A million years ago, my Teevee Wyrd began. As a child, I watched Broadcast Television from the first thing in the morning until the last moments of consciousness at night, sometimes into the late night/early morning Sign Off, when TV stations would end the day by playing the national anthem, and then they’d stop broadcasting, cutting into a blast of pure black & white static, either jarring or soothing, depending on where I was in my sleep cycle.
As a latchkey kid, I would flick the TV on as soon as I got home from school, diving into a bowl of cereal or Chef Boyardee ravioli while game shows, soap operas, and reruns of ancient sitcoms filled the air as I pretended to try and do my homework, early for once, or at least on time, or ever, at least.
The TV was always on.
The teenaged TV-me saved up cash from selling newspaper subscriptions and purchased our family’s first-ever color TV set, $250. It was a brand-new 19″ Zenith Chromacolor II, wheeled cart included, and it had this CHROMATIC button which would saturate the RGB cathode-ray colors into an eye-bleeding amplified rainbow. It really popped the lurid oranges on The Price is Right and Star Trek reruns.
My mom took me and my brother to New York City once to see a taping of Jeopardy! I remember being in the audience, all of us crammed into steep banks of seats in the surprisingly small studio. There were TV monitors above us so we could see the show as it appeared on TV, as it is supposed to be. I remember thinking what was going on in the studio wasn’t the show, I wasn’t looking at the show until it was the thing that came out of the TV.
Television was important to me when I was a kid. It was part of my existence the way the Internet is part of people’s lives now, and I felt every bit as much a part of television as I do Twitter or Insta or any of that crap, but more, I guess, because TV was my friend, all I had to do was turn it on and I could get as absorbed as I wanted, or just let it be a presence in my moment.
As a gainfully employed adult I used to chill at night after dinner on Sunday nights and watch Regis Philbin host Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC, on Network Television, and I thought: Man, I could totally be on this show. It wasn’t like Jeopardy!, where you had to be a certain kind of smart. I knew I probably wasn’t Jeopardy!-smart enough to qualify, but Millionaire was Multiple Choice, and I was good at test-taking. You could walk in with the detritus already piled up inside your skull and cash in.
This was my way in to where I knew I should be, inside the television. This was my way to be what I already knew I was! Television.
Employing a method of positive visualization, I could see myself inside the teevee, with Regis, sweating out the questions, giving my Final Answer, knocking down dollar amounts on the way up to a Million bucks, but it wasn’t the money, it was the Love of the Game, the Oneness with TELEVISION. I tried to get on, back then they had this number you could phone to hear pre-recorded questions, read by Regis, and then, using your phone buttons, you could answer to try and qualify, but I never got far enough. Qualifying was way harder than being on the show, I was positive of that.
They (and you know who They are, their initials are A-B-C) burned Regis out on Millionaire. It was such a hit that they ran the show Sundays and then multiple weekdays, until nobody cared. Then it left Prime Time and went to Syndication, to Daytime Television, and I had a Day Job, so I forgot about Millionaire. It was hosted by Meredith Vieira from the Today show for like 10 years, and I never watched it once, because it was on daytime, or else on Fringe TV, like 4 a.m. in some markets. Consult your local listings.
Eventually comedian Cedric The Entertainer got regular hosting duties on the show, and after that, Terry Crews from Everybody Hates Chris, and the Old Spice commercials, and eventually Brooklyn Nine Nine, took a shot at it. That’s when I started paying attention again, in 2014.
I started paying attention again in 2014 because suddenly I had lots of daytime free time! I got fired from City Paper, the weekly newspaper where I’d worked for 25 years, which was bought by the Baltimore Sun, namely, the Baltimore Sun Media Group which was owned by Tribune Publishing which changed its name to tronc™ which changed its name back again, which decided they didn’t need me inside the building when they rehired most of the employees terminated after the sale. Anyway, that’s a whole other story, and I can’t talk about it because I signed Legal Papers.
The point is I was pretty much at home, just a squirrel, trying to get a nut, doing freelance work at my computer, a little volunteer work outside the house, taking long lunches and afternoon naps and leisurely coffee breaks with cronies, and catching some TELEVISION, the real Teevee, the kind you get free, via invisible electromagnetic waves received with an antenna, or a digital converter box and antenna if you happen to have an old-school analog-tuner TV set in your house. Broadcast Television! The TV I grew up on, the kind to which I returned when the cable bill got too damn high and the paycheck got too low.
Daytime Broadcast Television is pretty depressing! You have Maury and all those shows with former and/or fake judges settling low-dollar disputes, oy vey. Not to mention the commercials, man, wow, asbestos-injury lawsuits, did-you-get-in-a-car-accident-with-a-truck lawsuits, defective-vaginal-mesh-implant lawsuits, defective-artificial-knee lawsuits, and maybe someday, a did-you-kill-yourself-because-you-got so-depressed-watching-daytime-television-commercials lawsuit. Plus: Dr. Phil.
