Wednesday, October 21, 2009

If I Had a Million Dollars....

After four years of waiting to be called, ninety-six hours of waiting over the weekend, thirteen total hours of waiting at the studio, four weeks of waiting for the air date, my episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire finally aired this past Monday and Tuesday.  Of course, the first and most important question is: How much did I win?  Well, I won $25,000.  Not as much as I wanted to win (obviously), but nothing to shake a stick at.  Further, no one I was with all day my first day at the studio (herein referred to as "Happy Jail" for reasons that will become clear later) performed better, so at least I have that.  What follows below is a pretty extensive account of my time at Millionaire, including not only my actual playing of the game (for those who missed it), but also some tips and tricks should you ever find yourself in the hot seat.  I apologize in advance for the post's length.  It's VERY long.  Like a Mega-Post.  In fact, to save home page space, I will try something new for the blog, and put the majority of the post "After the Jump."  Click the "But Wait...There's More" link below to continue reading.  Also, let me know if you like this feature for the blog.

I recapped earlier the audition experience for Millionaire and the couple other shows I have been on.  So, let's begin with receiving the call.  August 10, I was working, like any other day, when my wife called, saying that, having just seen a commercial for the show, she thought I should reaudition for Millionaire.  I had auditioned in 2005 and 2007, both times being put in the Contestant Pool, but never hearing from the show.  I agreed and looked at the website for the next round of auditions.  They weren't going to be until the show started taping again in early September (you can audition if you are an audience member at the taping).  Literally two hours later, my phone rang with an odd 212 area code number (the show shoots in New York City).  When I answered, it was an assistant producer (herein "AP") from the show.  He asked me if I was still interested in appearing on Millionaire.  Uh, yeah!  Great, but then I had to answer a bunch of eligibility questions centering around whether I knew anyone on the production staff or any of the show's producers or sponsors.  I did not, so I was told that I would be coming in on Friday, September 11 and possibly Wednesday, September 16.  The show tapes Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, five episodes a day, from early September through Thanksgiving, for the whole season.  I would need to be available both days in case I was the hold-over contestant, or not used, at the end of taping Friday.  No problem.  I was then called later by another AP who emailed me the show's rules, waivers and info about Phone-a-Friends (herein "PAF").  I would need to get my PAF's lined up, have pictures of them, and have them sign releases within the next 48 hours!  Why they needed the PAF's so quickly when I wasn't going to be taping for a month, I have no idea.  But I embarked on lining these people up immediately. 

My PAF's ended up being my aunt (an ex-principal and history buff), a lawyer co-worker (a Dane, who I promised I would only call if the question was about Denmark), and my old college roommate, Sean (a computer science major/programmer who sings opera and is very fast with Google).  I figured that was a nice spectrum of people for any possible question.  Getting their info went pretty easily, except teaching my aunt how to send a picture via email, and the fact that Sean was in Germany taking voice lessons from a renowned teacher.  I emailed him the release he had to sign, and fortunately he was able to drop it in a post box on a U.S. military base!  Now that's a friend!

With my PAF's all set, waivers signed (no Screen Actors' Guild appearance fee or royalties; won't cheat; etc.) and excitement building....I had to wait a month.  I couldn't decide how many people I wanted to tell because if I did poorly, I didn't want people to see.  As the month went on though, I told more and more people, not being able to resist.  I studied a little, but how can you really study for a trivia show with only one question per random category, right?  I tried to bone up on Presidents, authors, composers and currencies, but still didn't learn all that much.  I did develop a strategy, as detailed at the bottom here, that would actually come into play.  But for the most part, the rest of August and beginning of September was spent trying not to get nervous.

