Column: The Jeopardy of Game Shows

The essential difficulty? It requires the intellect to enjoy Shakespeare & the stupidity to watch "Three's Company" re-runs
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last night, I tried my luck on the NPR game show, “Ask Me Another,” which will air in a few weeks. But it brought back memories – traumatic ones – of my disastrous try-out for the Jeopardy game show 24 years ago.

“I’ll take ‘Humility’ for $100.”

“He was one of 48 people to fail the Jeopardy test on Thursday, June 21, 1990.”

“Ah, ‘Who was John Bacon?’”

“That’s correct – you control the board.”

“I’ll take ‘Lame Excuses’ for $100 please, Alex.”

It seemed like a good idea at the time. There I was, lying on the couch with a cold beer and a bag of chips, earning thousands of imaginary dollars for yelling things like “Millard Fillmore,” “The St. Louis Browns” and “Mesopotamia,” when they invited anyone who would be in Los Angeles to try out for the show. Sure enough, I was leaving for LA in 10 days, so I figured, Why not?

Why not, indeed.

“Under ‘Human Folly’ for $300, we have this answer: ‘Time better spent doing something productive, such as cleaning your toilet.’”

“What is ‘Preparing for the Jeopardy Test’?”

I heard a Michigan law school graduate won $172,000 on Jeopardy, which was a record for years. When I learned that, I began imagining how I’d spend such enormous winnings. (I decided on paying all my bills, then taking a friend out for ice cream with the surplus.) A friend of mine at the law school discovered the guy’s name was Chuck Forrest, and he worked at the State Department. Utilizing my skills as a crack investigative reporter, I tracked him down in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. This trivia question of a place is not only nine hours ahead of us, but their office hours run from Wednesday to Saturday. I called him after a Friday night on the town.

He was willing to talk, if I was willing to pay for it. To save you the $10.75, I’ll pass on his advice: It’s an impossible test, and there’s no way to prepare for it. Not quite ten bucks worth of wisdom, but I can tell you he wasn’t lying on either count.

Indeed, only 3% of those who take the test make it on the show, and Forrest almost wasn’t one of them. “Alex [Trebek] has said publicly that my performance on the test was surprisingly unimpressive. I barely passed it. And some who do very well on the test don’t do so well on the show. The test is a poor indicator.”

Despite his forebodings, I spent the plane ride to LA perusing “The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” in lieu of watching the in-flight movie. (This would prove a mistake.) I also developed the compulsive tendency of formulating everything I encountered in the form of a question, a habit that drove me and my hosts crazy. All told, I had my head in that book about eight hours or so.

I could have cleaned several toilets in that span.

Furthermore, whatever you might learn from studying is quickly eradicated by submersion into LA culture. Angelinos are incapable of considering any notion longer than a hip-hop song, and I’m convinced this rubs off.

“Answer: ’2 p.m. Thursday, June 21.’”

“What was ‘D-Day?’”

I drove to the KTLA studios on Sunset Boulevard for the big test, where I joined a line of 50-some people against a brick wall outside the entrance gate, just like in “Willy Wonka.” They were wearing everything from charcoal business suits to surfing attire – which, in LA, are appropriate outfits for investment bankers, housewives or priests.

Ten minutes after I arrived we followed an attractive blonde Jeopardy assistant past the pearly gates, snaking between lumberyard-sized warehouses. Through a huge garage door we finally entered a barren room with a bunch of folding chairs at the front. On our way in we picked up a pink application, a yellow sheet with 50 blanks, a piece of corrugated cardboard and a number two pencil. Rest assured, they don’t waste the prize money on such amenities as testing centers.

For friendly banter, the assistant, Kim, asked if anyone came from out of town. Quite a few people raised their hands, saying they were from Orange County, San Fernando or Pasadena. (I’m not making this up). Kim corrected herself: “I mean, from way out. Like Kansas or something.” I was one of only a handful who raised his hand, but I dared not speak. I could tell most present believed we Michiganders swim in our jeans and Xerox our faces for senior pictures. There was no point trying to explain.

The perfunctory chit-chat completed, Kim told us the test was extremely difficult, consisting of 50 straight $1,000 questions at 10-second intervals, and we would have to get “a lot of them right – but don’t ask us how many.” Thankfully, we didn’t have to phrase our answers in the form of questions.

