THE ONLY WAY TO WIN IS NOT TO PLAY

THE ONLY WAY TO WIN IS NOT TO PLAY

So, Super Millionaire never called, Bush backed an anti-gay marriage amendment and Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie opened with expectations that it will divide the country along religious lines as never before. Overall, yesterday was not the greatest.

Not getting my one-in-a-thousand shot at a one-in-ten shot at making the hot seat was disappointing, because in my life, I’ve made more money on game shows than just about anything else I’ve done. Going on game shows is like panhandling, L.A.-style. You get money without really having to earn it, and you get to be on TV. Maybe the reason this one didn’t work out for me is that it’s taped in New York. Who goes to New York to be on TV?

My first game show experience was on “Debt”, which aired on Lifetime in the mid-90′s. The premise of the show was that your winnings would help you erase all your debt — “…and leave with NOTHING!!!!” I had just finished grad school, and I had about $50,000 in student loans. Since this was cable TV, I would not be able to win quite that much. The viewers were told that my debt was $8,004, and I had to announce it into the camera by saying, “Hi, I’m Jerry, and I’m in debt because USC means the University of Spending Credit!” I was forced to say this line at least eight times until I managed to temper my embarrassment with just enough fake enthusiasm to satisfy the producers. “Remember, you’re not being yourself today,” the contestant coordinator told me and my two competitors. “You’re playing a role. You’re acting like a game show contestant.” It went without saying that we all knew what this meant.

Since it was Lifetime, my two competitors were women in their mid-to-late 30′s. I believe both were stay-at-home moms. If you’ve ever watched a Lifetime movie, you know they don’t like to make their audience think too hard, which was good for me. The questions on “Debt” were all super-easy pop culture trivia from the last 5-10 years. You know, like “Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc make up the cast of which NBC TV show which is on Thursday nights at 8 and whose title is a synonym for ‘Pals’?” The kind of stuff everyone knows, but that really doesn’t have any value unless you’re on a game show.

The game was played just like “Jeopardy” (although they warned us that if we messed up and answered anything in the form of a question, they would stop tape and beat the shit out of us — in a litigious world, nobody wants to be too much like “Jeopardy”). The host was Wink Martindale, and if all this “The Passion of the Christ” business has made me reflect on anything, it’s that Jesus died for my sins specifically so that someday I would be on a TV show with Wink Martindale. Before the taping, the producers led us through the procedure for answering questions. Our buzzers would be locked out until Wink was finished reading each question. Then, a little light would go on signaling that it was okay to ring in. To make sure we understood the concept, they ran a few drills.

I was sure that with my sharp eye-hand coordination, enhanced to superhero-like levels from years of obsessive video game play, I’d blow these soccer moms out of the water. But the first time they turned that light on — bing! Mom #1 beat me to the buzzer. They tried again. Bing! Mom #2. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! In trial after trial, the moms beat me. The crew members started wondering whether my buzzer was working properly. “Okay, this time, only Jerry ring in,” the stage manager said. Bing! My podium light went on. It wasn’t a buzzer problem. If you want to build your eye-hand coordination, I guess shuttling the kids around in a minivan trumps Zaxxon anyday. These moms were quick!

Thankfully, all that minivan time seemed to have prevented the moms from watching much “Access Hollywood” Once the game started, I was the first to ring in on almost every question. At first, I thought I’d somehow gotten the hang of the buzzer thing, but then I realized the moms just didn’t know the answers. What? Couldn’t everyone name all the actors who’d appeared in short-term roles in “Grease” on Broadway? Not to brag, but — okay, I’ll brag — of all the questions in the first two rounds of the game, there was only one I couldn’t answer. I totally froze up and blanked on Jon Secada’s name. It still shames me to this day.

My dominance clearly frustrated the moms. They started ringing in just for the sake of beating me to the draw, desperately struggling to narrow my commanding lead. Most of the time, they got the questions wrong, which only helped me, since “Debt” penalized contestants for incorrect answers. Meanwhile, I only got cockier and cockier. By this point, I was over my fears of being humiliated, and I relished playing the part of a game show contestant. I loved cheesing it up when picking new categories: “Well, we’ve been avoiding it for a while, but ‘Let’s Play Doctor’, Wink!” (This is the quote that gets thrown back at me most often by people who’ve seen the show when they want to mock me.)

The poor moms were falling apart. One question about songs from animated movies asked which movie featured “Be Our Guest”. Mom #2 rang in, and, remembering her instructions from the contestant coordinator, smiled her biggest smile, tilted her head and said with a big exclamation point on the end, “‘Fievel’s Great Adventure’, Wink!”

