October 15, 2007

Merv Griffin's Crosswords tryouts

Having already run through many of the Southern Californians into both crosswords and game shows in the first couple months of taping, the Merv Griffin's Crosswords producers decided to expand their contestant search to Chicago. On Saturday, hundreds of Midwesterners tried out, and the producers will fly 50 of them to L.A. to compete on the show. Here's how it all went down.

We assembled in the overheated lobby of the NBC Tower. Why did I wear a cashmere sweater?? Staffers worked their way back in the queue, giving out numbered name tags and photographing each applicant.

Elevatorfuls of would-be contests were taken up to the spartan second floor, where we filed into a pair of conjoined rooms, skinny and cramped but with vending machines. We were asked to seat ourselves in numerical order—the papers on each chair were numbered sequentially. While we waited, we filled out the papers—name and address, an avowal that we don’t know anyone who works for the show, etc.

A staffer broke up the waiting by asking us to answer crossword clues. The first person to give the answer and correctly spell it aloud, MGC style, won a t-shirt embroidered with the show’s name. [Greek letter shaped like a trident]? Whoo, I’m all over that. PSI garnered me a t-shirt…men’s size large. What, no tailored women’s tee? Hmph.

Eventually it was test time. Twenty-nine multi-square blanks corresponding to the 29 clues a staffer would read (clues were also projected onto the wall), with one square filled in. Mind you, that’s one square filled in for one word, and zero squares filled in for 28 words.

The clues definitely had the same Timothy Parkeresque vibe the clues on the show have, meaning sometimes they made me furrow my brow and scowl just a tad. Most of the clues were gettable. The very first one was for a 5-letter adjective that could be completely straightforward or a little slangy, but the others were more clearcut. I left only the last one blank: something like [Some parental substitutes, psychologically speaking], 13 letters. Completely obvious after someone said what they'd put down, but nothing had come to my mind during the test. Out of about 2,500 people who have tried out for the show in L.A., only about three have answered everything correctly on the test.

About 40 people in the noon group passed the test, so there was more biding of time and another round of win-a-t-shirt action. Then we bided a little more time up on the fifth floor, in a spacious conference room. Someone had actually decorated the fifth floor, not dingy, not beige, not spartan. Another woman mentioned Wordplay, so we chatted about that. In small groups, we went down the hall to tape our interview—basically face the camera, pay no mind to the camera ogling you as it pans all the way down and back up again, introduce yourself, talk about something interesting you do, answer a couple questions. The producers will review the videos and choose 50 people. I figure there were more than 100 people who passed the test, so most of the auditioners will not be getting a call. Only the selected contestants will hear anything—the others will be left wondering if their phone malfunctioned when TV fame came calling.

When I came out of the interview room, the show’s host, Ty Treadway, was meeting and greeting the applicants biding their time in the elevator lobby. He chit-chatted, gave hugs (apparently it is de rigueur to hug anyone who has seen one on a soap opera), posed for a picture, and talked about game play. He said there’s a definite advantage to watching the show and knowing how to strategize, and that contestants who haven’t seen the show don’t do as well as regular viewers. He also said the final round, in which the winner tries to finish the puzzle in 90 seconds for the grand prize, is harder than it looks. (Although I’m guessing that any seasoned speed-solver should be able to contend with that.) Also, it must be noted here that Ty has lovely blue eyes. Blogger is petulantly refusing to upload the camera-phone photo of me and Ty, but here's another picture of him. Hey, he was wearing a black shirt and a leather jacket on Saturday, too.

The show’s format has changed a bit. There are no longer getaway clues with Podunk vacations; instead, there are five “crossword extras” that are a little like a Jeopardy! Daily Double, and I think the amount you can wager has increased. The grand prize has also been upped, to $5,000 and a trip to somewhere tempting, like Hawaii.

Also, a staffer said that it’s been breaking about 50/50 for who wins: a contestant vs. a spoiler. This gives encouragement to the people who are assigned to be spoilers—although if front-row contestants make up 40% of the players but 50% of the winners, then there is a statistical advantage to not getting assigned to the back row. If you're invited to appear on the show, you won't know until taping whether you'll be a contestant or spoiler.

My questions, for those of you who have competed on the show or who watch it regularly:

• What’s the most important thing to do, strategically? What's the best approach?

• If there’s a clue that could have more than one answer based on the board—e.g., ***U**, [Make certain], could be ASSURE, ENSURE, or INSURE—does it make sense to ring in early and hope you guess lucky? Or do you sit back and wait to see if other contestants flub it so you can zero in on the correct answer?

• If you’re a spoiler, do you ring in even if you don’t know the answer immediately, just to have a shot at taking a front podium? If you're a spoiler, you lose nothing with a wrong answer, no?

• How does wagering for the Crossword Extras compare withJeopardy! Daily Double wagering? Do you want to bet conservatively since you just need to be ahead of one other podium, or does a big-money lead pay off strategically? (Obviously, a big-money lead lets you take more money home if you win, but if the grand prize is $5,000, I think it’s less important whether you enter the final round with $1,000 or $2,350.

• When it comes to that final round, what’s the most expeditious approach? Head for words with lots of blanks, or words with more givens? If there’s a long answer with four blanks, do you want to spell the one long thing or split it into four crossings?

• Would you recommend getting a book of Timothy Parker crosswords for pre-show training? Apparently there are no older Parker books available from Amazon (older books are available only from people selling books via Amazon, and are not sold by Amazon), but several MGC tie-in books will be released tomorrow and later this month.