Saturday, March 10, 2007

Game Show Memories: 15 years on

“Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”
--Andy Warhol

Fifteen years ago I got more than fifteen minutes of fame when I appeared as a contestant on Jeopardy! I got twenty-two minutes of fame as a matter of fact (that’s the average length of a half-hour portion of television air-time when you take away the commercials).

March 12 will mark the fifteen anniversary of the airdate of when I appeared as a contestant on the Jeopardy! game show on March 12, 1992. (The contest was actually filmed during the first week of December 1991 but, back then, they filmed five shows a day for two days so there would be a time lag between the filming date and the airdate of an episode).

The experience of being on worldwide TV has always been an odd zebra in my life. To be honest, being a Jeopardy! contestant was not the greatest thing that happened to me. It’s not even in the top five of my greatest thrills and, maybe, not even in my top ten list. To be blunt there are times when I’ve forgotten that I was on the bloody show to begin with. (Interestingly, the few people who know I was on the show are more impressed with my appearance than I am—for which I am grateful, thank you!)

My memories of the whole experience vary. I remember the two-stage auditioning process in Atlantic City, New Jersey. You had to pass a ten question quiz done in ten minutes or less. Those who passed had to come back for a difficult fifty question quiz which lasted for quite some time. Those who passed that quiz then had to do an audition to see if you had charisma, personality, entertainment value, and courage to face the cameras. (I remember the support crew lecturing the aspiring contestants to project their voices, be animated, and show personality; to give the answers in a distinctive way; in other words don’t stand there like a wooden Indian speaking in a monotone). Interestingly there were some people who simply couldn’t project their personae onto the flat-screen—they were duly eliminated. Somehow, through the grace of God, I found out that I did have a personality, charisma, grace and style, and I was accepted.

When they accept you, you had to give them all your vitae. They make you fill out a sheet of paper listing five interesting life experiences you had in your life (that’s the info Alex Trebek uses when he talks to the contestants during the early stages of the game). I made out my list (most of which I have forgotten now—I cannot help but wonder what Ken Jennings had to go through to come up with interesting conversational material during his winning streak!)

All of this was done in the summer of 1991. I was told to wait until mid-autumn for the message to fly to Los Angeles to do the show. It was late October when I got the word. I was told to be in L.A. during the first week of December and to come prepared (proper wardrobe, etc.)

When I flew out to L.A. it was my first time in California—a rather interesting though unsettling experience for me. Back then you had to have enough wardrobe to last you through five shows. I had two suits and three sweaters to use if need be. I drove out to the studios in Burbank and entered the sound stage. Before you start filming you go through a lot of rigamarole. Before you can do anything you have to sign a release form which allows the production company to fleece you, screw you, do anything they want with you and you have no legal recourse. Indeed you’re not even guaranteed the right to appear on the show if they decide otherwise. You could make the trip to California (at your own expense) and they could still deny you a slot on the show if they decided.

It was a nice way to keep everyone in line but it gave me a wicked foreshadowing as to what really goes on behind the scenes there. After the legal nonsense, they give you a lecture as to what’s expected on the set and then you sit down for make-up—for guys it’s to close your pores and to reduce the shine brought on by the cameras.

And then you wait….

They would call out the names of those who would participate in each show. Once the names were called those people were sequestered from the others and would get prepped up to play. The rest of us waited.

We would sit in the crowd and watch the show as spectators. I remember the soundstage was small and cold as a meat locker. The smallness struck me. The game show set could fit neatly inside a tennis court. It’s that small.

They filmed three shows before we broke for lunch. During that time I got to observe how the backstage hands treat the contestants—not very nicely. It was like being back in Elementary school again—I hated Elementary school. You were herded like cattle, kept in the dark, spoken to like you were ignorant children. (I got scolded several times because I was asking the stage crew questions about what was going on).

By the time lunch came along I was feeling pretty down…and hungry.