Eventually, September 11 rolled around.  A bit odd to be getting excited to compete on a game show on that day, but, to be honest, it helped put things in perspective.  When it came down to it, there was really no reason to be nervous -- it's just a game show.  Worse things could (and have) happen.  Anyway, I was required to be at the ABC Studios on 66th Street in Manhattan at 7:30am.  When I arrived, I met seven other people that would be there with me that day, all carrying their suit bags with their other options for clothes should their chosen outfit clash with the TV cameras (no narrow stripes, all black or all white).  We were eventually met by Kevin, the contestant coordinator.  Kevin was The Man.  Really nice guy.  22 years old, just graduated college, and tasked with the job of keeping a whole bunch of people calm for the next ten hours.  Not an easy task.  Anyway, through his humor and lightheartedness, Kevin did a great job.  However, due to the very strict federal laws surrounding game shows (thanks to the quiz show scandals of the 50's), he was responsible for our whereabouts at all times.  We literally couldn't go to the bathroom without letting him know what we were doing.  The resulting dichotomy of a rather pleasant air in the green room, but Kevin's warden-like power and responsibility, we named the room Happy Jail.  A bit absurd, but it was a long day of nervous energy.

Eventually, we were all put in make-up, and spoken to by the show's attorney (a job I would LOVE to have) about game play, and the show's publicist about, well, publicity for our appearance in our hometown media.  Further, we were told that we could not tell anyone about anything relating to the results of our appearance, including how much we won, how many questions we answered, if we used lifelines, if we did use them on which questions, and who our PAF was if we used it.  What we could discuss prior to our show airing was like the military's "name, rank, serial number": when our show is supposed to air, what a great time we had, and how nice Meredith is (not that this was some edict from the network of Meredith herself.  Far from it.  The publicist was just highlighting one of the few things we could talk about).  After this, we were brought down onto the stage to see the set, meet the executive producer and stage manager to learn about the question screen and when to enter and exit the stage, and, most importantly, how to get in and out of the Hot Seat (that's not me in the picture).  Believe it or not, this is not as easy as it sounds.  Very specifically, you need to grab both armrests and push yourself up backwards into the chair, then grab the monitor and turn yourself toward Meredith.  Very tricky, plus, if you put your weight on the footrest, you can topple the whole thing, which one fellow contestant did during rehearsal.  After the briefing on stage, it was back up to Happy Jail where we were met by five contestants from the previous day's taping that weren't used.  We learned that the show likes to have around 13 people in the green room at the beginning of the day, knowing that there is probably no way they will go through that many unless everyone does pretty poorly. 

There was one woman who was kept separate from the rest of us, as she was in the middle of her game when the last taping on Thursday ended.  The show does not allow waiting contestants to know anything about how the other cotestants are performing to maintain the secrecy of outcomes.  Therefore, we were not allowed to speak to her at all, though we did find out, through some cajoling of the production staff, that she had already won $250,000(!) and had no lifelines left.  I know that gave me a bit of a boost -- if she could go that far, why not me?  I should also mention here that there are three or four AP's, each one assigned to three or four of the contestants.  Before you go on, your AP will talk to you about the interesting tidbits about your life you have previously submitted to the show.  These are the stories Meredith will talk to you about before and after commercials.  The AP's want to make sure you aren't surprised by anything when you're in the Hot Seat; it's already such a nerve-wracking experience that one more variable to worry about is not ideal.  At this point, it was about noon and time to go back downstairs to introduce us to the audience.  I guess the theory is that if the audience catches a fleeting glimpse of you before you're in the Hot Seat, they will be sympathetic toward you and really cheer when you answer correctly. So, alphabetically, each contestant who may play that day walks across the stage and waves.  Well, Kevin got me pretty amped up so I jumped up and down and "raised the roof" across the stage.  What can I say?  I had a lot of nervous energy.  All but three of us (one in the Hot Seat, one "on deck" in the audience and one "in the hole" just off the stage) went back upstairs to the green room.  Taping was about to begin.

As I said earlier, the people in the green room have no idea how the person in the Hot Seat is performing.  The only way to determine how it's going in the studio, we quickly learned, was how fast the AP's came into the green room to bring someone else downstairs.  Again, three people are in the studio at any given time, so when the person in the Hot Seat finishes, the on deck person goes into the Hot Seat; the person in the hole goes on deck, and a person from the green room goes downstairs to be in the hole.  The quicker that new person goes downstairs, the poorer someone does in the Hot Seat, and vice versa.  Well, within ten minutes of the taping's start, someone was paroled from Happy Jail.  OK, not that big of a deal: the returning player was going for $500,000 and had no lifelines.  She probably didn't know the answer and was more than happy to run off stage clutching a quarter-million bucks.  Further, she was now in first place in this season's new twist, the Tournament of Ten. 

