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Jokes and Jitters: Auditioning for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

“The answers, in no particular order, are A, B, C, and D,” the young ABC employee told the hundred or so of us sitting in folding chairs in a cavernous studio space near New York City’s Lincoln Center. Theater lights were clustered on tracks above us. Behind us, we could hear sets being moved and...

“The answers, in no particular order, are A, B, C, and D,” the young ABC employee told the hundred or so of us sitting in folding chairs in a cavernous studio space near New York City’s Lincoln Center. Theater lights were clustered on tracks above us. Behind us, we could hear sets being moved and mics being tested.

Photo by Brian Clark Howard.

This was the third time I had heard that joke, since this was my third time auditioning to be a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Once again, I was hoping to win money to pay down some pesky debts. This time I brought my friend Christine Dell’Amore, who was trying out for the first time.

After the young man reassured us that we shouldn’t take the results of our audition test personally, he introduced the test administrator, setting her up as a bad cop to his good cop. “Don’t open your test folder until she tells you to, or you’ll get on her bad side, and you don’t want to get on her bad side,” he said.

The test administrator, who was probably in her early 20s, reminded us to completely darken the boxes on our answer forms and to avoid any stray marks. Number 2 pencils were passed out, and we were told we could keep them after the test. But we couldn’t keep the tests. Each was numbered; we would be disqualified if ours wasn’t turned in.

Ready, set, go, and we opened our test booklets. We had 10 minutes to answer 30 questions. The administrators had stressed that they didn’t know how many of the questions we had to get right to proceed to the next round. There are no penalties for guessing, they said.

As a lifelong trivia buff, I felt prepared. In elementary school, my Battle of the Books trivia team won first place in the city. In junior high, I was the captain of our Knowledge Bowl team, which placed regionally. In high school, I won national honors at Science Olympiad, earning my first trip on an airplane. In college, I competed in the National College Bowl. There I beat Herb Stempel, one of the subjects of the Robert Redford movie Quiz Show, in a head-to-head trivia match.

The questions to make it onto Who Wants to Be a Millionaire spanned a wide range of human knowledge. We had to identify which field Eli Whitney improved, which rapper dropped the album The College Dropout, which planet in the solar system has the most mass, and which president is on the Purple Heart. We had to identify the part of the plant that the spice pepper comes from, and put the Kardashian sisters in order from oldest to youngest. We also had to pick a phrase that used every letter in the alphabet.

The ten minutes flew by, but when we put our pencils down I felt that I had answered almost everything correctly. I was shaky on the Kardashians and the military decoration, and I had to guess what the FiFi awards recognize. I also wasn’t sure if it was Ford or Disney that has a company logo based on its founder’s signature. But I thought I did at least as well as I had on my two previous attempts to get on the show. So I expected to get called for an interview after we watched the scheduled three tapings of the show that morning.

Millionaire has changed some over the years. Based on a British hit, the show started in prime time in 1999, with host Regis Philbin. After a few years of success, ratings slipped, and ABC moved it to daytime and recruited host Meredith Vieira.

The network tapes three shows’ worth of footage in the morning and two in the afternoon. If a contestant bridges the gap between tapings they change outfits, while Vieira puts on a fresh top. Paul Mecurio, a raunchy comic who also works on The Daily Show, keeps the audience pumped up during technical adjustments.

The first time I auditioned for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire I was at a show taping to support my friend Lauren Posovsky, who was competing in the show’s “hot seat.” Lauren made us proud that day, going home with $16,000 (half of which she had to pay in taxes).

After Lauren’s game, I took the audition test with some other members of the audience. I answered 30 questions and then was chosen with about 10 percent of the test takers for an interview.

In an ABC cafeteria, I sat across from a bright-eyed show staffer. He asked me where I lived, what I did for work, and what I would do with the money if I won. He also asked me to fill out a questionnaire on what makes me unique, what my best story is, and if I had ever been on a game show. I never got a call.

About a year and a half ago, I got an email from the show indicating that they were holding auditions again. So I went to ABC studios before work, took the written test, passed it again, and got another interview. I was never called.

Christine and I enjoyed the morning’s three show tapings. When you catch them on TV later this year, you’ll probably see our thumbs, because there was a camera right over our shoulders during audience voting. I can’t say how the contestants did that day, but I will say that I think Christine and I would have been competitive. It’s hard to know how you’ll do under the pressure of the “hot seat.” But we knew a lot of the answers.

At the end of the third show’s taping, Mecurio read the names of those who had passed the written test this time. He gave about ten names. Ours weren’t included. I was stunned. I had expected to get another interview and had prepared to talk myself up by highlighting my new book, a funny photo book on ugly Christmas sweaters.

But the third time was not a charm, and I would not earn any money on my trivia knowledge this time. The last time I took the test, a woman told me her friend got on the show after her 16th audition. Lauren had made it on her first.

Have you ever tried to get on a game show?

How You Can Audition

 To try your chances on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, browse to the show website and check the requirements. If you qualify, fill out the web form with preferred dates for an audition. You will receive an email with the date you can show up. You may also watch a taping of the show, depending on availability. Good luck.

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