I started checking in with Millionaire, because at least the people on there were trying to accomplish something, you know? Then I started monitoring the Millionaire Web site and they announced auditions. I still believed! I had total confidence in my ability to become part of Television, the time was right!
Auditions were at the ABC Building on West 66th Street, a $12 bus ride from Baltimore to New York City on the cheapo Bolt/Greyhound. I sat in a bus for a few hours, waited in line with a hundred or so other individuals, and took a seat at a big lunchroom table with the producers who were running the audition.
The producers made it clear we were being evaluated. For enthusiasm! They also wanted us to be enthused about their new host, the guy from The Bachelor, Chris Harrison. They had a life-sized cardboard cutout of him there in the lunchroom. I didn’t know who the guy was, I never watched The Bachelor, but I wasn’t gonna bring that up! I’ll watch some The Bachelor, man, don’t worry! The Bachelorette, even, also! Sitting in that roomful of prospective Contestants was like being a dog at the animal shelter, ideally a smarter dog, one who knew they needed to look super interesting and friendly and playful if they ever expected to get outta that cage, you know?
We all took a written school-type exam (30 questions, of the sort they might have on the show, in 10 minutes) to qualify for an interview with a Producer. I took the test with a complimentary Who Wants to Be a Millionaire pencil (of course I pocketed it), filling in (completely) the little block next to the multiple-choice selection I figured was closest to the answer, and I made the cut. The losers were excused—with thanks and the encouragement to try again, up to five times a season—while the 10 or so remaining I Wannabe a Millionaires filled out forms containing questions to help the Producers figure out if we were the kind of prospects who might make for some Good Television. What is so special about you? What would you do with the prize money that is not a boring answer such as paying off the credit card you keep using to take the bus up here from, where? Baltimore? What is interesting about Baltimore? Do you have any children? A pet, at least? Hobby? C’mon, work with us here, do you have a special talent? Being underemployed is not a special talent. What do people think about you? Do you have any idea what people think about you?
I was waiting at a table with a guy who looked like a cop, and he told me he had tried out a bunch of times. “Watch ’em,” he said, looking over at a table where a potential Contestant sat talking with a Producer, “watch what happens when they’re done with the interview. If they shake hands and head for the door? They don’t know it, but that’s the Walk of Shame, man, they’re done. The Producers shake your hand and tell you they’re gonna email you, but what it means is you’re gonna get an email saying you didn’t qualify.”
So this audition veteran’s name was called, and he walked over to sit down at a table with a Producer. After a while I saw him get up, shake hands, and walk out the door. The walk of shame!
Then it was my turn to sit face to face with a Producer and have a mugshot taken and answer some corny questions that I imagined were designed to provide the Host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with a little something to say to me between the questions that I would be answering to win my million dollars. This Producer really exerted an effort to find something in me that showed I was worth being pushed through to the next phase. She talked to me in an animated and energetic way, and I did my best to give that back to her, but in the back of my head I was like “Why are we doing this? Just put me through! I am Destined! Don’t you get it? I will give you what you want when I play the game! I want to be inside the teevee! That’s what’s interesting about me! I was raised by Television! It’s my friend! I watch the QVC shopping channel and I never buy anything! I just want to see how long somebody can talk about all the features of a shirt or a towel until they are just going Stream of Consciousness and speaking in tongues! I want to be inside Television! You’ll see! I know what to do!”
But all I did was lock up and lapse into super-long pauses before I answered questions:
Producer: So Joe, do you have any funny superstitions?
Me, who wants to be a millionaire and knows how to do television so hard, seriously, you’ll see: [long pause] Well, uh, actually, when my palm itches? It means I’m gonna score. Not a lotta money, but a few bucks, like, on a bet at the track, or a scratch-off lottery ticket, yeah.
Producer: Oh! That’s crazy! So is your palm itching now? Maybe like you’re gonna win a million bucks?
Me: [pause] Um, well, no, not right now, actually.
Producer:[Staring into my skull, trying to see if there’s anything in there, but also looking at my wacky shirt with tigers on it] You know what Joe? I like your shirt, it’s very colorful and attention-getting. I have a feeling about you, so I’m going to put you through to the screen test. Go sit at that table over there, and—hey, look at me—make sure you answer the questions with a lot of energy, OK?
Wow! First time auditioning and I’m at the Screen Test! My wacky-shirt gambit paid off! I can’t remember the questions, but I kicked ass on that screen test. The Producer running the little camera to record me while I was standing there like a dope pretending to play the game said “Wow! You got ’em all right! You’re great! You’ll be hearing from us very soon, for real, thanks!”
