I was (Almost) a Twentysomething Jeopardy! Contestant

Nonfiction by Mary Catherine Owen

“1977 film in which Luke Skywalker uses the Force in the struggle between the royal houses of York & Lancaster.”

I know this one. “Before & After” is the category; I do well on these clues anyway, but my obsessive preparation for the Jeopardy! College Championship audition led me to go over all the questions and answers (or rather, answers and questions) of the past five years of championship games. This clue was used in 2004.

I’m in a hotel conference room filled with students from Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell, Boston College, and other suitably intimidating schools. When we introduced ourselves, I had to explain where the College of Saint Rose is located (Albany, New York), because only one student from University at Albany had ever heard of it. Everyone is poised and brilliant and fiercely competitive, with the exception of one guy who claims his main interest is movies but, when asked to name a favorite, can’t think of a single good film he’s seen.

My hand shoots up. I have to answer this. These are only the warm-up questions, but I need to make my mark early.

“What is Star Wars of the Roses?” I say, knowing there’s no possible way I can be wrong. And I’m not.

This is what I’ve been training for my whole life: the ultimate trivia competition. I may not be able to run a five-minute mile, and small children laugh at my attempts at drawing, but I can name all 120 Crayola crayon colors and 35 places of pi, and I will happily school you on obscure movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. Being on Jeopardy! is my Everest—I’m determined to conquer it.

In October 2008, my father sent me an email mentioning that he heard about an online test for the College Championship while watching Jeopardy!, and suggested that I take it. The test was nerve-racking. You had to ensure that your Internet connection wasn’t going to crap out in the middle of the test, because there were 50 questions, but only fifteen seconds to answer each one. That didn’t leave a lot of time to dither around with my wireless router. I sat on the couch in the apartment I shared with my cousin, Emily, thankful that she wasn’t around as I muttered to myself about Mormon leaders and U.S. capitals, trying desperately to answer each clue before the next popped up.

A few weeks later, I had nearly forgotten about the test in the chaos surrounding midterms, so I was elated to discover an email from the Jeopardy! Contestant Department, inviting me to an in-person audition at the Westin Copley Place hotel in Boston on Saturday, November 8.

I spent the night before the audition sleeping over at my aunt and uncle’s house in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Sleeping’s not quite the right term. I was given my cousin Matt’s bedroom and proceeded to spend hours trying to stop my brain from worrying, while Matt and his brother George stayed up until four in the morning watching Lady Gaga videos on YouTube in the living room next door.

At breakfast at Au Bon Pain this morning, I couldn’t stop trembling long enough to enjoy my lemon poppyseed muffin. When we gathered in the hallway outside the conference room before the audition began, the other students said they were nervous, too. Coming from some of them, it seemed merely a gesture to fit in with the crowd. What did someone who went to Harvard and had worked with orphans in the Sudan have to be nervous about? There was nothing they needed to prove, the evidence of their academic success taken care of with a mention of their Ivy League school. I love Saint Rose, but attending the college has never lent me any credibility outside of the Albany area.

For the benefit of all the contestants, whether they are truly nervous or not, the contestant coordinators at the audition do their best to lighten the mood in the room. Maggie Speak is the head coordinator. She is effortlessly funny and talks like words are going out of style. I, on the other hand, try to make jokes when feeling anxious, and end up coming off socially awkward.

My best show of confidence now is my self-proclaimed “smart girl” outfit, which includes a corduroy blazer and my Tina Fey-esque horn-rimmed glasses. As it happens, when it comes time for my mock Jeopardy! round against two other students, my appearance is what is commented on first during my interview with the coordinators.

“You know, we were sitting here while you were taking the written test, trying to figure out who you look like,” Maggie tells me. “I think it’s the chick in the Iron Man movie—what’s her name? Pepper Potts.”

I know how to answer questions about my major or where I grew up; I don’t know what to say when someone tells me I resemble Gwyneth Paltrow. I certainly never envisioned Alex Trebek comparing me to ‘the chick in the Iron Man movie.’ So I just blush and reply, “Thanks.”

“Pepper Potts is the character, though, right? Why can’t I remember the name of that actress?”

“Gwyneth Paltrow,” I supply, trying to be helpful.

“That’s it! Yeah, you’ve got the red hair and everything.”

“Although Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t a natural redhead,” I comment.

As soon as the words are out, I cringe. It was meant to be a funny little dig at a famous movie star, but instead makes me sound like I have a high opinion of myself and my naturally red hair.

“We can’t all be so lucky,” she answers gracefully, and moves on to ask me those questions I do know, about my major and hometown. I feel those Ivy League eyes boring into my head, hear the whirring of those genius minds as they wonder, “Who does she think she is?”

My overachieving self can’t handle much scrutiny. I have a long history of fixating on whether I’m smart enough, or perfect enough, or even just capable enough not to overtly suck at whatever it is I’m doing. I once cried in second grade because I couldn’t draw a good pine tree. I still remember the day in seventh grade when Andy Verona gloated about getting a better score on a test than me. When there were two valedictorians and six salutatorians in my high school class and my GPA ranked me third, I was depressed for days. Since college, I’ve been better, but the specter of my past as a National Merit Finalist and school spelling bee champion often creeps up on me and brings all those neurotic tendencies to the forefront again.

Why the hell am I trying out for Jeopardy!, anyway? A show based on competing to see who is “smarter,” or at least, who possesses a better memory for random information, is hardly the catalyst I need to loosen up and learn to accept my talents and my limitations.

But then we begin playing. Holding our complimentary Jeopardy! pens as pretend signaling devices, the other two students and I focus on the clues as they are projected on a screen. This is real. I’m picking categories “for $200, please” and answering in the form of a question. I’m still terrified, but after correctly answering a clue about the Wayans brothers, I feel a little thrill of superiority. The MIT kid next to me got that one wrong.

I don’t know on November 8 that, a few months later, I will receive another email from the Jeopardy! Contestant Department that thanks me for auditioning, but informs me that I am not selected for the College Championship. It won’t be unexpected. With only 16 slots for contestants and nearly 60 people trying out in Boston alone, I can hardly anticipate that I will be chosen.

It’s okay. I’ve discovered that I’m perhaps too high-strung for the world of game shows. This won’t discourage me from trying again someday, though. I think of it this way: Only about 2700 people have ever climbed Mount Everest, but it’s always there, waiting for that 2701st person to come. So it will be with Jeopardy! and me.

mcowenMary Catherine Owen was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1988. She now lives in Albany, New York, where she is finishing her MA in English at the College of Saint Rose. Her work has previously appeared in Defenestration.}

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