That time I tried out for a game show

6 AUGUST 2014
I always knew that it was my destiny to win a million dollars on TV. Until it wasn’t.

The sign showing Millionaire hopefuls where the path to TV fame and fortune begins: at a nondescript emergency exit door in the middle of a blank wall at ABC's headquarters on West 66th Street.
The sign showing Millionaire hopefuls where the path to TV fame and fortune begins: at a nondescript emergency exit door in the middle of a blank wall at ABC’s headquarters on West 66th Street.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire debuted in the United States1 on 16 August 1999, the same day my senior year of high school began. It was hosted by Regis Philbin, who was already a well-known talk-show host, and it became an instant sensation. It was the first TV show to offer a million-dollar top prize, and it became the talk around many water coolers around the country—and in my German III class, where the previous night’s episode was enthusiastically recounted and critiqued every class period.

I suppose I was a fan myself, and I watched pretty often. I even once tried to get on the show when I was in high school. At the time, hopefuls had to call a toll-free 800 number and use their touch-tone pad to answer three questions of increasing difficulty. When I called, I aced the first two questions,2 but the third one had me stumped. “Put these names in the song ‘Mambo No. 5’ in the correct order.” Four or five names were then stated, and I was supposed to touch the 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 keys on my phone in the order the names were sung in the song. What?! I thought. I can’t even keep those names in the same order when the song is playing, much less when I’m supposed to regurgitate them now!

That was the end of my Millionaire aspirations.

Until this week, that is. WABC, the local ABC television station here in New York, posted an audition announcement to its Facebook page. “WANT TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?” the post asked. “Here’s your chance! Auditions for Millionaire are being held in NYC on August 6th, 7th and 11th -14th. Go to for details. GOOD LUCK!”3

I shared the post, and its accompanying video, to Susan’s Facebook page, noting, “We should audition!” That was Sunday. I didn’t do anything about it until Tuesday, when I went to myself to sign up.4 I offered a couple of dates when I would be available and submitted my info, and a short time later I got an email telling me that I was confirmed for Wednesday, 6 August, at 18.30, and that I should arrive 15 minutes early.

The auditions were held at the headquarters of ABC Television, 57 West 66th Street in Manhattan. I’m pretty familiar with the area because that’s right around the corner from the Manhattan New York Temple. I knew how to go straight there: the L train to the 1/2/3. I hopped out at the 66 St-Lincoln Center subway station and marched right over. There was already a line down the sidewalk on 66th Street, which I assumed was full of Millionaire hopefuls. But I was also feeling a little timid, and a little silly trying out for a TV game show, much less one I hadn’t watched since high school. So I went to the end of the line and asked the last person what the line was for. She said she was there for the 6.30 audition, and I figured I was in the right spot (hoping, of course, she meant the 6.30 audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and not for a soap opera or something).

We ended up waiting in that line for a while—well past the 18.30 time we had been given. I struck up a conversation with my fellow standees, including Joanna from Astoria, Queens, and Farhat from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Joanna and her husband were planning on moving soon to Parkchester in The Bronx, and Farhat was staying the night with her son and grandchildren in Jersey City. Finally the line started moving, and into the building we went, straight into the employee cafeteria, which was windowless with subdued lighting and whose walls were lined with framed posters for ABC shows.

The first thing we had to do, of course, was pass through a metal detector. (It’s what you have to do pretty much everywhere in our post-9/11 world.) After collecting my phone and keys, I was handed a large brown envelope that I was instructed not to open until I was told. The envelope had the number 198 written and circled in thick black marker in the upper right-hand corner. Take a seat at any of the open tables, I was told. I ended up sitting with the good and familiar company of Joanna and Farhat. There was a Scantron form for each of us—something, like Millionaire, that I also hadn’t seen since high school. Jeff joined us at our table a few moments later. He said that it was his sixth time trying out for the show.

