Jilly D.

My audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 30, 2014 at 10:23 pm

20100521GH_281In the summer months we have excess solar energy. Year round we usually turn on the TV to watch the news for the weather forecasts. I don’t really know why. As Sam says, who else gets paid so much for being so regularly wrong?

As farmers we live more by the dictates of Mother Nature than by the vicissitudes of Wall Street or the White House. The weather forecasts in June involve gambling against God for farmers. In order to bale hay, you need three days of sunshine and drying breezes after you mow it down. You may have the official odds, but when it comes to betting on the weather, the house of the Lord always wins.

After the evening news we sometimes watch “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Sam would tease me during the show about blurting out the wrong answer before the multiple choices were shown on the screen. He basically dared me to go on the show and win the million.

On one of the hottest days of June 2007 I spent half a day on a Short Line bus from Ithaca to the New York City Port Authority to stand in line for my big audition.

At the library I had looked at their website to find when they would be conducting auditions in my area. I applied online and within a week I was making plans to visit the big Apple. Sam hadn’t mowed hay and the peas were just starting to flower. I could sneak away for a day trip.

Standing in line, I noticed I wasn’t the only one invited to audition at 1:15 pm. Many people were from out of state and nervous.  The audition required a short written test and, if you passed, a fifteen minute personal interview. We were all nervous about the test but more than a few were just nervous about being in the city.

Most of these people surely won’t pass that written test. There were just too many people in line.

A few minutes after1 p.m. they ushered 45 people including me across the street into the back banquet room of a trendy restaurant. Seating us at tables with four or more, assistants handed us pencils and bubble sheets.

I sat at a table with two people who had taken the train from Alabama and Kentucky. Another gentleman had flown in from Indiana. We were a very diverse group of four and none of us were stupid.

After I looked around the room I saw a group of young professionals in charge of calling this audition to order. The young handsome blond man welcoming us was none other the director Matt Cohen, a former student whom I had taught a course in media research and methods. Matt recognized me immediately. Even though I had long ago left academia, I could see in his eyes recognition and then surprise at finding me in this crowd. I knew immediately it diminished my chances because he could rule me out. But I didn’t think hard enough about that. The timed test was about to begin.

I took the multiple choice 15 minute test and felt like a genius. I knew I had gotten every question right. Certain of it. They were easy questions.  I sat there smugly as Director Matt Cohen called his assistants to collect the bubble sheets recording our answers for the computer to quickly read.

Matt then read his prepared script about how only a few would be selected from this group. He had his team of assistants toss out t-shirts, pencils and bumper stickers to those who had come a long way for this audition today. Meanwhile the computer scanned the answers.

“Only a few will get a passing score. We can’t tell you what a passing score is, only that a minority of you will be selected for the next phase of auditions, a personal interview,” Matt told the room full of people from every walk of life.

“We can’t tell you what a passing score is….,” he’d said. Hmmm.

He didn’t call my number. There must be a mistake. I was a bit dumbfounded.

“But some of you were very close and we’d like to invite you to try out for a special week-long series we are planning with Netflix on movie trivia. At 2 p.m. you may join the line…..”  Matt began recruiting new suckers, including me.

The bus back to Ithaca wouldn’t leave from the Port Authority until 4 p.m. and I was stuck here in the city. On every street corner there were hustlers and homeless begging for money while talking on their cell phones.

I got back in line. So did half a dozen others. We began to chat. A young red-headed high school girl, a biology teacher, a real estate agent, an unemployed housewife and a retired federal official and I started going over the “test.” Turns out I wasn’t the only one who got every question right. Between us we recalled every question and every multiple choice option.  None of us had gotten a passing grade.

Passing grade?  What is a passing grade?  I started thinking again as a professor of media research methods instead of a popular culture trivia junkie.  The high schooler turned to me and said: “Do you really think they’d let somebody on the show who could win a million buck?” The lightbulb in my head went off.

A passing grade for Who Wants to be a Millionaire is not necessarily a good grade. Duh. I think I taught this stuff at one time. Was this theory in practice?

How many times had I seen contestants unable to answer the simplest and first question? I wondered how they ever got on the show and passed the audition. I hadn’t seen anyone actually win a million dollars on the show. Had me fooled. Suckered me right in. I didn’t pass the movie trivia test either and I intentionally marked a question wrong.

I rode that air conditioned Short Line bus home to Ithaca and spent every minute productively knitting a wool winter sweater. For a June adventure I had just learned to eat humble pie.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Not me. It’s not the money I wanted. It was the sheer satisfaction of getting the answers right. Being a smarty pants isn’t nearly as important as being smart even if nobody knows it.

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  1. Great story! Totally makes sense. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Moth storytelling events/podcasts, but Australian essayist Melissa Lucashenko told a similar story about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in her country . . . she won by dumbing herself down to get on the show and then swept it to save her and her daughter from dire straits. If interested, it’s the second story here, I believe: http://www.prx.org/pieces/112696-1408-millionaire-hot-seat-monkey-assassin-3-1

  2. Wonderful, Jill. I haven’t tried out for a game show, but maybe it’s not too late now that you’ve taught me how they work.

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