• U.S.

You Do Not Want to Be a Millionaire

3 minute read
Joel Stein

Do not call that 800 number. The Who Wants To Be a Millionaire people are tempting you–with their money, their fame and the opportunity to sit in a small room with Regis Philbin. Do not be fooled, no matter how good a living-room contestant you are. What they are really offering is humiliation, panic and a dose of self-realization you just don’t need.

I know, because four years ago I got one of the highest scores in the country on a phone test for an MTV game show called Idiot Savants. A few weeks later, I found myself quarantined in a studio with three other contestants. Someone at MTV had seen Quiz Show and taken it far too seriously, because we were not allowed to go to the bathroom alone, make any phone calls or say hello to friends in the audience. It is even worse at Millionaire. I don’t know when, as a society, we decided that game shows were our most vital national interest, but they should get these guys to handle security at Los Alamos.

I’d like to blame the hostage-like environment for my behavior on the show, but I don’t think that was it. You see, for some reason, I seemed to like pressing the buzzer very much. What I didn’t enjoy was waiting for the host to finish asking the question. For the first question of the show, the host asked, “Steve Martin played a wild and crazy…” I buzzed in with “somewhere near Romania.” This premature gesticulation caused me not only to sit in a corner and wear a dunce cap for the first three episodes but to do things never before seen on a game show. When the host began a question with the words “Venus flytrap…” I emitted a low, guttural noise, which sounded like reee. I had started to say the name of Tim Reid, the actor who played Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati, when I realized I couldn’t think of his first name, so I halted mid-syllable, fearing a partial answer would help my competition. This defensive strategy, while clever, wasn’t necessary, since the question was about plants. But my noise was disarming enough to cause the host to walk over to me and say, “Joel, let me ask you one thing: Are you out of your mind?” This too made it on the air.

Soon I had a fan club. My name was chanted by people I had never met, and I felt the warm, soft love America feels for pathetic losers. It felt good.

But it didn’t help. During a category called “Walken, Hopper or Keitel,” we had to pick the actors who starred in a particular film. For Mother, Jugs & Speed, one contestant buzzed in with “Walken” and was pronounced wrong. Another answered incorrectly with “Hopper.” Sensing a big opportunity, I rang in and proudly said, “Hopper,” which was still wrong. Seeing this on videotape cemented my decision never to have children.

Let my story be a warning. On the first week of Millionaire, contestant Paul Locharernkul said to Regis, “I feel like I’m sitting on the toilet and all of America is watching me.” Think about it: even if you ace the questions, you might say something like that on prime-time television. So, please, if you need to gamble your dignity, do it by videotaping your kid throwing a basketball at your groin and sending it to America’s Funniest Home Videos. That’s easy money.

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