Someone recently asked me, you know, since I'm such a game-show guy, had I been on a lot of TV game shows. "Not a lot," I said. Which is true…technically. Because while I have physically appeared on a mere two TV game shows, I have experienced close encounters with several more. The tale of the tape:
—I was on Name That Video, a short-lived VH1 show
—I was someone's Phone-a-Friend on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
—I made it to a callback for Don't Forget the Lyrics
—I was nearly on Cash Cab (interesting story, that)
—And oh yeah, I lost on Jeopardy!, baby
So while "not a lot" is true, it's a fairly misleading answer, at least compared with the experiences of 99.999% of all human beings who have ever lived.
And because these are stories I'm asked about with some extreme degree of frequency, starting today, I'm going to chronicle them in this space, one by one. Starting with…
It's early 2001, and the Big Quiz Thing is a dim future dream buried deep behind my current ambition, stand-up comedy. I was working hard at it—performing sets multiple times a week, for no pay, though I had a fair amount of…eh, let's say potential, if not empirical talent. I was also working full-time at a day job, for a website that was a hybrid publishing magazine/bookstore and very ambitiously planned on taking away 10 percent of Amazon.com's sales. Basically, the kind of thing that would have no business existing in the world of two years later.
Much of the stand-up comedy life involves hanging around with other comics, waiting for your set, politely checking out the competition, fishing for praise after a successful set. You run out of things to talk about, so you talk trivia, and I imagine I became better admired in the NYC-comedian community for my impressive stash of trivial knowledge than for my stand-up ability. I was particularly adept at music trivia, having spent most of my life as a grade-A rock nerd. My book of Billboard Top 40 statistics was shredded from overreading by the time I finished high school; I'd moved to NYC specifically to be a music critic. Even earlier, as a rather unique seven-year-old, I would wander from room to room on Sunday mornings, trying to get good reception of American Top 40 on my radio-only Walkman. Once I could master the technology, I set the VCR every Friday night and would spend the next morning in my pajamas watching Friday Night Videos (we didn't get MTV in my town). Remember this?
I always wondered about the appropriateness of the firing-squad imagery. What's the idea there? Music videos would set you free? Gary Gilmore is an idol to teenagers? Video abolished the radio capital-punishment star?
So one night on the stand-up scene, a certain comic—whose name you just may be familiar with—told me of an opportunity: VH1 was working on a new game show, Name That Video, and they were desperate for good contestants. He himself had aced it—he won a car!—and he passed along an e-mail address. A week later, I skipped out of the day job for a few hours to sit in a TV production room and watch and identify videos, as part of the audition. The only one that even remotely stumped me (though I ended up guessing right):
"We'll let you know in the next couple weeks," the contestant coordinator told me. "In the meantime, the show debuts tomorrow—you should watch it!"
And I did. Many times (it was on, like, four times a day). Round 1 was your typical three-people-with-buzzers shebang, but kicked out as a a big multimedia quiz on music-video-related trivia. Round 2 pitted the top players from Round 1 head-to-head in a classic, bullshit-drama-milking "Name That Tune" format ("I can name that video in three seconds…"). Round 3 was the lone survivor, tasked to name the ten videos on the screen in 60 seconds; he gets $500 for each one correct. Get all ten, it's a Toyota Forerunner SUV and every disc in VH1's recent list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time. Back when CDs were still awesome.
So I watched the show several times. Reliably, in the final round, playing along at home, I aced about eight of the videos, and was clueless on two others (I recall a Savage Garden number that completely escaped my memory). "All right," I thought. "If I make it to the final, I'll take home $4,000. Not bad for an afternoon."
But as I waited for the call, my life changed. The following happened to me in a 48-hour period: (a) my girlfriend of six months dumped me (she was also my neighbor; that was fun); (b) one of my closest friends had a nervous breakdown and talked my ear off on the phone for three hours at a time, before suddenly picking up and leaving NYC; (c) I was laid off from my dot-com job. The noble website experiment was failing, it was time for the first round of layoffs, and they figured they could do without me. (The only copy editor. On a website about reading and publishing. Yeah.)
Immediately after I got the (c) news, one of my bosses took me out for a drink. Commiserating was in full swing (he knew his job was next on the chopping block) when my phone rang: "Hey, it's Sarah from VH1! You wanna be on Name That Video?"
