|Saturnday, Jesterary 15,
always put your best foot forward
end up falling flat on your face before you know it."
- In Defense of Mediocrity
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
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?
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
At least the carry-out has booze that can help me calm down after all the
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."