I walked out of there like I already won the dough, I was a lock!
About a month later, I was in Miami with my Bride, the wonderful Wendy Ward (she was and is Gainfully Employed), celebrating the Anniversary of our Honeymoon with a trip I had paid for months in advance of losing my Day Job. We’re at this diner, sitting outside on the deck and I’m talking about how any minute I’m gonna be on Millionaire, man, what if they call while we’re down here in Miami? I’m gonna have to change my plane ticket! Unemployed rich people problem! There’s a TV set up on the wall and Millionaire comes on, so we start playing along. My Special Lady contradicted several of my answers, and she was correct each time.
Millionaire did not call me in Miami. It did not call me in Baltimore, either. No email, no mail-mail, nothing. I’d check the site every now and then and call the phone number on there for Contestants to call, but nobody ever answered the phone. The auditions were over. Seven months passed.
People, friends, even, I had told about the audition, busted my chops. “Hey Mister Millionaire, when’s that Millionaire check coming, hiyo Million!” I would still hit the site every once in a while to see if anything was happening. Nothing.
What happened, I think, was what I learned on the Wikipedia about the Sony Hack:
According to e-mails released in the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, Millionaire narrowly avoided cancellation after the 2014–15 season. The show’s declining ratings prompted [Disney–ABC Domestic Television] to demand a dramatically reduced licensing fee for renewal, which SPE was hesitant to accept. The series was nonetheless renewed for the 2015–16 season, with various cuts to the show’s production budget and a return to the original format (but with only 14 questions).
In May 2015, engaged in the Gig Economy at home, I was watching reruns of Millionaire, featuring the ever-animated Terry Crews doing that thing with his pectoral muscles, and I took a peek at the site, and it was alive. Auditions! New York City! I signed up and caught the first thing smokin’ back to that spot on the west side where the budget buses disgorge, walked up to the ABC Building, got back in that lunchroom, blazed through the test, did a sit-down with a Producer, and—!
I barely registered with her. I impressed her in no way. Not even whatever interesting shirt I was wearing. We shook hands and I walked the sucker’s walk out the door.
OK! No way was I stopping. I got lucky that first time, or maybe they just forgot about me, obviously some sort of mistake had been made, I would remind them where I belonged. Two weeks later I was in that lunchroom again, facing the producer I had the first time. She asked me where I was from. “Baltimore? Really? You came all the way up here? Ha ha ha! Did you know we’re gonna be there next week doing auditions?” She complimented me on my shirt (wacky, but different from the last one she’d complimented me on), and asked me if I had auditioned before.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to think of an answer that would not doom me, put me on some sort of unspoken DO NOT WANT list, but I said “I talked to you and I got a screen test.” The truth! I mean, what was I gonna do, lie? Sure, I thought about it, but I had to be transparent! Television is the closest thing I have to a Deity, so I had to approach it with a Pure Heart.
“Oh, OK,” she said, “So if you got a screen test, then we’re good, you’ll be hearing from us!” Out the door. The next day I got an email:
Thank you for your interest in being a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Unfortunately, you have not been selected to be a potential contestant. We appreciate your continued interest in the show and thank you for taking the time to audition with us.
*Game sponsor reserves the right to limit the number of times a person may attempt to qualify for the show to 5 times per year. *
*For official rules, please visit www.millionairetv.com*
So! Five chances, and I’d burned three in New York. Two shots left. A week later, there I was, in Baltimore, early in the morning at a hotel in the Inner Harbor, and I aced the written test—I felt like I got 30 out of 30—sat down with a producer, and she asked me more of those questions I couldn’t deal with, then she stopped, looked me in the eye and said, “Are you nervous?” I said “Well, I guess? I mean, right now I’m just kinda psyched to be doing this. I’m excited, I guess?” She looked at me intensely and said, “The way you are right now? Answering my questions, talking to me? That’s how you need to be when you do your screen test.”
The screen test was in this tiny little room off the lobby of the hotel, almost a closet. I walked in and a woman with a video camera asked me to tell her my “History with Millionaire,” so I told her this was my, what, fourth time? Three times in New York City and now here in Baltimore, but it’s cool, as many times as I can do this, I will, because I can, I kinda have to! Then I told her I got a screen test my first time, and she asked me if it was with her.
I couldn’t remember! I experienced another moment of Terror/Paranoia. I needed to answer with the Answer she wanted! So for a second, I thought I would say, “Yeah, I remember you,” or something like that, but my Personal Relationship with Television again asserted itself, and I told her the boring Truth: I couldn’t remember.
She looked at me kinda funny and then asked me if anybody ever told me I looked like a celebrity, and I said “Yeah, Jack Nicholson, but like, from The Shining, the ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene,” and she agreed with me, ha ha. Then she told me since I already took a screen test, she’d just give me an abbreviated version, and I thought Oh no! The brush-off! She asked the questions, I locked up, stumbled through the answers, she thanked me, and told me they’d be in touch. No! I’m walking?!?
