Thursday, February 02, 2006

Entertainment reporter John Moore bombs on Jeopardy

Montreal radio entertainment reporter guy John Moore appeared on Jeopardy the other day. He lost. Badly.

Local entertainment reporters desperately need someone to pick up the ball. I vote for Mosé Persico, host of CFCF's Entertainment Spotlight. Persico on Jeopardy would be television gold, right up there with the monkey peeing on Johnny Carson, the last episode of MASH and anytime Jack Bauer caps a terrorist in the knee.

Anyway, here's John Moore's account of his experience as published in the National Post.

I bombed on jeopardy

John Moore
National Post

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

It would be nice to say that I had no ego riding on my Jeopardy! appearance. But it would be a lie. After years of sitting on my couch shouting answers at the show's hapless contestants, I finally got to be a contestant myself. I suffered a spectacular flame out, the grace note of which was getting a question about my home town wrong. I was gone before Final Jeopardy -- which, for those not familiar with the show's format, is roughly equivalent to being thrown out of a dinner party before dessert.

My journey to Jeopardy! began a year ago as a simple challenge to myself. Could I qualify? I have a tremendous mind for useless information. I can't remember the name of the restaurant I'm having lunch in tomorrow, but I can tell you who won the Best Actress Oscar two years in a row in the 1930's (Luise Ranier), and I know who Tadeusz Mazovietski is (short-lived prime minister of Poland). When I heard that the Jeopardy! talent-hunt team was coming to Toronto, I figured I had nothing to lose by at least trying out.

I thought I was in trouble the moment the elevator released me into a crowded upper-floor landing at the Royal York Hotel. It was throbbing with smart people. Those who didn't look like they could read the Bible in the original Greek appeared to have arrived fresh from a seminar on postmodern interpretations of Sylvia Plath.

We were ushered into a conference room where we completed a 50-question pop quiz. Fortunately, I had crammed on American presidents that morning: You never know when someone might ask about Millard Fillmore. Once the quiz was corrected, they called out four names. Mine was one them.

They put us through a mock game -- which I imagine is a procedure designed to weed out people who lock up under pressure and spontaneous criers. We were then dismissed with the instructions that our names would remain in the Jeopardy! contestant pool for one year, and we could receive a call at any time.

That was last April. The call came in November. I was booked into a two-day window in mid-December.

What even some hard-core Jeopardy! fans don't know is that once you've scored a spot on the show you're on your own. You fly yourself to Los Angeles on your own dime, where you enjoy a discounted rate at a hotel in Culver City, conveniently located close to nothing but the studio where Jeopardy! is recorded.

I'm not a superstitious person. I'm actually a card-carrying skeptic. But on game day, I would have put a major league baseball pitcher to shame in my hex fixation. What to wear: white or black under wear? Glasses or contacts? Tie or no tie? If a tie, which one?

During it all, I was mentally quizzing myself in random categories. To my growing consternation, I was having trouble summoning even the most basic factoids. Surely anyone could muster the state flower of Oregon on demand (trick question. It's a grape). This had the potential of not going well at all.

I met my 12 fellow contestants for the first time in the lobby of the hotel. They were uncharacteristically youngish, which I attributed to the fact that it was two weeks before Christmas, and most people with kids had better things to do. Conversation in the shuttle ride to the studio was casual, with the exception of one man who had a Tourettes-like habit of barking out unbidden information. If someone told him what state they were from, he gave the names of its two senators. I had read a guide on prepping for Jeopardy! and knew this was distinctly un-cool. But just too be safe I memorized the names of the senators.

Like everything else, the set of Jeopardy! is smaller than it looks on TV, but to any fan of the show it's like stepping onto the ice at the old Montreal Forum. This is where a hundred thousand questions have been asked and answered. Where Ken Jennings spouted answers the way Wayne Gretzky scored impossible goals from behind the net.

Behind the cameras, there are seats for about 100 onlookers and a row of tables for the judges who vet every answer. During my own show, they stopped the tape for 10 minutes because in answer to a question about the Marx Brothers' matronly foil, a contestant offered Margaret Dumas instead of Margaret Dumont. (I had answered Marie Dressler but more on that shortly.)

