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I Went to a TV Game Show—and All I Got Were Some Weird Memories!
My cousin, Sarah, has twice tried to get on “The Price is Right.” And though she never made it to Contestant’s Row, her experiences, at the frontlines of the land of TV, weren’t without a few memorable moments. She’s made her first attempt in 2010, her second in 2011.
Before touching down on the Left Coast, Sarah and a friend of hers (who had tied their “Price” attempt to a larger California vacation) did their homework. You see, to get on “TPIR” it takes dedication and some early rising. Sarah and her friend showed up at the “Price is Right” studios at 3am on a Monday tape day to obtain passes from a studio rep. By the time the two young women arrived that early AM, some people were already in line. Nevertheless, the ladies obtained their passes and were told to report back to the studio at 8am. “So,” said Sarah, “we went to Starbucks to kill time.”
“Price,” on this day, would tape two shows; one in the morning, one in the afternoon.
After showing up at eight like they were told to, Sarah and her friend were herded inside with other “Price” ticket holders to get their iconic, stick-on, over-sized orange name tags and, hopefully, get the chance to play the game on stage. They were also invited to stand in front of a giant green screen where they could get a processed picture souvenir to take home—for a small fee, of course.
According to Sarah, getting on the game was a long process of hurry up …and wait. While still outside—yes, before they were even let into the building--potential contestants were lined up and sat down on a long (perhaps 100 feet long) bench up against the wall of the building. In groups of 10, they were then pulled out of line and interviewed by production assistants. To Sarah’s mind, some of the show’s workers had been there a little too long. “Some were pleasant, but one lady really had an attitude. We didn’t like her.”
Slowly, and still outside (thank god for good California weather!), everyone was interviewed one by one. Sometime during all this you were asked to fill out some standard paperwork—name, address, and the question “Have you appeared on any other TV game show in the past 12 to 24 months?” By this time as well you were also expected to have discarded any food, drink or gum you might have brought with you or were currently chewing. Cameras and cell phones were also not only prohibited, they were actually confiscated! Those items were to be checked; they were returned after the taping.
Finally, after the long interview process was completed, and after passing through a metal detector, the group was allowed into the actual studio. Said Sarah, “Inside, it seemed much smaller in person. It looks huge on TV [but] it’s small and cramped. Even the stage seemed tiny.”
By this time, who was actually going to make it onto Contestant’s Row had already been decided. And though there is no doubt some sort of science to who gets picked and why, it is one that was lost on my cousin. Sarah said, “We decided to act really upbeat. My friend, maybe even a little crazy. We thought that that’s what they wanted.” According to Sarah’s dad, David, who also once attended a taping—what can I say? It runs in the family--the producers seemed to mostly favor older people and those acting “a little spacey.” When Dave visited, he observed one woman in line in a short skirt and high heels. “Bet she gets picked,” he said to his friend. And she did.
During the actual taping, along with show announcer George Gray yelling out the names of contestants to “Come on down!,” due to all the din in the studio, a stage hand was also at the front holding up a sign with the contestant’s name to make sure they knew to rush forth.
Everyone’s first glimpse of “Price is Right” host Drew Carey was when he was introduced once the taping actually started. (“He’s very thin in person,” according to Sarah.) But, Carey was not stand off-ish. He interacted with the audience with jokes and Q&A during the show’s many commercial breaks.
Obviously after 42 years on the air, “Price is Right” is a well-oiled machine and the taping of the actual programming was brisk and quick. It took just over an hour to film the show and was concluded that day by noon. Immediately afterward, Carey thanked the audience, said good-bye and vanished backstage to change clothes for that day’s second taping. Gray held over for a few minutes in order to do some audio retakes.
Though their hopes of playing Plinko for cash and prizes were dashed, Sarah, friend and other audience members were invited back to attend the show’s next taping to take place that afternoon. (Participants to attend the afternoon taping can be spotty apparently due to a higher percentage of “no-shows.”) Interestingly, for the day’s second taping, Sarah and all the other returnees were once again subjected to the same sort of interview process as their first time through.
