When the American television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? became a national craze and a pop culture phenomenon in 2000, I immediately decided that I wanted to be a contestant. I've always loved trivia and strange arcane facts others have difficulty remembering. I'm usually the person in any office or social setting that is the go-to-guy for a difficult crossword answer, or a hard-to-remember fact. After a six-month ordeal, I got my wish and found out personally what it was like behind the scenes of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?—from the auditions to being in the "Hot Seat" to what Regis Philbin is really like.
My personal experience also included some remarkable circumstances, a few coincidences, and, frankly, a great deal of luck that allowed me to walk away with a staggering amount of money. Many of these events were either edited out or not discernible to viewers at home. Here is my own behind-the-scenes story of what it was like to appear on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
In 1988, after I moved to Los Angeles and with no job and very little money, I decided an appearance on Jeopardy might save me from homelessness. I actually passed the test and contestant interview pretty easily, and got on the show within a matter of weeks of arriving in LA. Unfortunately, the experience proved rather negative.
The show was bad enough; I lost by two bucks despite getting over 11,000 "dollars." In those days you merely got parting gifts, not cash, if you finished second or third. My haul was a bedroom set that forever became known as the Jeopardy bed. Also, the show's staff was pretty condescending, and they made you wait for an entire day without any guarantee you would even appear.
I was the last contestant selected for my day's taping. Two other guys sat there all day and didn't even get on the show. For a while, whenever a co-worker would say something like, "Wow, you ought to go on Jeopardy," I would relate (and relive) my negative experience. Finally, I stopped bringing it up. I assumed my game show near-miss would be something I would have to live with for the rest of my life.
12 years after the Jeopardy! debacle, I began trying to get on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The show's producers devised an ingenious method to select contestants: you called an 800 number and were prompted to answer three digitally recorded questions via your telephone keypad.
The first question would be easy, something like "Put these American Presidents in order from oldest to most recent." You would then hear "Reagan, Washington, Jefferson, Truman." The correct answer was 2, 3, 4, 1. From there, the questions would get harder, with the third question something like, "Put these NFL running backs in order from the year they won the league's MVP award."
If you got all three questions correct, you were placed in a pool of 40 individuals and given the opportunity to call in during a 15 minute window and answer five more questions in the same format. 10 of those 40 individuals would be picked for a live taping, based on the number of correct answers they gave.
To guarantee potential contestants could only call once a day, you needed to provide your birthday and last four digits of your social security number during your call, a method of establishing a unique identifier for any contestant. This also gave the producers a method to determine what you knew and didn't know based on what answers you supplied during the qualification process.
It took months of answering these questions before I heard anything. Then, after I answered the three questions correctly several days in a row, I got a call from a live operator who told me that I qualified for phase two. I was given a time, a different 800 number, and told to call and answer five questions. The time was non-negotiable, and I had to answer the questions while on a business trip and was interrupted by co-workers while on the phone. The questions were more difficult; one was, "Put these television show addresses in order from newest to oldest programs."
When I hung up the phone, I immediately presumed I had blown it, and became preoccupied with the details of my business trip. So I was surprised when I received a call from the show's staff just a few hours later inviting me to fly to New York for a taping of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Uncharacteristically, producers for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? picked up the cost of flying me and a guest - my dad - to New York and putting us up in a hotel room. Other game shows, most famously Jeopardy!, don't pay any of the expenses for contestants to get to a taping, so this was a pretty classy move. At the time, I recently started a new job and technically didn't have any vacation time, but my boss was kind enough to let me take a few days. It helped that our home office was in New York City. She agreed to let me work out of our Manhattan location for the first few days of the week. If I didn't get into the Hot Seat, I would only miss one day of work.
On the morning of July 24, 2000, I showed up bright and early at the studio, excited to begin. I had no idea we would spend hours signing forms and listening to instructions from a procession of staff, including the show's in-house attorney, the show's producer Michael Davies, and the contestant coordinator, who ran us through a dress rehearsal of the "Fastest Finger Contest."
Like the sequence of questions on the telephone, the "Fastest Finger Contest" challenged you to put four items in order right there in the studio. The contestant who placed the answers in the correct order the fastest moved into the Hot Seat, for a shot at winning $1,000,000. But, in the studio, you had to use a keypad device that was more cumbersome than a telephone, and required both dexterity and fast thinking.
It was much easier standing in my living room and simply saying the correct order out loud. It did not help my confidence when I didn't get a single one of the questions correct during the rehearsal, much less in the quickest time. One woman got all four rehearsal questions in the fastest time. I immediately started to think this going to be tougher than I realized. We took a break for lunch, where my dad tried to pump me up, and then we split up again and headed back for the taping to begin. I tried to keep a positive outlook, but I was already feeling demoralized.
Before the taping, nine contestants filed into a locker room area, where we changed into our dress clothes for the taping. Because the show always ended with someone in the Hot Seat, we also met David, who was coming back after winning $4,000. Immediately, I realized it would be a while before we even got a shot at the Fastest Finger, as David seemed relatively bright and would probably be able to answer a few questions correctly. We all gathered in an organized line backstage (everything we did was choreographed by a couple of clipboard-wielding production assistants) and were personally greeted by Regis Philbin, who walked down the line and shook each contestant's hand, wishing them good luck.
Before the taping began, we were introduced by name and home town and given a round of applause by the studio audience. Regis and David walked on last while the theme to the show played and the tape rolled. Exactly as I suspected, David not only got several questions correct, he was also very deliberate and the taping crept along at an excruciating pace. David made it to $32,000, leaving the rest of us to wait a long time before finally having our first Fastest Finger attempt.
After a studio break, the taping continued and two cameras swept the contestant ring in front of the audience for the brief televised introduction of all of the contestants. I totally bungled the first group question about best sellers, not even close to getting it right. Fortunately for me, the first contestant crashed and burned at $4,000, but I screwed up the next Fastest Finger and had to sit through another contestant who bombed out at $8,000.
We were already almost two hours into the taping, and I figured I had one more shot at the Fastest Finger since it was pretty rare to see four contestants moving to the Hot Seat in one show. This was it. I had to put four American civil rights figures in order, but was both careful and deliberate.
In front of all of us was a giant screen with the contestant names. If you got it correct, your name flashed green with your time, the board blinking rapidly. Mine the first name with a time of 6.1 seconds. There were a lot of contestants who got all the answers correct, but I was faster by a couple of seconds and for an instant I thought I had pulled it off. Then the final contestant name flashed with a time of 5.42 seconds! I sat back stunned. Someone had beaten me. When the next Hot Seat contestant was introduced as a grad student from Johns Hopkins and he began easily answering questions, I knew I wasn't going to make it.
At the next studio break, one of the contestant coordinators came over to tell the remaining contestants the final segment was about to be taped, a kind way of saying we were not going to make it to the Hot Seat. Our grad student would have to answer one or perhaps two more easy questions, and we would be out of there. I was shocked and depressed.