Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Week in Jeopardy: I Would Like to Say Thank You On Behalf of the Group and Ourselves…

…and I hope we passed the audition.

March 18, 2008

I won’t lie and say I’ve forgotten about my application; but I’ve been ruthlessly downplaying it in my mind. It’s a million-to-one shot, or near enough, and there are so many other things that need doing right now—stabilizing the sucking wound of our finances not least among them. I’m looking for a day job, which I know is the only sane course of action but which nevertheless feels like an admission of defeat. I’m at the frustrating midpoint of the process; a couple of promising interviews have come to naught, and there’s a tug between pursuing new leads and waiting to hear back from the old ones.

And then I get a callback for a live Jeopardy! tryout.
And to break the mood a little, I accept.

We’ll take a few days and visit some family back in Massachusetts, and I’ll round it out with an audition in some fancy downtown hotel. The tryouts are six weeks away, and we set to making phone calls and confirming our travel plans.

May 2008

I’ve landed a job—telephone sales, part time at eight bucks an hours vs. commission. I am to start on the Monday after out return from Boston. My feelings about this are complicated, but they’re mostly sour.

It’s not a good trip. We can’t really afford it, for one thing, and we have to tell the kids “No” a lot more often than we’d like. I’m a self-centered, neurotic mess, and it is wearing on D. I’m kind of an asshole to my Mom and my sisters.

The day of the audition is the worst of it. D and I argue in the car on the way to train station. I have been taking her good will and support for granted; I have not been standing up for her as I should. I’m short of cash, and by the time we get to the station the little suburban depot is closed up, so I can’t get to the ATM. I have to grovel before the conductor and hope he doesn’t throw me off the train. (He doesn’t.) I’m on my own in Boston—D and the kids are spending the day with my Mom. Sam’s birthday is near, and we’ve scheduled a family dinner for the coming evening. I’m lonely and miserable. I’m a rotten dad, I think; a rotten husband, an ungrateful son, a bad brother. Fuck Jeopardy!, I think: the stuff of daily life is trouble enough. Who needs another opportunity to screw things up?

And then I’m there, in a hotel conference room with twenty-odd other hopefuls, each one just as bright and personable as me, most of them better-looking. I feel tired and seedy with my discount-store necktie and my self-administered haircut and a crack in my glasses. For a moment, I would rather be just about anywhere else.

The tryouts start late, but at last we meet Maggie Speak and Tony Pandolfo, two folks from Contestant Relations. They are relentlessly bubbly and cheerful, and I start to come out of my funk a little. I am fond of Maggie within moments of meeting her. She is entirely a creature of Hollywood, and I mean that with no unkindness; there are very few people who are lucky enough to find a calling that so suits their personalities as Maggie has. She’s loud and animated, extroverted and welcoming. Tony is wry and smiling; you get the sense of a big personality held in check—Maggie is enough to fill this room all on her own, and Tony mostly gives her space, slipping his one-liners into whatever silences she leaves. (Maybe that’s why they call them wisecracks—because you can fit them into the tight little spaces between someone else’s words.)

We take another written quiz, get our pictures taken, have some question-and-answer time, get to know each other a little. Then we come on up and play some practice games; get familiar with the feel of the signaling device, try to find our rhythm, extend our awareness of our posture and our tics, try to eliminate the “ums” from our speech.

Everyone in this room, everyone on the Sony pictures soundstage, proceeds from about an equal knowledge base. What makes a contestant—or a winner—is speed, timing, strategy, presence. I do okay; I don’t freeze, I don’t babble. But neither do I dominate in any way. In this room full of intelligent and accomplished people, never have I felt so crushingly ordinary. I’m nobody special: I’m a population statistic.

We are thanked, told that our applications will be held for up to eighteen months, and then released into the wild. I leave more convinced than ever that nothing will come of this. I’m not depressed, exactly. Being in a room with so many potential Jeopardy! competitors has left me keenly aware of how far I’ve come with so little, and in that sense I feel fortunate. I bluffed my way through to a tryout without anybody noticing how far out of my league I was; that’s got to count for something, if only in the annals of con jobs.

Besides, there are more pressing concerns. The auditions let out late, and I race across town to find I’ve missed the outbound train—and Sam’s birthday dinner. So there’s plenty of opportunity to feel depressed and guilty, after all; and the vast, empty spaces of a near-empty South Station make a great place to mope.

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