Then, after the interviews, it was back to another holding room.
Related Sarah, “By this time it was four hours of basically sitting and waiting. We were soooo hungry.” There was a small food cart stocked with bags of chips, M&M’s and other snacks for purchase nearby but, by the time Sarah and her friend got there, “Everything was pretty much gone. We scarfed down several bags of chips.” Finally, another contestant, who had scored a pre-packaged wrap sandwich from the cart before they sold out, took pity on the girls and offered them half of it. They accepted.
The afternoon’s second taping proceeded without issue. Once again, Sarah and friend were not picked for Contestant’s Row. The day’s taping wound up around 4 or 5 that evening. It was a long day, especially for the girls whose day had started at 3AM that morning.
Upon leaving the studio, not surprisingly, the departing audience members were given the option to exit by the gift shop. According to Sarah, the “gift shop” was hardly fitting for a program like “Price” that so celebrates consumerism. “It’s about the size of walk-in closet.” Along with “Price is Right” key chains, coffee mugs and magnets, also available for purchase was merchandise promoting other CBS programs.
At the time of their departure from the land of “The Price is Right,” Sarah and company were also informed to tune in in about three weeks for the day their episode was set to air. That way, they could see themselves not be picked all over again.
II. Meanwhile, Over on “Jeopardy!”
Thompson, like me, is an employee of the Library of Congress, though we reside in different divisions. Late last year, he appeared as a contestant on TV’s long-running “Jeopardy!”
And if my cousin thought she had a long wait to get in to see Drew Carey and company, it was nothing compared to Thompson’s.
It was around July of 2012 when “Jeopardy!” was in the nation’s capital for the taping of their annual celebrity “Power Players” week, when Thompson almost inadvertently found himself quasi-cast on the show. He related, “I went with two friends to the taping at Constitution Hall. Lewis Black was one of the contestants. We had to sit in the very last row; we could barely see anything. After the show was over, we decided to be bold and go on stage and get a picture of ourselves on the ‘Jeopardy!’ set. Clearly we had no business being up there.”
Still, rather than being bounced by security, Thompson and friends were instead approached by a show producer or contestant wrangler who liked the gall and fun energy of Thompson and his co-horts. She slipped Thompson one of her business cards. She told him to take the on-line “Jeopardy!” quiz and added, “If you pass, I’ll get you on.”
Thompson ended up passing the online quiz and then, later, of his own accord, attended a “Jeopardy!” open casting call held at a community college in Maryland. Thompson stated, “I think this ‘audition’ was mainly a publicity thing. It had a big turnout and members of the show’s ‘Clue Crew’ were there but I don’t think anyone from that event was actually cast.”
Nothing resulted from that open casting all but in December of 2012, Thompson was summoned by the show’s producing powers to Baltimore. This audition session was far different from the earlier affair. “It was completely no frills, at a hotel, with only about 20 potential contestants there,” Thompson related. “You took the quiz again so they could make sure [your passing] wasn’t a fluke. It was graded on the premises.” Like “Price is Right,” would-be contestants were then interviewed. “They wanted to see if you could speak, if you were ‘camera-ready.’”
Thompson did well at the one-on-one. He told a funny story about his cat and made mention of his Library of Congress affiliation. It proved to be endearing. The same could not be said for a woman also in attendance that day. She spoke about losing her mother recently after a long battle with cancer. Sadly, as honest as it was, this Debbie Downer’s candor did not score her points with the show’s contestant recruiters.
In Baltimore, Thompson and other invitees also participated in a mock game, complete with host and two others would-be contestants who also tried out that day.
Though Thompson thought he did well, he left the session with no guarantee and little clue as to when he might appear. “It was completely ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’”
Finally, though, about six months later, in July of last year, he got The Call. Thompson was to report to California in September to be on a taping of America’s longest running TV quiz show.
