Saturnday, Jesterary 15, 40 A.B.

"If you always put your best foot forward
you'll end up falling flat on your face before you know it."

- In Defense of Mediocrity 
(unpublished PhD dissertation of mine)


     I did something tonight I've never done before.
     I watched ABC-TV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
     It's this show on which common folk are asked a series of questions by Regis Philbin.
     If they answer enough of them correctly, they get a million dollars.
     If they answer incorrectly, they're allowed to get away from Regis much faster.
     Seems like a no-brainer of a choice to me, but what do I know?  I thought big money TV game shows ran their course over 40 years ago but this one seems to have really caught on with people despite the fact that it's "Wheel of Fortune" that continues to astound with almost nightly demonstrations that Vanna White really does know how to clap.

     My official viewing began promptly at 8 pm.  I admit I felt a little queasy going in.  I mean, just look at that title again: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
     Notice anything unusual?
     Let's look again, shall we?

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire

     You'd think the producers of a show that pays people for knowing the silliest things would have paid an English major a few bucks to make sure their show's title was perfect but apparently they shot their budget early on the spacey set, the ominous music, and getting a babysitter for Kathie Lee.
     Of course the title ought to read Whom Wants To Be A Millionaire.
     I suggest that the winners count their winnings twice before leaving the studio.

     The other thing that bothered me going into this was the terrible lesson shows like this teach our kids.  The message clearly seems to be that what you know is somehow correlated with how much money you get in life when it's pretty clear that it's who you know that counts.
     What I'd really like to see is a game show in which people compete to impress a host with their connections, bloodlines, lovers, friends - you know, make it more reflective of the way things really work.
     Would Regis be more impressed with Michael Eisner's wife or Ted Turner's?  That's what I really want to know.  If Regis answered incorrectly, it could be him going home with a few lousy hundred bucks in his pocket instead of some poor schmuck who probably had enough good reasons to kick himself in the ass before he ever left home and made a fool of himself on network TV.

     In truth, I've always been troubled by shows which reward people for responding quickly and correctly to questions.  It's like rewarding people for having sex the fastest.  Sure, I suppose it's possible to impregnate or get pregnant in the 30 seconds it takes that "Final Jeopardy" ditty to run, but who really wants to?  If a question can be answered in 30 seconds, it probably wasn't worth asking in the first place, just as any date only worth spending 30 seconds making love to probably wasn't worth asking to the dance.
     OK, so speed only counts in the qualifying rounds on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.  It's still part of the game, dammit.
     And when it's not, I admit even I sorta wish it was.  Watching a guy agonize for minutes over what kind of animal Bambi was is not exactly a pleasant experience. 
     The correct answer, of course, is that Bambi wasn't an animal at all but a cartoon, but see how much money that response gets you if you're ever on this show.  Really, though, it reminds me of those great paintings by Magritte in which he would write "This is not a pipe" under a depiction of a pipe, or "This is not a cow" under a depiction of a cow or - umm, get the idea?  
     Is that your final answer?
     What I'm trying to say is that sometimes 2 + 2  equals 5 - sometimes what everyone knows just isn't so - and conventional wisdom is often something to be transcended and not blindly rewarded.

     What I'm also trying to say is that I want to go on this show just to test my theory that there's absolutely no time limit once you get past that qualifying round.  
     I want to be the one who sits there and sweats through "What color are American baseballs?"  for weeks. 
     "Do you want to call someone, Dan?"
     "Darn it, Regis - one question at a time!  Now I have to go back and start my contemplation all over again from the very beginning!"
     And while I'm at it, maybe I could also test my theory that these contestants are encouraged by the producers to think aloud during their contemplations. 
     "Let's see...  Baseballs are round,  the moon is round and sorta orange... Isn't it a law of physics that all round things must be the same color?"
     "Do you want to poll the audience, Dan?"
     "No, but I would like to ask that woman in the third row another question altogether - could you excuse us a moment, please?"
     Yeah.  That's what I want to do. 
     And I bet I'd get more than a million bucks from CBS, NBC, and Fox if I did it, too.

     Another thing that bothers me about shows like this is that they fail to remind us that forgetting is a human talent at least as valuable as knowing and remembering.
     Just once I'd love to see someone win the big money after saying something like, "Who was President Arthur's secretary of state?  Hey, there's absolutely no reason for me to waste brain space on stuff like that when I can look it up within minutes if I ever need to know.  Besides which, he had two, so screw you."

     The real thing that bothers me, though - the thing that makes all game shows almost impossible to watch - is the sado-masochistic ambiance surrounding them.  If we were really interested in knowledge, after all, we'd be reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and not watching TV.  No, what's really attracting us is the chance to see somebody squirm.  And the opportunity to mentally crush them into the ground when we get the question right and they don't.  Sure, it's a bit nicer than the days of Rome and the gladiators or the days in merry olde England when going to see the convicts hanged was a typical family outing.  It's still the same basic thing, though, and I really don't like being reminded that I have baser impulses that can be appealed to.
     And I especially don't like being reminded of it after getting one of the very first questions wrong.

     Bottom line: Unless they change the format to "Do you have a heartbeat?  Great - you're a winner!" I don't think I'll be watching again.
     I just don't care if Carl from Texas wins a million dollars for knowing that Oslo is where the Kentucky Derby is won, lost, or drawn.
     I simply am not interested if a contestant is unfairly penalized for thinking that the second biggest Great Lake is actually a breed of pig.
     If Terry from Louisiana calls a friend for help and the friend angrily hangs up on her for interrupting the murder of her cheerleader daughter's chief rival, I'm sure I can wait until the morning's paper to read about it.
     Instead, next time I need this kind of excitement, I'll just walk down to my local carry-out and watch the customers rubbing off their instant lottery tickets.
     At least the carry-out has booze that can help me calm down after all the excitement.
     And have you ever tried to mug someone who's on your TV screen?

     As I've said many times in the past, "Enough said."



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(All material researched, authenticated, and ©Now by Dan Birtcher 
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