If you have ever watched a game show on TV, you likely have wondered at some point just what these people up there are thinking. I will admit to having such thoughts myself over time. Fifteen years ago, I got to find out in a way most people have never had the chance to experience; thus the title of this series of posts.
Before I go any further: The original sequence of events that is being depicted here played out over a couple of weeks. I will be posting the story in “real time”, if you will, with the first chapter taking place on a Sunday as it did fifteen years ago (as opposed to an exact fifteen years as calculated by numbers on a calendar). A subtle distinction, perhaps, but I think it helps to preserve the feel of things. There will be some gaps in posting lasting several days, as there was not necessarily something new in the saga every day; on the other hand, there will likely be multiple posts on a given day once “taping day” comes around.
Once upon a time, Timothy Leary either said or did not say that in the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes. And whether he actually said it or not, it has now been fifteen years since my own personal Leary time…my proverbial fifteen minutes.
That’s right. A lot of you may not be aware of this, but once upon a time, I got a chance to take the ride…and a helluva ride it was.
You may have heard of a TV game show called “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. And, as ridiculous as it may sound to anybody who has reached the quarter-century mark, the word “may” is quite valid here. To be sure, the show still exists, albeit in a hardly-recognizable format. But, for a couple of years back around the turn of the millennium, Millionaire was hotter than hot; at its peak thirty million people were watching the show on a given night…and “given nights” came up several times a week. This was pop culture’s flavor of the day, magnified and focused to a white-hot point. Part of the show’s appeal came from the previously-unheard-of top prize, part came from the show’s good fortune of having some memorable contestants right from the start, and part came from the revolutionary process that was used to select contestants. Until then, if you wanted to strut your stuff on a game show, you had to go through a dog-and-pony show in front of the show’s production staff with the hope that the game-show gods might smile upon you.
But not this one. For this show, you qualified from the comfort of your home. Pick up the phone, call a number – a 900 toll number at first, later changed to a toll-free 800 number – give them some information about yourself, and then play a short game on the phone. You were given four words or items to put in order, punching in what you hoped to be the correct sequence on your phone’s keypad. Get it right and you played another question; get that one right, and you played a third. Get all three right and you would then be asked to select a potential taping date from among those the recorded voice (known as “Fred” among the show’s diehard fans) offered to you. But get any of the answers wrong or take too long, and Fred would give you a “sorry” message and end the call on the spot, with any unplayed questions remaining so.
But there was more. Getting all three questions correct did not, in and of itself, get you to the show; from here, you were placed into a pool of contestants from which a lucky few would be selected to play a second round a few days later. If you were lucky enough to be drawn for the second round, you would then play a second game, similar to the first, but with five questions. Do well enough in the second round, and you might get called to the show. Yeah, you were chasing some pretty steep odds…thousands upon thousands of callers on any night, playing for one of ten slots on a given show. But, really, what did a person have to lose?
And so it was on Sunday, November 26, 2000. The phone lines were open that night, so at 5 PM, as was my normal routine, I went into the back room, closed the door so as to avoid distractions, had my pencil and paper ready…and dialed. And I got all three questions right. No biggie, really; by my calculations, I had passed the first round something like forty times previously but had never been called back to play the second round. So, naturally, my hopes were once again higher than my expectations. But, what the hell…it was a five-minute trivia break…a nice little treat as the day began to wind down, right? And passing always felt better than blowing a question and having the game cut off on me. So, as had happened forty-some times before, I picked my preferred taping date (like it mattered), hung up the phone, and went back upstairs.
Just like every other time.