Now that I’ve told you about the miserable failure I suffered while trying out for Jeopardy, there’s another game show tale that has grabbed me by the lapels and screamed that it wants to be told.
I was without a doubt the laziest young freelance advertising copywriter in Los Angeles. I worked very hard the first week or so of each month, doing just enough work to pay my rent and put a few bucks in the bank, and then I goofed off the rest of each month.
One morning I was sitting down at the corner coffee shop reading the classified ads in the LA Times when I stumbled across one that said, “The Joker’s Wild TV game show. Contestants wanted. Must be fun and know trivia.”
Now I wasn’t what you’d call an introspective young man, but I knew for sure that those were two of the only two traits that had thus far coalesced in the primordial depths of my personality.
I tuned into The Joker’s Wild later that morning just to find out what it was all about. I watched it again the next day. And the day after that. And then I thought to myself, Yeah, I think I can do this. The game featured two contestants who took turns pulling the lever on a huge slot machine-like device. The amount you could win for answering a question depended on what amounts showed on the wheels when they finally stopped spinning.
But most important to me was that fact that they gave away cash prizes. You could win more money with each game you won. The twist, however, was that you could walk away with your winnings at any time, but if you chose to continue playing and lost, you sacrificed all the money you had accumulated in previous wins. That money went into an ever-growing cash jackpot until someone was able to win three games in a row. Win three games, win all the losers’ lost jackpots. It was that simple.
I called and made an appointment to try out. When I arrived at the tryout, there was a roomful of would-be contestants there to take the test.
They started by giving us a written trivia test. If you failed the test you were told to leave immediately. Let’s say ten of us passed the test. A contestant coordinator then asked us one at a time to stand up, introduce yourself, and tell something interesting about yourself. She then asked each of us a few follow-up questions in an attempt to determine if any of us were outgoing enough and personable enough to be a good contestant.
After speaking to each of us, she thanked us for coming in and told us that they might invite us back to be contestants somewhere down the road. But she also said, “You may never hear from us. And if you don’t, you can try out again in six months. Thanks for coming. Good bye.”
We all begin shuffling out the door when she added, “Would Jim and Suzie please stay for a minute. Everyone else can go.”
Suzie and I had no idea what was going on, not a clue why we had been singled out.
”We really like both of you,” she informed us, “and we’d like you to play a practice game in front of the producer.”
Neither of us had any idea what that might mean nor what it portended, but it could only be good because we hadn’t been banished like the other contestants who were now heading home on Beverly Boulevard.
Suzie and I were ushered into an empty office. The producer came in a few minutes later with a big, toothy smile on his face.
“Hey, Jim and Suzie,” he enthused. “Thanks for staying. Welcome to The Joker’s Wild. We’re going to play a little practice game with the two of you. I’ll ask some questions and you just holler out if you know the answer. First one to answer five questions wins.”
Well, Suzie clobbered me. Creamed me. Crushed me. I may have known just as many answers as she did, but she was a lot faster than I was. We played a second practice game with the same embarrassing results.
Much to my surprise, the producer said, “You two are great. We’d like both of you to be on the show this week. Can you join us this Saturday morning?”
Hell, yes. No one else was offering me $10,000 for half a day’s work.
When I arrived at the production facility at CBS Television City, there were probably a couple dozen contestants waiting in the contestant lounge. Suzie and I were the only newbies. Some of the others had come back week after week without yet having been chosen to compete on the show.
They told us they would shoot five shows that day — an entire week’s worth of 30-minute episodes. Two in the morning followed by a lunch break followed by three more shows in the afternoon.
Suzie was chosen to challenge the reigning champion on the day’s second show. If you’ve ever seen a game show, you know the host always tries to draw some human interest story out of each contestant. In Suzie’s case, he said, “I heard that you have a very special reason for playing The Joker’s Wild, Suzie. Why don’t you tell our audience what it is.”
Suzie spun a heartwarming tale about how her family had very little money and that her younger brother would be forced to drop out of college unless she could win enough to pay his tuition. She announced that she didn’t care about the giant jackpot that she could take home if she could win three games. “No,” she said, ”I can pay for a year of my brother’s education and walk away happy if I can win just two games.”
