That made two of us. The only time I’d felt that intellectually deficient was in a room full of Reed College alumni when my son was being (successfully) recruited by that brainy Portland school.

I searched out the game show’s contestant coordinator, and asked her why only seven people that day had passed.

“We really don’t need more contestants,” she said candidly. ”We already have plenty. This tour is mostly for PR. We’ll put those seven people’s names in our file and have them play a practice round here. As you may know, the questions on the actual show aren’t as hard as those today. And buzzing in at just the right time is the main key to winning on the show.”

But ... I still came back the next year when the show visited again. But I spared myself the humiliation of again trying out. I was just there to interview Trebek. He was pleasant, as Canadians almost invariably are.

When I told Trebek I’d lived in Canada, spoke French (as he does), and had watched him on Canadian TV, he was pleasantly surprised.

At one point, I mentioned Canada’s somewhat higher taxes.

“Canadians don’t like taxes either,” said Trebek, “But they also realize, unlike many Americans, that if you want government services, you have to pay for them. Canadians are more mature in this respect.”

What is Canuck candor, Alex?

— OK, enough already with the overhyped “Hamilton.” And I hear there’s another historical political Broadway show in the works.x

Its title? “Lincoln: The Man, The Car, The Tunnel.”

(PT resident and humorist Bill Mann says that despite his humbling experience, he still watches “Jeopardy!”)

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Edward S.

Fascinating look behind the scenes at “Jeopardy!”— and the contestant-hunting process. No surprise Trebek is a nice fellow. Bill, tell us why Bolivia has TWO capitals?

Thursday, March 7