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Tuesday, June 26, 2007
As had been my habit for several years, I arranged a week in LA to visit friends and tend to family business. But my constant monitoring of game show web sites had tipped me to the existence of Merv Griffin's Crosswords. So on Tuesday morning I went to a hairdresser near my b&b to make sure I looked my best. Then I arrived an hour early for the audition at the KTLA/Tribune studios at Sunset and Bronson (the same studios in which Jeopardy had been taped almost exactly 22 years before). I cooled my heels (literally--god bless air conditioning) in a little Asian restaurant two blocks from the studio. Man, what a god-forsaken neighborhood surrounds KTLA!
Just before 1 p.m., a flock of contestant coordinators came out to admit us. I was number nine. They ran us through a magnetometer and checked our bags. Of course, my pacemaker required a hand pat.
We were then accompanied into a typical bleak, featureless tryout room (at least this one had windows), with scanty air conditioning; the temperature got up to 80 when the room was filled with 30 or so wannabe contestants.
We were given 90 crossword clues (such as "a three letter word meaning canine"). There were at least 10 I could not even guess at, but apparently I passed the test, because I went on to audition for the contestant coordinator. I joshed with her for five minutes, and she liked it, so I was sent to see the producer.
The producer and I somehow got started talking about my groundhogdaythemovie web site. I am hard to shut up once someone pushes that button. I think Merv has trained his entire staff to tells us all how much they enjoy us, but she seemed sincere when she said, "I have really enjoyed this."
Thursday, July 12, 2007
I had to take the train to Sacramento that morning to get some documents from the Secretary of State. I left the house at 5:30 a.m., got the documents, and took the Capital Corridor train back to Richmond. I was on BART headed home when Vicki called; she had just gotten a call from the Merv Griffin people. She suggested I return the call from a landline.
When I got home, I called Kim. She asked when I could be in LA; I said, "90 minutes." She laughed and said she'd look forward to watching me play. Maybe the producer really did enjoy having me there.
From my blog of July 16, 2007:
"Ho Ho babe, we're on the wheel again…"
--Firesign Theater, Aboriginal Amateur Hour
I got the call last week. No surprise, really. What game shows want is a person with a loud, clear voice and a vivacious outgoing personality, smart enough to do a good job playing the game, and unlikely to freeze up on set (man is that expensive). Those of you who know me (and most of you know me), know that I'm that good, as proven by my four prior game show appearances. Just when I was beginning to think I'd done my last show, I've been called again.
I mentioned this a few weeks ago:
Merv Griffin has a new game show!
Merv Griffin's Crosswords is gearing up and we need some fast thinkers! Win cash and trips! If you live in the greater Los Angeles area or are planning a trip out here and want to be on the show, please email: Iwanttobeacontestant@letsdocrosswords.com or call the contestant department at: (323) 762-8282. We love crossword aficionados, so give us a call!
Please note that all game shows are always a work in progress. I know the Wheel and Jeopardy audition procedures have changed substantially since I went on those shows in 1983 and 1985. So, keep in mind these tips are probably only valid up through the end of 2007.
- You will be waiting in line in the hot LA sun at 1pm--take sunscreen or an umbrella--before you enter the KTLA/Tribune Studios lot, on Sunset between Bronson and Van Ness, just west of the Highway 101/Sunset interchange.
- The production staff has been trying to get parking for people who audition in Producer's Lot A across the street, but there has been resistance. I was turned away on June 26. So, allow plenty of time to find a parking space and look for four-hour parking (some is available along Van Ness, the street that runs between the studio complex and Highway 101). It’s a bad neighborhood, but there's a decent, air-conditioned Thai place one block west of the studio where you can sit for a while if you order something.
- Get into line early; first-in, first-out. They number the auditioners.
- Don't take anything you don't need; they run you through a magnetometer and search your bags before you are allowed to enter the lot.
- Dress lightly; they don't turn the air conditioning up very high in the audition room.
- Bring water and food; you're going to be there a while, if you're lucky. Don't plan anything before 7pm the day of your audition.
- You fill out a biographical form. If you've ever been on a game show, make sure you know when. Think before you get here: what's the most interesting thing I've done I can talk about.
- You take the test; 90 (!) crossword clues, projected, PowerPoint-like, on a screen. Definition and number of letters. "A feline animal, three letters.". As is always the case with gameshow tryouts, they don't tell you the passing grade. A lot of people wash out at this point. This is the hardest game show test I've ever taken, and I got on, so don't give up hope until they tell you you're out.
