By Kurt Soller
A few things really stress me out. Taking the SATs (all three times) was a nightmare, and I hate anytime I fly: all that security, so many conversations with strangers. So I have no idea what I was thinking when I signed up to audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire last week. When I arrived at ABC Studios in New York, I was met by a crowd of 50 other wannabe geniuses. There were men with scraggly beards and women in pantsuits and so many New Jersey accents, I thought I had accidentally crossed the river. But all those fears were put to rest when one of the young Millionaire staffers herded the group together and yelled: "Put your thinking caps on." "I don't want to think too hard," muttered the man in front of me, and a few others nodded approvingly. Could somebody please write me that check for $1 million now? I can't handle this much apathy.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is an institution, not just because it may be the last smash hit knowledge-based game show we'll ever see. It debuted 10 years ago─right before the American Idol era─and immediately made Regis Philbin the hardest working man in show business. ABC might have milked the franchise a little too hard, because the series only survives now in syndication with Meredith Vieira as the host. But people have been feeling nostalgic for Millionaire lately. This year's Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire, fanned enthusiasm for the quiz show, and Regis even returned to host a two-week Millionaire revival in prime time. Starting this month, the game show will once again revamp its rules under Vieira's reign, so that contestants compete against each other in a tournament of sorts. The idea is to inject more drama into the series, and you can't blame the producers. The quiz show as a medium is essentially dead, and it's been replaced by reality TV shows that emphasize brawn over brains, like Survivor and The Amazing Race. It's not just that intelligence is no longer rewarded on TV. We now celebrate stupidity on The Hills and Big Brother, which makes us feel good about how undumb we are.
I for one know that I'm smarter than those MTV reality stars, which I hoped to demonstrate during my Millionaire audition. As I waited in line, the staff teased us with words of encouragement like, "You guys are all potential millionaires. Wow!" A lady behind me was clearly impressed: "Do you know where I can get some coffee?" she yelled back in a heavy accent. Nobody knew. Actually, nobody seemed to know anything─the metal detector at the entrance of the studio threw a fair number of my competitors, as if they'd never been to the airport before. I started to dream about all the things I could buy for $1 million. A bigger apartment! A trip to Tokyo! Lots of gelato!
There was just one thing standing in my way. The Who Wants to Be a Millionaire test.
As we all piled into the ABC cafeteria (our test room), another 20-something staffer bellowed the rules. We would have 10 minutes to answer a 30-question multiple-choice test. We would use those Scantron forms that were familiar from high school and No. 2 pencils that were emblazoned with the Millionaire logo. Any questions? "Can I keep the pencil?" I asked. No. Absolutely not. Apparently, the Millionaire people are running low on funds themselves, and they hadn't replenished their pencil supply. But I could take a souvenir magnet.
We opened the manila envelope with the test inside, and the questions were actually pretty easy, especially since they were multiple choice. Which magazine editor inspired the character in The Devil Wears Prada? Simple! Anna Wintour. Which painting is featured on the cover of The Da Vinci Code? Duh. The Mona Lisa. A surprising number of the questions were about pop culture and entertainment, and others asked simple science: which scientist was the namesake for the unit to measure pressure? Blaise Pascal, I guessed correctly.
But then I realized I had a problem: if the test was so straightforward, I probably would have to get nearly every question correct to qualify for the next round, which was an interview. Then I started to panic. Which famous composer inspired the Steinway & Sons Rhapsody Piano? I don't know, especially since neither Steinway nor his sons were listed as choices. (It was Gershwin). Which actor said that, even though he is looking for serious roles, he would love to star in Booty Call 2? I sadly missed the original, and didn't know that I should have picked Jamie Foxx.
Time ran out, and as we waited for our scores, everybody realized they were failures, so we all opened up. We chatted about how random the questions were, and a small fight broke out between two men over which answers were correct. A few minutes later, our scores shot out from the machine, and the not-so-friendly staff member began reading the qualifiers off her list. We had all been assigned numbers that would identify us, so I was waiting to hear No. 105. Wait! Hold on! Here it comes! Except that, well, my number was never called. About seven people made it to the next round, and I sadly was not among them.
They wouldn't tell me what the passing score was (presumably you can get two or three questions wrong), but I knew one thing: I had come up short. Before I and all the losers were quickly shown the door, we were reminded that we could wait in line again to take the test again. Apparently, we didn't even need to sign up for an online appointment (as I had done a few weeks earlier). We could even take the test several times on the same day, since the questions are different at every appointment─if you want to audition, though, I'd watch Booty Call first. "I have people I can recognize by face," one staff member told me. "They come every single day." If that isn't the pursuit of the American Dream, I don't know what is.
As I pondered my defeat, some of the winners emerged from the interview room in just a few minutes. The process was really short, several people told me, with some quick inquiries into the personality questions (as in, "What makes you unique?") that we had filled out on the application. These five-minute interviews are the deciding factor, and every finalist was told they would receive a postcard in a few weeks telling them whether they had made it into the contestant pool. From there, they could come for a taping of the show, but they would have to provide their own transportation back to New York and pay for any expenses they incurred─even if they didn't win money on the show. Between that, and the people who come and audition every day, I realized that it could be a full-time job to be a Millionaire contestant. In other words, the people who have the best shot of making the show are probably the same people who need it most: the unemployed.
That idea made me feel a bit better, but jealousy shot through me as I was heading away from ABC Studios and I heard a guy yell, "Look for me on Millionaire," to all of 66th Street. He had told me that during the interview, he told the producers exactly what they wanted to hear.
In that case, it's probably better I didn't get interviewed, because I might have said something they wouldn't have liked: "I stole the pencil."