No one has won a million dollars on Millionaire since 2003, so the show wanted to "guarantee" someone would win a million by instituting the Tournament of Ten.  Over the course of this season's first 45 episodes, the ten players that win the most money (short of $1M), with time spent answering the questions as a tiebreaker, qualify to come back later in the season (November sweeps!) to answer one quetion for a million dollars.  If the Tournament player is the highest ranked player (i.e. won the most money in the shortest amount of time) to get that question right, that person jumps from whatever they had previously won, to a million dollars.  Anyone else who answered correctly will just win what they had previously.  If you don't anwer the question at all, no problem, you walk away with what you had previously won.  If you do answer the question, but answer it incorrectly, sorry, but you go back down to $25,000 (the second milestone amount on the money tree for the past couple seasons).  Oooh, drama!  The effect of this twist, in my opinion, is that the questions overall are harder than in previous seasons: if the show wants to build to this grand (ratings-grabbing) event, then it behooves them to NOT have anyone win a million before then.  As someone who has watched a lot of Millionaire prior to my appearance, it certainlyt seems to me that the questions are harder than past seasons.  Further, the executive producer admitted that to us when she explained that the money tree now starts with questions valued (in dollars): 500-1000-2500-3500-5000, as opposed to the old 100-200-300-500-1000.  Not that this is an excuse for my performance, just something I, and a number of other contestants noticed.  Especially Player #2.

Again, the AP's got the first player from Happy Jail ten minutes after taping began, but the returning player had won $250,000.  No big whoop.  However, ten minutes later, another person was taken from the green room.  Ruh-Roh!  That likely meant Player #2 got knocked out before reaching the first milestone amount and left with nothing.  Well, that's exactly what happened.  She got a question about who would most likely be found at a "hootenanny."  Her choices included cowboys and folk singers.  I honestly had only heard hootenanny in old Western references, so I would have answered "cowboys."  I, too, would have been wrong.  The answer is, in fact, folk singers.  The fact someone went out so quickly was enough to scare the bejeezus out of the green room.  When I learned later from my wife (who was in attendance) what the question was, I got really scared that something similar would befall me.  Anyway, Happy Jail became a whole less happy after that.  Further, people were then getting pulled out of the green room at a pretty fast clip.  Yes, there were the delays when someone had to come up and change clothes because they were the person left in the Hot Seat when one episode ended (the next episode was now "the next day" so clothes had to be changed), but still it was a little unnerving how fast people were getting knocked off.

As you're sitting up there, you try to figure out the pattern in which the contestants are selected.  Remembering that this was, after all, a TV show, the producers would want to vary the contestants as much as possible.  Quickly, we determined a woman-man-woman pattern that was almost slavishly adhered to (one man-man back-to-back occurrence).  It also seemed that they wanted to go older-younger-older, and keep people with similar jobs far apart from each other.  We got pretty good at the guessing game, and mid-way through the day, we were able to guess who would be next.  It was about 3:00p (2.5 hours in, 3 hours left to go) when I figured I would not be taping that day: I was young and a guy, so the pattern wasn't in my favor.  Plus, Player #3 was a lawyer, and I lived the closest to the studio of any contestant that day (I could see my apartment building from the street outside the studio), so it was easy to bring me back five days later.  When I realized this, I settled in for a long day of nothing.  The nerves disappeared, and I just hung with Kevin and the dwindling contestants.  During the last taping, I was the last one in the green room, and was eventually brought downstairs to the "in the hole" position.  The sound person didn't even bother putting a microphone on me, because it was clear I wasn't going to be on that day.  It was nice to see a little bit of the game though, to hear the sound effects/music, hear the audience, and practice answering some questions.  However, my day would soon end.  I, and one person before me, were to be brought back on the 16th.  The show had gone through 11 people that day: a record.  Not very encouraging for my prospects, but hopefully, a new week would bring some better mojo.  I met my wife and parents outside the studio where they downloaded what they could remember from the other players' appearances.  At that point I was so tired, I just wanted to eat and go home.  Which, I did.