- You then audition for the contestant coordinator. You stand up and talk to her for several minutes. If she likes the cut of your jib, you audition for the producer. Remember, loud, clear, good eye contact, lots of energy, but be yourself. If you can't do all those things naturally, you may not want to try out.
People sample a new show in its early days and make up their minds about it. Clearly, you want unusually spectacular contestants on the first few weeks. Which is why they wanted me for their 21st taping (shows may not be shown in the order in which they were taped).
When I auditioned, the contestant coordinator said, "Oh, you're going for the trifecta," meaning I hoped to appear on all three of the television game shows Merv invented, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and now Merv Griffin's Crosswords. The reason you haven't seen the last one yet is that it hasn't been on the air yet; the first showing is on Sept. 10, and it has been cleared in syndication for 85% of the nation's television-viewing homes. If you want an idea of what it's going to be like, you can see the pilot program; go to the Program Partners web site and click on the link "View Program Partners' Corporate Presentation." Rumor in the tryout room suggested that this was going to be a "one and out" show rather than a "continuing champion" show, but any game show is in flux before the first edition is aired.
Being among the first contestants to appear on a game show is getting to be a habit with me. I was on the first syndicated season of Wheel of Fortune, the second of Jeopardy (details of my appearances on those two shows are here), and I taped Ben Stein's Money before the first show aired. I was on the last season of Scrabble. Ironically, several of the people who tried out the day I did were on Scrabble as well. At the time, it seemed to me to be a television version of the board game, as it claimed, but of course the board game didn't have "clues" to tell you what word to use (some people call it the silicone valley: cleavage). You had clues, you built on one letter from a previous word. It was crosswords--and I was the winner of the day!
I am excited to have been chosen, and will keep you posted. I am, as well, keeping a journal of the experience that I will eventually add to my site.
Monday July 23, 2007
I fly down to Los Angeles on Southwest Airlines, arriving at 5, and taking a long, leisurely drive in rush hour traffic to the Dunes Hotel on Sunset, just two blocks from the studio at KTLA/Tribune Studios/Sunset and Bronson, where I taped Jeopardy almost exactly 22 years before. It is a AAA one-star, which is better than all the no-stars. I turn on the noisy window air conditioner and fall asleep, waking for an hour at 1:30am before starting
Tuesday July 24, 2007
Game day. I am up at 5:30 am, working New York Times crossword puzzles and reading the crossword dictionary. Cherries, bananas and a protein bar for breakfast.
We have to be at the studio no later than 7:30 a.m., and they suggest 7:15. So, once again, off to Producers Lot A--where, this time, I am allowed to park. The green room is the most confusing in which I have ever waited. There are at least a dozen show staffers sharing the room with 35 contestants (five per show and some extras); bagels and donuts take up one end of the room, with hair and makeup at the other. There is barely room to walk around. We all show our three outfits to a staffer; she asked me to change my pink shirt to a yellow one, which I did. I was worried she'd hassle me about my cufflinks (all I brought were french cuff shirts), but fortunately, that went by easily enough.
We watched a run-through of the show done in a conference room to get an idea of how the game is played. There are two podiums [yes, I know you stand on a podium, behind a lectern, but everyone calls them podiums, so let's just go along, shall we?] in the front row for the contestants, who play round one head to head. Three spoilers enter, and during rounds two and three they can knock you off your podium, taking your cash and trips. Each round includes a Crossword Extra, the equivalent of a daily double, in which you can bet more than all your money on your ability to solve the next word--which you haven't seen and know nothing about. Standards and practices did their best to scare us to death with the federal game show rules, then had us sign the most comprehensive liability waver I have ever seen--we had to initial every section.
The executive producer came in to discuss the rules. This is more important for a show that hasn't broadcast then for an established program, so he spent a lot of time on it and we had a lot of questions. It turns out Crosswords, as of show 21 is one and out--no repeating champs. I now realize one reason you might want to do this on a syndicated show; you can front-load with strong shows while people are sampling. Also, if you look at a show later and really dislike it, perhaps you have the luxury of not airing it at all.
After the executive producers came the contestant coordinator, who called the first show of the day--I was a contestant! (along with a woman named Janét--pronounced Jeanette)! We got less than five minutes in hair and makeup--really just an anti-shine dusting and a quick comb, even for the women (women in TV normally get about five times as much makeup chair time as men). A female technician slipped a wireless lavalier mic up under my shirt. Then it was off to studio 9 for buzzer practice. (the set fills the whole studio--no room for an audience for this first season).
Remarkably, as has been true since 8th grade that I can remember, I was only a tiny bit nervous. The adrenaline rush I get from appearing in public, my ham nature, my love of being in front of an audience, makes it impossible for me to have butterflies or be nervous before a performance.
