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I Should Have Been a Millionaire

9 a.m.: I sidle up to my desk right on schedule, a cup of coffee, an apple fritter the size of a small boy's skull, and the morning's San Francisco Chronicle in tow. With those necessities on hand, I take my seat and wait -- wait for the phone call that will let me cast aside this wearying workaday world and take up permanent residence in Fat City. I wait for the phone call that will change my life.

I wait for the phone call from Regis Philbin.

The idea hatched a few days ago over pizzas and beer seemed clever enough. One of us Vidiots -- namely me -- would try to dissect Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, ABC's insanely popular prime-time game show. My mission: to figure out just what it is about this program that's placed an entire nation in its grip, driven rival networks to churn out thinly disguised copy-cat shows and landed passive-aggressive host Regis Philbin on the covers of Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and -- for all I know -- Jugs. And what better way to do that, I figured, then by trying to land a spot on Uncle Reege's Good-Time Money Fun Parade?

Well, in a pleasant bit of serendipity, I wound up making it through the first round of qualifying for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. By answering three questions, my name gets entered into a random drawing, along with the names of all the other lucky schmoes. That pool is whittled down to 25 names -- no doubt chosen by Regis himself. If you're among the few, the happy few, then you can expect a phone call between 9 a.m. and noon Pacific Time. And if not, then brace yourself for your phone to set maddeningly, mockingly silent.

And so I sit by the phone. Waiting for Regis.

It never occurs to me for a moment that Regis won't call. After all, I'm the most deserving of $1 million of any person I know, except for maybe that homeless guy I pass on my way to work each morning. And he'd just blow the million on booze and smokes. Me, I'd spend it wisely -- on a better class of booze and smokes.

9:06 a.m.: I wasn't always so keen on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and its promises of easy loot. When ABC first trotted out the show last summer, I rolled my eyes just like anyone else. Great, I thought. Prime time game shows. That's exactly what America needs more of. That and a Donald Trump presidential bid.

You can't blame me for feeling that way. Consider the horrible consequences that our fascination with game shows have wrought in the past. Quiz show scandals. Pretentious Robert Redford movies. The continued employment of Chuck Woolery. It hardly seems worth it, especially for prize money that just winds up screwing with your taxes anyhow.

Well, as it turns out, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is fun -- a load of fun. You want drama? Who Wants To Be A Millionaire gives you people betting a future of financial security on whether they can recall if Brooke Shields appeared in the Broadway revival of "Grease." You want production values? Who Wants To Be A Millionaire offers a light show that would do the local Laserium proud and background music from the Yanni school of synth-pop. Forget the teetering ER and NBC's slate of laughless comedies. This is the real "Must See TV."

Perhaps it's wrong to derive so much glee from watching total strangers squirm uncomfortably as they try to remember just exactly how many children there were in the Von Trapp family. Maybe it's cruel to barely be able to contain your giggles when Regis furrows his brow in mock concern and asks the trembling contestant, "Is that your final answer?" And I'm pretty sure it's just not cricket to chortle when someone flames out before even reaching the halfway point on their trek to $1 million.

But then, who cares? The amusement that comes from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is that same guilty, giddy thrill you used to get back in school when the over-achieving kids -- those earnest, shameless boot-lickers who finished the assignments weeks in advance and did all the extra-credit problems and rubbed your nose in it when you didn't do the same -- got called on in class and came up firing blanks.

If that kind of schadenfreude is wrong, then I don't want to be right. And yes, Regis, that is my final answer.

9:13 a.m.: With nary a peep from Regis yet, perhaps some full disclosure is in order. When I say I qualified for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I'm being totally honest. I'm just not saying how many times it took me to qualify.

Part of the challenge of becoming a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is to first get past the omnipresent busy signal when you dial the show's toll-free number. Every house-bound idiot savant with a finger spasm, it seems, wastes untold man-hours each day trying to qualify for Fun Time With Regis.