I returned, excited, on Wednesday the 16th at 10:00a.  Since I had already heard from the lawyer, publicist, executive producer, etc., I only needed to arrive in time for make-up, a quick imparting of knowledge to the new batch of Happy Jail inmates (which called themselves, The Dawg Pound.  Original.), and the introduction to the audience (more roof raising!).  When the intro was done, I received my microphone, and was positioned in the audience, on deck.  Depending on when the woman playing before me finished, I could have to walk right onto the set, or just have a camera stuck in my face with me waving as a throw to a commercial.  The latter is what ended up happening, catching me kind of off guard, with me only being able to muster a John McCain double thumbs-up and a goofy smile.  Anyway, Alison, the player before me was doing well, until a question about which country has the longest female life-span.  She used the Ask the Expert lifeline (which you earn after getting the $5000 question correct), which for our shows was Jeopardy! champion, Ken Jennings.  I was psyched about this development.  Some of the Experts on Millionaire are absolutely terrible (like Cokie Roberts, who was the expert for the shows the rest of Happy Jail taped the previous week).  Ken was, surely, going to be able to answer practically anything.  Well, he failed Alison, miserably.  He gave her two possibilities, so she used the Double Dip lifeline (you get to pick a second answer if your first guess is wrong, but you must answer the question; you can't walk away with what you have already won).  She selected both answers Ken gave her, but both were wrong.  All of a sudden, there I was with my double thumbs.  Time to go!

During the commercial break, I took the Hot Seat and was approached by my AP.  She asked me how I was doing, that Meredith would talk to me about a story about my preparation for coming on the show, and good luck.  Meredith said hello (she really is completely sweet), and away we went!  We came back from commercial, Meredith introduced me, we spoke about preparing for the show, a joke was cracked, and then "Let's play Millionaire!"  Lights down.  Music played.  The first question was read:

"Which of these elements goes through rustproofing?"
"A) Plastic  B) Wood   C) Metal  D) Joan Rivers' Hip"
"C. Metal. Final Answer."

$500 in the can, and a litle bit easier breathing.  I quickly answered the next four questions (What are Eggo cereal shaped like?  Waffles.  What superhero has a red, white and blue shield?  Captain America.  What kind of fish does a Largemouth angler catch?  Bass.  Which expression is synonymous with con artist?  Shell game.).  I had now reached the $5000 milestone, so I couldn't walk away with less than that.  I can't possibly express to you how relieved I felt at this point.  I had such a huge fear that I would get one of the first five questions wrong and walk away with nothing.  To reach this level really allowed me to relax and have a bit of fun. 

I got through the next two questions easily, as well (What Iranian city is also a type of wine (my favorite, incidentally)?  Shiraz.  NINJA Loans stand for No Income, No Job, No what?  Assets.).  Then we ran into a bit of trouble.  The $12,500 question asked about a heeled shoe that is worn by both men and women.  I was 99.9% positive it was Cuban Heel, having formally worked in the Legal Department of Saks Fifth Avenue, and having my job informed by fashion on a daily basis.  However, my stated strategy was to use the Ask the Audience lifeline before $25,000, so I figured, if I get this question wrong and don't use the lifeline, I'll never forgive myself.  So I asked the audience, with 60% or so confirming my belief that Cuban Heel was correct, which it was.  Next up: $15,000. 