The process was helped by the host, Ty Treadway. He is tied with Pat Sajak for the best game show host I've ever met (a group which includes Sajak, Trebek, Woolery and Ben Stein, although Stein is in a very close second place). Sweet, humble, not arrogant, intelligent, friendly. His persona on the E! Entertainment Channel is the same one he exhibits on stage to the contestants during the many breaks. He is smooth, intelligent, witty, and will prove, once more, that Merv Griffin is the best host picker in the world.
He had fun with me in the exceedingly brief contestant introduction; "I understand you're a big fan of Groundhog Day," he said. I explained why. "I understand you're a big fan of Groundhog Day," he said again. I assumed we were retaking it for some technical reason. He laughed. That's when I realized that he' made a "doing it over" joke. I told him during the break that in 20 interviews on the subject over the years, this was the first one in which someone made that obvious joke.
This is the toughest game show I've ever been on, and that includes Jeopardy! It has the toughest written test (I estimate I scored an 80, versus the 95 I estimate I had on the Jeopardy test), and as I was about to discover, Crosswords is hard to play. Out of 61 clues in my Jeopardy! game, for example, I knew 50 (not, alas, final Jeopardy). Of course, I lost because I wasn't fast enough on the buzzer, or buzzed in too early. There were only a small handful of clues no one knew.
In Crosswords, there were two of us in round 1 and five of us in rounds two and three. An awful lot of clues went by unanswered (fewer than you see on the air; to keep the show interesting, producers reserve the right to edit out no-answer clues that do not affect the outcome), many more than in any Jeopardy! game I've ever seen; they can't edit out clues in that game because of the board.
I missed several Crossword clues because of buzzer errors on my part (just as happened in Jeopardy!), but the only one I remember distinctly is "ado" from the title of much ado about nothing. Someday I'd like to be on a buzzer-free general knowledge quiz show. Tain't likely McGee.
Just as my Daily Double answer in the second round of Jeopardy! (A: In his famous speech, Patrick Henry reminded King George that Caesar and Charles I "had" these two men. Q: Who were Brutus and Cromwell) was the highlight of that appearance. I got a Crossword Extra, bet everything, and was presented a clue about Russian leaders that could have no other four-letter answer but Tsar. We spelled it Czar when I was a kid, but I know from doing a lot of crosswords that Tsar is the preferred modern spelling, even if Microsoft Word's spell checker disagrees. I was so excited I nearly blew it; you're supposed to say the word then spell it, and I did it the other way around. It could have cost me everything. Since the show is still new, and because I paused and spoke loudly and clearly, they let me have it.
I had fun, I mugged for the camera, I was energetic, cheerful and upbeat. And by the start of the second round, I knew I wasn't going to win unless Joe stumbled. Joe didn't stumble. But because I had the podium with the second highest total, no spoiler knocked me off, so I got to stand in the front row for all three rounds. Sure, money would have been nice, but if it isn't about having fun, you shouldn't be going on game shows. Desperation is not entertaining. It would have been nice to have some income against which to write off my expenses, but getting on a game show is like going to Disneyland; you open your wallet and spend what you must in order to have a good time.
I was struck again, as I was in 1985, by the suddenness with which it all ends. You've psyched yourself up for weeks, primped for days, and 20 minutes after the taping ends, you're standing in the bright Los Angeles sunshine; it's all over in 22 minutes of playing time (the amount of time left in a television half-hour after commercials). I had a flight at 8pm (in case I got on the last show); for $38, Southwest let me leave at 1pm.
I had fun. I will enjoy showing my Crosswords appearance to my students, and I imagine it will bring me as much pleasure in 22 years as my appearance on Jeopardy does now. What a thought; in 22 years, I'll be 76; I sure hope I'm still here. Maybe I'll still be playing game shows on national TV!
Actually, I think I'd make one hell of a game-show host. I wouldn't be Sajak or Treadway, but I could tie Stein, and be a slight improvement over Trebek and a major improvement over Woolery.
September 12, 2007
Television, in a way, is like Christmas; you spent a lot of time getting ready for it and a lot of time waiting for it to happen. Then it happens, and it's all over in an instant. My friend and former colleague Phil Albinus says I appeared in a promo on the Today Show as aired in NYC. My mother saw the show in the early afternoon, and I can already see I'm going to get a world of guff for not understanding the clue about "in the center of MIT" (Institute! Doh!). Now my performance belongs to history. Alas, by the rules of game shows, I can never be on Crosswords again, but there will always (I hope) be another show down the line…