It’s true enough that everyone wants be a millionaire, and hope, as they say, springs eternal, which is why the Lottery thrives in times of economic despair and why game shows seduce so many of the viewing audience. I myself have stuffed a few tickets in the Christmas stockings. In 2001 I spent enough time calling the Millionaire line to get through. On my fifth and final try, I succeeded in answering all five questions correctly, thanks entirely to my Dear One who knew the sequence of Sting’s record albums.
A few months later I landed on the show and in the hot seat.
Last night Who Wants to be a Millionaire came back to prime time. There was Regis Philbin smirking. There were three special guests who had won, if not kept, a million dollars. There were participants waving at the camera and blue and purple lights flashing around the set.
It all looked pretty familiar. The format of the game has changed slightly: players now have to deal with time limits and the structure of the lifelines is different. The “50-50” has become a “double dip” and a fourth lifeline in the form of a celebrity presumed to be both intelligent and informed has been added to the mix.
What hasn’t changed at all was the randomness of the information and the uncommonness of what operates in my head as “common knowledge.”
One contestant did not recognize the line “purple mountains majesty” from America the Beautiful and so could not identify it as the inspiration for a Crayola crayon. The audience saved him on that one, but he dropped out a question or two later when he decided that “paintings” rather than “sausages” were that to which Bismarck compared laws in the unattractiveness of their manufacture.
On the other hand, I, like the bright lad from Alliance, Nebraska, had no idea which rappers were turning 40 and who had turned 50. Turns out that Flavor Flav is the senior member of the group. Who knew. For that matter, who knew, other than about two-thirds of the audience, that Flavor Flav was the moniker of a rapper?
Then someone got a question for $2000 that involved an apple, a bowler hat and the Google logo. I knew that the answer would be René Magritte, but I teach art history. I thought it was perhaps too challenging a question for that level.
However the program certainly brought back memories.
My Millionaire moment started with a telephone call and a perky little voice that said, “Hi! This is Jessica from the show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!” It was all I could do not to echo the immortal phrase of Bill Cosby: “Riiiiggghhht.”
I remember the assiduous study of material both general and trivial. I read Cosmo Girl and Entertainment Weekly and leafed through my 2001 almanac and Hall’s Signs and Symbols in Art. At our hotel, Jay (I wisely chose my son to be my show companion) insisted I watch Rock’n’Roll Jeopardy on the television.
I recall the careful selection of telegenic attire, supervised by my Dear One, who put twenty-five years of advertising expertise into producing my appearance.
From the program assistants there were endless instructions on what to do and what not to bring (including but not limited to, knives, guns, Mace, cameras, cell phones, portable CD players, playing cards, writing tablets, magazines, newspapers, novels, reference books—printed materials of any kind—and puzzles.)
In the end, it was not enough to catapult me into the rarified precincts of millionaire-dom. I knew how to say “how are you” in Spanish and that cappuccini are so named because of their resemblance to a monk’s robe. I chose Judy Scheindlin over Fred Rogers as the author of a children’s book. I breezed by a question about the activity promoted by 19th-century English economist Parson Malthus (answer: birth control).
In the end, though, I just couldn’t get hold of the $125,000 question: The protrusion of cartilage that projects in front of the external opening of the human ear is called what? A. capitula B. tragus C. procerus D. resilium.
Telling Regis I’d rather go home with $64,000 than $32,000, I departed the set and entered my metaphorical fifteen minutes when congratulations poured in from the cashiers in my bank, the clerks in my post office, and strangers and the pharmacist at Wal-Mart.
But if I hadn’t had to risk that $32,000, I’m pretty sure I would have gone for tragus.