I had one audition left, by my count. I knew there were more scheduled that day, so I walked out of the hotel lobby around to the entrance of the testing room, found somebody with a Millionaire-staff shirt on, and asked if I could audition twice in one day. Turned out there was gonna be a “Movie Week” audition in a few hours and I could do that one if I wanted. Crap! “Movie Week?” Whatever! Millionaire!
I went back in the afternoon and somehow managed to pass the “Movie Week” test, which was for a Very Special Week of Millionaire, all movie questions. I sat down with the same producer who’d bounced me my second time up in New York, and she looked at me and said, “Well, you’ve made quite an impression today!” Wha? I did? What does that mean? Is that good? Bad? Am I kicked out? WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO BECAUSE I AM HERE TO DO IT.
We started with the Personal Questions again, and this time things were going pretty good! Yeah, I have a comic book collection! Yeah, I have a dumb superstition! That’s kinda interesting, right? Is it? Maybe? Did I tell you I haz cat?
Then the Producer who had been so nice to me earlier in the day walked up and asked, “What are YOU doing here?” Ack! I don’t know! They said I could take the “Movie Week” Test? She put her hand on my shoulder and said “You can go ahead and leave.” Wha? I can leave? I’m kicked out?!? I didn’t say anything. I trudged out of the building wondering if I was in the running, or if I had just been ejected for life, but the sun was shining, and a Calm came over me as I walked away from the hotel. I tried five times! There weren’t any more auditions for me! I did everything I could do! My obsession relaxed its grip. I felt Good, like I had achieved something just by trying so many times. I didn’t care any more, it was fine.
A coupla weeks later I got an email saying I was in the Contestant Pool. I was in!
You have been selected to be placed in the “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” Contestant Player Pool. You are now eligible to be selected as a contestant on future episodes of the program for up to two years. If you are selected to be a contestant, a representative will contact you . . .
Now all I had to do was wait. So, I started to wait! OK, two years, here we go, ready, begin!
About a month later I got the real letter!
You have qualified as a contestant for the television quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Here is some information you will need for your appearance on the show . . .
All kinds of stuff, papers to fill out “I have not now and have never been an employee of The Walt Disney Company, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, agents or representatives,” a phone interview with more of those QUESTIONS I didn’t do well with, wow, that took like an hour—I had the sweaty-phone-ear after that—copies of my I.D. and telling them who would be my “‘Plus One’ Lifeline,” a person I could call on during the show to help answer one question—namely, my Bride.
Later, she would tell me she was completely pissed at me for two days for putting her in the position of having to be on TV, because not everybody wants to be on TV! Wha?
When you find out you are going to play Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, you start watching the game even harder, to look for the flaws in everybody’s play, so you won’t do the same thing. One day I was watching this guy, and he was just, I dunno, annoying, man, he was cocky, acting like he was better than the game, I don’t know how to explain it, the guy bugged me. He was really smart and he was doing well, and I had never watched the show and been mad at any of the Contestants before (except sometimes when they make a mistake playing the game, and even then, I’m only mad at the dirt), but this guy, just kinda too overly confident or something? Annoying!
And while I’m watching my TV in my Home Office (basement), I’m next to my computer, and I’m Googling all kindsa Millionaire stuff, and here he is!
So this guy will get a shoutout because I thought he had a bad vibe for the show, and then after I read what he wrote about the show I felt bad, but not because of what happened to him on the show, because he played his game, and you can’t feel bad for somebody for doing that. I felt bad about myself for thinking Mean Thoughts about him. He confirmed that in order to Be In The Television and Be Good Television, one should not think for any moment that one is better than Television, better than The Show, or better than any other Contestant. Also: In his piece there was a solid pizza recommendation! My Bride and I went there after the taping, nice casual place, good beer selection, great pizza. You gotta try one with the hot oil, and whatever you get, if you don’t order the Salad Pizza, you need to make sure you order the Salad Pizza. You gotta try it. Salad Pizza. That guy got his mind right and went on the show again for “Second Chance Week” and walked away with 50 large!
Besides watching episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the other thing you might think you should do before going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is to try and study some stuff, add to what’s already inside your skull. After looking at Maps of the World, and Units of Measurement, and lists of Vice Presidents of The United States, it was all just sliding off my brain. It was like having that dream of being completely unprepared for a test in school, but then having an additional series of dreams where you are endlessly and ineffectually studying for that test for which you were and will always be unprepared.
It was too much. I quit reading Lists on the Internet and Historic Dates in History and stuff, but what happens is, your brain just gets in that gear, so when you are just walking around trying to live your life, something will present itself, and you will be overcome with a compulsion to research it. I was in a restroom someplace and I saw AMERICAN STANDARD on a toilet, and I remembered there was supposed to be a guy named Thomas Crapper who invented or perhaps popularized the modern Porcelain Convenience, and that’s why people say “that’s crap,” or “I’m gonna hit the crapper,” etc. But Mr. Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. It was a guy named John Harrington, and nobody says they have to go take a Harrington, unless they have some sorta condition, I think.
Anyway, Thomas Crapper installed toilets for Prince Edward of England, and when you take a crap, you are not goofing on Mr. Crapper’s name, according to Wikipedia, crap’s
most likely etymological origin is a combination of two older words, the Dutch krappen: to pluck off, cut off, or separate; and the Old French crappe: siftings, waste or rejected matter (from the medieval Latin crappa, chaff).
So I was ready for the Crapper Question, but that one piece of trivia probably pushed something Critically Important outta my brain, like how many Great Pyramids there are, or how many seats there are in the Royal Albert Hall.
One thing I will say, advicewise, is if you try to become a Contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and you get The Call, maybe try and absorb some Latin Roots, for the meanings of words which are frequently used as clues in the questions. They really don’t try to trick you with the questions, and they build clues into most of them.
As part of the continuing preparation for the show, my Bride and I had to send in a potentially humiliating series of photos of ourselves in different sets of clothing (no black, no white, no logos), so the Producers could select our wardrobe.
There’s nothing that makes you feel more dopey than trying on clothes and presenting yourself for the judgment of strangers. However, my confidence in Television sublimated those feelings. I knew the Producers already enjoyed my shirt with the tigers on it, and I figured I didn’t have a shot of going on in my super-comfy Adidas suit, but I threw it in there because I usually wear it to the race track when I go to bet on the ponies and I always get a lot of compliments on it, seriously, it’s slimming or something. Plus I am a Cool Winter, so blue is a good color on me.
We got our wardrobe of three outfits approved (they liked the track suit) and a firm date in early July to show up at the studio.
My Who Wants to Be a Millionaire reality was recorded in Stamford, Connecticut, at this place called the Connecticut Film Center. Stamford, in my brief experience there, looked like it didn’t have any zoning rules. I mean, there was a hotel, next to a house, next to an office tower, next to a train station, all on roads that turned into freeways or one-ways where you had to take a ramp to turn around, but it was just the confusion of being in a strange place driving around looking for a hotel you feel like you mighta paid too much for and you need to get some sleep because you have to be at the studio early to try and win One Million Dollars and you gotta be sharp and the drive from Baltimore was fine until that goddamn fucking George Washington Bridge how the fuck do people drive on the George Washington Bridge every day Jesus Christ the fucking potholes on the ramp it was like all pothole and then every once in awhile a small patch of smooth pavement, who is in charge of those roads?
Anyway. The hotel was nice, and they served up a really solid Room Service breakfast. I figured it could be a Tax Deduction maybe, the room. If I did get on the show I was a lock to nail down a thousand bucks, maybe five thousand! I mean, I totally wanted to Be a Millionaire, but meanwhile, back in the real world, Five Grand ain’t nothing to sneeze at for a drive to Connecticut, even if you do have to go on that stupid fucking George Washington Bridge, Jesus, again, I feel sorry for you if you have to drive that thing.
One thing the Producers keep telling you—and it’s probably just a Mind Control thing to keep you agreeable—is that there’s no guarantee you’re gonna even get to record a show, after all the questions about what makes you interesting, what you would do with the money, all the signing stuff, all the stuff in the various releases and agreements and waivers, all the everything, and even if you’re at the studio, even if you record an episode, there’s not really any guarantee your show is ever gonna air. I held that all in my mind, but I was cooperative because it was part of Television, and I felt relaxed and confident to be part of it, and I would become Television.
We got to the studio and were led to a “green room,” where we had to hand over our phone, two forms of Identification, our Publicity Form, Contestant Release Agreement, and signed copies of the 13 pages of Rules. We met Pam, the Producer who was assigned to guide us through the process, and boy was she ever heavily and genuinely invested in making sure we were psyched to be on the show. The amount of psyched-ness she projected was almost disturbing, but I realized she was a Television Professional and she was doing her job of ratcheting us up into the correct amount of Enthusiasm.
The Producers sealed up our phones in big envelopes. You can’t bring a phone, laptop, tablet, you can’t bring a book, made out of paper, to read while you are waiting with the other Contestant-and-Plus One pairs, you can’t bring a magazine, a sketch pad, something to write with, nothing. So there were all these couples waiting around in the Green Room with nothing to do. Some were like me and my Bride, people in a Committed Relationship. Others seemed to be couples of commitment to being on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; some appeared to be couples of last resort, uncomfortable with each other, but serious about the Game.
