Your RDA of Irony

My RDA of Anxiety

“Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” will be back on prime time in August, but the shows are being taped now.  And guess who once again is chained to the telephone, accepting the challenge of being a Phone-a-Friend?  I wish that I could tell you how much fun it is to watch cobwebs grow on your telephone. At least my first experience–way back in 2000– was not an exercise in futility. Published in the Chicago Tribune, here is that saga.

Regis Philbin finally called, and 30 million people were eavesdropping

After two days of an anxious vigil by the telephone, I now had the opportunity
to humiliate myself and bankrupt a friend.

Who wants to be a “Millionaire” lifeline? I had acquired some doubts.

How did I end up such a morbid, neurotic mess? A week earlier, I had felt
nothing worse than a mild case of envy. Stephanie Girardi, a close friend of my
wife Karen, was going to be a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Possessing a Mensa mentality and the Episcopalian equivalent of chutzpah,
Stephanie had defied odds and obstacles to win a seat next to Regis.

Every day, 250,000 people somehow get through the show’s jammed phone lines and
take the qualifying quiz. Approximately 3 percent of these aspiring contestants
pass the three-question test. A number of these survivors are randomly selected
to take a second quiz, consisting of five questions. Of those who correctly
answer the five questions, the 10 fastest competitors are invited to be on
“Millionaire.” Stephanie was one of them.

For those of you pretending not to know the details, “Millionaire” permits its
contestants to have three lifelines for help with answers. Stephanie asked me
to be her “phone-a-friend,” the mystic sage who could answer any confounding
question within 30 seconds. A contestant can choose five people to be a
“phone-a-friend” but Stephanie needed only three to supplement her knowledge
(the other two were an astrophysicist and a librarian with a specialty in
sports). Why choose me? To be honest, I am an idiot savant. Although I can’t
remember my wife’s phone number at work, I possess an unnatural command of
historical and literary details.

Consider this example. A lady once mentioned to me that “This is St. Anthony’s
Day.” I asked if she were referring to St. Anthony of Thebes or St. Anthony of
Padua. How does a Jewish boy know that? My cognitive quirks have even earned me
fame and fortune. In 1987, I appeared on “Jeopardy!” and won $70,000, a vacuum
cleaner and 14 bags of chocolate chips.

In case you were wondering, Regis’ call is not a casual occurrence. I was given
instructions and indoctrination that made me feel as if I were paper-trained by
Pavlov. My first order was, on the day (a Wednesday) that Stephanie first
appeared for a taping, to wait by a telephone between the hours of noon and 3
p.m., and 4 and 7 p.m. Since I am a freelance writer and work from home, I
could accommodate that ridiculous schedule. At approximately 1 p.m., the phone
rang and I found myself being interrogated by a droning assistant from the

No, I was not an employee of ABC or any affiliates. No, I was not an employee
or related to any employee of “Millionaire.” (If I were, wouldn’t she have
remembered me from the holiday party?) No, I had not been on another game show
within the last year. No, I had not been anyone else’s lifeline. (You can only
be a lifeline twice in a year’s time, so I can’t make a career of it.)

Having survived the initiation, I was now drilled in the protocol of the show.

1. I was to be by a telephone from 4 to 7 p.m. that day. I could not use a
cellular phone. (Why? They did not say.)

2. I was the only person allowed to answer that phone.

3. I had to answer the telephone on the third ring. (Again they did not say

4. I was “not to make small talk with Regis.”

There was nothing else to do but wait. At 4 p.m., the telephone rang and, with
heroic restraint, I picked it up on the third ring. It was only another
production assistant, telling me that the show now was being taped, and
reminding me to be available for the next three hours. I resumed the vigil.

At 10 minutes to 7, the phone rang. I picked up the telephone on the obligatory
third ring and heard the production assistant exclaim that Stephanie had made
it into “the hot seat.” The day’s taping was nearly over, however; so I was
asked if I would be available the following day from 4 to 7. Later that
evening, Stephanie called from New York to tell us all the details. She asked
if I was ready for the challenge. I lied and said, “Yes.”

In fact, I was imagining everything that could go wrong.

In an average week, no one rings our doorbell; but when Regis calls, it would
be the most sadistic time for a Jehovah’s Witness to drop by. What, if for some
inexplicable reason, our pugs awoke and started barking while I was trying to
hear Stephanie? At least, I had a solution for these potential crises: My wife
could handle them.

A few minutes before 4 p.m., I isolated myself in the bedroom. At 4:30 p.m.,
the telephone rang and I discovered one of the immutable laws of the universe.
In such circumstances, a relative or friend will telephone. “Have they called
yet?” I believe this was the first time my sister-in-law Barbara heard me
hyperventilate and stammer. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Karen coped
with it. I had become acutely aware of my heartbeat.

Then the phone rang.

“Hi, Eugene. This is Regis Philbin.”

I could barely hear him. “Our friends at AT&T” could improve the acoustics. I
greeted him and, since this wasn’t a private conversation, I added “Hi
America.” Stephanie was contending with a $125,000 question and she needed my
help. She began reading the question, and I could only discern a few words:
painting, California, swimming pools. Then, she began reciting the possible
answers: David Hockney. . . . I interrupted with an emphatic, “Yes.”

She continued with the other possible answers (Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Andy

Then I repeated, “California swimming pools . . . David Hockney.”

“That’s what I thought,” she said.

“I’m obnoxiously certain,” I replied.

How could she doubt me? Stephanie answered “David Hockney” and won the
$125,000. She then went on to win $500,000. Stephanie knew that Mick Jagger
went to the London School of Economics and that the island of Rapa Nui is
better known as Easter Island.

Let’s deal with the ugly and obvious question: Everybody asks, what’s my cut? I
was motivated by vanity not venality. We never discussed what I could expect
for answering the question. Let’s just say: Stephanie is a gracious person.

As for me, my breathing has returned to normal and I remain the most successful
“Jeopardy!” player from Rogers Park. Now I find myself frequently asked a
question I can’t answer: When am I going to be on “Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire”? I guess I will have to find out.



p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day (unless you are a Bulgarian optometrist):

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene —

    I don’t believe that there is an Episcopalian equivalent to chutzpah. The closest I ever heard an Episcopalian come to chutzpah was a few weeks ago, when Katherine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, made the following remark in her address to the church’s General Convention: “The crisis of this moment has several parts, and like Episcopalians, particularly the ones in Mississippi, they’re all related.”

    Is that chutzpah, or a bad case of hoof-in-mouth disease?



    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Hello, Hal.

      I think that a British/Episcopalian sense of presumption might be the equivalent. For instance, Robert Falcon Scott expected the South Pole to come to him, and that the penguins would greet him with a medley from Gilbert & Sullivan.


  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply