Skip to main content

Confessions of a game show guru

By James Dinan, CNN
June 8, 2012 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The author has a thing for game shows
  • He has been a phone a friend for six "Millionaire" contestants
  • The recent death of "Family Feud" host Richard Dawson brought back memories

(CNN) -- April 27, 2011, was quite the busy day for my colleagues at CNN.com. It was two days and counting until the royal wedding of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the site was getting all its ducks in a row for the big event.

But I was nowhere near the newsroom that day.

I was in a hotel conference room in another state, auditioning to be on the long-running TV game show "Jeopardy!" for the fourth time. For almost 20 years I've tried to get on "America's Favorite Quiz Show," going all the way back to my freshman year in college, where I missed passing the written test by "one question" (not really, but the contestant coordinators asked us to say that as they did not reveal actual scores). I've auditioned for the show in three states and the District of Columbia. I traveled eight hours by car for the 2011 audition, and five hours by train for the college test. And I don't regret a single moment of it.

I've been told that I'm obsessed with game shows. I prefer to call myself a "super fan."

I've auditioned for 11 game shows, and appeared on three of them. Back in 2001, I appeared on ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," following my 80th or so attempt to qualify via phone auditions. I made it to the "hot seat," lasting all of two minutes before I bombed out on a $500 question on collar stays. I went home with nothing, but was invited back a few weeks later to compete in a special game starring all the show's "zero dollar" winners. With new found confidence, I bounced back to win $64,000 before calling it a night.

I've been a "phone a friend" for six "Millionaire" contestants until the show dropped the lifeline in 2009. I competed on ESPN's "Two-Minute Drill" in 2001, winning $5,000 and getting a chance to chat up Dara Torres and Darryl Dawkins. I appeared as a "mob member" on NBC's "1 vs. 100" in 2006, falling short on a question regarding salad creators -- I never did watch that "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode confirming that Bob Cobb had a namesake salad. And I was an interactive champion on the 2000 Fox Family game "Paranoia," winning a top-of-the-line desktop computer with camera.

So how did this all start? I can't pinpoint the exact date I suddenly got interested in game shows, but family members insist it started while I was a crawling toddler. One relative joked (I hope) that my first complete sentence was "X gets the square," a reference to the long-running "Hollywood Squares." When I was 6, I was barred from watching "Family Feud" after I got caught kissing a first-grade female classmate. When my long-suffering teacher, Mrs. Kaplan, asked me why I did that, I explained that Richard Dawson did it every night, and he didn't get punished.

To me, game shows were the place to go to see magic and happiness occur on a daily basis. Where else could you see ordinary Americans win cash and prizes just by answering questions, solving puzzles or performing silly stunts? Game shows gave me the opportunity to expand my knowledge beyond what I learned in school, books and newspapers. For a time, getting home from school meant having a snack and working on long division while watching "The Joker's Wild" and "Tic Tac Dough." More than once, my 9-year-old self squealed in delight for knowing answers that the contestants couldn't handle.

The game show hosts were like Santa Claus -- rewarding the "nice" contestants with cash, cars and bedroom sets, while punishing the "naughty" players with zonks, whammies and lifetime supplies of Turtle Wax and Rice-a-Roni.

Over time, the hosts were part of the family. I saw Bill Cullen, who hosted more than 20 game shows in a career spanning five decades, as the grandfatherly figure who was quick with a kind word whether you were happy or sad. Dick Clark, who helmed various incarnations of "Pyramid," was the stern but fair teacher who could throw out a joke, but knew when to be serious. And Richard Dawson was the life of the party, but someone who always made sure that you were having fun, as well.

Admittedly, few understood my love of the genre. Classmates were only interested in game shows when they were hip to the crowd, such as "Press Your Luck" or MTV's "Remote Control." Family members were confused at times, but did play along. One California vacation included a visit to a taping of "Win, Lose or Draw," where I got to chat with game show legend Charles Nelson Reilly between tapings. But, for the most part, my love of the genre was something I kept to myself. And when the genre became passé in the early 90s, and talk shows and similar fare took over the landscape, I simply forgot about big bucks and no whammies.

Then came college, adulthood and the World Wide Web. It was there that I found people who were just like me -- game show fans who loved talking about game shows past, present and future. We reviewed shows, compared hosts and rooted each other on as we went out on auditions. One friend sent me a cassette of game show themes that included a cover of "Route 66" by Depeche Mode that featured a commercial for the Tom Kennedy version of "Name That Tune," voiced by the legendary Ernie Anderson. Another sent me a "Price is Right" coffee mug.

A few times we got together in California for a "Game Show Congress," where we honored the past, present and future of the genre. Hosts, producers, announcers and contestants would gather to discuss game shows with fans like me, as well as play our own versions of the games we grew up and watched.

It's that sense of community that made me feel blessed when I learned this week that Richard Dawson passed away. As soon as I heard the news, I went online to a game show message board I frequent. There, I read stories from friends and colleagues about how much they enjoyed Dawson's work as an actor and emcee. Through the forum, I found a YouTube clip of a short-lived 1970s game show called "Masquerade Party," which Dawson hosted a few years before "Family Feud." And I learned that Dawson may not have been the first choice to host "Feud;" Geoff Edwards, Jack Narz and William Shatner were all supposedly under consideration.

One of the great things about the online world is that, if you look hard enough, you can find people who share your interests and embrace them. I don't know the size of the game show community, but I know that we are loyal to the genre.

My wife and her family have also developed "game show fever." My wife, who's more of a casual game show fan, joined me at a Game Show Congress in 2006. She wasn't sure what to expect, but my friends welcomed her with open arms. I still remember her being the top player in a game of "Bruce Forsyth's Hot Streak" (a short-lived 80s ABC game show hosted by the legendary British emcee). She also helped me recruit three members of her family to audition for the Steve Harvey edition of "Family Feud" two years ago. We didn't get the call to play, but we had a ton of fun giving it a try.

As for me, I don't know what my future in game shows holds, as I haven't been impressed with the programs that have aired in recent years. Most of them seem to follow the rules of so-called "reality" shows -- larger-than-life contestants, silly conflicts and manufactured drama. A few shows stay true to the form I grew up with, but those series are few and far between.

Which brings me back to "Jeopardy!" As of now, I'm on the waiting list to be a contestant. Between now and the end of the year, I may get a call to be on the show. If not, I'll just wait for the next online test and try again.

Either way, I'm not going to let the dream fade away.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT