Living and dying with the questions
Making it on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'
Todd Leopold, CNN.com's books editor, talks with host Regis Philbin on ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- My old College Bowl coach had a saying: You live and die with the questions.
What that meant was that, no matter how well-versed you were in history or literature or physics or Academy Award-winning movies, sooner or later you would get a question that you couldn't answer. It might be poorly written, it might inadvertently favor your competition, it might simply be out of your league; it didn't matter. Through no fault of your own, you were going to fail.
|| EARNING A MILLION|
It's not a bad philosophy of life, and I always try to remember that.
And it's especially handy when you're about to appear on a quiz show in front of 25 million people.
I had made it onto TV's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." All that useless and pointless knowledge, all those facts and factoids swimming in my head, had finally gotten me in a position to win hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That is, if I could (1) get into the Hot Seat, and (2) manage to answer the 15 questions required to become an instant millionaire. I had my phone-a-friends lined up, my constitutional amendments re-memorized, my bladder relieved. I was ready for host Regis Philbin to point his finger at the camera and say, "Let's play!"
A call from New York
I'm the classic "Millionaire" contestant: a guy in his mid-30s who never outgrew a love for factual minutiae. Yes, I'm one of those trivia geeks. I don't make a habit of quoting at length Monty Python routines or "This Is Spinal Tap," but I can name President Calvin Coolidge's secretary of state and at least one member of the Grass Roots. For the most part, it's not a very useful gift - plate spinning is about as socially redeeming - but it's helpful as a writer, and occasionally for winning games of Trivial Pursuit.
And, if you can make it, for playing on quiz shows.
My "Millionaire" quest began in August 1999, when the show debuted. Every night the lines were open for contestants, I called the toll-free phone number and took the three-question test. Three times over the next year, I received a callback to take the round 2, five-question semifinal quiz. Each time I blew a question and had to start over.
In late November, I got the callback again. The semifinal quiz was set for Tuesday, December 5. At 3 p.m., in the quiet of a borrowed office, I dialed the number, input the personal identification number I'd been given and waited for the five questions. This time, I didn't miss one.
Now my chances of going to New York were up to a computer, set to pick 10 of the perfect scorers at random.
My phone rang at 4:45 that day. It was a producer from "Millionaire." After I answered a few legalistic questions, she offered her congratulations: I was going to New York for a December 12 taping.
The next few days passed in a blur. Another producer called and asked about my own minutiae. What did I do for a living? Who would sit in the relationship chair? How long had I been trying to get on the show? Did I have any fun tidbits or anecdotes about myself? What about nervous habits?
I tried to seem interesting.
In the meantime, I lined up my five phone-a-friends. I tapped into my old College Bowl group for four of the choices and picked the fifth from a weekly bar trivia game I host in Atlanta.
On Monday afternoon, I drove to the Atlanta airport with my girlfriend, Sarah, where we let the "Millionaire" staff take over.
Airline e-tickets were waiting for us; a car picked us up at Newark International Airport and drove us to the Empire Hotel in Manhattan, across from Lincoln Center; and, at the contestant meeting that evening, a "Millionaire" coordinator gave us $150, representing $50 for each day we'd be in New York.
The meeting took place in a suite on the Empire's top floor, where Susan Vescera, the show's always-on-call coordinator, lives with her dogs. We introduced ourselves in the manner of total strangers thrown together on a stuck elevator, took notes on Susan's "Millionaire 101" lecture and had our clothes judged for television-suitability. Then we went our own ways to find dinner and insomnia.
Tuesday, taping day, arrived after a nervous night of stomach-churning, fitful sleep. After eating overpriced pastries at a nearby Starbucks, Sarah and I returned to the Empire's lobby at 10:15 a.m. There, we met the other contestants -- each, like me, clutching two sets of clothes -- and their guests. Together, we took a four-block shuttle ride to ABC for a short meeting with producers.
Then, finally, we saw the studio, where all those millions are won and lost. I'd expected some giant, glossy arena, a place where drama and spectacle fairly crackled from the light fixtures like lightning in a laboratory. Instead, it was smaller than I'd imagined, just a TV studio with curved black benches for the audience (capacity: about 174), several cameras and a slightly scuffed Plexiglas floor. The Hot Seat was a very tall, cushioned bar chair. It was all, amazingly, mundane.