I didn’t wanna socialize a whole lot because I wanted to remain relaxed yet focused and ready to be Television, and the feeling of Inner Calm, when one is doing that, could really be a model for living your life, man. Many of the others in the Green Room seemed to be looking everyone over, in a competitive manner, but we weren’t competing against each other! That’s the problem with these Reality Television shows, they have turned everyone into curs ready to gnaw the back of somebody’s neck because they think they have to Survive, but this is a Game Show, we’re here to Play a Game, on the Teevee! I loved everybody. I couldn’t wait!
A series of people visited the Green Room, told us some legal stuff, and gave us tips on how to play the game, such as:
- Don’t rush through answering a question, even if you think it’s an easy one.
- Try and get a good look at the crowd to figure out what question they might be able to help with. Well, yeah, profile the audience.
- Trust your gut; don’t second-guess yourself.
We were also told what we could and couldn’t talk about, which was a bit beyond No Spoilers. Until our episode ran (if it ever ran) we couldn’t blab about anything that happened once we went inside the studio where the show is recorded. We signed Legal papers! Non-Disclosure!
With nothing to read or write or look at, the only thing available to entertain you while you’re waiting in the Green Room to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is DVDs of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. While we watched the DVDs, some of our fellow Contestants were rushing to shout out the answers, which had me shaking my head at the misguided competitiveness.
All the Contestants were brought down to the empty studio, past a large roomful of people who were there to be audience members. Each of us had a couple of moments standing on the set of the show to get a little bit used to what it would be like when we would be there trying to decide our Final Answers. A guy who had done it a million times before, but still had a sense of humor about it, led each of us through a brief question/answer interaction, and we saw where the screens were, with the graphics, and the money amount-ladder, and most importantly, we saw where our respective Plus Ones would be seated, because unless specifically directed, we were not supposed to look toward that spot when we were playing the game, in case we had some sort of Millionaire-busting communication cheating thing going on, I guess.
Back in the Green Room, the producers had a problem with my track suit because it had an Adidas logo on it, but the costume lady took care of it by (permanently) gluing a Who Wants to be a Millionaire magnet on top of the Trefoil. Now no one watching the broadcast would suspect I was wearing an Adidas track suit! Then we were called to get our makeup and hair done. My Bride got the full treatment, eyes, lips, hair fooled with; meanwhile, the lady who was gonna do my hair sat me down in the chair, looked at me in the mirror and said “Well, this is basically you, right?” Then she kinda fluffed up whatever was happening up there, hit me with some stuff to dull the shine of the dome exposed by my chronically receding hairline, and sent me on my way. I was me!
After a perfectly acceptable lunch featuring a choice of meat or vegetable wrap sandwiches (which did not please all the Contestants) we were called to proceed to the next level of Waiting, directly outside the studio, where there was a fridge with as much Coke as you wanted. I thought about that thing people say about David Letterman and how he would eat a buncha candy before he went on his show to get “up,” and so I knocked back a coupla cans of Coke in his honor. OK, three cans.
We sat right next to these sort of scary nightmare-hospital studio doors and our Producer was there, beaming, reminding us to be excited and stuff, and she told us people would be right inside that door to put microphones on us and tell us what to do, where to stand, sit, whatever, and she reminded us yet again not to talk about anything that went on in the studio, including and not limited to how we did with the game. We were to reveal nothing to anyone, zero, about how we did.
One of the other Contestants with their Plus One waiting ahead of us was not absorbing the instructions. The Contestant kept talking about how the Contestant was going to tell the Contestant’s mom what happened, and the Contestant’s Producer kept telling the Contestant no, don’t do that, and the Contestant said: “Well, she’s my mom,” and the Producer said “You can’t talk about the show,” and the Contestant said “Well, she paid for my flight here,” and the Producer said “You. Can’t. Talk. About. It.” Finally the Contestant said: “Well, I have to tell her.”
A couple we recognized from the Green Room emerged from the studio. Their faces were inscrutable and they walked quickly. We would soon learn they had been instructed, immediately after concluding their game, to project a “poker face” once outside the studio, so as not to do any spoilering of the show. The Bride and I eyeballed them hard, trying to decipher their demeanor. The Plus One appeared to be unhappy. Or was she just frowning to maintain a consistent expression? We were trying to figure out how long they had been in the studio, but we had lost track of time, the way you do in a Motor Vehicle Department waiting room or a windowless casino, or a prison cell, and we couldn’t figure it out. The Contestant ahead of us was called, and later emerged, not too quickly, we thought, but now we were cattle in the stockyard stall, being herded through the doors, through dark, heavy curtains, into, into!