Back then they must have been stinting on the food budget because lunch was some type of California macro-biotic stuff—utterly tasteless and non-filling. I remember sitting in the commissary feeling horrible and having the terrible premonition that when it came time for the fourth show to be filmed my name would be called.

And the time came…and my name was called.

I was sitting down in the lounge when this anorexic thin “woman” came up to me and told me I was going to play in game four. I sank back in my chair and the matchstick “woman” said to me petulantly “are you ready to play or not!”

For a millisecond I felt like telling her what she could do with herself because she exemplified the mentality of the stage crew. They thought they were the stars and the contestants were mere stage props to be moved and manipulated as they pleased. Personally I would have loved to have seen the stage crew get on that stage and stand before the cameras and display their intellectual strengths (or shortcomings) as all the other contestants must do.

If I got one lesson from being on Jeopardy! it was this: when you appear on TV in any way, shape, or form, you are standing naked before the world. If you’re appearing on a game show, you are exposing your mind and your thinking processes before hundreds of millions of people. You are exposing whether you can think quickly and effectively under pressure; whether you can process information pertaining to an extremely diverse group of subject matter.

Not a simple task, which makes what Ken Jennings did a magnificent achievement).

Actually that “woman” did me a favor when she got petulant with me. I snapped out of my funk and put on my game face. To those who saw me perform that night what you saw was me performing in a blaze of anger. I was pissed off. That “woman” got me mad and I used my anger creatively.

When the contestants walk on the set they’re supposed to do so slowly, deliberately. I wanted to rattle the stage crew’s sensibilities. I did the classic Rolling Stones way of taking the stage—I ran on which drove the stage crew nuts.

People have asked me what it felt like. To me, it felt like being in the eye of a hurricane. I was at peace with myself and never felt nervous while all around me bloody hell was breaking loose.

My family didn’t accompany me to L.A. for the show. A dear friend of mine Kris Millington (now Kris Godinez) was there in the crowd rooting me on. (Had I competed the next day, my cousin Mark-Erik DiBiase would have been in the crowd—thanks man!)

The only time I got nervous was after the first commercial break when Alex was talking to the contestants. When he came to me, my voice was nervous and fluttery. (You can hear my voice quaver for a moment and I have to collect myself. Alex asked me about my job and I gave him a thumbnail sketch of what I was doing in a rather nervous manner).

I did get a daily double but I flubbed the question: (This Southeast Asian country is the largest in population and landmass).

I blew it.

I did have some great moments which stunned several people afterwards. My boss at work, Bob Plowman was knocked out by some my answers: The Seminole War, embryology to name a few).

I was leading when I blew the daily double and then I fell behind as the defending champion took control of the board. At one point I had resigned myself to defeat. Strangely, though, after I had resigned myself to defeat I began to make a comeback. That’s the one part of competing in the game that has always pleased me. I had the strength to come back and make a game of it after conceding defeat. If you’ve ever seen the tape of my show, you will see me gritting my teeth and moving quickly to close the gap.

When it came time for final jeopardy, I was still in second place but I had a fighting chance.

If I had one gigantic fear of performing on Jeopardy! It was my fear of being blown out of the water by the other contestants. It was the possibility that I would do poorly or worse, fail to get the final jeopardy answer and end up with no money at all. When I said my prayers before the game, I didn’t pray for victory, all that I asked was that I finished strongly.

My prayer was answered.

The final jeopardy answer was this: this commander of the French National Guard personally stood between French Queen Marie Antoinette and a howling Parisian mob.

I had bet every penny I had on the question. (I had no choice the defending champ was $900 dollars ahead of me).

When I saw the question, I laughed inwardly and smiled for the camera. I couldn’t believe it was that easy. I was the first person who wrote down the answer. If you see the tape of my performance, you will see me making eyes at Kris in the crowd, letting her know that I got the answer right. In fact I double-checked because I couldn’t believe that it was so easy.

When it came down to end, all of us got the answer right. I ended up with $14,400. The defending ended up with $14,401.

