Your RDA of Irony

What I Did Last Summer

Who Wants To Be a Millionaire has just announced that it will be holding auditions in metropolitan Chicago. History and I are about to repeat ourselves. Here is my account of last year’s farce….

Who wants to be tortured and humiliated? I evidently do. Although I did not book my summer vacation at Abu Ghraib, I was among the 2500 victims who auditioned for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

America’s second favorite quiz show was touring the Midwest, looking for contestants. The brilliant and the greedy of metropolitan Chicago were invited to audition at Medieval Times in Schaumburg, August 15, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Come one, come all. So we did.

Speaking of medieval times, I have been vying to be on Millionaire since the days of Regis. To be honest, I was a prisoner of expectations. I have some faded renown as a former champion on Jeopardy, so everyone told me “You ought to be on Millionaire.” And I agreed!

At one time, you could audition for the show by telephone. Confronted with such questions as “Arrange these Secretaries of Labor in chronological order”, you would type your response on the phone key pad. I cannot tell you how many times I passed those tests. I can tell how many times I was invited on the show: less than once. To my further aggravation, I knew a number of people who were contestants; and guess whom they asked to be their phone-a-friend? Vicarious glory is better than none at all, but I wanted to be more than just a disembodied voice on Millionaire.

Since Meredith began hosting the syndicated version, Millionaire’s auditions are usually held in New York, an inconvenient location for a Midwestern boy. However, the news of the Schaumburg auditions seemed like a personal invitation. Being a free-lance writer, answerable only to God and the IRS, I had the time to waste. Even my practical wife thought I should go. I had to try.

Although the auditions were scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., I was determined to arrive early. I could imagine how crowded it would be. In fact, my imagination was an underachiever. I arrived at 7:45 a.m. and was already too late: the parking lot at Medieval Times was full. The summer interns of WGN founding themselves improvising traffic control, forming barriers and telling the dismayed and indignant drivers that the nearest available parking was a mile away. There also was a police car to discourage any rioting. So my car and I joined the caravan in the quest for parking.

The parking lot, although depressingly distant, was quite easy to find. You could see a procession of aspiring contestants trudging from there toward Medieval Times. In fact, it did seem like a medieval pilgrimage. There were young and old, quite a few who had difficulty making the unexpected hike; and we were all hoping for a miracle: the chance to be on Millionaire. The show has less than 500 contestants a year; but from this region alone 2500 people were auditioning. Millionaire was also holding try-outs in Pittsburgh and Seattle; of course, there are regular auditions in New York. What are the odds of being chosen? Each and every one of us was praying for a statistical miracle.

After a fairly vigorous hike  (Schaumburg does not believe in sidewalks) I arrived at the audition. I should be grateful for that exercise because I now would be standing in line for the next five hours. At 8:30 a.m., that line extended the length of two city blocks. An hour later, it was twice that long. You might wonder how to kill five hours in a line. Some people had the foresight to bring paperbacks; you could see a few determined contestants intent on memorizing almanacs. Others were on their cellphones; catching up on everyone they knew. I just started talking with my neighbors. I soon knew the names of their children and pets; and they might have learned some tactless details about my in-laws. We soon were a band of brothers and vowed to be each other’s phone-a-friend.

Over the hours, we slowly approached the building where the auditions were held. A little past noon, we finally entered the “castle”..We were still standing in line but at least we now were out of the August sun. After another hour, the show’s staff handed out forms and questionnaires to complete. The form was intended to reassure the producers and their lawyers that I had no relatives or suspicious connections on the show or with any of the show’s sponsors. (You apparently are not allowed friends in advertising.) I was also required to divulge that I had been on Jeopardy: no one wants a game show hustler. In addition to a statistical miracle, I now was praying for a statute of limitations.

In contrast to the rigid legalese of the form, the questionnaire was cloyingly whimsical. It sought endearing personalities among the applicants by asking “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” and “What was the most embarrassing moment of your life?”   For the million dollar query, I replied “I would ask my wife how we were spending it. As long as I have cable television and a freezer full of ice cream, I wouldn’t have any further questions.” As for the most embarrassing moment of my life, I answered, “I have yet to be convicted of a crime, so I haven’t had that moment. So far my life has been only a series of minor martyrdoms.” The questionnaire also asked “Tell us something about yourself that no one else knows.” Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have any fetishes or undiagnosed psychoses, and I really wasn’t prepared to fabricate any. The contestant coordinators had to be satisfied with my sincere sarcasm.

Finally, we were assigned our battalions–at least 150 contestants per group– and led into the auditorium where Medieval Times normally holds its banquets, jousts and possible reenactments of the bubonic plague. For the first time in six hours, we had the luxury of sitting. Each of us received an ID number, a pencil, an answer sheet and a sealed test. We were informed that the test consisted of 30 answers, multiple-choice, and we had ten minutes to complete it. Starting now: Britney Spears; white blood cells; Bernie Mac; Jane Austen. Time’s up.

Then we had to wait to for the results. Talking among ourselves, we did our scoring and evaluations. “Was that Mae West?” “Oh, it’s the retina.” “Are you sure it was Paris?” If there were any doubts, one fellow would use his Blackberry to ascertain the correct answer. Yes, it definitely was “Casablanca”.  Finally, a staff member read aloud the ID numbers. Yes, I had passed; would I have written this if I hadn’t?  Of my “band of brothers”  only the Chicago fireman joined me as a survivor. Of the entire battalion, some two dozen passed the test. We were told to go across the building for our interviews with the contestant coordinators.

And once again we were standing and waiting. Add another 30 minutes to the Purgatory. Three staff members of Millionaire interrogated hundreds of us to determine who–if any–would end up sitting next to Meredith. All of that interviewing must be draining. My interrogator could not bother to mask his boredom and indifference. He was seated, and next to him was a pitcher of cola and a box of cookies. But what was my fatigue and hunger compared to his ennui. He did not bother to look at my questionnaire. The interview was basically “Hello, what do you do for a living, good luck and goodbye.” His callousness was dismaying. Was I lucky that he refrained from physical abuse? Actually, if he had flung the cola in my face, I could have used the nourishment.

I staggered out of the building and began the mile-long trek to my car. That humiliating dismissal probably was the appropriate end to a draining, miserable experience. This was the type of day that inspires a satirist as soon as I recuperate. And I now have an understanding of the great mystery of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Why do its contestants always seem so dippy and spent? I realize that they once were bright and vibrant; but the auditions have left them blithering, exhausted wrecks.

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