Unfortunately, as fun and rewarding as it might be, getting picked to be a contestant on the show can be costly. Thompson had to pay for his own trip--airfare and hotel--to California. He stated however, “You stay in a local hotel that offers a special ‘Jeopardy’ rate.
“The day of your taping you are picked up in a special ‘Jeopardy’ bus for the short ride to the studio in Culver City.”
For “Jeopardy!,” a week’s worth of episodes would are taped in one day, one right after the other.
Despite what might be expected, Thompson reported a friendliness and camaraderie among him and his 12 other contestants/bus riders. “Getting on the show is such long process that when you actually get there, you already feel like you’ve won. Everyone’s very happy and friendly.”
At the “Jeopardy!” studios, contestants first get deposited into a green room well stocked with water, Danishes and other delights. They probably get hungry; on Brock’s day, the contestants were held in the green room for three hours. They were then brought out onto the actual “Jeopardy!” set, right after they get a short, polite pep talk from one of the show’s producers. On the set, the contestants get to partake in a practice game in order to get used to the stage, the lights and working the buzzer. During these trial runs, one of the show’s cameramen fills in for Alex. As the practice game plays out, the contestants were also switched among the three podiums so they get a feel for each of the show’s contestant positions.
After the test run was over, the studio audience filed in and the first challengers were picked for the day. Notably, who played against who was chosen randomly, with no concern with mixing that day’s genders, ages or other demographics. The names of the contestants were/are literally drawn out of a bag.
If they weren’t picked to play the first real game of the day, the soon-to-be contestants were placed in a special section of the studio audience reserved just for them. Contestants on stage were told explicitly NOT to look at or acknowledge the audience during the game; there can no suggestion of impropriety or a player being signaled by someone in the crowd.
Eventually, Thompson made it to the stage to play. His and his fellow contestant’s first up close view of show host Alex Trebek was when he was introduced at the beginning of the show, just like you see on TV.
For the brief interviews that he conducted “on air” with that day’s contestants, Trebek was well-prepped. Each of that show’s contestants had submitted three topical things for Alex to ask them about. Trebek got the card with the three choices on it from the producer before the taping. He then chooses the one he wants to hear about. Trebek’s a big fan of the Library of Congress, so, not surprisingly, Thompson’s question had to do with his job and not his cat.
As reported by Thompson, during commercial breaks, Trebek interacted with the attending audience and fielded questions. Thompson stated, “I think our audience came directly from an area nursing home. No one there was under 70.” One brave soul inquired why, with its long-standing College Week, Teen Week and Teachers Tournament, the show never held a Seniors Week. The 73 year-old Trebek was blunt in his response, “People in that age group don’t recall things very quickly.”
“That,” remembered Thompson, “shut down the Q&A rather quickly.”
Though Thompson played the game well and made it to Final Jeopardy, he didn’t emerge victorious. “That buzzer,” he says now, “It killed me!”
After the show, Trebek didn’t hang out long. He chatted briefly with the three contestants for the video that plays daily under the closing credits. (According to Thompson, “He mainly chatted with me about Washington, DC, and the Library. The other contestants were too star struck.”) Trebek also posed with each contestant for a picture taken next to “their” podium. Finally, before he ran backstage to change his clothes for the next “day,” Trebek rerecorded some of his clues from earlier, doing over again any mispronounced words or other errors he may have made during the taping. Those corrections would be repaired in post.
Since he was never champion, for his appearance on the show, Thompson did not get to keep the money he amassed. But, as was the show's custom at the time, second and third place finishers were sent home with a small honorarium of either $2000 or $1000 depending on where they placed. These funds, as was announced at the conclusion of the show, was provided by show sponsor Aleve, perfect in case you ended up with a giant headache.
Thompson’s episode of “Jeopardy!” aired on December 4, 2013. Watch it here:
I would like to thank Sarah Alton, David Ford and William “Brock” Thompson for their assistance with this article.
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