Let’s play The Million Second Quiz!

A few months ago my mother sent my siblings and me a mass text message, something about a friend of a friend working for a casting company, looking for people interested in auditioning for a game show. I’d never really directly thought about being on a game show, but as soon as I gave it even five seconds of consideration, I realized that I desperately wanted to, that the idea of going on TV and potentially winning money was something that I needed to do.

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I sent over my contact information along with a few photos from Facebook and the casting lady got in touch with me later in the week to schedule an interview. While I had no idea what was going on, no clue as to the format of the show, I thought it my head, just get me in front of the cameras, and I’ll figure it out.

The casting process took place in some office building in midtown Manhattan. They said dress to impress, which meant a whole lot of me staring at my closet not knowing at all how I’d even manage to put my clothes on. Dress to impress? If I’m ever dressed to impress, it’s a total accident. I have no idea what goes into a good outfit, and so after standing there clueless for what had to be an hour, I went with a safe jeans and button down combination.

Whatever, I got to the office, they made me fill out a bunch of paperwork, answering questions like, “What makes you think you’d be a great contestant for this game show?” and “Do you have any funny stories that set you apart from potential competitors?” I don’t even remember what I wrote down, a bunch of made up stories most likely.

They put me in front of a camera and started asking me all sorts of questions. Would I consider myself more book smart or street smart? I told them, both. “Get cocky,” some producer directed me, “I want to hear why you think you’d win over everyone else.” What, the being both book smart and street smart thing wasn’t cocky enough? This went on for about five more minutes, they thanked me, and I went home.

And then nothing. I did find out that the show in question was something called The Million Second Quiz, but after trying to garner information from the Internet, the best I could piece together was that it had something to do with trivia, and something to do with a million. In the meantime, I had ample opportunity to spend every waking second daydreaming about how I’d make a splash in front of a national audience on live TV, overcoming all odds to beat the game show and walk home with an insane amount of money.

My fantasies got a little too real, and I felt myself getting all revved up for what in all probability wasn’t going to happen. My everyday actions were starting to be tainted with just the slightest touch of hubris. Like I’d be waiting tables at the restaurant and someone would ask me for a Diet Coke. Before I automatically answered, “of course,” or “right away,” these thoughts would flicker through my head, like, get yourself a Diet Coke. Go ahead and complain to the manager, see if I care. I’m going to win a game show and then I’m going to follow you around all day paying you to get me Diet Cokes, and then I’ll send them back because I don’t like Diet Coke, I want regular Coke.

And as the weeks and then months went by without having heard any news, I tried to ramp down, to prepared myself for a future in which game shows weren’t a part of my life. This was harder than I planned, because as the date drew closer to the September 9th premier, NBC started advertising pretty heavily about the show, about lucky Americans from all across the country competing for a chance to sit in the money seat.

I still had no idea what any of that meant, but it was hard to put out of my mind the fact that somewhere in some stack of papers on some producers desk somewhere in the city was my name, a file labeled Rob G., potential candidate. “I bet you they call you last second,” my mom kept telling me, and I’d be like, “I’m not even thinking about it anymore. I’ve all but forgotten everything.”

I was lying, of course. This game show was probably the only thing I was thinking of. The dreams of how I’d make my way onto the stage vividly choreographed, the witty banter I’d exhibit as I’d back-and-forth with host Ryan Seacrest. So when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket on Sunday afternoon, September 8th, I knew even before I took it out that it would be something about me coming into the city tomorrow to win a lot of money.

“Be there at six!” the producer told me. In the morning? I had to be at work at eleven, should I try to take off? “Oh yes, this is a commitment. If you’re going to win, you’re going to need to have your schedule totally clear for the next two weeks.”

I found someone to cover my shift on Monday, but should I really try to get off on Tuesday and the next day and the week after that? Last minute favors are really hard to come by in a restaurant, and even if I did somehow make it happen, that would be a lot of good will I’d owe to my coworkers, not to mention the zero dollars in income I’d earn while sequestered away at the studio.

But … fuck it. I’d probably be winning a million dollars, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about a stupid restaurant job. I showed up at six am the next day, me and about five hundred other people snaked around the outside of the building. You mean all I have to do is beat all of these people? Ha!

Ha. But seriously, seeing that many contestants felt like a punch in the stomach, a punch that began winding up three months earlier, when I got that text message from my mom, a giant cosmic fist that began hurtling my way as I picked out my wardrobe for the interview, imagined all of the jokes I’d say on TV, planning out the small businesses I’d start with my winnings, all of that momentum making contact with my gut as I saw the amount of people surely suffering from identical delusions of grandeur. For the first time in months I felt actually humbled.

The rest of the day went like this: I made my way through the studio where I had to fill out a textbook sized contract in front of an NBC lawyer. Then I got sent to a room with a TV where they played a video of someone basically reading us the contract that we got just signed. From there a giant group of us were shepherded into a waiting cell with computers, board games and Twinkies. They’d make us wait up to ten hours before calling us to potentially play.

I got selected along with seven other people after about two hours. We were led outside, around the block, to an enormous tent filled with couches and sofas. A production assistant did his best to explain the rules. We’d be answering trivia questions in eight-minute bouts with the hope of winning a spot in the money seat. Once in the money seat, we’d start accumulating cash. Just don’t press the doubler button. Also, you might get sent to something called Winners Row. Also, there was something about a line cutter. And point leader. I didn’t really get it. Did anybody watch the show?

After a whole day of waiting, it was finally my turn to actually compete. I was whisked away not to the studio, but to a closet somewhere in the building where the off-air competition took place. The guy I was facing off against had won the previous seven matches, so I admit that I was a little intimidated.

The first question was: In which city did the TV show ER take place? I had no idea. I’d never watched ER. I guessed San Francisco, and now I’m cursed with the permanent knowledge that the show ER in fact took place in Chicago. I was at a deficit, one from which I could not recover. I wound up getting two more questions wrong, something about Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire, and another asking about the best selling Atari game of all time. (It was Pac Man. I guessed Donkey Kong. I’m an idiot.)

I didn’t even have a chance to make a comeback, because all of the other questions were so incredibly easy. Sure I got ten out of thirteen, but because most of them were along the lines of “Which web site lets users sell handmade crafts,” I didn’t have any opportunity where my opponent could have screwed up, giving me a chance to take the lead.

Still, I can make all of the excuses I want. He won, I lost. It was over in eight minutes, and eight minutes later, I was exiting the studio, face to face with that steady line of hundreds of people, all waiting for their chance to unseat the victor, to go home with millions of dollars won on live TV. Me, I didn’t win any money, but at least I didn’t take all of that time off from work. That would have been an awkward two weeks hanging around the house.

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