Who Wants to Try to Be a Millionaire?
It’s easy to sit at home in your underwear watching game shows and screaming at idiots who don’t know what the biggest city in Canada is, but if you think you’re as good as the contestants on TV, why not try signing up? As a pub quiz aficionado, game show viewer and general knowledge nerd, I’ve always wanted to be a contestant, but I assumed there must be some catch—that I wouldn’t be good enough or photogenic enough.
In January 2011 I came home to Australia from a spell of world travel. Bored and unemployed (and because I was still feeling the backpacker impulse to try new and painful things), I applied for Australia’s edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I filled out an online form and then forgot all about it. It wasn’t until late July that I received another email telling me I’d been selected to attend an audition.
There were a few hundred other people at the audition, which took place in a lecture theatre at the University of Melbourne. We were given answer sheets and shown a slideshow of 30 questions ranging across a variety of topics that were no harder than anything you’d typically see on the show. I got most of the questions right, and then wondered if a top score was actually desirable. They don’t really want to give the money away, do they? Was there a possibility that they deliberately filter out the smarter applicants?
It turned out my suspicions were wrong. Those with a score of less than 18 out of 30 had failed to make it to the next round and were dismissed, leaving maybe a quarter of the audience left, including me. Those who had traveled to Melbourne from interstate were asked to remain behind anyway, because the producers wanted diversity. For the same reason, we were told that we might be called up in a month or in a year, depending on our demographics; or, as a producer put it, “I have a stack of applications this high from middle-aged white men who work in IT.”
The final part of the audition process was a recorded one-minute interview in which we had to talk about ourselves. I rambled nervously for a bit under the glare of the camera, let them photocopy my ID, and then went home.
Two months later, in September, I received a phone call during my lunch break from one of the producers, who asked if I’d be able to appear on the show in November. I took the day off work without hassle. I was in training at a new job at the time, so it was no loss to the office, but I’d already been wondering what I’d do if they said no, since I wouldn’t be able to call in sick after previously asking for the day off. Would I go anyway and risk recrimination? Quit? Quitting for a single day off might seem ridiculous, but on the other hand, isn’t it also ridiculous to pass up an opportunity at winning a potentially life-changing amount of money to preserve a crummy office job?
That was how much it was already preying on my thoughts. It wasn’t that I thought I would win a million dollars; it was that the thought of even winning $50,000 made my stomach feel funny. For me—at that point in my life—$50,000 would have been a life-changing amount of money.
The filming date was in early November. I was sent a detailed form beforehand, which I filled out with details about myself (for on-screen chatting purposes), a list of four general knowledge strengths and four weaknesses (presumably for question-rigging purposes), and four interesting stories about myself, with the express instruction to avoid football (the Australian host, Eddie McGuire, is a media figure but also the president of the Collingwood Football Club, and presumably they don’t want you to rile him up on air).
The night before filming I was wracked with an anxiety I hadn’t known since high school exams. I barely slept. It wasn’t just the concept of appearing on television (a more terrifying version of the common fear of public speaking), it was the idea of being on the cusp of an enormous sum of money, which, even if I didn’t know the answers, would only be a few random selections away. A few vocalized syllables, a few correct movements of my throat, could change my life. Or, statistically more likely, the answers would remain elusively out of reach and I’d go home with nothing.
I took my girlfriend and my housemates along to help fill up the audience, and we arrived at the Channel 9 studio in Docklands bright and early at 8:15 a.m. Most of the morning was filled with rehearsals (“go here, sit here, go in this direction when you’re dismissed from the stage and your dreams are crushed”) and hair and make-up (“How do you normally do your hair?” the stylist asked. “You’re looking at it,” I said).
Under the old style of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire,” the one we all know and love, a contestant progresses through questions of increasing difficulty, has three lifelines (Phone A Friend, Ask the Audience and 50/50), has no time limit to answering questions, and can take the money and run at certain cash milestones. Millionaire Hot Seat, which has been running on Australian television for years now, totally revamped that formula to address the common criticism of Millionaire that it dragged out its airtime, and also presumably to make it much harder, saving the studio some money. (Although, interestingly enough, I learned that the higher echelons of prize money are insured.)
Six contestants take part in each episode, with five of them visibly seated behind whoever’s in the Hot Seat. You can choose to pass a question once and go to the back of the line, hopefully to cycle around again. (Many early contestants, on the easier questions, will perform a tactical pass.) If the person ahead of you has passed and you find yourself in the Hot Seat, you must answer their question. Wrong answers result in the contestant being eliminated and the prize money dropping a bracket. It’s now only possible to win $1 million if you’re the first person up and answer every single question correctly. There are no lifelines and there’s now a time limit on answering. Most importantly, you can no longer take the money and bow out: you have to see it through. If I’d appeared in the old days, I could have quite happily left at the $64,000 mark. No sense being greedy, right?
Five episodes are recorded in one day, meaning there are 30 contestants. Contestants for the episode not currently filming make up extra audience numbers. My episode was third in line, which meant I sat through several hours of extra filming before my own nerve-wracking ordeal.
The line-up is randomized, and I was third. I don’t remember what the questions were for the two contestants ahead of me, because I was desperately calculating whether I should pass or not. As it was, the first passed and the second got a question wrong, so I was in the seat quite early. And my decision was made for me. It was an “easy” question (“What is the name of the board on which the scores are displayed in golf?”), but I don’t know a thing about sports, and wasn’t 100 percent sure the answer was “leaderboard,” so I made a tactical pass and went to the back of the line, hoping I’d still get to come back for another crack.