Till now the layers had been stupefyingly ordinary: Stamford, Connecticut—a nondescript school- or maybe office-looking building—drab, institutional halls—and then inside the inside, a loud, violently pulsating Thunderdome, where people assembled to cheer on fools who thought they were destined to win a Million Dollars. All of the immediate technical business of producing the thing that looks like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire seems to be stuffed into the darkness beneath the scaffoldings holding the audience seats, and you see it, sort of, as you are led in and they wire you for sound. I was already sweating, but that’s my normal state, so I felt fine; it was just a little embarrassing that people had to paw through my perspiration to get my mic hooked up.
The Bride was taken from my side and I don’t know what happened to her because I was starting to get tunnel vision and tunnel hearing and tunnel thinking. I was directed to go and sit in a seat in the audience, and watch for a hand signal, upon which I would move to a spot on the floor and then, upon hearing my name—which I was pleased to be able to recognize when I heard it—proceed toward the host of the show for a hearty handclasp and then a movement past him to take my place at the Contestant’s lectern, which I was not supposed to lean on.
It was like being Alien Abducted to the inside of a fucking spaceship. All the colored lights and sound you see on the show are live, and the floor of the studio is a transparent and illuminated disco-floor and somewhat disorienting, like the pleasant effects of a familiar drug.
I remember trying really hard not to lean on the lectern, because I figured the reason they had told me not to was that it is a prop on a television show, and not necessarily a sturdy platform to which one might transfer the energy and excitement of being inside the Television while attempting to answer valuable questions!
Chris Harrison, the perfect host, went in on my track suit, and I realized the purpose of the banter is possibly to help the Contestant unfreeze, because you have asked and answered so many meaningless questions about yourself you will rise up immediately like a fish to a lure, or something. Then he asked me about the Jack Nicholson thing, on account of my hairline, and then he asked me an actual Game question, which I am sure I answered way too quickly, against all instruction and common sense to pace oneself.
I answered some questions correctly and then that episode-segment was over, so my Bride and I had to go and change into the next wardrobe iteration, for what would be the next day’s edition of the television program, whereupon I began to consider that my wardrobe was gonna get progressively warmer as I wardrobed, and I only had brought the one undershirt, which was already approaching saturation under the bright studio lights, because I thought, What are the odds of having to change clothes out of my main outfit? At some point there was a piece of the show that they thought might have to be re-recorded, so I was directed to un-change clothes again, back to the previous episode, and then they told me they weren’t gonna do that, so I changed again back to the next episode, featuring me now in a sweater over my non-moisture-wicking undershirt.
I contend that I developed an immediate Interactive Bond with the host, but I am sure that is why Mr. Chris Harrison is on so many teevee shows where he talks to people who are not necessarily Trained (or adept) Television Professionals. He spoke clearly and directly, and when he asked me the questions, it was really kinda like he was on my side, and it totally helped me think and answer. Plus, I was very happy to be doing Television, so just standing around inside it was great, and answering the questions correctly meant I would be doing longer!
Everything provides energy in the performance of the show; it is a giant cycle of Positive Reinforcement. They have a person who warms up the audience, and not only did she warm them up, but she kept them up. Unlike the Contestants, the audience members are there all day, and they welcomed me and cheered me on as if I were the only Contestant they had ever seen. At one point during a non-televised break they chanted my name while I danced like a wedding drunk to the O’Jays “For The Love of Money,” knowing full well that the song reminds us what money is: The Root of All Evil.
Hey, I’m not gonna lie, the idea of winning some money was cool, but I’m telling you, I was dancing because I was inside the Teevee, man! Becoming Television! While I was getting my mic readjusted or my forehead powdered, somebody asked me where I was on the money ladder, and I didn’t know. I was busy having Television!
I remember sorta getting locked up on a question involving Pedialyte or Guinness beer being a thing some runners drink after a marathon, and I totally veered into a Guinness-hole because I was treating it as a trick question. I even said the answer out loud before I talked myself out of it, much to my Bride’s silent anguish, as she was sitting there thinking Stop, stop, you just answered the fucking question out loud, you just answered it!
I got so turned around I had to do the “Ask the Audience” Lifeline for help, and 81 percent showed me Pedialyte, of course. Another strategy for Millionaire is to make sure to properly identify the moment when answering a question correctly is more important than conserving a Lifeline, and I’m glad I didn’t hesitate, because I think I mighta talked myself into a Guinness.
The really dumbass (but actually lucky, I will argue, directly) move I made was being so in the Fog of Teevee as to not realize I knew the answer to a question about which coin or piece of U.S. currency has not been redesigned. I knew, but did not know, it was the dollar bill. I said out loud to myself that the nickel, the fiver, and the quarter had been redesigned within the last 50 years, and I even offered my opinion on the nickel being a three-quarter view of Jefferson, a design which I did not appreciate, but somehow I got all adrenalin-locked-up on not knowing if the dollar bill had been redesigned, which is just vapor-locked thinking. The Bride was sitting there losing her mind, and I went ahead and asked for the “50/50” Lifeline, and it made me realize I knew the answer. I wasted a Lifeline!
