Los Angeles is still a different planet to me. I can still remember going to my sister’s wedding, sitting next to my father. After numerous trips to visit her, Dad had only this to say:
“These people are weird. They’re pretty stupid, too.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
Take the roads, for example. On the day of my appearance on Jeopardy!, I was in my sister’s apartment, the home base of the morning’s operations. Since she lived in the northern part of the city, just south of Griffith Park, getting to the Culver City studios would be a hike. So I Googled the directions, as I normally would. It showed a logical, straightforward path using highways and one local street.
My sister gave me this look, a look which said, “Why not nail yourself to a hunk of wood and hang suspended over Los Feliz Boulevard. That would be less painful than the route you have in your hand.”
So we took PhDini’s route, which looked like a staircase to Hell. Left here, Right on Sunset, Left on La Brea, Right on Pico, Left on Crenshaw, Right on Venice…I forgot the rest, but somehow I made it to the Sony Pictures lot. Sis alleges this was faster than the freeway. According to most Angelenos, EVERY route is faster than the freeway.
As I got to the gate, the casting director who called me the month before greeted me and we boarded a tram bus to the Jeopardy! lot. I have to admit, it was really cool to be on a working studio and not on the little tram tour–although I expected more noise. The hanger-like sound lots are eerily quiet from the outside. The casting director was, like me, from Brooklyn. Insert California transplant cliché here.
Apparently, since I elected to stay with PhDini instead of fork up dough for my accommodations, I did not arrive with most of the other contestants. They were waiting for me, but they didn’t seem to mind. I missed a lot of the pre-show harangue from the casting team–the same team with the Hollywood smiles from June. I hung up my extra wardrobe (we’re mandated to bring three wardrobe changes) and helped myself to coffee in the green room.
Each of us then went for makeup. The makeup people were gushing over my tanned complexion, which I worked on assiduously on a beach vacation in Rehoboth, Delaware. One of them said I had the perfect skin for television. Made up, dressed and caffeinated, I chatted with my fellow contestants.
In all honesty, I was expecting hyper-intelligent, yet hyper-competitive Ivy-League types and Ph.D candidates from MIT, the kind that would slit their mother’s throat to get the A in the economics class at Harvard. You remember those guys—they sat at the front of the class, kept answering inane questions to show their paper-thin intelligence or the fact that they sacrificed their social skills for doing all the month’s readings ahead of time, and always seemed to hang around the professor after class. I would’ve preferred the weird dictionary lady from the audition.
What I got was the exact opposite. On the whole, my fellow contestants had to be the nicest, friendliest people I’ve met here. They came from all walks of life and all over the country, and the last thing they were thinking of was beating you. They were pleasant, warm, pretty relaxed, and in a really fun state of mind. This was a game show, after all, and we were all in the same boat, so there was no point into finding an “edge.”
Rehearsal came next, and we were all escorted to the stage. It was cold, empty, and a lot smaller than I thought. The game board was showing cartoons as test patterns. I got up to the podium and felt the paint–cheap paint job, I thought. Maybe this was due to the High-Definition broadcasts. I sneaked around to Alex Trebek’s podium, just to see from his vantage point–he wouldn’t show until the actual taping. This was the point when it became real: I’m going to be on television, so I better not look like an ass. Maybe another browsing of the Norton Anthology would do me good.
It took some time to get used to the timing of the buzzer. The buzzers are activated by a guy offstage with a button. He waits for Alex to finish speaking, then presses a button to light up white Christmas lights around the board (you can’t see them on TV). My button technique took some doing, yet I felt confident enough that I could manage. It also helped that we joked around during rehearsal, doing our best Sean Connery impersonations. I chimed in with “An Album Cover” (“Anal Bumcover”).
Before each game, two names were drawn to be the contestants against the returning champion, this time a grad student from Boston. He was good, and we were all waiting for him to go down because no one wanted to tangle with his buzzing prowess. I did not get called first, which was a relief. The remaining contestants sat in a sectioned off corner of the audience while the three combatants down, Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, makes his windup speech, introduces the contestants, and out comes our hero Mr. Trebek.
It amazes me how many mistakes are made in the course of taping. Alex must be getting old because he flubs on a number of questions. Yet what really impresses is what you don’t see. On commercial breaks, Alex re-records these questions so that the editors can splice together a clean, finished product. Johnny Gilbert also re-records some contestant introductions. It’s not just clean-cut white kids anymore—all those Asian, Indian and Eastern European names have gotten poor Johnny tongue-tied.
What isn’t so clean is Alex’s extemporaneous banter with the audience, which he uses to relax and maintain his flow. Most of his responses are rather mundane: personal details, what it’s like to work on the set, does it ever get tiring, etc. He handles these easily enough. Sometimes, though, his inner voice gets the better of him:
Little Girl: “Do you have any pets?”
Alex: “Do I have any pets? What pets do you have?”
Little Girl: “Two kitties and a bunny!”
Alex: Two kitties and a bunny?! Why don’t you bring them over to my house and feed them to my dogs!”
This was among the tamer comments he made. If for nothing else, Alex’s off-color remarks and dark humor kept the taping session moving along.
Five shows were taped that day. I sat through four shows, growing more nervous by the hour. Plus it was getting warm in there. By the time my name was called for the last show, I was sweating like a hog and couldn’t button my coat. The makeup people—the same people who complemented me on my skin—were daubing frantically while I was getting miked up.
The Alan Shepard prayer kept ringing in my head, “Lord don’t make me f**k up.”
Part III will cover the show and the aftermath.