Everyone was touched. I’m sure the audience watching at home thought it was a lovely, endearing story and that she was a sweet, loving girl.
Well, Suzie defeated the champion and won her first game. Then she won a second game against another challenger and accomplished what she set out to do. Everyone — the other contestants, the producers, the contestant coordinator — expected her to walk away with her winnings.
Her second win came right at the end of the second show, so we broke for lunch and all the contestants were herded back to the contestant lounge. The contestant coordinator announced that I would be the next contestant up when production resumed. Since Suzie was voluntarily leaving the show, I was scheduled to vie against another new player.
While we were eating lunch Suzie called her husband. This is what she said:
“I know I said I’d walk away if I could win two games, but they just announced who I’ll play my third game against. He’s a moron. I’ve kicked his ass twice in practice games and I’ll kick it again and win the big jackpot.”
You’ve never seen a room turn on a person as quickly as this room turned on Suzie. The other contestants didn’t know anything about me, but they had just learned that Suzie was a bitch and understood that if she’d talk that way about me in front of everyone else, she’d do the same to them.
It was instantaneous hate. Laser death glares shot around the room. Suzie immediately became LA’s least popular person.
Lunch ended. Suzie went back on stage and announced that she had changed her mind and wanted to play a third game and win the big jackpot so she could pay for the rest of her brother’s college education.
They introduced me. I walk out on stage, took my position behind my giant slot machine lever. Jack Barry, the host, said, “We’ll see if Suzie can win her third game right after these commercial messages.”
Two minutes later, just seconds before the videotape began rolling again, Suzie turned to me with the sweetest smile on her face and said, “I’m going to kick your ass again.”
Unbelieveable. Anyone watching on TV would have assumed she said something innocent like, “Good luck.” But no. The bitch tried to intimidate me.
Well, to make an already long story as short as possible, she didn’t. The moment the game began, I could do no wrong. I cannot explain where some of my answers came from. It was like some trivia turbocharger had suddenly kicked in. One question was “Where is the Sargasso Sea?” All I knew about the Sargasso Sea was that it had been mentioned in a Crusader Rabbit cartoon I saw when I was about four years old. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a large, ill-defined, but extremely seaweedy area in the Atlantic Ocean.) Suzie’s luck turned as ice cold as her heart and couldn’t come up with any answers, but I could do no wrong.
In other words, there was indeed an ass-kicking administered that day, but the ass that was kicked was not the one Suzie had predicted.
This is where it got really strange. The defeated and now penniless Suzie had to take the walk of shame back behind the set to where all the other contestants sat awaiting their turn to play the game. When Suzie sashayed around that corner and came face-to-face with all the other contestants, they booed her. She broke down in tears and ran down the hallway to escape their jeers. The contestant coordinator later told me that she had never seen such a hostile reaction to one contestant by all the others.
Much like Suzie, I won my first two games, but eventually lost my third one. I had to walk backstage and turn the same corner. The other contestants stood up and applauded me, cheered for me so loudly that it interfered with the on-going taping of the next game of The Joker’s Wild. The contestant coordinator then told me that she’d never seen a losing contestant greeted so warmly by the other contestants.
What lessons can be learned from this experience?
1. Greed is an ugly thing.
2. Never embarrass one opponent in front of your other opponents for fear that they will join forces against you.
3. You never know when knowledge of the Sargasso Sea will come in handy.
By the way, although I didn’t win any money, I did receive some lovely parting gifts (as they call them in the world of TV game shows).
What kind of parting gifts?
A king-sized mattress, which was too large for my tiny apartment, plus a year’s supply of “Dark Eyes,” some sort of mascara-ish goop. So not only did I win no money, I actually lost money because I had to pay for shipping of consolation prizes I couldn’t actually use.
ONE ADDED NOTE: After I lost that third game the host of the show, Jack Berry, said, “Well, Jim, we know you’re unemployed so this loss must be terribly disappointing for you. Well, good night folks. See you tomorrow on The Joker’s Wild.” He gave me no opportunity to say, “No, Jack, I’m not unemployed. I’m a freelance advertising copywriter.” So not only did I make no money and have to pay for the shipping of my lovely parting gifts, but all my relatives across the country were lead to believe that I was penniless and out of work. Great. Just great.