If I had to pinpoint the moment when I knew I was in trouble, it would be during a briefing session by the chief contestant co-ordinator. Toward the end of her instructions, she noted that each player has his own strategy.

"Strategy?" I thought. "It's just about knowing the answers, isn't it?"

As it turns out, no. Knowing the answers is a small part of Jeopardy! Picking categories, freaking out your opponents, racking up money and knowing when not to ring in is what separates the geek winners from the geek losers.

The other impediment is an aspect of Jeopardy! that those viewing at home never see. Beside the famous wall of TV monitors bearing clues is a row of white Christmas lights. The lights go out as Alex Trebek finishes reading a clue. If you ring in before the lights go out, your clicker is locked for a quarter of a second, which is plenty of time for your two opponents to ring in with the correct answer. So timing is king.

They tape five shows a day. Players are decided by pulling names from a hat. I watched as a returning champion and a very nice lawyer from Florida went down to defeat at the hands of a man who works in a brick yard. My name was called for game two along with that of a young medical student.

Things actually started quite well. Alex misread one of the categories and they had to stop tape for a retake. I scanned the categories he had already revealed and began brainstorming possible answers. One had the word "heart" in it. It was a safe bet one of the answers was heart transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard. Sure enough, when the game resumed one of the heart questions was about Barnard. Another was about perennial cardiac patient Dick Cheney. I was shaky but holding up. By the first commercial break I was a solid second place ahead of the bricklayer.

During the commercial break, Alex poses for pictures with the contestants. Owing to the fact that he knows the clues ahead of time, he's not permitted to have much of a conversation. He did ask after the legendary Betty Kennedy who retired from my station -- CFRB radio -- 18 years before I arrived. I assured him she is doing just fine.

Double Jeopardy is where the game heats up. It's where I combusted. This is where I offered Marie Dressler in place of Margaret Dumont. On any other day, I would have said Dumont. But, having recently read a captivating biography of the Canadian-born actress, Dressler's name was on my mind.

It was in the midst of Double Jeopardy that I suffered the revelation that my brain was never built for this game. Although I retain tidbits of things that amuse and interest me, I am not nearly as good at systematically remembering facts I find dull. I can't list all the presidents of the United States, but I can tell you who was the fattest (Taft) and who was saved from an assassin's bullet by a copy of a dinner speech (Teddy Roosevelt).

When they asked for the composer of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (better known as the theme from Stanley Kubrick's 2001) I shouted "Strauss!"

"Which one?" asked Alex.

"Damned if I know" I thought, saying instead "Johann?" It was Ricard.

The nadir of this dismal performance came with the unveiling of a clue about Montreal, where I was born and raised. While Alex intoned the words, I sped read through them, spotting two original but arcane names for Laval Island (Ile Jesus and Ile Marie). This one, I knew. I clicked in.

"What is Laval?" I said with authority.

"No," replied Alex. "What is the St. Lawrence River?"

I wasn't only getting the answers wrong, I wasn't even getting the questions right.

It got no better. I was some $3,000 in the red when they asked a question about the Greek Islands. I knew the answer was Turkey but by this point I was so demoralized I was afraid to ring in. I knew I was going to lose. I didn't want to set a record. When the end of the Double Jeopardy round sounded I was in debt, disqualifying me for Final Jeopardy. I signed a waiver promising me $1,000. They handed me a tote bag and showed me the door.

I don't want to exaggerate the impact of bombing at Jeopardy!, but I was initially crushed.

I compare the experience to being a good golfer, getting a chance to play a round with Tiger Woods and chipping a shot through the club house window. Sure it's just a game, but is it too much to ask for a decent showing?

Friends have insisted it's an accomplishment just to get on Jeopardy!. That's about as convincing as actors who say it's an honour to be nominated for an Oscar. My mother was equally consoling, but I think it's because she's seen too many repeats of that Nestle hot chocolate commercial about the kid who can't win at hockey.

It took a full month after my Jeopardy! taping for me to be able to watch the show again. From the comfort of my own home, I looked at the three players and wondered how it was they didn't know all the answers I did.

© National Post 2006


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