Guests sat in the audience while we contestants sat in assigned chairs in front of the "fastest finger" consoles.
The console was a daunting thing. It consisted of a screen where the question would appear, plus six buttons -- marked A, B, C, D, with a red "delete" button and a green "OK" button rounding out the arrangement -- and an LCD readout.
The letter buttons had to be pressed solidly for the machine to record the answer. Then you had to hit the green "OK" to lock it in. The "delete" button was like a backspace key on a computer keyboard and could only delete one answer at a time - it could waste precious seconds in an actual game -- and was ineffective after "OK" had been hit. We practiced hitting the buttons like amateur Nintendo players and got five practice attempts. By my fifth try, I thought, I was just getting the hang of it.
We were also told to ignore Regis, a challenge in itself.
"He doesn't know the answers," said Wendy Roth, a supervising producer, who also cautioned us not to let him talk us into a lifeline, nor to try reading his expressions. Regis, we learned, was there for the audience's entertainment -- though, at something like $500,000 a show (if we're to believe a stray comment he made during taping), he's quite an investment.
Visions of the apocalypse
By this time, it was about 2 p.m. After lunch in the ABC commissary, we contestants were separated from our loved ones and led to the dressing rooms and makeup. By this time, our wariness of the previous night's meeting had vanished; we were going out together on this nationally televised stage, and as we changed into our TV-friendly clothes we cracked dark-edged jokes and hoped we wouldn't make fools of ourselves. There was some question about the all-important wave, what to do when Regis called our name and the camera's red light went on. I had long since decided to just do the basic "Hi Mom" hand motion; I was going to look silly, anyway.
At 4 p.m., we returned to the studio, now filled with people who warmed to the antics of a comedian. Each of us was introduced in turn and led to our "fastest finger" chair. Regis was introduced and came around to shake our hands.
(I've been asked, "What is Regis like?" Though I haven't exactly had dinner with the man, I'd say he seemed exactly like he does on TV: an outgoing guy who, after 40 years of slaving in the relative anonymity of local, late-night and morning TV, was immensely enjoying his success as a prime-time icon. He was gracious, funny and professional.)
And then it started. The apocalyptic music. The camera doing its swooping crane shot. The entrance of Regis and the previous day's Hot Seat contestant, a Texas hotel night manager. I felt giddy, but at the same time strangely composed. It was only a game. You live and die with the questions.
I sat back .
If you saw the show, you know I made it into the Hot Seat. I more or less cruised along, except for a bump at the $1,000 level when I couldn't remember the lyrics to "Frosty the Snowman." (In my mind, I sang, "Frosty the Snowman, badaDA-daDA-daDA, dum-dee-dum-dee-dum. …" The words weren't exactly flying around in there.) I asked the audience, the vast majority of them knew, and it was onward and upward…
…until I got to the $32,000 question.
In "Millionaire," this is the great leap, the final key level before reaching $1 million. Get past $32,000, and you go home with enough to cash to buy a used Mercedes. Blow it, and you're shopping for battered Escort with $1,000 in your pocket.
The question: The ballerinas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are all what: (A) under 12 years old; (B) puppets; (C) over 65 years old; or (D) men.
I hadn't a clue.
I asked for 50-50. The "Millionaire" computer left me with "puppets" and "men," the two answers I was considering. I phoned a friend, a former "Jeopardy!" champion. He didn't know either, but leaned toward "puppets."
Now, I could have walked away with $16,000, no questions asked. But for me, the whole idea of "Millionaire" is about life-changing money, year's-salary-money or more. I'd already won an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, and here I sat, right on the Hot Seat. This was no time to blink.
"Puppets," I said.
The answer was "men."
Well, it was fun while it lasted, and there's nothing wrong with $1,000. Was I disappointed? Sure. But the show was a first-class experience all around. I have no regrets. You live and die with the questions.
After the taping, my girlfriend, some friends and I went to a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal, I opened my fortune cookie. "You will soon realize just how fortunate you really are," the fortune read.
The show aired on January 4. I invited some friends and colleagues to a TV-watching party at the Atlanta bar where I host the trivia game. There, surrounded by these well-wishers, I watched my rise and fall once again. It didn't seem to matter so much when among friends.
Fortunate? You bet.
And that's my final answer.