Drama in Real Life: The Day I Skipped Work to Audition for The Weakest Link
I am a game show geek. It's true. When I look back on the 90s, one of the most exciting moments for me was the birth of the Game Show Network. Unfortunately, I have yet to live in an area where the cable gods deem it worthy of inclusion in the basic cable package. I used to visit Nerdia under the guise of working on Ape Culture, when really I only wanted to watch Match Game PM and Card Sharks reruns on GSN.
This obsession goes way back. My summer mornings during my primary school years were spent watching game shows. I used to brag to the neighbors when I got a bid exactly right on The Price is Right: "I would have gotten out of contestants row AND been able to reach into Bob Barker's hundred dollar bill pocket!" I worried that Jack Barry of The Joker's Wild bore an unusual resemblance to the Devil as depicted on the show's spinning slot machine wheels of fate. I worshiped Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly (does this prove that a predisposition to fag-haggery is determined in early childhood?). I thought Bert Convy was sexy. I wished I could be as good at Password as Betty White, while realizing she probably had received a lot of tutoring from her late husband Alan Ludden, the show's former host. I pictured them spending cozy nights around the fire playing the Password home game. I would cross myself and chant the Press Your Luck mantra "No Whammies" before going up to bat in softball games. I was in deep, perhaps so deep that I'd never get out of the hole in time to participate in Final Jeopardy.
In high school, I joined the school trivia bowl team. We lost. Who knew there would be so many school-related questions and no questions about TV? I routinely crushed my friends at Trivial Pursuit, although I could only beat my dad at the Entertainment Tonight Trivia Game. I dreamed of game show glory and sent my postcards off to Teen Jeopardy!, and then College Jeopardy! I never got a reply. Game shows didn't come to St. Louis to audition. I'd have to go to LA. Someday...
A few years ago I did go to LA where I got up at 4:30 AM to camp out for tickets to The Price is Right. I had a friend who was a TPIR groupie and had been to the show 6 times. She had yet to be called to come on down. We waited in a long line and were given price-tag name tags. We processed single file past several producers. One of them fired a single question at each of us. Mine was "Where are you from?" I responded that I was from New York. I guess I should have responded in a hysterical screaming voice or added a line like "...and New York luuuuuvvvs Bob and New Yorkers always spay and neuter their pit bulls!" My friend told the producer this was her 7th time attending a taping. That didn't help either. We weren't large-breasted and braless, wearing a college sweatshirt or military uniform, or cute old ladies. We never stood a chance. Still, it was fun to watch the taping. The studio is much smaller than it looks on TV, while Bob Barker appears even smarmier in person.
In 1999, I tried a couple of times to qualify for Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. I passed the test once. I waited dutifully by the phone the next day for Regis to call, on the off chance that I was one of the fastest respondents. I chanted "No Whammies." It didn't help--Reege didn't ring me. Then I moved to Australia, where the game show potpourri was laden with Aussie versions of American classics like Sale of the Century, Wheel of Fortune, and even Millionaire. I watched them all if they happened to be on TV when I was feeling catatonic, but nothing really grabbed me until the Aussie version of the UK smash-hit The Weakest Link debuted. I dug the wickedness of the concept, the coldness displayed by the contestants as they plotted and picked each other off. This must be the first game show in history where the losers get nothing...not even a lousy home game! The Survivor meets Millionaire concept was genius. After much hype, the show was an instant hit. The host, Cornelia Francis (right), bore a striking resemblance to her British predecessor, Anne Robinson (left). Cornelia was familiar to Aussie audiences for her work on the soap opera Home and Away and, appropriately, Prisoner: Cell Block H.
On a whim, I visited the show's website and typed my address into the contestant form. Two weeks later I got a flyer in the mail inviting me to an audition that was being held in Sydney (the show tapes in Melbourne). Finally...here was my shot at game show stardom! The audition was on a Thursday at noon and the flyer said to allow up to 3 hours. Since the audition was taking place closer to my apartment than the office, I felt I had no choice but to "take a sickie" (Australian for playing hooky).
Nerdia often chastises me for my reluctance to take sick days. I don't know if its Catholic guilt or my German-American work ethic, but I really have difficulty calling in sick. Perhaps it's a holdover from childhood. My parents never believed me when I said I was sick, and if I cried and begged enough that they gave in, I would be forced to spend the day resting on the couch-no TV allowed. Mom wouldn't even let me pet my dog. The only exercise I'd get would be filling in the seek n' find in the newspaper. So I never got in the habit of taking mental health days.