Question: Which of these Presidents started funding for NASA?  FDR, Truman, Eisenhower or Kennedy.  Now, I should have known this right off the bat, but I didn't.  I quickly dismissed Kennedy, figuring that was too late for NASA to begin.  I had an inkling it wasn't FDR because he was too long ago.  Now, mind you, my brain is absolutely racing at this point.  Not only was I trying to figure out the question, but I only had 30 seconds to answer.  Plus, I was concerned with saving as much time as possible because of the Tournament of Ten.  So, I figured, Ken Jennings must know this.  "I'd like to ask Ken Jennings."  Meredith showed him the question, and what occurred next sent my inside into utter horror.  Ken paused.  He wasn't sure.  He rationalized away Kennedy as I did.  He said he was pretty sure it wasn't FDR, but "he was president for a long time."  Great, FDR is back on the table now.  "I'm about 60% sure it's either Truman or Eisenhower."  At this point I'm dying on the inside.  How could he not know?  We were told by the executive producer to ask the expert why they were thinking a particular way, so I did.  Ken eventually got around to saying, "Well, Sputnik went up in 1957, which was during Eisenhower, so funding for NASA probably started then.  So, I'm about 60% sure it's Eisenhower."  Well, this still wasn't good enough for me.  I was at least now pretty confident that the answer was either Eisenhower or Truman (FDR had way too much else on his plate to worry about space).  Since I could narrow it down to two answers, I decided to use the Double Dip.  I selected Eisenhower first, and it was correct.  $15,000 in the bank, but now only one lifeline remaining.  As I exhaled, I heard, "BRRWAAAAHHH!!!"  The lights shot skyward, meaning we had reached the end of the episode.  I was now going to have to go upstairs and change clothes very quickly while trying to keep myself calm for the upcoming $25,000 milestone question.

I changed, saw Kevin ("How're you doing?" "Going for $25K.  Pissed I only have one lifeline left." "Don't worry, we had someone win a million with no lifelines for the last four questions." "Huh."), and then hurried back downstairs.  I had to do a cold open with Meredith at the beginning of the show.  She and I had time to chat a little, which was nice and calming.  But soon, it was back walking toward the Hot Seat and getting in the chair backwards all over again.  I looked at my screen and saw that my next question was about psychology.  I had a feeling that there would be no way in Hell I was going to know this.  Unfortunately, I was right.  "Let's play Millionaire!"

"In Jungian psychology, a patient who is considered a puer aeternus has trouble with what?"
"A) Controlling anger   B) Growing up  C) Sleeping alone  D) Telling the truth"

I think my arched eyebrow said it all.  I had no freaking clue.  Fortunately, I had a PAF with one of the fastest computers not in a government facility.  Prior to my appearance, Sean and I spoke about how we would handle the PAF lifeline.  30 seconds is a short time to relay the question and answer choices, so we decided that if I needed him to look up something on the internet, I would state the terms to look up, then read the question, then the answers.  This question was tailor made for Wikipedia.  "Sean. Puer aeternus, p-u-e-r a-e-t-e-r-n-u-s, is a person who has trouble with what?"  With nine seconds left, Sean had the answer, "Growing up."  "How sure are you?"  "100%."  Awesome.  As the audience applauded and Meredith did her spiel about how much time I had left to answer, I actually forgot, for a split second, what Sean said.  Brief moment of panic right there.  This was for a minimum of $25,000!  Fortunately, Meredith confirmed that he said the B choice.  "B.  Growing up.  Final answer."  "I'm not even going to toy with you.  You got it."  Double fist pump and a "YEEEEEAAAHHHH!!!!"  I just won 25-freaking-thousand dollars!  And no matter what happened next, I couldn't leave with less!  This joy was short-lived however.

Bah-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-duuuuuuhhhmmmm.  Lights down.

I now had 45 seconds to answer a question about 60's music.  When I first saw the category list before my first question, I saw "60's Music" and did a jig inside, hoping that I would get to that question.  Since I was a kid, my father would always have on the Oldies station on family trips.  I grew to absolutely love music from the 50's and 60's.  In fact, it is my absolute favorite music to listen to this day.  The station programmed to button #1 in my car is the very same Oldies station that my father played for me and my siblings (although it has cut out 50's music and added, 80's music!).  Confidence was not going to be a problem for this question.

"What 1960's hit for The McCoys is the official state rock song of Ohio?"
"A) Sugar, Sugar  B) Wild Thing  C) Hang On Sloopy  D) Doo Wah Diddy Diddy"
Oh shit.

