Monthly Archives: May 2009

Mr. D and the Jeopardy! Experience, Part II

Mr. D on Jeopardy!  Ain't he a handsome devil.

Mr. D on Jeopardy! Ain't he a handsome devil.

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.

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Mr. D and the Jeopardy! Experience, Part I

It has been at least six months, and I have yet to write about it…until now.

Most of my friends, and some acquaintances, already know this, but for two glorious days, October 10, 2008 and October 13, 2008, Mr. D was the Jeopardy! champion.  Yes, it is spelled with the exclamation point–it’s trademarked that way.

All this time, either out of self-pity at my loss or because there’s just not enough time in the day, I have yet to summon the energy to discuss my experience.  Today, the Neighborhood will finally feature this account–but there’s a warning.  My travelogues tend to meander more than the Mississippi delta.  You may need to slow down some to get the gist of it.  You’ve been warned.

It all began in June, when I received an unlikely e-mail.  The February before, I had set aside my block of time, like so many brainiacs across this country, to take the Jeopardy! online test.  It was 50 questions long, and not necessarily easy.  In fact, I thought I didn’t do that well.  Last year’s test was much easier, and I wasn’t called.  This is why I was surprised to see an e-mail saying I was called to an audition in New York for the show. 

I went into a hotel lobby in Manhattan where a room of about 40 people were filling out forms, reading through dictionaries (I didn’t make that up, someone actually lugged a Websters along), or generally pacing around nervously.  As we sat down in a large room, the casting team introduced themselves with big Hollywood smiles and big Hollywood energy, rattling off information lightning fast so even the dictionary lady had to stop writing.  This was something I had to get used to.  Hollywood folks are all about energy, making sure that perkiness and spunk were at their peak.  It took all my fortitude to not throttle them with the buzzer cords. 

After a rapid-fire review of rules, procedures, and legal minutia, we sat down to another test, issued through an LCD projector onto a wall.  We were given 8 seconds for each question, which was a lot in the beginning, but not so towards the end.  I can tell you I didn’t get every question right, but it was a good shot.  The guy next to me was cursing under his breath towards the end.  Dictionary lady was probably hyperventilating.

The final step was the simulated game and review.  Groups of three were brought before the casting folks, made to play a short simulated game, and then answer questions based on the questionnaires we filled out.  At this point, I knew what they wanted.  Almost everyone there was smart, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.  What they wanted was the Hollywood energy, a movie star smile, and a go get-em Bob Eubanks style will a little aw-shucks rolled in.  In short, it was time for the bullshit, and I’m a Rembrandt at it.   As my name was called, we stood before the judges and answered random questions.  One lady was limp and lifeless.  The other person kept fumbling with the buzzer.  I answered each question as if I was Flash Gordon…”Who is Richard III?” (Cue the roguish smile and Errol Flynn pose).

The casting crew were dazzled at my cornucopia of bovine excrement.  I never lied once in front of them, but my delivery was straight out of central casting: direct, forceful and with a smile.  It also helped that I taught history in the Bronx–few Jeopardy! contestants have any form of “street cred.”  I got quite a few oohs and aahs from the other auditioners.  In a room full of upper-middle class white and Asian folks, I was practically a Crip. 

As we were sent home, we were all told that we were potential contestants, and that we would be in the contestant pool for one year.  At that point, I was never expecting to get on the show.  The whole process was fine, the people were nice enough–although the dictionary lady still lingers in my mind–and I felt that I did my very best.  If I got on the show, great.  If not, well there’s always next time.

Within three weeks, I get a phone call.  The person on the phone was from Sony Pictures.  I knew exactly what it was.

It took some time for the guy to tell me though.  He verified some of my personal info and then we reviewed anyone I knew on Jeopardy (my buddy Matt, and he didn’t do so well).  Finally, he said it: I was scheduled for an airdate of the week of Oct 6-10, which meant I was taping August 20 in their Culver City studio.  That’s the Los Angeles area, for those who don’t know.  The date couldn’t come fast enough.

Next time, Part II will cover the Los Angeles experience, and my taping experience.  You’ll also see an actual photo of Mr. D as shown on national television.  Stay tuned.

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Spoofing History: Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton

This may be Michael Cera‘s greatest role!  From College Humor, the Drunk History series features reenactments of history as told by a lush in a drunken stupor.  This one is particularly funny in that the said lush asks for a bucket midway through.  Best of all, Cera portrays one of my favorite founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.  Enjoy.

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