Commentary
7:00 am
Fri June 27, 2014

Remembering a dose of humility from Jeopardy!

The set of Jeopardy!
Credit U.S. Game Show Wiki

Last night, I tried my luck on the NPR game show, “Ask Me Another.”  It brought back memories – traumatic ones – of my disastrous try out for the Jeopardy! game show 24 years ago.

"I'll take 'Humility' for $100 please, Alex."

"He was one of fifty people to fail the Jeopardy test on June 21, 1990."

"Ah, 'Who was John Bacon?'"

24 years ago, it seemed like a good idea.  There I was, lying on the couch, watching Jeopardy!, and yelling out things like "Millard Fillmore," "The St. Louis Browns" and "Mesopotamia," when they invited anybody who would be in Los Angeles to try out for the show.  Turned out I would be, so I figured, Why Not?   

Why not?  Here’s why: It’s a poor predictor of success on the show, only 3-percent pass it --  oh, and you can’t really study for it.   That’s why.  

Nonetheless, I drove to KTLA studios on Sunset Boulevard to take the test with 50 other wannabes.  The test consisted of 50 straight $1,000 questions at ten-second intervals.  We would have to get "a lot of them right,” but they wouldn’t say how many.  

The first five questions were particularly difficult-- so much so, I couldn't remember most of them two minutes after the test.  I do remember one on dance, though, which to me read like a Far Side cartoon:  "Blah blah blah ballet blah blah blah 1900 blah blah blah."  

They might as well have asked me to read a bar code.  I tried to think of something, anything, that might include both criteria, but I only managed to come up with: "Feet" and "President McKinley."  Perhaps, "What are President McKinley's feet?"  

I left it blank.  Same way I answered, "This monkey typically has a blue face and a red nose” – or was it the other way around? -- and "This author wrote a childhood rhyme called 'The Owl and the Pussycat'."  I grew up eating Cap’n Crunch and watching "Speed Racer."  If the author in question never had a cartoon, I didn't stand a chance.

But things did get better.  I knew that the Hagia Sophia was the Turkish mosque converted to a museum, and that the Whig Party immediately preceded the Republican Party.  I also knew the line "What fools these mortals be" is from A Midsummer's Night Dream; and that Kevin Kline won best supporting actor for "A Fish Called Wanda.”

But, even on a roll I botched a few, including this one: "The part of the Human Body that features the isles of langerhans."  My dad, a pediatric endocrinologist, has devoted his life to the study of that organ, the pancreas.  I knew it too, and knew that I knew it, but that day all I could think of was "Torso," or "Below the neck.”  

Some entertainment questions were so foreign to me, I could have just as easily answered "Ernest Borgnine" as "SPAM."

And this is the essential difficulty of the test: it requires the intellect to enjoy Shakespeare, and the stupidity to watch "Three's Company" re-runs.  Therein lies the rub.  

"Answer: A freezer full of Eskimo Pies, a year's supply of Turtle Wax, and the respect of your peers."

"What is, 'What you don't get when you fail the Jeopardy test'?"

We, the rejected, had to make our own consolations.  If you're going to get rejected by a game show, at least it wasn't "Wheel of Fortune."  On my gravestone, the following would suffice: "He Never Bought a Vowel."

Now, the bad news: Most of my friends were surprised to hear I hadn't made it, but that could mean two things: they either thought I was smart, or that the test was for morons.  This ambiguity was captured by a good friend who said, "I thought for sure you'd make it.  I've always considered you a pretty trivial person."

Years later, I’ve come to terms with my failure, with one exception: I used to get undue pleasure from yelling at the contestants who can't locate Montevideo, or don't know that "Old Rough and Ready" was not Teddy Roosevelt.  

Now I have to keep in mind that they might be idiots, but they're smarter than I am.