And why not? Unlike Jeopardy, where would-be contestants must go through a rigorous screening process and actually know stuff, all Who Wants To Be A Millionaire asks of you is that you be able to dial a telephone. Just a winning hand dealt by Dame Fortune and anyone can be a millionaire -- even pudgy, mean-spirited hack writers trying out for the show as a gag.

After what seemed like hours of alternately pressing the speed-dial and redial buttons on my phone, I finally got my first taste of success.

"Well, hello!" that all-too-familiar voice shouted on the other end of the line. "This is Regis Philbin. Get ready to play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!"

The instructions barked out by Regis and his attendants are this: You're asked three multiple choice questions and you have to punch in the answers in the correct order using your phone's keypad. Get them right and it's on to the aforementioned drawing. Miss one and, well, at least your shame is private.

The first question requires me to put four words in alphabetical order. Simple -- opinions may vary as to the depth of my writing skill, but few can question my ability to alphabetize. Question two asks me to put the following cartoon series -- Rugrats, Muppet Babies, Beavis & Butthead and The Smurfs -- in the order they premiered. I punch in my answer and wait for question three.

Only to find out I got question two wrong. A TV-related question. Suddenly those four years spent at a top-rate public university feel like years wasted.

Crippling self-loathing aside, my failure to answer Reege his questions three put me in quite the bind. You only get two chances a day to qualify for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and I had just blown chance number one. Fail at the next attempt, and I would have to spend the next 24 hours coming to grips with the fact that, sure, the contestant the other night wasn't sure whether the Forbidden City was in Beijing or not, but at last she knew enough to punch in the right premiere date for the thrice-damned Muppet Babies.

Several more hours manning the speed-dial brought me to Attempt No. 2. An ear-splitting yet friendly greeting from Regis. Much explanation of the rules and legal argle-bargle. And then the questions. Oh God, the questions.

Arrange these four words to form a song title. Check. Enter these four recipients of Time's Man of the Year honor in the correct chronological order. Double check. Enter these four constitutional rights in the order they appear in the Bill of Rights.


Before you ConLaw experts out there fire off those angry e-mails to TeeVee, let me assure you I'm perfectly aware of what rights are spelled out in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. But in the right order? In 10 seconds or less? Well, that's a bit of a challenge for me.

Let's see. Freedom of speech, press and assembly. Right to bear arms. Um... quartering soldiers in times of peace? Coveting thy neighbor's wife? Don't go swimming a half-hour after eating?

See? Totally helpless.

So, faced with the humiliation of flaming out in the first round of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire twice in one day, I did what any well-educated, rationale person would do. I just started randomly punching in numbers on my telephone keypad until someone told me to stop.

Did my unconventional strategy work? Well, I'm sitting here, aren't I? And while some might dismiss that as pure dumb luck, I chalk it up to a calculated gamble, a commitment to purpose. From such things are millionaires born. After all, I start telling myself, not just any idiot can qualify for this game show. It takes a special kind of fellow, handpicked by the benevolent fates.

9:19 a.m.: Jason Snell pokes his head out of his office to let me know that he also qualified for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and that he, too, is awaiting a call from Regis.

Maybe qualifying isn't quite the feat I thought it was after all.

9:31 a.m.: It's been 30 minutes now, but I'm not the least bit worried. Regis is probably busy calling the obviously less qualified contestants and letting them down gently.

Sound too cocky? Maybe you haven't watched the show. If you did, you'd realize Who Wants To Be A Millionaire taps into the same appeal that Major League Baseball enjoys. You sit there and watch a guy fumble over a question about Henry David Thoreau just like you sit there watching a light-hitting shortstop try to hit a curveball and think, "Hell, I could do that."

Which is pretty brave of you to say, when you're kicking it back on the couch sucking down Cheetos instead of standing there at the plate with a Kevin Brown slider breaking in toward your jawbone. Stick the average know-it-all under the klieg lights and the baleful gaze of Regis Philbin, and the wit well runs pretty dry pretty quickly.

