Yes, I starred on Jeopardy -but not in the way you might think. First off, you have to audition to get on the show, and this involves the kind of cramming you haven’t done since college: can you name the provinces of Canada? (Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec...any others? How about the Seven Dwarfs? Doc, Dopey, Sneezy…which President, aside from Lincoln and Kennedy, was assassinated?) Anyway, it took me three tries to pass the quiz, three trips in my Honda Civic through the Los Angeles haze to the studio. I finally made the cut and was shepherded one Monday morning into a set of bleachers along with another twenty-five contestants. They tape five shows in one day and it’s your duty to sit there ’till your show is called. This means you’re watching two, three, four other sets of contestants go through their paces until you get on. In between the taping segments Alex Trebek comes over and chats. He’s as nice and personable as he can be. We watched show Number Two tape its three segments. As it happened, the final category on this show was Playwrights Who Are Also Actors -and the answer contained the names Sam Shepard, Jason Miller and Noel Coward. In the break, as they were setting up for show number three, Alex drifts over to keep us entertained and someone in the second row says, “I know who Sam Shepard is, but who’s Noel Coward?” And Alex is right there with the definition: “He wrote comedies, the most famous is probably Private Lives -and he wrote songs. Does anyone know Mad Dogs and Englishmen?” Well, this pressed my button. Noel Coward has been an idol of mine since I was sixteen and discovered a volume of his plays in the school library. I can quote you Chapter and Verse. I stood up from the bleacher bench. “I do,” I said and launched into the verse:
In tropical climes there are certain times of day/When all the citizens retire to tear their clothes off and perspire./It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey/Because the sun is much too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray. The people around me were open-mouthed. These were all folks from Laguna and Boise, Idaho. Nobody had the slightest sympathy for obscure Brit lyrics: “The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts/Because they’re obviously, definitely NUTS! MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN GO OUT IN THE NOONDAY SUN/THE TOUGHEST BURMESE BANDIT/CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND IT I realized I shouldn’t perform the whole number, standing there in the stands, it would take eight minutes, the song has four choruses! I also realized I was making a spectacle of myself. “I think that’s enough,” I said, sitting back down. Alex was kind enough to applaud, and my seat-mates followed suit, though only half-heartedly, I fear. They must have resented my raising my profile in such a garish fashion. Of course, after this display of ego, expectations were high for my performance as a contestant. But I’m afraid here I was a disappointment, most shamefacedly to myself -because I lost in my own category! Musical theater! The query was simple: this Irving Berlin musical gave Ethel Merman one of her biggest hits. The answer is simple, isn’t it? Obviously, it’s Annie Get Your Gun, and I was about to press the button (ahead of everyone, I may add) when it suddenly occurred to me that Merman had also had a giant success in Berlin’s Call Me Madam. God, which one?? And before I could ring in, my neighbor had beaten me to the punch. Shit! I’d nailed this! I’d been distracted by knowing too much!! Damn. In the unforgiving, relentless California sunlight I trudged back to the parking lot and my Honda. Defeated in my own field. I’ll never live it down -and I still haven’t.