It’s worth noting that while I was on camera, my low-key anxiety had cranked the dial up to profuse, sweating panic. I thought I was doing well to hide it, but my girlfriend said that of the 30 people there that day I was by far the most visibly nervous. I don’t do well under the spotlight, with a room full of people looking at me, but it wasn’t just that. It was, as I said before, the thought of being a few random variables away from winning an obscene amount of money. In the green room beforehand, I’d been staggered by how casual and relaxed all the other contestants were. I suppose it was at least partly about my station in life. When you’re in your forties, $100,000 just means you’ll pay your mortgage off quicker. For me, it was the difference between going to work the next day or dropping everything, flying to South America and buying a motorcycle.
There were me and one girl left in the row of empty seats; we were the token young contestants. The middle-aged white IT consultant in the Hot Seat flubbed a question, and the prize money dropped from $100,000 to $50,000 as he left the stage. The girl in front of me took the seat, going for $20,000. If she got the question right, it was all over for me, but she only had to answer one more and get $50,000. If she got it wrong and I graduated to the Hot Seat, the prize money dropped to $20,000, but I only had to answer one question to get it. I’d been talking to her in the green room, and she seemed like a nice person, but naturally I was hoping against hope she’d screw it up.
“In 1769,” Eddie asked, “Captain Cook travelled to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of which body between the Earth and the Sun?”
Mercury. Venus. The Moon. The Southern Cross. She hesitated, and I fervently prayed that she’d make the mistake of thinking the British would commission an expensive voyage to witness something as common as an eclipse. She actually answered “the Southern Cross,” a constellation of five stars which, had it passed between the Earth and the Sun, would have destroyed the Solar System and wiped out the human race. But I shouldn’t make fun. Your mind can seize up under the spotlight.
So I once again found myself sitting in the Hot Seat. Under the rules, the final person in the seat automatically wins $1,000. Eddie congratulated me, and the crowd applauded. I made a mild, throaty sound of appreciation; in my mind I was brushing it aside, steeling myself, because $1,000 is a frippery when you’re on the brink of a further $19,000.
Eddie asked me to tell another of my stories, even as I was internally screaming at him to just hurry up and get this over and done with. I think I told the one about my motorcycle trip through Vietnam, squeaking through it with a combination of panic and terror (in addition to the presence of easy money and the hundred pairs of eyeballs on you, it’s also unsettling to be sitting across from one of Australia’s most famous people; another ingredient in the out-of-comfort-zone smoothie). Then it was question time.
“In the 1960s TV series Thunderbirds,” Eddie said, as my heart sank, “what was the surname of the family of main characters?”
Spencer. Tracy. Cooper. Stirling. “I have no idea,” I said. “I’ve heard of the series, one of my friends in primary school had the toys, but I don’t know anything about it.” Up in the audience, one of my housemates—a pop culture nerd who knew the answer—shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
People say that Eddie tries to nudge contestants in the right direction. He doesn’t; he’s just trying to fill up the allotted time. I wavered across a couple of answers before randomly selecting “Spencer,” which was wrong. It was “Tracy.” The sad music played, Eddie wrote me a novelty cheque for $1,000, and I was ushered out into the green room.
I later described it as “the most disappointing $1,000 you’ll ever win,” but at the time the only feeling I had was one of immense relief that the ghastly ordeal was over: no more gut-wrenching anxiety; no more agonizing over the possibilities of vast wealth just out of reach; no more shrinking under the glare of the stage lights. I sat in the audience alongside my girlfriend and housemates for the filming of the remaining episodes—two people won $50,000 and I felt genuinely glad for them—and then we were finally released at the end of the day.
“I need a drink,” I said.
We went to a bar in South Melbourne where you can get $5 Budweisers and, proving that the universe has a sense of humor, immediately got stuck in rush hour traffic on Spencer Street.
You don’t actually get the money until your episode goes to air. Mine did so in February 2012, and I was glad that I was on a camping trip in Tasmania at the time. I wouldn’t have been able to bring myself to watch it. My mum recorded it on a VCR and my girlfriend filmed the TV with her phone. For years afterwards she would delight in showing the footage to people at parties, and I was secretly glad when she accidentally dropped that phone in a pub toilet a few months ago. But of course Channel 9 still has the episode, and still shows repeats—unevenly across the states, as it turns out. Every now and then I get photo messages from friends and family in Sydney or Perth, lol’ing my own failure once again.
The reason I couldn’t watch it, you understand, is because of how deeply embarrassing it was to see myself quail and squirm on a television screen, my humiliation broadcast across the land. It had nothing to do with the money. Twenty thousand dollars was a manageable figure to wrap my head around not winning, because I’d had $20,000 in my life once before, and I’d spent most of it on backpacking. If I’d failed a question for $250,000, like Justin Peters did, I probably would have had a mental breakdown.
And besides, I still won $1,000. That’s obviously far less than anyone hopes to come away with, and it took a full 13 months from initial application to payday. But for a single day’s work it’s certainly the most I’ve ever been paid or probably ever will be paid. The real cost comes in embarrassment and humiliation, and considering nobody really cares and I’m just being a baby about it, I’d say it was well worth it.
So, to all the people who yell at idiot contestants on game shows and wonder whether they should bother applying, the answer is: Yes, absolutely. Particularly if you’re not a shrinking violet like me. Or even if you are, really.
You might wonder why I’m thinking about all this again, years down the line. I live in London now, and work in the TV industry. I was just about ready to pack up and leave the other day when I heard Eddie McGuire’s familiar voice, utterly out of place on British television. My eyes traveled to the TV at my desk in horrified slow motion.
“See how they do it Daaayyynn Undaaahhh!” drawled a British announcer attempting a Fosters advert style Australian accent.
Apparently Sky has decided to syndicate Australia’s Millionaire Hot Seat in the U.K. I can only hope they won’t be showing repeats.