That Thursday, I got over it, used my husky morning voice and left a voicemail claiming I had a migraine. I spent the morning being nervous and peeing often, then took a cab to the Mosman RSL where the auditions were taking place. A RSL club is a social hub in Oz, particularly for retirees (RSL = retired serviceman's league). Picture a cross between a riverboat casino, Old Country Buffet, and a VFW hall and you'll have some idea. After showing my ID, I was directed to a meeting room upstairs. The other prospective contestants had gathered in front of the closed door. Some sat and contemplated their clipboards. Others speculated on what the audition might involve.
At noon, we were invited inside by 3 twentysomething contestant wranglers and instructed to take seats, leaving empty seats between us and our fellow wannabes. They gave us applications to fill out. There were psychological questions such as "How would you feel if you waited in line all day for concert tickets and got to the box office only to discover the show had sold out" and "If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be? Why?" The wranglers told us to answer honestly and not give them what we thought they'd want to hear. They were looking for a wide cross-section of contestants, they said.
Next came a 50-question general knowledge test. A wrangler read the questions and we wrote down our answers. The questions seemed harder to me than the ones on the show. There were a lot of Australian-centric questions that I didn't know (although I guessed right about where Gallipoli was fought - Turkey). But there were US questions too: Name the oldest horse race in the US (Kentucky Derby) and Washington National airport was renamed for which US president (Reagan). We exchanged papers to grade the tests. I was disappointed with myself-I got 32 out of 50. I thought I'd be dismissed to take "the walk of shame" but the wrangler announced that those of us with 28 or more could stay. The rest were told: "You are too weak to even qualify to be the weakest link, you weakling. Goodbye." Actually, the wranglers were much nicer than that, but I'm sure those who flunked heard Cornelia's voice in their head as they grabbed their clipboards and shuffled out. I would estimate that out of about 50 applicants, half were left.
They lined us up and took Polaroids. Then we had to wait as they interviewed all of us. This took nearly 2 hours and I was one of the last to be called. I passed the time talking to a seasoned game show vet. She'd won on Wheel and Sale of the Century. She'd taken her mother on a trip to San Francisco-first class! My interview lasted about 5 minutes. The wrangler wanted to know what a New Yorker like me was doing in Sydney and how I liked it. She asked questions about my answers. I'd written that I was thick-skinned. Why? she probed. I don't know what I babbled about...probably something about taking rejection letters as a writer or about being a temp. This was starting to feel more like therapy and less fun. I thought I was losing her when I talked about being easy-going, so I switched gears and talked about being an executive assistant and dealing with pressure. But I still felt like I was watching that mountain climber go up the slope on my favorite The Price is Right game...I could picture him going over the edge. Was I blowing it? Could I blow it, if they were honestly looking for all types? "I think that's all we need for today," the wrangler said and sent me on my walk of self-doubt. My head was throbbing--I realized I now had the migraine I'd claimed I had that morning. Instant karma's a bitch.
The wranglers told our group that if we passed the interview we'd be put in the computer database of contestants and get a call sometime--could be next week, could be in 2 years. I've no idea if I passed or not. I left Oz 3 weeks later so there wasn't much chance for them to call me (although I did indicate my rapid departure on my application). So I didn't get my free trip to Melbourne and I didn't get to realize the dream.
But now I have new hope. There's a US version. It's doing well, but critics say its too mean. We like our game shows to be nice, they say. I don't think these critics ever watched Tic Tac Dough--that dragon was scary...it flared its nostrils and wiped out people's fortunes. Hollywood Squares contestants would take George Gobel to block, foiling the best laid plans of their opponents. Jokers Wild flirted with Satanism. Richard Dawson made fun of contestants' stupid answers and sexually harassed women. Alex Trebek corrects contestants' pronunciation of foreign words. Condescending Dick Clark humiliated contestants by massaging their shoulders and suggesting better clues that would have allowed them to scale The $25,000 Pyramid. And let's not forget those aforementioned Press Your Luck whammies...how painful would it be to see your total obliterated by a whammy dressed as Boy George and singing "Who would ever hurt a Whammy?"
I will agree with the critics who say that Americans don't like being insulted by Brits. We're still a bit sensitive about that whole taxation without representation thing. If The Weakest Link's ratings drop, I suggest they replace Anne Robinson with Don Rickles and change the name to The Hockey Puck. Don would be great delivering the withering catchphrase: "You are the hockey puck. Goodbye."
Meanwhile, I'll be busy chanting "no whammies" until I manage to get through on the 1-800-so-you-wanna-be-the-weakest-link hotline.
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