“I am not an animal; I am a human being!” The Elephant Man’s
anguished cry was intended to make his tormentors aware of his humanity.
For it is this humanity which distinguishes us from the lower life
forms. The other major trait distinguishing us from our fellow animals
is that man is the only species that regularly auditions to be a TV game
show contestant.

“You actually have to audition to be on a TV game show?” I hear you
non-game show veterans asking. What, do you think they just pull the
contestants in from the riff-raff on the street? Oh, sure, it seems that
way — my inclusion in that group being a clear tip-off, but the
screening process to be chosen as a game show contestant makes becoming
a CIA agent, in comparison, a snap.

No, these game shows don’t just take anybody. You can have a BA in
English, with honors, a charming personality, and be really good at
crossword puzzle trivia, and still go down in flames faster than any
kamikaze pilot. This will no doubt set me back a few sessions in
therapy. And I was making such progress. For, behold, many set out on
the eternal quest for the Game Show Grail, yet few survive. But why keep
the humiliating trauma of my game show audition failure to myself? Come,
join me, Sir Compete-a-lot, on my miserable journey, won’t you? Let me
share with you my dark day of disgrace and defeat. Feel my pain.

Like many things, it started out innocently enough. A classified ad
in the newspaper proclaimed, “Ring in Y2K with $2 million. ‘Greed,’ a
new Fox game show, needs contestants. Call for an appointment.” I
checked my bank account. My cable TV bill was due, and I have premium
channels, so I guess I could use an extra two mil this month. I decided
to give “Greed” a chance. Of course, I realized I would have been far
better prepared if there were game shows called “Sloth,” “Envy” or
“Lust.” (Fox TV Network producers please take note!) Nonetheless, like a
ravenous animal intent on gratifying its need for food, I set out to
gratify mine for cold, hard cash. I picked up the phone and gave “Greed”
a call. I’m sure there must have been the sound of the phone ringing,
but all I heard was the dulcet tones of the world’s most lucrative slot
machine paying off for me. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. In retrospect,
of course, I was living in delusion, which is a community halfway
between Hollywood and Siberia.

Arriving for the audition in Hollywood, I joined a line of 40 to 50
others outside a TV studio guard gate. The guard observed us all with an
expression on his face that seemed to say, “You poor, pathetic
creatures, wasting your time on this nonsense. Why don’t you just get a
job like the rest of us?” Or perhaps he merely had indigestion from the
burrito stand across the street. In any case, we were a hearty group of
potential contestants of all ages and ethnicities, united by two factors
— the desire to be rich, and the ability to spend a four-hour block of
time on a mid-week afternoon auditioning for the opportunity to earn
enough money to afford us even more four-hour blocks of time on mid-week
afternoons not working.

Look at all these people without a life, I thought. Then I remembered
I was one of them, and started looking at them more admiringly. Some
were dressed to the nines and fully made up, as though they expected to
be put on the show immediately. Oh, right. Like producers are so
superficial, they’ll let folks be on TV based merely on appearance.
Which reminded me to set my VCR to record Pamela Anderson’s show,
“V.I.P.,” that night. Others wore more casual clothing. Still others
revealed lots of cleavage. Either they thought that would get them on
TV, or they were hiding some reference material down there. As I’m a guy
and have no cleavage to speak of, I’d be forced to rely on my wits, my
memory, and my razor-sharp reflexes. I now realize I need to develop
more cleavage.

The contestant coordinator, a young, very casually dressed man with
long, curly hair, came out to take attendance, bad-mouth the folks who
hadn’t arrived on time, joke about how lame some of the last batch of
contestant-aspirants were, and let us know that he’d be taking us on the
lot shortly. I continued reading my book, “How To Appear Very Casual
Even Though You’re Dying Inside,” trying to appear very casual, as
though I wasn’t in the least anxious about the fact that I’d soon be a
multi-millionaire and my greatest worry would be figuring out creative,
sensitive ways to turn my friends and relatives down for loans.

Those who needed to use the restroom were not allowed to go alone.
This was fine for the women, who are used to restroom voyages in packs,
but for us men, it seemed odd. I seldom ask a male friend to join me in
the bathroom. OK, on special occasions, maybe, but not as a rule. We
were taken in groups by one of the contestant coordinators, no doubt to
make sure we weren’t sneaking last looks at reference materials in the
stalls. So much for that volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica I hid
behind the toilet, after sneaking onto the lot the night before. Making
phone calls was also forbidden. I guess the producers wanted to avoid
dozens of frantic, whispered calls like, “Eileen, quick, who played
Clemenza in ‘The Godfather’?”

Eventually, we were led onto a huge soundstage, big enough to hold
Marlon Brando’s lunch, and seated at long tables, where two additional
female talent coordinators in their 20s, wearing belly shirts, explained
the general knowledge test that they were about to give us. They
presented us with sample questions, answered any of our concerns, and
made it clear that anyone caught cheating or looking at their neighbor’s
test would be immediately sent home in disgrace, and no doubt their
parents would be notified. Not wishing to be grounded, I decided not to
cheat. Although if I was grounded, I had already decided to wait until
my parents were asleep, climb out the window, shimmy down the tree, and
meet Mary Lou at the soda shop.

Mock podiums were set up at the front, to play a mock game. But we
were told that we wouldn’t even get to the mock game stage unless we
passed the general knowledge test. And a personality screening. I
wouldn’t have been surprised if part of the screening process was a
prostate exam. But I wasn’t going to ask if it was, because I didn’t
want to plant the idea in their heads. I did, however, ask, “What
percentage of people pass the test?” The reply was one out of five.
Yikes. I looked around me to see the four poor souls who’d be sent home
when I passed the test. Oh, yeah, I could pick them out. I observed them
with a mixture of sympathy and pity, the exact same expression our high
school’s head cheerleader had on her face when I asked her to the prom.
Well, we’ll see who has the last laugh, Kathy Lee, when I walk out of
here with a cool two mil in my Dockers.

As soon as the test started, I knew I was in trouble when one of the
early questions was, “Which four of the following six seas are part of
the Atlantic Ocean?” I recognized none of the seas as even being on our
planet. That’ll teach me to look out the window, daydreaming about Kathy
Lee, during high school geography. To be fair, you never saw how amazing
Kathy Lee looked in her gym uniform. About a third of the questions
seemed easy, a third seemed average, and a third seemed like the kind
only the kid you used to beat up for being a “Brainiac” could possibly
get right. Little did I realize that the kid I was beating up would go
on to win two million dollars for the very reason I was beating him up.
I made a mental note to call Sherman Lisman and apologize — and ask for
a loan.

After taking the test, we were shepherded outside to wait for them to
be graded. Talk about your school flashbacks. Before long, they thanked
us all for coming and announced the 12 who passed the test, out of the
47 who’d taken it. My name was not among the chosen 12. There was
nothing more to say. The contestant coordinator assigned to the losers,
escorted us off the lot. We were a quiet, contemplative group, our
dreams crushed, with no hope for the future. We didn’t even get a
parking validation. I’m pretty sure the guard smirked at us on the way
out. I saw my two million dollars suddenly evaporate, and said a silent
prayer of thanks that I was a spiritual person who didn’t really need a
lot of money to be happy.

That was just before I burst into tears.

Mark Miller is a former stand-up comic and current Los
Angeles-based comedy writer, who has written and produced TV sit-coms,
been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and has
produced a weekly comedic relationships feature for America Online.

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