The single correctly-employed Lifeline involved my Bride, she who was my “Plus One.” She provided the reinforcement necessary to help answer a question about which image of a famous location would cost you a large fee if you use it in a movie.
We got it, and then I made another error, I second-guessed myself on a question about a Shakespeare line, but I got it right! I went with my gut, and then I sickeningly second-guessed it, after which I concluded second-guessing it was going with my gut.
Then I got a question that did not appear to have a downside! It mentioned “loose smut,” and after the “smut” remarks, I immediately talked about “corn smut,” which I knew as a plant disease, and my former best friend Chris Harrison became Evil and delivered the answer as if I didn’t get it correct and I was gonna lose, because that’s part of his job, to toy with the emotions of the Contestants for dramatic effect.
So I got it right and I enjoyed the company of my pal Chris Harrison again! I was sitting on Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars.
Then came the $500,000 question. It was about whose lap Shirley Temple discussed sitting on in her memoir, with “thighs just fleshy enough.” J. Edgar Hoover? Winston Churchill? Babe Ruth? Orson Welles?
Here was where my waste of the 50/50 Lifeline ended up saving me! I was sure it wasn’t Churchill. I was vacillating between Welles and Babe Ruth. Didn’t the Babe have famously skinny legs, though? If I’d been able to use a Lifeline to cut it down to 50/50 and get one of those laps out of there, I think I would have been confident enough to pick incorrectly.
Without a Lifeline, though, I couldn’t bring myself to risk it. I told Chris Harrison I was going to end it right there, safe with my Quarter-Million, and he told me the correct answer was J. Edgar Hoover.
I never gave Hoover a moment’s thought. I would have blown the whole thing, if I’d dared. Instead I took the money, and then I couldn’t talk about it for three months.
I wouldn’t tell my mom how we did, but when she said “Joey, just tell me you don’t owe them any money,” I had to remind her that the worst a Contestant could do was to take home a Grand. No, Ma, it’s OK, I don’t owe them any money, I promise.
The other day I was listening to a neighbor talk about her recent victories playing the lottery and scratch-offs, and she was reciting the games she played and the amounts she won, but there was a certain emptiness to it because the money wasn’t the point, the money just meant there would be more opportunities to play, that was the fun part. If I had been talking with her while she was doing the scratch-offs, her excitement would have been way more. In the words of the character Michael Cheritto, a bank robber played by the actor Tom Sizemore in the major motion picture Heat (1995), “The action is the juice.”
When people asked me how I did, I said going on the show was not about the money, and it wasn’t. During my period of No Spoilers, every time I said to somebody that the money was beside the point, that being on the show was The Thing Itself, they said words to the effect of “OK, sure, that means you didn’t win anything.”
But I did, I won Two Hundred and Fifty Fucking Thousand Dollars and No Cents on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, a teevee game show, and I used the prize dough for unexciting stuff such as: getting out from underwater on my mortgage, paying credit cards, giving to charity, and helping a friend or two. People ask me what I did with the money, and I gotta tell you, mostly, I fucking Enjoyed it, that’s what I did with the money! Yeah, baby! The Bride and I went places and ate things, and the real pleasure the money brought hinged on Experiences, not possessions. Also: Taxes, yow! Plus, I had a 1996 Honda Civic with 370,000 miles on it, and it was tired, so I thought I was gonna piss away a stack of loot on a sporty car, like a Mustang or something, but every time I went to a dealer and took a test drive, I felt like a sucker, $50K for a car? $30K for a car? I ended up buying a used Pontiac Vibe for three grand (but I also got a really nice stereo for it,with the Bluetooth and everything), to use for commuting to the job I got so as to wash the stink of the demise of my previous position at City Paper off me, so winning the cash afforded me mental breathing room to not feel bad about maybe never finding another job in Print Media, until I did, so that’s a bonus! Thanks, Millionaire, thanks Television! Then, after City Paper was sold, the place I worked at happily for 25 years, the aforementioned stupid Baltimore tronc™ ownership shut it down and replaced it with an inoffensive weekly calendar listing publication with no real news in it, and no opportunities for the kinds of creativity that made City Paper a great place to work. Unemployment and a Lawsuit and Millionaire was ultimately a beneficial way to get ejected from my previous life, and I never would have tried out five times for Millionaire if I was working a full-time job.
So I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been a certain type of disappointed if I’d left 250 Grand on the table, but win or lose, I’m not Inside the Television any more, and I kinda liked it in there.