That jolt of humility aside, I defy you to make it through a showing of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire without having your contempt for your fellow man ratcheted up a notch or two. Ten minutes into the show, and I've already rubbed my vocal cords raw, heaping abuse on total strangers whose only crime was not knowing that there are only four strings on a violin or that there are seven innings in a regulation softball game.

Idiot! Everyone knows that the vice president of the United States lives on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. Ignorant fool, don't waste your lifeline now!

9:48 a.m.: Nearly an hour into the waiting game, I have discovered an ominous aspect to the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire qualification process. You have to wait by your phone for the entire three hours, should the call come. Dash off to get a bite to eat or tie up the line with a phone call from your aged mother who can't seem to find her pills, and you can just as well kiss that million dollars goodbye. Regis is much too important to bother with your primitive voice mail.

I bring this up for one simple, heart-rending reason. Chief among my many character flaws is that I have a bladder that would give even the most besotted incontinent a run for his money.

And I'm beginning to think that cup of coffee I just polished off was a really bad idea.

9:55 a.m.: The boss walks by my desk and sees me nervously waiting by the phone, a blank computer screen in front of me.

"Really productive day for you so far," he says, walking away.

My keen mind -- while unable to calculate when exactly Muppet Babies debuted -- detects a note of sarcasm in his voice. I secretly vow to use my million dollars to destroy him.

10:02 a.m.: Now I'm convinced: Drinking that cup of coffee was a bad idea. And in the next half-hour, throwing away the paper cup could turn out to be an even worse one.

10:05 a.m.: When I make it to the final round of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire -- and believe me when I tell you that any other outcome is inconceivable -- I don't plan to be like those other contestants who cower in the awesome presence of Regis. Everybody who's made it to the Hot Seat so far has let Regis play with their heads like some sort of oversized Nerf ball.

They give an answer, an answer that they know in their heart and mind must be correct. But when Regis hits them with that stare -- that "You're about to make a $1 million mistake in front of millions of unforgiving viewers" stare -- they crumble faster than a package of stale graham crackers.

Not me. When I get up there, the tables will be turned. The hunter will become the hunted. It will be Regis' mind that gets tossed around like a Frisbee.

He'll ask me an easy question, one of those $100 questions that are more or less a gimme anyhow. "For $100, Philip, what is your first name? Is it A) Philip, B) Lou, C) Hector or D) Bancroft?"

"Gosh, Regis. That's a real puzzler. But I think I'm going to have to go with C."

"C? But it's obvious that... are you, um, sure you don't want to use a lifeline? Maybe ask the audience?"

"Oh no. No, I'm pretty positive it's C."

"C. OK. C. Is that your final answer?"


"Your final answer. Is it C?"

"C? Gosh no. The gin must be rotting my brain. Obviously the answer is A."

10:09 a.m.: Clever ruminations about how I plan on making Regis squirm aside, he had better call soon, or else a good chunk of my prize money is going to be spent on dry cleaning bills.

10:18 a.m.: Lisa Schmeiser stops by my desk. "How goes the Millionaire thi..." she starts to ask. But before she can get the words out, I've already bolted past her, with a magazine in one hand.

"Can't talk," I shout back at her. "Wait at my desk. If the phone rings, pick it up and pretend you're me. Back in five."

10:24 a.m.: OK. So I'm back in six. The point is, I was able to heed nature's call without fear of missing one from Regis. But no word from Regis while I was indisposed, so Lisa was spared the ignominy of having to fraudulently pose as me. Which is just as well really. It's rather easy to tell the two of us apart. She probably knows when Muppet Babies premiered, for starters.

Ah, sweet Lisa. My angel of mercy. There to help out a fellow Vidiot in his time of need. I mean, where was Boychuk when all this was going down? Sure, he works out of Los Angeles, but he should have been here when I needed him. That selfish bastard just took himself out of the running for a share of my millions. Not one fucking sou, you hear me, Boychuk? Not one brass farthing.