People always ask me if I was bummed out by that. No. If I had to lose then that’s the way I had to lose. The defending champ was not smarter than me. He was luckier and I think he knew that fact.

I had some bad breaks at the start of the show and it cost me some dollars in the early going.

I’ve never regretted the way the show ended.

What was my prize for second place? A trip to Calgary, Alberta. Hubba, hubba and I had stopped skiing the year before. I never claimed my prize because I had to pay California state taxes if I did, also to get the trip to Calgary I would have to fly to L.A. at my own expense to claim the tickets. Sod that!

(In retrospect I should have claimed the prize, at least then I could have used the trip to interview various former NHL players residing in the greater Calgary area for my oral history of the NHL’s Original Six era—which I’m presently working on. Hahahahahahaha!)

When it was over, I was hustled off-stage and Kris and I left sooner afterwards to have dinner because I was starving.

And so it was over.

Oh yes, what about Alex Trebek?

Here are some things about him I observed: between shows he is cloistered. Once the show ends, he is off the set in a flash. He does not linger on the sound stage.

When it was my turn to play and the show ended and we were standing there as the credits rolled, he spoke to me the most of all three contestants. He asked me what question I was kicking myself over. I actually couldn’t remember. Alex was much shorter than I was and, at the time, he had salt and peppery hair. Today he is completely gray.

When we were talking, I told him that I remember watching him emcee the game show High Rollers which was a daytime game show in the 1970s. He made a mock groan and said laughingly, “Please don’t remind me.”

Actually Alex was the nicest person on the whole set and was about as nice as a celebrity can get. I was grateful for that.

I take that back. The announcer Johnny Gilbert was nice too. Before we began filming he made a special effort to say my last name properly. He came up to me to make sure he got it right. I wrote it out phonetically for him and he was perfect in his pronunciation.

Thanks Johnny!

I’ve often wondered if I had won that game or had become a five time champion what I would have done. I had notions of doing something unique in celebrating my victories.

I always liked the way the late Keith Moon of the Who used to exit his drum kit after a show ended. Other drummers would step out calmly from behind their drum kits and take their applause. Not so for Keith. He preferred to climb atop his drum kit, stand high and wave his arms about and then jump down with a thud to the floor below. (If you ever see the movie the The Kids Are Allright you will see a movie montage of him doing that several times).

I would have loved to have ended one of my victories by doing that: climbing atop the signaling boards the contestants used, standing there dramatically and then jumping down onto the floor; anything to put some hair up the collective asses of those pompous backstage bastard crew members.

It would have been beautiful.

How did my family react when my show aired in March 1992? When the show ended my father was decently impressed and said so. My mother’s reaction was typical of her and says a great deal about how she felt about me as a person.

When the show ended, I looked over at her and our eyes met. There was a silent pause and I remember her eyes turning white with rage and she bellowed out, “YOU SCARED ME!”

She was pissed off royally at me for performing so well and so gracefully under pressure. She realized that she betrayed herself and tried to wiggle out of her predicament but I knew deep down inside how she truly felt about my achievement. She was angry and filled with rage because I did something that she herself could not have the courage to do.

(Which is why, fifteen years later, I’m no longer on speaking terms with her).

In the days that followed the airing of my show, a few people came up to me and asked me if I had been on TV and for those fleeting moments I enjoyed a rare taste of celebrity.

In the years that followed I have shown my tape to various people. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the show by myself. It seems that others are more interested in it than I am.

That’s it folks: the story of my twenty-two minutes of fame.

Actually that’s not the only time I’ve been on national TV. I appeared on camera five or six times on C-Span when they were broadcasting the bicentennial of George Washington’s funeral in December 1999. You can see me in the crowd.

Hopefully the next time I appear on TV it will be as a talking head for a lovely educational documentary of some sort. I’d give anything to do something like that. Appear on camera and give my “expert” opinion on something.

Forlorn hope!

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