The question is, did he succeed?
BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG
HOW ON EARTH did a goof like me end up on a New York sound stage, sitting across from Regis Philbin on ABC’s perennially top-rated game show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? I had trouble believing that I was there. But I was. God knows how, but I was. And the goal was to avoid humiliating myself on national television.
The odyssey that brought me to Manhattan on that summer afternoon began when a good friend of mine managed to win $250,000 on Millionaire in February of 2000. For more than a year, I tried to get on the show through the program’s phone contest, during which you were given the opportunity to answer three fastest-finger-type questions, and if you got them right, you waited for a call from the producers alerting you that you’d advanced to the next round, where you’d get five more questions. Get those right, and you might get on the show. Twenty-eight times over the next year I got the initial three questions right, but my invitation to New York was not forthcoming.
The rules of the phone-in game changed in April; now, instead of three questions, there were five. But the good news was that if you answered all five correctly, then got " The Call, " there wouldn’t be another round of questions to answer. If you got the call this time, you were going to be on the show.
I was going to be on the show.
ONCE I knew I was going, I felt I had to tell the world — and I very nearly did. But when the novelty wore off, I began to worry. I’ve had many opportunities to embarrass myself over the course of my life, and have often taken advantage of them. But this forum would allow me to humiliate myself in front of millions of people, including everyone I knew. As I prepared for my ordeal, I seriously questioned whether I was intellectually worthy of the show. It was pure luck that I’d been picked, I decided, and I would surely be exposed as a fraud once I got there.
On July 10, an ABC limousine picked up my wife and me at our house in Wrentham and drove us to Manhattan, where we checked in to our hotel. There, a package was waiting for me, with all kinds of releases and legal forms to sign. I was told to contact the show’s associate producers ( " APs " ), two folks who actually live in the hotel and whose primary duties include hosting introductory meetings with contestants the night before taping and being generally available to them around the clock during their stay.
Each contestant is told to bring along two outfits — one for each of two shows — to be okayed by the APs. We had been warned ahead of time about the wardrobe rules: no solid white or black, no vertical stripes, no logos of any kind. Only one contestant, we were told, would actually use both outfits: the one who made it into the " hot seat " at the end of the first show’s taping and thus would be " held over " for the second show. The costume change creates the illusion that the shows are taped on separate days, when in fact the first show tapes from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and the second from 4 to 7 p.m.
The taping was scheduled for 12:30 the next afternoon, but the contestants were told to meet in the hotel lobby at 6:45 a.m. for the shuttle-bus ride over to the ABC studios. Once we arrived at ABC, we were led into a back room of the studio commissary, where we helped ourselves to breakfast. Then each contestant met with his or her AP — assigned weeks before. I’d already had several conversations with my AP, Lisa, during the days leading up to my trip, and I had sent her back a completed questionnaire that provided pre-game conversation fodder for Regis to dig into if I advanced to the hot seat.
Next, the entire group headed down to the studio for a rehearsal. I had been picked for seat number one — the first seat on the far left on the TV screen. That meant I’d be the first contestant introduced on the show. The studio was much smaller and darker than it appears on television. Nearly everything was painted black, and as I looked out at the empty seats of the studio audience, it didn’t seem possible that close to 200 people would soon be sitting there. We took our seats and listened to a short speech by one of the show’s lawyers. Among other things, she stressed that though Regis might try to steer us toward a particular answer, we should ignore him, since he doesn’t see the correct answer before the contestant says " Final answer. "
Our group of contestants began the rehearsal phase with five rounds of fastest-finger questions. At home watching the show on TV, I’d always thought the fastest-finger round would be one of my strengths, but on the actual set it was a little tough to concentrate. Afterwards, we were ushered into a reserved area of the cafeteria for lunch. This was the last time we would see our companions until the taping was over.
Our moods were subdued as we were led to the dressing rooms and makeup area. Strangely, we couldn’t go anywhere unaccompanied, other than the restroom. Though the security seemed overdone, I suppose a contestant could sneak away and do some last-minute cramming or meet clandestinely with some in-house operative who knew what questions were in store. Feeling a little claustrophobic and increasingly apprehensive, we were sent to our dressing rooms, where we changed into our pre-approved outfits and took 15-minute turns in the makeup chair. An audio technician wired us for sound.
The last thing we were told before we headed downstairs for the taping was that we should react with emotion if we won the fastest-finger round and got to go up on stage. I’d originally figured that I’d act dignified and respectful in such a situation. But the show’s handlers soon persuaded me that contestants who show little or no emotion when walking over to Regis are viewed by the audience as thinking it’s " no big deal " and looking " as if they expected all along " that they’d win. I figured it made no sense to antagonize an audience whose help I might need later.
IT’S TIME. We line up by seat number. As contestant number one, I lead my fellow aspirants down the stairs to the sound stage, which is now brimming with spectators.
In a scene to which television viewers are not privy, the stage manager introduces each contestant to the studio audience. Once we’re all seated, we’re introduced to Regis, and after a few corny jokes and some last-minute tinkering with the lights and sound, the taping begins. Before heading backstage, Regis shakes hands with each contestant and has us say our names, presumably so he can hear them pronounced correctly one last time. For most of us, it will be our one and only chance to meet him.
Everything from this point on plays out exactly as you see it on TV. The first fastest-finger question is somewhat unusual; I get it right, but I’m not quick enough. The woman two seats away gets the nod, and ascends to the stage for her shot at life-changing fortune.
The rest of the show goes by quickly. Despite phone-a-friend help from her 11-year-old son, the first contestant doesn’t last long. She gets to the $32,000 question, uses the 50-50 lifeline to take two wrong answers away, and guesses wrong anyway. She leaves with a grand.
The next fastest-finger question is upon us. This time, in my effort to speed up, I get the answer wrong. But despite an extended stay on stage and some lively banter with Regis, the fastest-finger winner walks away after the ninth question — $16,000 richer.
Whoa. That means I am now face to face with my last opportunity to get to the hot seat. I hear the question as though through a tunnel: Put these film-comedy duos in the order that they were introduced, starting with the earliest. I immediately think to look for Laurel and Hardy, since that’s the earliest duo I can think of, and I want to lock it in quickly. Then I quickly put the other three duos — Wilder-Pryor, Nolte-Murphy, Tucker-Chan — in their proper order. I know I have them right, but doubt whether I’ve been quick enough. The names of the people who got the question right are highlighted on a stage TV monitor, starting at the bottom and moving upwards. I watch anxiously to see whose name will start blinking to denote the winner. Nearly every remaining contestant gets the question right, but the name blinking is the one at the top. Mine.
I stand up, and prepare to make my way over to Regis to begin my date with destiny.
Issue Date: September 27 - October 4, 2001