You know how the Kennedy family bonded over touch football games at their compound in Hyannis Port? Well, my family is exactly like that — if the football were an episode of "Jeopardy!" and if the family estate were a split-level on Long Island.
Short of stature and not genetically blessed with speed or coordination, my family flexed our muscles by trying to out-trivia everyone else. My brother would lob an obscure fact about the only neighborhood in the Bronx that is still considered part of Manhattan (Marble Hill), and I would volley back with the original inspiration for the song “Dear Prudence” (Mia Farrow's sister). In the days before VCRs, my parents once even pulled us out of Hebrew school early so we could all watch the tournament of champions on "The Joker’s Wild." So naturally, instead of dreaming of glory on the sports field, I grew up fantasizing about scoring big on a game show.
"Jeopardy!," of course, is the Holy Grail for trivia nerds, but the thing with "Jeopardy!" is that no matter how smart you are and how hard you study up on Caribbean agrarian history and sports movies of the 1940s, you might wind up standing next to a Ken Jennings. Nice to see you, here’s your parting gift, don’t let the buzzer hit you on the way out!
But then there’s "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Unlike L.A.-based "Jeopardy!," "Millionaire" is filmed in New York, so if I bombed, I would only be out the five bucks it cost to ride the subway to the studios and back. And, even more intriguing, you only have to compete against yourself — no buzzer, no freaks of nature like Jennings.
Over the years, as Regis ceded to Meredith, my dreams of "Millionaire" glory would bubble to the surface occasionally, but they were always quickly smashed back down by the fear of looking like an idiot in front of everyone I ever went to high school with. Then one day, I was discussing with my husband whether we should redo our kitchen — though it was a bit outdated, it was perfectly fine, and wouldn’t the money be better spent in our kids’ 529 college funds? — when Jeremy offhandedly said, “Just go on 'Millionaire' and win the money to do it.”
And that's what I did.
The time lapse from when Jeremy said those fateful words to when I was standing next to Meredith Vieira was surprisingly swift. I went to an open call in May 2012, where 50 people at a time were ushered in to cafeteria tables to take a test. I was one of six people from my group who passed, and after interviews with a couple of producers, I was told I’d made it into the “contestant pool” and they could call me anytime over the next two years. (Tip: Come to your audition armed with a couple of funny anecdotes, and act as if you just mainlined a cocktail of caffeine, happy gas and amphetamines.) In August, during the very first week of taping for the season, I got the call.
I only had two days to cram the order of the presidents, every state capital and the name of Snooki’s new baby (hey, you never know what they’re going to ask). The night before the show, despite a glass of wine and my best efforts at mediation, I got zero hours of sleep. Then after seven or eight hours freezing in the green room, where cell phones and newspapers were banned (we just had a platter of sandwiches and jittery conversation with fellow contestants to pass the time), I found myself blinking next to Meredith on the familiar "Millionaire" set. The whole thing, frankly, was like an out-of-body experience. I could hear the music and the audience cheering, but, what the hell, was I really here?
If you haven’t seen the show recently, the rules have changed since the prime time Regis days. The difficulty level of the questions is jumbled up, along with the money values, so you can get the hardest question first and then find out it’s only worth $100 — or get an easy one and find out it’s worth up to $25,000.
So here’s how I did: I had to jump over the first question, about boy bands in the 1990s, which threw me off my game, but I later recovered and correctly answered a tricky question about the first woman called “First Lady” (Dolley Madison) for $25,000. Once I hit the $40,000 mark and knew I could walk at any time with half my bank, sheer exhaustion combined with the anxiety of losing everything I had banked so far hit me hard, and I walked on a question I knew the answer to (“Which city has the worst traffic?” — duh, Los Angeles!).
Though I still kick myself for not having the balls to stay on a little longer and possibly win $60,000 or maybe even a half mil, a few great things came out of this experience. My dad, who adores Meredith Vieira, got to meet and hug her — the best gift I could give a man who recently had cataract surgery and who taught me that obsessively collecting trivia about things you’re interested in isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I heard, via Facebook, from some long lost friends, and instead of saying, "You idiot! Why didn’t you answer that last question?" They all seemed to say, "Nice job, I wish I had the nerves to do that."
And as I type these words, some burly workmen who speak only Ukrainian are installing my new kitchen. Since I walked with $20,300 (minus taxes, of course), we’re going with Ikea rather than custom-made cabinets, but I will finally have the work island and steel-grey quartz countertop I’ve always wanted.
And so there it is. Not every kid who dreams of playing in the World Series or Wimbledon gets to live it, but if your childhood dreams are a little more, well, trivial, sometimes they really can come true.