"Sure," I said. Money! (Though if I came in third place, I think I would take home a VH1 beach towel.)
"Can you come to the studio on Tuesday at 1pm?" Of course—as of today, I had nothing better to do on a Tuesday afternoon.
Despite my relative confidence/excitement about this event, I didn't mention it to anyone, and I don't exactly recall why. Fear of failure? (Perhaps; that fear would have served me a little better during my later Jeopardy! experience.) It didn't seem necessary. I got up that morning, ate some cereal, waited till 12:15 and rode the subway to the midtown studio.
My opponents were a fellow male nerd and a personality-free young woman (neither of whom had followed the instruction to bring two changes of clothing, so when we were all wearing black, I was the one who had to change out of my preferred lucky shirt. So I followed the rules, and I'm the one who had to accommodate others: this is why I hate the world). The bulk of the game was rather unremarkable; I discovered that being able to name videos was a lot less important than being able to identify songs. For example, in Round 2, I had two seconds to name this video:
Which I had no memory of having ever seen before. But I'd heard the song, oh, a couple billion times, and two seconds of its distinctive guitar strains were all I needed. I could've done it blindfolded, honestly.
So indeed, I made it to the finals. Why don't you watch for yourself? (We used this clip at a BQT edition several years ago—players had to name the videos I named. Fun, right?)
Man, I was a young punk. Also, that hostess was kind of not my favorite person. She was really cold and distant to me before the round, then was my best buddy once I won. (We're celebrating our tenth anniversary next month.)
It was a truly surreal experience, in that despite whatever confidence I felt for my skills, in reality, I was not at all expecting to win. Emotionally, I was completely unprepared, and the mixture of surprise and delight was potent. I personally find that few things in life really, truly, unambiguously feel good—nearly every positive feeling or victory is attended to by some degree of regret, some slight misgiving. But hot damn, this felt nothing but good.
Twenty minutes later, I left the studio and found myself walking back toward the 1 train, back home. I'd just won a car, on TV, but I had nowhere to be, no one to see, nothing on my agenda. I got home, called a couple friends, called my parents (who finally began to believe that maybe they didn't throw all their money away letting me study pop culture in college). And I started living in my new jobless, womanless, but victory-full new reality.
So what about the car? Well, I lived (and still live) in Manhattan, so fuck knows what I'd do with an SUV. But the dealer (in Jersey City) offered to buy it back from me for $23,000. The car's blue-book value was $34,000, and for $11k, I figured I should get to take it for a weekend or something, but no dice. This is the dark secret they don't tell you about TV game shows: You have to somehow deal with that crazy crap you win. (No room in your apartment for a dinette set, Price Is Right champion? Tough shit.) They also don't tell you, but you can guess, that Uncle Sam gets his piece—my accountant told me about some special form for "sweepstakes winnings." All told, I cleared about $20,000. Good enough.
I tried to use the experience to make hay on the stand-up circuit; I figured the money meant I didn't need to freak out about finding a new day job, I could hustle the odd freelance gig and focus on comedy for a while. Meanwhile, simply the notoriety of having won a car on a VH1 show was good for a few impressed noticings and bookings, though that didn't last long. There's no guarantee that the musical polymath is actually funny, you know. (I was reminded of this recently, when I ran into a comedian I knew from those days who had clearly never found me amusing. He told me he thought it was great I was still doing the Big Quiz Thing—"It's so good to see someone do something that's so perfect for them." Actually, I rather liked the compliment.)
And oh yeah, the CDs: Two months later, I received a big, dented cardboard box full of 100 compact discs, still covered in price tags from the Virgin Megastore. Half the jewel cases were cracked, and the intern (I'd imagine) who picked them out gave me the soundtrack to the short-lived Saturday Night Fever Broadway musical soundtrack, rather than the kazillion-selling movie soundtrack. I sold that one and a few others (sorry, I cannot stomach Madonna's Like a Prayer) and gave away ones I already owned to friends, but I kept most, even ones I wasn't particularly interested in listening to. These were widely considered some of the greatest albums of all time, so it could only help me to build up my library. I was preparing for some kind of trivial-knowledge revolution in my life, and it was only a couple years away.