Then the woman who had handed me the envelope—who was way too chipper and energetic, as if either she had had too much caffeine or she was hoping that a Broadway producer was among that evening’s auditioners (or both)—started giving us our instructions. We were to place our belongings under our chairs and to turn our cell phones off—not vibrate or silent or airplane mode, but off. If she heard our phone during the test, we were out. (Another throwback to high school and college.) We were to use the mechanical pencil provided and write our name and the number on our envelope on the Scantron. We had 10 minutes to take the 30-question quiz. And we began.

I thought the quiz was relatively easy. There were a couple of questions I wasn’t sure about, and a couple of others I made educated guesses on. (As it turns out, FeS2 is fool’s gold, not pewter as I had guessed, but Coca-Cola was invented by John Pemberton.) Joanna wasn’t so sure, and Farhat bluntly stated, “I bombed.”

The staff came back with the scored quizzes and said that those who passed would have their numbers—the ones from the envelopes—announced. They were to move to the other side of the room and await an interview with an associate producer. Everyone else was free to go. The super hyper one started calling out the numbers. It wasn’t long before she called out 198. I was in. So was Joanna, whose number, 126, was called out a short time after mine. We gave our condolences to Farhat and Jeff and moved to the other side of the room.

I brought along the book I’m currently reading,5 but by that point the excitement and the chatter in the room—which would make it difficult to hear my name when it was called—distracted me too much from reading. So I sat there, but the others at my table weren’t nearly so chatty as Joanna and Farhat had been. I eventually moved to a table closer so I could more easily hear my name and ended up speaking to someone who teaches geography to sixth graders in a school just outside Philadelphia. It was definitely a better way to pass the time than sitting in silence. Then I heard my name.

Emma introduced herself and shook my hand. We sat down and she complimented me on my handwriting, which is what people usually do when they first meet me. She then asked me a few uninspiring questions. Among them, what’s on my bucket list—but not travel and debt, because that’s on everyone’s bucket list. Which I understood, but I was stumped. I’m debt-free, but I’d love to check more places off my bucket list. Eventually I asked if mode of travel might be considered, and Emma relented. So I told her that I’d love to ride the entire Amtrak system, and she said that that was pretty unique. She added that her father was hoping to “take that train in Canada that goes from, like, Toronto to Vancouver or Seattle.” It’s called the Canadian, and I said that I’d love to take that trip, too.

Emma said that I should get an email in two or three weeks stating whether I was in the contestant pool and containing further instructions. And with that our very short interview was over and I left.

On my way home I stopped by the store and got some cookies-and-cream Pop-Tarts to celebrate getting to speak with an associate producer. (Pop-Tarts are my Achilles’ heel.)

At noon the next day, I got an email updating me on my status. “Thank you for your interest in being a contestant on ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,’” the email began. It continued: “You have not been selected to be a potential contestant. We appreciate your continued interest in the show and thank you for taking the time to audition with us.”

And that was that. At least I did it. It was fun. Susan auditioned on Thursday, 7 August, and received her rejection email yesterday. “We came. We auditioned. We got rejected,” I announced on Facebook.

“But that’s okay. I’m not bitter,” I explained to my online friends. “I haven’t seen their stupid show since high school anyway. Those people can’t help it if they suck.”

I guess I’ll just have to go earn a million dollars the old-fashioned way. Which, I guess, is a pretty decent destiny, too.

  1.  The American version was based on an existing British show of the same name (with a top prize of £1 million instead of $1 million, which makes it 1.5–2 times more valuable than the American version, depending upon the exchange rate). 
  2.  As I recall, one of the questions was on the geographic order of states from east to west or vice versa. Super easy for a geography geek like me. I don’t remember the other question. 
  3.  Sic. Whoever runs WABC’s Facebook page has a tendency to CAPITALIZE WAY TOO MUCH. 
  4.  Right after signing myself up, I submitted Susan’s name. She auditioned on Thursday, 7 August, at 17.00. She was also ultimately rejected. 
  5.  On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield (New York: Gotham Books, 2013). 

3 thoughts on “That time I tried out for a game show

  1. Great recap Dustin… got Coca-Cola. ..did not get Fools Gold! But the whole experience had me buzzing and I loved our little table of 4 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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