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was not to laugh at that moment. I mean a) not the right movie, b) not even the right title, c) not even close to the right title. The woman realized her mistake about as soon as the words embarrassed their way out of her mouth, and that big, forced smile quickly melted into a humble grimace as Wink told her she was wrong. And to make things worse, there was a technical glitch that rendered the woman’s answer inaudible. The producers stopped tape, then made the woman repeat the same wrong answer into the camera. She asked if she could at least say “An American Tail” the second time, which was, you know, what she meant to say, but she was told no. The cruel gods of repressed laughter were taunting me that day, that’s for sure. Mom #2 repeated “‘Fievel’s Great Adventure’, Wink” for the camera, but the director didn’t think she was saying it with as much enthusiasm this time. So they made her do it over and over until she got it right. I struggled to hold it in, as I heard, “‘Fievel’s Great Adventure’, Wink!” “Again!” “‘Fievel’s Great Adventure’, Wink!!!” “Once more!” “‘FIEVEL’S GREAT AD-VEN-TURE, WINK!!!!!!!!!!”

Gradually, Mom #1 and Mom #2 were eliminated from the game, and Wink told me I had erased my debt of $8,004. “How does it feel to be debt-free?” he asked. “It feels pretty good, Wink!” I replied. Then came the game’s bonus round. The bonus round of “Debt” is a chance to go double or nothing on your winnings, based on a single question in a pop culture category in your specialty.

Since a lot of people seemed to pick the same specialties, all potential contestants were asked to come up with three possible categories for their final question. My first two choices were easy: “The Simpsons” and “Heathers”. I had spent about a hundred hours viewing each of them and knew I was un-stumpable. Just to make sure, I studied the Simpsons episode guide cover to cover. I watched “Heathers” again and took copious notes. I even spent hours memorizing the closing credits. But what to choose for that third category?

I knew my third specialty should have something to do with music. There wasn’t a trivial fact 80′s pop that I didn’t know — band names, lyrics, chart positions. But I wanted to make sure I didn’t end up with some tricky question on Philip Glass or the Oak Ridge Boys. So I called my specialty “One-Hit Wonders of the 80′s”. It was perfect. There wasn’t even anything to study. I was an encyclopedia on the subject. I just stood in front of the mirror and practiced spitting out my answer with humility: “Is it Timex Social Club, Wink?” “Hmmm… let me see… I think that would be T’Pau!”

It wasn’t until Wink walked me over to the part of the stage designated for the bonus round that I learned that “One-Hit Wonders of the 80′s” would indeed be my category. Now that I was one-on-one with Wink, he was being extremely friendly. Even after he told the camera we were taking a commercial break, he kept talking to me for a little while, asking me personal questions and taking a genuine interest in me. He was a class act, that Wink, a blow-dried class act to be sure, but a class act nonetheless. Then suddenly, he walked away. Not far away, only a few feet. I think he talked to someone briefly, but then he just stood there. An odd, blow-dried class act.

We came back from commercial, and Wink asked me if I wanted to gamble my $8,004 on the final question. “I’m gonna go for it!” I shouted. (I may or may not have pumped my fist in the air for emphasis.) And then, Wink read me the question: “Who sang the 1982 hit song ‘Key Largo’?”

Huh?!

Sure, I’d heard the song, but 1982 was just a little before my time. “The 80′s”, as I knew it, commonly referred to the period of time from 1984-1987. And “80′s music” meant New Wave. Everyone knew that. Except, apparently, the “Debt” writing staff. I had no problem spitting out my answer with humility, because I knew it was wrong. “Uh… is it Jimmy Buffet?” No, Wink said, it’s Bertie Higgins. It hadn’t occurred to me, in my mid-20′s, that the staff of a game show might be on average about 10-20 years older than me. Their frame of reference was a bit different, and their 80′s was a different decade than mine.

I was told of my consolation prizes, a $1,500 savings bond and a “Debt” piggy bank, which were supposed to encourage me to start saving up to pay off that $8,004 debt, which was really about $42,000 higher than that. Wink also let me keep the final question as a memento. He talked to me cordially as the credits began to roll, then suddenly fell silent again, then a moment later, he resumed the chit-chat. He repeated the cycle. Talk, an abrupt shift to no talk, then talk. I realized he was taking his cues by when the camera was on. When he clammed up and looked away, it was because the sponsor’s message was running or because the audience was being told what to do if they wanted to try out to be a contestant on “Debt”. Wink Martindale: seasoned professional; rude, blow-dried phony.

I held onto that final question, and I still have the piggy bank, but as for the savings bond, I cashed it in at half its face value the day it came due. Thankfully, there would be a bigger game show payday in my future, a couple years down the road. I’ll never forget the name Bertie Higgins, which probably makes me, by default, Bertie’s biggest fan. It cost me $16,008, and other than Jon Secada, it had been the only question all day I couldn’t answer.

Well, that… and how the hell did I keep from laughing?

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