This is Part III of a larger series about my experiences preparing for and being on Jeopardy! Click below for Parts I, II and IV.
The Online Test
To get on the show in the first place, you have to take an online test, with 50 questions in 50 categories, and 15 seconds to answer each one. While no one knows for sure what the cut-off is, it seems like you need to get about 40 right to pass.
In April 2015, I go upstairs to my home office, and I’m really excited when one of the clues was “Holidays: On Sept. 24, 2014 this religious holiday began at sundown. Yom Kippur began on Oct. 3”!
I feel like I did great, and the next day, I check my answers against Jeopardy!’s Facebook page, and as I count up my answers, I’m feeling pretty good…until I realize that I blew the “Holidays” question because I read it too fast, and wrote down “Yom Kippur”! It looked like I still got about 40 out of 50 right, but had no idea what would happen next, if anything.
A month later, though, I get an e-mail one afternoon with the subject line: “Jeopardy! Contestant Audition in Boston on June 7 at 3pm”! I send my family an e-mail with the subject line “!!!!!”
I drive up to Boston with my dad to keep me company, and immediately realize that the hotel is where my rabbinic organization had held its conference three years earlier, so it feels like there were some good vibes. We sit outside the conference room for the contestant coordinators to come back from lunch, and ultimately, about 20 of us are anxiously awaiting to try out.
Apparently, about 70 to 100,000 people take the online test each year, and about 3,000 pass. Of that 3,000, 400 are invited onto the show. They do auditions all across the country in groups of 20, so they had been in Boston most of the weekend, and we are the last group of the day. Maggie Speak and Aimee Seligstein, the exuberant coordinators, take photos of us and collect our sheets of paper with the “5 fun facts” we had come with about ourselves.
We then take another 50-question test, and again, I feel really, really good — I think I get about 43 out of 50 right. Next, it’s a mock game with a projector on a computer, where three of us go up at a time, practice calling out categories and amounts, and the coordinators interview us. They ask everyone basically the same questions: Tell me about yourself. What do you do for fun? What would you do with the money? One guy says, in a monotone, “What-is-this-fun-of-which-you-speak?” and I think, “Oh man, he just blew his chance to be on TV.”
I’m the last one up, and I’m confident and loud, and hear them say, “Good!” I ring in too early on one clue, and when they ask me about myself, I’m very excited and talk so fast that they tell me to slow down. I’m a little worried about that, but then Maggie looks at my sheet with my stories and says, “So you marched with Bill Clinton?”
I take a deep breath, slow down, and say, “Yes, I was a rabbi in Chappaqua, New York, where the Clintons live, and they march in the Memorial Day Parade just about every year. Usually, it’s the clergy and the dignitaries who lead the parade, so everyone’s yelling, ‘Bill! Bill! Mr. President! Mr. President!’ except for one four-year-old who had NO idea who Bill Clinton was, but saw me and yelled out, ‘Rabbi!!!'”
Everyone in the room cracks up, and I think to myself. “That went really well. I might be on the show.”
After the audition ends, I discover that I’m now in the pool for 18 months (through the end of December 2016), and everyone asks, “When are you going to be on?!” My response is that I’ll either get a call, or won’t, and will just have to wait to hear.
It doesn’t take all that long.
In an afternoon in December, I’m on the phone talking with a friend when a number from Culver City, CA calls, and I know what it means. I cut my friend off and take the call. “Does anyone you know work for Sony Pictures? Have you been on any game shows in last year, or more than two in the last five?” I answer quickly, with my heart in my mouth. “I’m Laurie from a show called ‘Jeopardy!’…” “I know it well!” “We’d like you to be on the show.” “I want to be on the show!” She tells me the tape date would be January 27th, and then gives lots of details — what hotel to book, what clothes to bring, what will happen if it snows.
I call my wife and my parents. “Hello?” I launch into my best Johnny-Gilbert-sounding voice. “Here are today’s contestants. A rabbi from Westchester County, New York, Geoff Mitelman!!” “NO. WAY!”
A few days later, I get an e-mail from Aimee Seligstein (whom I met at my Boston audition), who sends along a 12-page legal agreement, the social media guidelines, what to say for the “Hometown Howdies,” and multiple questions to give them something to work with on the interview (not just the 5 “fun facts” this time — an additional 30-odd questions like “What’s your secret ambition?” “Is there anything interesting about your hometown?”)
I start to prep a little bit, and download an app called Knowledge Trainer. It has basic flashcards on almost every subject, like art, cooking, science, and sports. One night, I happened to look at the “Modern World History” deck, and it asks “What is the Zimmerman Letter?” I have no idea, and see that it was a missive from Germany to Mexico encouraging them to ally with them against the US, and launched the US’s involvement in World War I. “Hunh,” I thought, “interesting.” Literally ten minutes later as I watch the show that night, the category is “World War I,” I hit the Daily Double, and the clue was “The Zimmerman Note encouraged this nation to ally with Germany, which promised to let it annex lost land in the U.S.” I literally laugh out loud, and go, “I’d better make sure I study!!”
So I then really stepped it up, and for the next few weeks, I prep and I prep and I prep.
And then the day arrives.