No Beatles.  No Stones.  No Four Seasons.  No Supremes.  No Ray Charles.  No Stevie Wonder.  I had heard of the McCoys, but they are a one-hit wonder, and I couldn't remember their one hit.  My first thought (one which I audibly expressed): "My father is going to kill me for not knowing this."  My mind began to race.  For some reason, I focused on the "official state rock song of Ohio" part of the question, instead of the McCoys part.  Further, I twisted the question into "official state song," leaving out the rock part of the question.  This was huge because I began to think about what song could actually be an official state song, a song in which the state of Ohio would take great pride.

Tick tock.  Tick tock.

I thought "Hang On Sloopy" was by a band like the Beach Boys (my bad, the Beach Boys sang "Sloop John B."), so I dismissed that.  I just knew "Sugar, Sugar" was wrong, and for whatever reason, I never really considered "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy."  So I was left with "Wild Thing."  But this couldn't be an official state song, could it?  I even said out loud, "'Wild Thing' wouldn't be a state song."

Tick tock.  Tick tock.

My time was all of a sudden down to 10 seconds.  As the $50,000 question is a free guess (you can't go any lower than the $25K you've already won), I knew I had to say something.  All I could think was that maybe "Wild Thing" was so wrong, that it was actually correct.  "Ugh.  B.  Wild Thing.  Final answer."  *GASP*  Unbeknownst to me, there was a large group of people from Ohio in the audience.  They audibly gasped when I said "final answer."  I knew right then I was incorrect.  "No, I'm sorry."  The answer, for your edification, is "Hang on Sloopy."  My time in the Hot Seat had concluded.  Meredith went to commercial, she told me I did great, and then I followed my AP to a curtained-off area where I had to sign some forms verifying the amount I had won ($25,000, just missing the Tournament of Ten by one question).  I was joined back there by my wife and mother, where I proceeded to get really pissed off about not getting that question right.  As soon as I was done, I thought, "Wait a second, I know that "Sugar, Sugar" was by The Archies, and that "Wild Thing" was by The Troggs!"  If I had unlimited time to answer the question (as was the case prior to last season), or focused on the McCoys party of the question, I would have eliminated two answers right away, and then worked on the final two.  Plus I was mad that I used the Ask the Audience on the shoe question, especially when I didn't need it.  The music question would have been a great Ask the Audience question as most of the audience are middle-aged people who grew up with that music.  Dang!!  Oh well.  I returned to Happy Jail, collected my stuff, took off my make-up, said goodbye to Kevin, and then stepped out onto the street.  My four-year experience with Millionaire (with the exception of waiting for it to air) was now complete.

All in all, it was a really great experience.  I won $25,000!  Not too shabby for about a half-hour's worth of work (well, and 14 hours waiting around).  After taxes, it will be about $16,000, which can put a nice dent in my law school loans.  Yes, I regret the use of a couple lifelines, but with time ticking down, I did the best I could.  I promised I wouldn't leave a lifeline on the table, and I didn't.  I followed the strategy I had laid out for myself; it was just the luck of the draw on which questions I received.  Hey, I could have been asked about hootenannies.

As far as strategy and hints for those appearing on the show, other than those appearing above, I suggest the following.  First, make sure you use your lifelines.  They are there to help you.  If you aren't 100% sure of an answer, use one, because you don't get to take them home with you.  If you think you want to save one for a later question, don't bother because you might not ever get there.  Second, listen to the audience.  They are told to be quiet, but you can definitely hear them.  Don't necessarily take one of their answers directly, but if you have the time, say the possible answers aloud, as if you're considering that particular answer.  You can hear how the audience reacts by gasping, tsking, or by getting excited.  If you really have no clue, you can get a feel from the collective feeling of the audience.  I know if I bandied about the answers to my last question and listened intently to the audience, they would have led me to the correct answer.  Lastly, trust your instincts.  You gut reaction is almost always the right one. 

If there is anyone out there that is considering auditioning for the show, you should absolutely do it.  What's the worst that could happen?  You always have the chance to be the next millionaire!

Thanks for reading this ridiculously long post.  If you have any questions about my experience, or want some other details, please drop a comment below.  It was, truly, a great experience, and I am very thankful I get to share it with my readers.  And that is my Final Answer.

1 comment:

  1. No ideas Michael, just want to say I saw both days and you looked and did great. I missed the last one myself.


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