Growing up in the countryside near Charlottesville, Va., with only encyclopedias and classical records as friends, I made a hobby from the gathering of arcane knowledge. I knew my orders of mammals, from Artiodactyla (even-toed hoofed animals) to Tubulidenta (aardvarks). I could spit out useless knowledge on everything from the Devonian period of the geological time charts to the merits of Third-style Pompeiian wall frescos. I knew my gemstones from alexandrite to morganite, and could find sassafras and morel mushrooms in the woods. Surely I would be able to ace an audition for television's newest trivia game show, NBC's Weakest Link, which recently held auditions in Raleigh.
Americans love television. Americans worship money. Combine the two and you have a romance of epic propotions. In the past, people made their money the old-fashioned way--they stole it, slept their way to it, or inherited it. Now suddenly everyone has the chance to live the good life. Since the advent of the game show genre, your earning options have included The $64,000 Pyramid, Jeopardy, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire? The Wheel of Fortune, which asks contestants to immediately blow their earnings on products displayed right there on the stage, cannily combines consumerism with the promise of fast bucks. The overheated lotto-like environment of all of these shows offers TV viewers the hope of paying off those nagging 18 percent-interest credit cards in one fell swoop, so that they can get back out there and buy, buy, buy all over again, just like the hucksters on Madison Avenue (and our president) tell us we should.
After slinging back my morning Bloody Mary and donning a flattering Italian suit with a yellow Hermes tie, I hopped into the limo and watched video reruns of Weakest Link during my 45 minutes of I-40 hell. I arrived in Raleigh from Chapel Hill at a respectfully early 7:45 a.m.--plenty of time for the 10 a.m. start of auditions. The Governor's Ballroom at the Downtown Raleigh Sheraton was already filled with other early birds. I signed the waiting list as contestant 91.
By the time the actual auditions started, over 500 people hoping for their chance at a million dollars had crowded the third floor of the Sheraton. Some people had arrived at 4 a.m., and some poor souls had actually slept in the lobby overnight--and they looked it. People crowded the halls. They lay on the floors in corners. They laughed and told jokes and eyed each other, sizing up the competition.
The first 126 of us were herded into a separate room where we filled out questionnaires stating that we were in no way associated with the television stations that aired or produced Weakest Link, that we had not won on another game show in the last five years, and that we had not imbibed alcohol or drugs in the previous 24 hours (well, I decided to take my chances anyway).
The demographics of the room leaned very heavily toward white males, and after that came a smaller number of white females, a scattering of less than five black females, and if memory serves me correctly only one black male--the president of the UNC-Chapel Hill student body. The room had more than its share of RTP types who perhaps have lots of time on their hands as a result of recent layoffs. Fort Bragg's finest were also well-represented by several crop-topped, well-built young men who were eager to supplement meager soldier rations with glittering game show gold.
Each of us was invited to stand, introduce ourselves and tell a little about our lives. We were encouraged to be demonstrative, and the participants took the game show's representatives at their word. People stood on chairs, some sang, others rapped or told jokes or acted like the Ritalin was just kicking in. One Raleigh arts professional divulged the fact that she had been a stripper on the Alaskan pipeline many years ago and proceeded to shake her shimmy all the way down the aisle--much to the delight of the boys from Fort Bragg. Some would-be contestants showed pictures of their babies or sought extra points for being newlyweds or birthday boys, as if this would in some way mitigate a boring personality. The introductions lasted forever. Grapes turned into raisins while we waited for everyone to strut their stuff.
hen came the test. The Test: 20 questions to see if we had the right stuff to move forward in competition. No second guesses allowed, no rewrites. We weren't told how many we needed to answer correctly to proceed in the trials. We would not be given our scores. When the questions rattled by I felt the rush of adrenaline, followed by the sinking feeling of an elevator with a snapped cable.
"What is the real first name of Magic Johnson?" Was that a floor wax? Was he kin to Mr. Clean? I quickly scribbled "Leroy." "What is the name of the family that lives next door to Homer Simpson?" Doh! I knew I was in big trouble if this was the type of drivel I was to be subjected to. My Montblanc pen scribbled "The Manson Family." I could feel the ghosts of sages from the ancient Library at Alexandria screaming like banshees in the corners of the room. "What did my true love give me on the 10th day of Christmas?" A black eye? A court summons? Crabs? I knew it had something to do with lords leaping or goats bleating or Zulus spearing, so I made a stab with the lords leaping and looked down at my perfect manicure. "What video game beginning with a 'P' contains the character Pikachu?" Video games? My brain cells fired like Roman candles in search of a response. Perhaps I should be watching more Jenny Jones and less Masterpiece Theater. What in the world is a Pikachu? Is that Ms. PacMan's lover? Or the name of one of the paddles of "Pong"?
Some of this information does not need to be cluttering my head, and these folks from Weakest Link were asking me to make change for a coin of the realm that I obviously didn't have change for. I was dismissed along with everyone but the 31 supposedly lucky souls who passed these Olympics of Absurdity. We were informed that even if we aced every question, and performed well in our interviews, there was no guarantee of being included on the show. If we did make it to the show and were voted off there was not even a box of Rice-a-Roni for the runner-up contestants.
I put on my rose-tinted Versace shades to prepare for my stroll out of the ballroom past the other 400 panting contestants and back to the waiting limo. The portly gentleman next to me who passed the first round grinned with that peculiar toothy smile I've often noticed on idiot savants--but could he tie his shoes? I suppose I'll have to make my next fortune on another show, something that really challenges the intellect. Are they still making Name that Tune or Hollywood Squares?