Saturday, June 11, 2011

But I wanted to be a Millionaire ...

It only took 10 minutes to go from Who Wants to be a Millionaire to The Biggest Loser.

That was not the way I had planned it, not from the time a couple weeks ago when I answered the call to audition in New York City for the popular game show. I watch it all the time -- often coming up with answers the frazzled contestants can't -- and even play the facebook version, in which I almost always finish in the top three and go to the "second round." And even though I've never pocketed the virtual million dollars, I know given the chance in the real world, I'd make a real nice run for the real green, not to mention getting a real hug -- or at least a real hearty handshake -- from Meredith Vieira.

My spirits soared when I got an e-mail telling me my "audition time" was Friday at 3:30. I was to take a written test, and if I passed I would meet with a producer, and if that went well, I would then go into the contestant pool. I also had to fill out "eligibility forms" and another form asking questions like, "What makes you unique?" and "You'd never believe it, but I once ..."

... saw Yogi Berra naked. When I was covering baseball back in the '90s, and he was a Yankees coach at the time. It was after a game, I was standing in the middle of the clubhouse, and ... it just happened. I wanted to look away ... but just couldn't. Kind of like watching a train wreck, or "The Real Housewives of New York." I wondered how I would mention this to Meredith, and whether she or anyone else would laugh, and whether it would be bleeped out. But I digress ...

Friday, 3:15 p.m. Buoyant despite the heat, thanks to my iced Pike Place Roast from Starbucks, I arrived at ABC Studios on New York's Upper West Side, and was immediately jolted back to reality. I was standing on line, along with what turned into a group of about 75 people with the same deluded dream I had. The woman behind me said she had tried out for the show a couple of years ago, got past the interview stage, but never made it on the air. There was a fellow behind her who said his wife actually got on the show three years ago and made $23,000, which they used to re-do their kitchen. Guess it was time to replace the tiles.

Reality further poked me when I saw a door open up in front of our line, where a crowd of people poured out, rejects from the previous "audition." There had to be several of these every day, over however many days and weeks they were running this exercise. I was suddenly feeling like an ant emerging from my ant hill, and looking over the horizon and seeing nothing but ... other ant hills.

We finally got out of the heat and into a big air-conditioned room, which looked to be a cafeteria. We were sat down at a series of tables, armed only with No. 2 pencils to attack our 30-question, 10-minute standardized trivia test, inside the numbered envelope given to us at the door. The number on the envelope, we were to find out, would be used to call us forward for the next phase, which seemed to be all but certain to everyone at my table. We all seemed to be fairly intelligent and outgoing sorts, and were all sure we'd do well on the show.

"Open your envelopes. Your 10 minutes start now!" Show time! I pulled out the test questions, and flew through the first few queries. Speeding is not a foul in the NBA. The Extra-Terrestrial Highway runs through Roswell, N.M. An al fresco of Washington's ascension to heaven is in the U.S. Capitol ... or is it the Washington National Cathedral? Or, according to the consensus at my table afterward, the Library of Congress? (I just Googled it ... they were right. Damn.)

But were some I had to pause and stab at, like the one that asked how many days it would take to walk from New York to Los Angeles at 3 miles an hour (I always hated those kinds of questions; the correct answer is, "I wouldn't know, I always fly. Go ask Forrest Gump.")

And on others, I was totally clueless. What delivery truck always appears in Disney Pixar films? ("No idea" was not among the four choices, unfortunately.) And another question asked to name the artist whose medium is roadkill soaked in formaldehyde. I'm serious. (I'm not sure which is more disturbing -- that there's an artist who works in that area or that anyone would actually be familiar with him. Wouldn't that mangled opossum look great on the dining room table?)

I finished the test well before the 10-minute mark. When I looked around and saw most people were still working, my confidence rose. I even had time to go over my answers: Of the 30 questions, there were 18 I know were right. There were another six or so that I thought were good educated hypotheses, and another six outright guesses. I figured if I were half-right on those last 12, that would put me around 24 correct answers, a likely neighborhood for telling a producer my Yogi Berra story.

"Pencils down!" Our sheets were quickly collected, and would be graded on the spot. Immediately, I flashed back to grammar school. Our table convened: "What did you get for that one? Did anyone know this one?" We concurred on most questions we discussed. The guy who needed new kitchen tiles said, "Either we're all getting on the show or we're all going down in flames."

"Will the following numbers please move to this side of the room," our tour guide said. My number was 227, and I was fully expecting to hear it. My heart jumped when she went down her list and said, 'Two-twenty ..." and dropped when she said, "... five."

Nine numbers were called out before this stunner: "The rest of you, thank you for coming, and please exit through the door you entered." No. 227 would not advance. Neither would anyone else at my table. I joined the rest of the flameouts as we shuffled out, glancing at the group of nine, happily high-fiving each other.

As we exited the door of dreams and re-entered the reality of the city heat, I looked to the left and saw the next ant hill already formed. A new dance was about to begin, and more fantasies would be flattened.

I turned the corner onto Columbus Avenue and smiled to myself. I had tried, and have a nifty "Millionaire" pencil and refrigerator magnet to show for it. It was time to go to work.

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