10:35 a.m.: OK. Past the halfway mark now. If Regis is going to make me a millionaire, he'd best get on the beam.

Goddamn Regis. Always yammering about this and that and in such a loud voice, too. It's no wonder poor Kathie Lee Gifford has been driven to forcibly conscript orphans into sewing her line of clothing, having to listen to that gasbag all day.

10:46 a.m.: Holy hell. In an effort to divert myself while waiting for Regis to get his act together, I did a little Web surfing. And I've discovered that not only has a Salon writer already done a piece on his attempts to qualify for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the pointy-headed bastard actually made it on the show.


I mean, what gives here? Those Salon killjoys are always going on about the evils of filthy lucre and the shame of accumulating a vast, personal fortune. And one of them gets a chance at a million damn dollars? Me, I'm all for wealth, particularly when it applies to me. Where's my bite at the apple?

Bet that Salon guy would have just given the million to some co-op somewhere or blown it all on soy products.

I tell you, it's an unfair world.

10:52 a.m.: I'm plagued with self doubt. When I left the phone number for Regis and his minions to call me, I wonder if I didn't inadvertently transpose the numbers. I've been known for pulling brain farts like that. After all, I blew that Muppet Babies question, and really, how hard is that?

And even if I did someone manage to punch in the right digits for my phone number, maybe I didn't speak clearly and audibly when it came time to record my name. Maybe my number came up in the drawing, and instead of hearing a confident voice declaring, "Philip Michaels," the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire production assistant instead heard, "Mmmmph ma mmph moo moe."

"What a disturbed young man," the production assistant probably said. "Certainly not the kind of a fellow we can allow to be around Regis Philbin."

Oh Regis! Forgive me now my transgressions!

11:04 a.m.: I realize now I made a fatal error while waiting for Regis to call. I planned on using my money for evil instead of good. And God, in His righteousness, has decided to put the kibosh on that.

But I still have 50 minutes! I still have time to make things right!

The $1 million? A good chunk of it now goes to charity, Lord. Those plans that I had of stashing the loot in an offshore bank account? Consider them scrapped. That homeless guy I dismissed at the beginning of this article? Now I'm splitting my booze and smokes with him. Pretty generous, I'd say. The kind of actions taken by a man who not only wants, but needs to be a millionaire.

Dear God, let me have all that pretty money.

11:32 a.m.: Too depressed to write anymore. Too depressed to care. Regis isn't going to call. He never was going to call. I bet Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is rigged anyhow, and all those contestants you see each week are just ABC employees who have to give the money back to Eisner the minute the show's over.

Goddamn Eisner. He'll get his.

11:47 a.m.: Little dreams of gold
Shattered to tiny bits
God damn you, Regis, to Hell

12:00 p.m.: Tuesdays at noon in San Francisco carry with them a remnant from the Cold War. The City tests its civil defense system by sounding a loud siren that wails through downtown for 10 seconds, letting residents and commuters know that this is either a test of the emergency broadcast system or that an attack from the Russkies is nigh.

Today, that siren carries a double meaning. It lets people know that the city of San Francisco is looking out for them in case of nuclear attack. And it lets me know that when it comes to the judgment of Regis Philbin and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I am a big, fat loser.

Before today, I was just big and fat.

Make no mistake -- I've packed an awful lot of rejection and failure into 27 years of life. Each high school dance I went to was little more than an exercise in picking apart my self-esteem brick by tenuous brick. I have enough "Dear applicant" letters from newspapers big and small to cover the walls of my apartment several times over. And the Pulitzer folks? I just keep telling myself they've lost my phone number.

Sure, all that hurts -- it hurts real bad. But the bitter pill life keeps serving up tastes like chicken gumbo compared to this latest indignity.

I was spurned by Regis Philbin. That cruel, double-dealing bitch god. And nothing -- not even booze and smokes -- is going to make that rebuff go away.

12:01 p.m.: The phone line for qualifying for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire opens again. I start working the speed dial. How pathetic does that make me?

A million dollars worth of pathetic, baby!


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