She showed us a sample question on two TVs working simultaneously. “Place where you can rock, you can roll it, you can shake it, you can stroll it.” Almost everyone yelled out the correct answer “At the hop.” This was difficult? “Very good,” she said. “But the real ones won’t be that easy.” (“What is: ‘Kim ain’t no fool’?”)

Lo and behold, the first five questions were particularly difficult – so much so, I couldn’t remember most of them two minutes after the test. I do remember one on dance, though, which to me read like a Far Side cartoon: “Blah blah blah ballet blah blah blah 1900 blah blah blah.”

They might as well have asked me to read a bar code. I tried to think of something, anything, that might include both criteria, but I only managed to come up with: “Feet” and “President McKinley.” Perhaps, “What are President McKinley’s feet?”

I left it blank. Same way I answered “This monkey typically has a blue face and a red nose” (or was it, red nose and blue face?) and “He authored a childhood rhyme called ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.” I grew up eating Captain Crunch and watching “Speed Racer.” If the author in question never had a cartoon, I didn’t stand a chance.

After those questions, I figured things could only get better – and they did. I knew that the Hagia Sophia was the Turkish mosque that was converted to a museum; that the Whig party immediately preceded the Republicans; that Van Gogh spent 1888 in Arles, France; and that Grand Marnier is flavored with orange. Thank God I scoured “The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” for such scholarly fine points. I also knew the line “What fools these mortals be” is from A Midsummer’s Night Dream; that Kevin Kline won best supporting actor for “A Fish Called Wanda;” and that the capital of Chile is Santiago.

Even on a roll I botched a few, including this “answer”: “The part of the Human Body that features the islets of langerhans.” This was easily my most embarrassing wrong answer because my dad, a pediatric endocrinologist, has devoted his life to the study of that organ, the pancreas. I knew it too, and knew that I knew it, but that day all I could think of was “Torso,” “Below the neck” or “Bigger than a Breadbox.” A week in LA had taken its toll.

Speaking of which, I should have watched more TV, and fewer plays. You can forget studying “Cultural Literacy”– start reading People Magazine.  I did just fine on almost all the “cultural”-type questions, but bombed the surprisingly numerous TV and movie questions. Some entertainment questions were so foreign to me, I could have just as easily written down “Ernest Borgnine” as “SPAM.” Entertainment is also my Achilles heel in Trivial Pursuit, where I generally answer every question “Rita Hayworth” or “Battleship Potemkin.” This strategy was just as effective on the Jeopardy test. (Hey sports fans, a warning: there wasn’t a single question for you on this test, and only a couple on U.S. and world history – my major.)

This is the essential difficulty of the test: It requires the intellect to enjoy Shakespeare, and the stupidity to watch “Three’s Company” re-runs.  Therein lies the rub.

When they returned 10 minutes later with the results, I discovered that I wasn’t one of them.

“Answer: A freezer full of Eskimo Pies, a year’s supply of Turtle Wax, and the respect of your peers.”

“Ah, What is, ‘What you don’t get when you fail the Jeopardy test’?”

“That’s correct.”

“I’ll take ‘Sour Grapes’ for $1000 please, Alex.”

We, the rejected, had to make our own consolations. A 40-ish “actor and singer” (in LA, who isn’t?) reasoned that we were in very good company.  “Just looking at the people who were there, it’s clear there weren’t any idiots.”

And if you’re going to get rejected, Jeopardy’s not such a bad place. We didn’t have to small-talk with Wink Martindale, nor jump up and down like drug-laden idiots looking for a bobby pin – and it wasn’t “Wheel of Fortune.” On my gravestone, the following would suffice: “He Never Bought a Vowel.”

Now, the bad news: we realized we shouldn’t have told so many people we were trying out for the show. When I returned, most of those I told were surprised to hear I hadn’t made it, but that could mean two things: they either thought I was smart, or that the test was for morons. This ambiguity was captured by a good friend who said, “I thought for sure you’d make it. I’ve always considered you a pretty trivial person.”

Several weeks later, I came to terms with all the ramifications of my failure, with one exception: I used to get undue pleasure from yelling at the contestants who can’t locate Montevideo, or don’t know that “Old Rough and Ready” was not Teddy Roosevelt.

Now I have to keep in mind that they might be idiots, but they’re smarter than I am.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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