Live From New York

Feelin’ Like a Million Dollars

Trying out for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

By 5.26.10

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Last time I was in Los Angeles, I stopped in at the Improv to check out the local comedy talent. The most memorable line of the evening was delivered by a stoner comic from San Francisco who explained how he managed to smuggle his stash of drugs on his flight into town.

"I brought it in my bloodstream."

That came back to me the other night after my audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The written test is so top-secret that a crew of interns was dispatched to snatch the copies out of our hands as soon as time elapsed. Yet I managed to secure a contraband copy with relative ease. I tucked it into a safe-deposit box in my memory bank.

I don't have the heart to be a spoiler and publicize material the producers prefer to protect. They treated me with the utmost cordiality and there is hardly an arguable right-to-know that should trump their wishes. Okay, okay, I'll share a little something… but just one question to give the flavor.

In a recent survey, most Americans thought Joan of Arc was the wife of which Biblical character?
(a) Adam
(b) Noah
(c) Moses
(d) David

This is cleverly constructed, making room for good sense to fill the gaps in specialized knowledge. While the survey itself was news to me, I could still arrive at the correct result through conjecture. It would be an arch sort of joke if you cracked at a cocktail party or a book signing, "Did Noah marry Joan of Ark in a romantic ceremony on the deck? Did they meet in Bible class or at the zoo?" Turns out a lot of folks don't see the humor.

Speaking of the Ark, there were two of every type at the audition. I was very impressed, touched really, by the range of people contesting to be contestants. This crowd "looked like America" in a way the Clinton cabinet never could. While standing outside the studio awaiting admission, a small group of us became fast friends. (Incidentally, a small synagogue sits stubbornly across the street from ABC on West 66th Street in New York, occupying about ten million dollars worth of Manhattan space. It reminded me of Brothers Keepers, the wonderful book by Donald Westlake about the monastery on Park Avenue about to be taken over by developers.)

We wound up being seated together. Each table sat six and they filled most of the tables in the large cafeteria. I shared with a thirtyish gentleman who taught 6th-grade in Pennsylvania, an 18-year-old boy whose mother drove him from New Jersey, a beautifully appointed dowager from the East Side (who would kill me for saddling her with that noun), a fortyish housewife from Delaware, and an ebullient black woman, fresh from work still wearing her nurse's uniform.

The written exam included thirty questions to be completed in a span of ten minutes, allotting twenty seconds apiece. I was done in six minutes, achieving a twelve-second average which bodes well if I make it to the show, where the first several questions allow just fifteen seconds each for a response.

Having flown from Miami to New York City for this peccadillo, I would have been crushed if I failed at this preliminary stage. Imagine telling my kids their old papa washed out before he was halfway through the door. Thankfully I was one of the fifteen or so who passed and proceeded to a five-minute interview with a producer.

"What would you do with the money?" she asked in a delightfully energetic tone. I knew I had to be at my chirpiest or I would be marked as a dullard. Although the show's title implies that only seekers of millionaire status need apply, most contestants feel obliged to tell the audience they are only there to buy poor Granny her false teeth. "There she is now in the front row, too embarrassed to smile." I came down somewhere in the middle, poised between Cupid and cupidity. A cash infusion into my personal economy, I asserted, would free me to practice my art more creatively.

Well, I made it this far and thoroughly enjoyed the process. If my effort stalls, all I am out is plane fare and a few precious hours of my life. None of those strike me as wasteful, having been invested in an experience both adventurous and instructive. Now it is off for home to await the yea-or-nay postcard, slated to arrive in two to three weeks. Stay tuned.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a senior editor of The American Spectator.