Fortune Kooky

I just learned that the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire recently ended a 17-year run. I didn’t realize it had lasted anywhere near that long. It’s kind of like hearing fresh news of someone passing away and thinking, “I thought that person died years ago”— like a celebrity, a politician, or your grandma.

It reminded me of a blog I wrote almost a decade ago. I’ll re-post it below. While you’re reading it, I’m going to make an apologetic call to my grandma and awkwardly explain why I haven’t been in touch in three years.

As I stood in line at ABC Studios in New York City last month, waiting to be admitted to the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as a member of the studio audience, I got chatting with the guy in front of me. My own reasons for being there were simple. I figured it would be a fun experience to write about for my blog, and if, while there, I could manage to get an audition to become a contestant on the show, then so much the better. If I could get on and win, a million dollars could go a long way to bribing ABC executives to put a question mark at the end of the title Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and then I could finally sleep at night. Would it kill them to use proper punctuation!

Anyway, I’m in line talking with this guy Chris, who looks to be in his early thirties and who tells me he’s from Lewiston, Maine, which is a six-hour drive to Manhattan. “That’s a long way to come to sit in on a game show,” I remarked, having had to travel less than an hour.

“Oh, I’m not just here to be in the audience,” he said. “I’m trying to become a contestant. During a break in the taping, everyone can take a trivia test. If you pass the test, you get to audition. I’ve auditioned five times but never been selected to be on the show.”

“So you’ve driven here five times for this?”

Chris chuckled. “No, no… I’ve auditioned five times. I’ve attempted to pass the test thirty-three times. Since 2005.”

“Thirty-three times?! You’ve made this trip thirty-three times??” Now I was fascinated with this guy. It would be a 700-mile round trip for him. Chris has logged over 23,000 miles trying to get onto Millionaire. “Why?” I had to ask.

He shrugged. “I guess I just want my fifteen minutes of fame.”

The two hundred of us were ushered onto the set and seated around the circular stage. A stand-up comic warmed up the crowd and gave instructions on when to clap, how loudly to cheer, how mournfully to groan if a contestant answers incorrectly. Since I’m not married, being told how to feel was new to me.

The host, Meredith Vieira, appeared and charmed us all with some words of welcome. “She looks even slimmer in person than she does on TV,” I said to Chris.

“They say a camera adds ten pounds.”

 “Why would someone eat a camera?”

Three episodes were to be taped in a row. During a break between the first and second shows, each person in the audience was given an envelope containing the test: a series of thirty multiple-choice questions we had only ten minutes to answer. Whoever passed would get an audition after the tapings. I turned to Chris, the pride of Maine, and gave him a “good luck” thumbs-up.

My head is full of trivial knowledge, so the assignment came as naturally to me as a Philosophy major filling out an unemployment insurance form. The only question I had trouble with was about placing in chronological order four birthstones: ruby, diamond, sapphire and opal. I don’t know anything about birthstones. When I was a kid I asked my mother, “Which is my birthstone?” She looked startled and said, “Mick Jagger. In the back of a limo on a night I truly regret. Don’t tell your father.” She said “father” while making quotation marks in the air.

Halfway through the third episode there was a pause to announce the successful test-takers. Only eleven out of two hundred audience members passed. I was one of them, and so was Chris. The audition consisted of being interviewed privately for a couple of minutes by a perky production assistant who asked questions like, “What would you do if you won a lot of money?”, “What’s something unique about you?”, and “Is that guy from Maine crazy or what?” I imagined they were looking for sparkle and personality so I tried to out-perk her. At the end she told me I’d find out within a few weeks if I was chosen to be a contestant. I hoped that Chris would get good news too this time.

Last week a postcard came in the mail. It regretted to inform me that I had not been chosen to appear on the show.

Oh well. One attempt down, thirty-two to go.

Cuyler Black