[Night of the Lovely Parting Gifts; or "I'll take comeuppance for 400, Alex"]

"Those who respect the law or enjoy sausages should never watch either one being made." -- Otto von Bismarck

Part One: The Summer of my Discontent

The year was 1988. Having grossly miscalculated my finances during my first year of graduate school at UCLA, I found myself extremely short of cash that summer. What else could I do? I tried out for game shows.

Living in Los Angeles, like being dead, has its advantages: Being dead makes you eligible to appear on stamps and money; living in El Lay makes it possible for you to try out for television game shows. These used to be called "quiz shows," but the decline of American education (and increased scrutiny following some well-publicized scandals in the 1950's) has made it necessary to "dumb down" the contests over the years. Jeopardy!, the last surviving game show considered even remotely tough, is a walk in the park compared to the glory days of, say, The $64,000 Question.

If you've never lived in Los Angeles, you might be surprised to learn that there's a classification in the Yellow Pages just for game shows. In the summer of 1988 I went on a whirlwind tour of auditions:The $100,000 Pyramid, Scrabble, Password Plus, Jeopardy!, and yes, Wheel of Fortune. The basic system of auditions is the same for every show. Potential contestants are screened out in three phases:

  1. The cattle call -- Any life form with a pulse is eligible to sign up for this; however, the ability to make and keep an appointment screens out 98% of the population of Los Angeles and its environs immediately. In a room crowded with folding tables and chairs (in its off-hours it's used for Adult Education classes or maybe a DMV Traffic School), the livestock are subjected to the first cut: a written quiz, based loosely on the game played on the show. For Wheel of Fortune, this consists of a set of 25 partially-solved puzzles to be completed, along the lines of:
    Y__R  M_TH_R  W__R_  _RMY  B__T_

    For Jeopardy!, it's 50 questions culled from the $800 and $1000 levels of 50 different categories... questions like:

    This scandal over the leasing of government oil reserves brought down the administration of President Warren G. Harding.

    (and no, for the written tryout, responses do not have to be in the form of a question).

  2. The simulated game -- After 50 to 75% of the supplicants fail the written exam, the remainder get to play, in effect, "the home game." The P.A.'s trot out some well-worn stand-ins for the show's famous props -- a tacky, beat-up wooden spinning wheel, for example, and some hotel-desk counter bells to serve as "buzzers" -- and lead the would-be contestants through a few quick rounds of "Our Game". The purpose of this test is obvious -- if you can't play quickly, cheerfully, politely, and well, without losing your cool, in the presence of a few jaded Hollywood flunkies and a roomful of losers like yourself, you're unlikely to have significantly improved performance and composure under the combined stares of Alex Trebek, Merv Griffin Enterprises, seven cameras, 500,000 watts of Klieg lights, a live studio audience, and 45 million couch potatoes nationwide. (Oh, and try to refrain from saying "Oh, shit" when you muff a question while you're at it.)
  3. The chitchat gauntlet -- Following the ritual bloodletting of the simulated game, the production assistants now engage the survivors in some friendly conversation and ask polite, cheery questions, just like a real game show host. The real purpose of this getting-to-know-you session is to screen out those unfortunates who tend to be tongue-tied, surly, vulgar, unruly, politically incorrect ("Seems t'me lahk most of the c'ntest'nts on yer show're Nigra gals."), or toxically oversweetened. The producers of the show want contestants that the audience can identify with; if you present the outward appearance and demeanor of, say, Bernhard Goetz, or Roseanne Arnold, your dance-card is unlikely to get punched. By the way, if you are selected out of the gene pool in this round, you will never know it, because no one will say anything to you... your name and picture will simply go "into our contestant file" and never, never come out.

After the tryout, it's three months to a year before those who actually have a chance get called upon for an actual appearance on the show, announced by the cheerful, piping voice of one of those production assistants on your answering machine.

Part Two: For $300, I'll take the styrofoam cooler, Pat.

My hungry summer was long over before I heard back from any of the game shows. I survived my money crunch by working as a ticket-seller for the Orange County Fair, which is another story unto itself. Later, in August, I was offered a "tape date" (as it's called in the biz) for the now-long-dead Scrabble game show, hosted by Chuck Woolery in his pre-Love Connection days. I eagerly accepted, of course; then canceled three days later after receiving another offer, this time for the nighttime Wheel of Fortune.

In those days, the difference between the daytime and nighttime editions of Wheel of Fortune was like the difference between -- well, day and night. Guests of the nighttime show won cash -- pure, unadulterated coin of the realm, good for all debts, public or private. Players of the daytime game got to "shop" for prizes. (Is this still the case? Since appearing as a contestant I can't bear to watch either Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy! any more.)

"Shopping" for prizes involves calling out the names of prizes from a "prize package," while the MSRP of each item is subtracted from the contestant's winnings for that round. MSRP stands for Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price. This is a fantasy amount, roughly four to twenty times what you would actually pay for the item at your local Wal*Mart -- if the item was even available at Wal*Mart, which they usually aren't, because game show prizes are usually either a) discontinued products that failed in the marketplace, unloaded by the maker as a way of cutting their losses (the manufacturer can deduct the MSRP of the prize as an "advertising expense" rather than simply dump their worthless inventory of ceramic dog statues in a ravine somewhere); or b) new products being introduced by manufacturers who are better known for other things (Bic ski equipment, Westinghouse home computers, hair care products from Union Carbide) that also aren't doing so well in the marketplace. The idea with these latter items is to cheaply raise consumer awareness of their existence. ("Look, honey, now Frigidaire makes VCR's! Let's run out and get one!")

On-screen, "shopping" for prizes is represented by showing the contestant's perplexed face in one corner of the screen as the camera swoops and dives over the displayed prizes. This effect is supposed to persuade the viewing audience that the contestant is looking at the prizes while "shopping," but in fact the contestant is watching a whiteboard while two production assistants erase the names of prizes already "purchased" and helpfully point out remaining items that the contestant still has enough "money" to get.

The contestant is required to keep shopping until there is no longer enough money left to purchase any of the remaining prizes, even if this means having to take a fifty-bag pallet of lawn fertilizer or a dazzling ladies' brooch. After the dust settles, the contestant is offered the opportunity to refuse any prizes he doesn't really want. Cash substitution is not an option -- it's strictly take-it-or-leave-it. This is because the prizes have been donated by the manufacturers, and making contestants take them away is the only way to get rid of them.

And, to give the knife a final Kafkaesque twist, the MSRP of the prizes you buy (and remember, "once you buy a prize, it's yours to keep") is reported to the IRS as income and taxed at your regular rate, just as if you had worked for Merv Griffin for the day. This means that, when tax time rolls around, you owe additional taxes on the (grossly inflated) MSRP of your lovely prizes, which might even push you into a higher tax bracket. But, because Mr. Merv paid you your day's wages in the form of cases of Turtle Wax and Rice-A-Roni instead of actual cash money, you in effect have to pay the taxes on your prizes out-of-pocket. (Recall that my initial involvement in this game-show gig was because I was short on cash in the first place.)

For this reason, the nighttime Wheel of Fortune was much, much to be preferred over the daytime version. Not only were the players' winnings in the form of a nice depositable check, but they were bigger -- a nighttime winner might take home $35,000 per show, much more than Scrabble was giving out. So of course I jumped at the chance to be on the nighttime Wheel like a frog on a hook.

And, of course, once I had canceled my Scrabble date, Wheel of Fortune unilaterally switched me over to the daytime version instead. Take-it-or-leave-it. So I took it. Pass the Vaseline, Pat; I think I feel a song coming on.

Part Three: The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd

(To be continued after this commercial message...)