Hansen: What I learned trying out for 'Jeopardy!' — being brilliant is easier from the sofa - Omaha.com
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Hansen: What I learned trying out for 'Jeopardy!' — being brilliant is easier from the sofa
By Matthew Hansen / World-Herald columnist

I once finished third in the Webster County Junior High Spelling Bee.

In college, I got a C+ in Russian History but clearly deserved a B.

And I read books, long and serious books, books about the history of oil or the life and times of President James A. Garfield. OK, I generally don't finish these books, but I do start them.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm no dummy.

And if it seems like I'm pre-emptively overcompensating for something, I am. It's the story I am about to tell you.

It's the sad and terrifying tale of me, buzzer in hand, trying out for “Jeopardy!.”

It started well enough. I breezed into a conference room at Omaha's Magnolia Hotel for the quiz show's Omaha contestant search on a December Saturday. I met the impossibly friendly and wildly enthusiastic “Jeopardy!” team, a group that included Harry Friedman, an Omaha Central graduate who is now the executive producer of the show.

Friedman usually doesn't come to tryouts — you get to skip them when you have produced more than 6,000 episodes of “Jeopardy!” and "Wheel of Fortune" and won 11 Emmys — but he stopped in to greet the Omaha tryout group because he was in town for a Children's Hospital charity event.

I sat at a half-empty table, filled out an application and listened to several of my competitors discuss the relative merits of Omaha's TV weathermen. This is an argument for small brains, I thought to myself.

As the group entered the testing room I felt calm, maybe even a little cocky. And why not? I knew that none of the other 55 people trying out had taken the bronze in the 1992 Webster County Spelling Bee.

And then the testing began.

First “Jeopardy!” gave each of us a 50-question written quiz. We had 10 or so seconds to answer each question.

Per “Jeopardy!” rules, I am not allowed you to reveal the questions on this quiz. I am allowed to reveal my reaction as I read each question.

1. Easy 2. Easssssy! 3. I'm going to ace this test. 4. Hmmm. 9. No idea. 10. Absolutely no idea. 15. What the $@%@#%@#^????

21. I wonder how much “Jeopardy!” paid Satan to write these questions. 38. My iPhone doesn't even know that. 42. I HATE YOU TREBEK! 43. (Slams pen onto table.) 47. (Silent, angrily picking imaginary lint off sweater.) 48. Hey, I know this one! 50. My brain just melted.

So, no, I didn't do particularly well. But a flicker of hope in my suddenly dark world: The game-playing portion of the tryout was still ahead.

Like many third-place finishers in county spelling bees, I have spent a fair amount of time lying on a couch pushing an imaginary buzzer and randomly yelling out the answers to “Jeopardy!” questions in a futile attempt to impress roommates, acquaintances and my wife.

So it may have been the highlight of the tryout when they brought out the actual “Jeopardy!” buzzers, just like they use on the show, and trained us how to use them.

Buzzer pro tip No. 1: You cannot buzz in before Mr. Trebek finishes reading the question. If you do, your buzzer is locked for a quarter of a second, which is like a decade in “Jeopardy!” buzzing time.

Buzzer pro tip No. 2: After the question is over, mash on that buzzer like your future depends on it. Because it does.

After the buzzer training, they called up the first three contestants and started the first game, which was actually more like five minutes of an actual game.

A woman named Martha, a math teacher from Iowa, absolutely dominated, impressing us with her knowledge of musicals and trigonometry.

And then, minutes later, the impossibly friendly and wildly enthusiastic “Jeopardy!” staff pointed at me, and I walked up to the front of the room and grasped a “Jeopardy!” buzzer in my left hand.

Again, I can't tell you the questions that were asked of me and my two fellow contestants. I can tell you that it doesn't really matter, because as the first question flashed up I could see the words but had no luck processing them into an actual, coherent thought, much less a thing I could memorize and pass on to you.

My brain switched to elevator music. I stood there dopily, mouth agape, buzzer dangling listlessly at my side, as the contestant to my left began to answer questions like she was “Jeopardy!” Superman Ken Jennings incarnate.

After an indeterminate yet terrifying amount of time passed, I did manage to buzz in and mumble out a correct answer, though I'm unsure how since I don't remember the question or the answer.

Then I got another, this one about a president. Then I got another, correctly identifying the nickname of a semi-famous athlete.

And just as I was starting to feel like a real-life Jeopardy contender, the game ended. I had definitely lost. I was definitely not going to make it through this contestant search and meet Trebek. But on the bright side, I had overcome my weird fear, I had held my own and ...

“It's time for your on-camera interview.”


For some unknown reason, I hadn't processed that I would have to answer questions about myself into a camera, just like every other wannabe contestant had done before me. That, in fact, people are chosen for “Jeopardy!” not just on their quiz-show abilities but also by proving that they have more personality than a cardboard box.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

I hadn't thought for a second about what my answers would be. The resulting 50-car pileup went something like this:

Impossibly friendly and wildly enthusiastic “Jeopardy!” employee: “Matthew, so you are a reporter?”

Me: “Yes.” (Awkward silence.)

“Jeopardy!”: “Matthew, what are your hobbies?”

Me: (Fighting nearly uncontrollable urge to say, “You mean besides meth?”) “I, uh, I ... I like to run. And I like to, uhhhhh ... Husker football?”

At this point my face had definitely turned fire-hydrant red. I looked oddly at the ground, averting my gaze in a style I can only describe as Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” except not smart.

"Jeopardy": “What will you do with your winnings?”

Now, it's important to point out that they had asked this exact question to the 15-or-so people who had played before me. One teacher said she would take the money and build an auditorium for her school. One man had said he would start an animal rescue. Basically, I was hanging out in a roomful of the city's smartest and most altruistic people.

I thought briefly of all this, and then I mumbled out my answer.

“Probably buy a downtown condo.”

That, my friends, is not “Jeopardy!”-worthy.

After the disastrous fake-TV appearance I stumbled toward the exit, figuring I would duck into the hall for a few seconds of much-needed fresh air. In full view of the other contestants and the "Jeopardy!" employees, I strode toward the door, turned the knob, took two full steps ... and realized I was standing inside a broom closet.

After several paralyzed seconds, the third-place finisher in the 1992 Webster County Spelling Bee did manage to extricate himself from said broom closet and slink into the hallway.

News flash: I'm not getting onto "Jeopardy!" unless some sort of disaster wipes out the entire human race except for Alex Trebek, two other people and yours truly.

I stumbled, dazed, out of the "Jeopardy!" tryouts and into the Magnolia Hotel's conveniently located bar. I ordered a stiff drink. And as I sat there, trying to unravel what had just happened, a new, calming thought slowly crept its way through my thick skull.

My own singular brand of brilliance really shines during "Wheel of Fortune." I'm unsurpassed at the purchasing of vowels. The next time Pat and Vanna hold tryouts here, watch out.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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Copyright ©2014 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

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