This Week's Contestant
POSTED on Monday, June 10th, 2013
- Fun & Games:
My whole life, I've loved playing games. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a deep-seated and (potentially) clinically diagnosable addiction to games. This zeal for friendly competition transcends any and all types of games - be them board, video, card, digital, or just made-up. (However, in my adulthood, the number of made-up games has decreased significantly.) I can't help it; I love to have fun, I love to compete, and I love to win. The story of how I got to be on Wheel is a direct result of whole-heartedly living in line with each of those ideals. My problem however, was that for the longest time I had those maxims prioritized in the wrong order. By the time I had appeared on Wheel, I knew full well that I didn't have a shot at winning if I didn't remind myself that "fun" should supersede both "competition" and "winning."
- In the Kitchen:
I blame my adorable grandparents for my obsession with games. Many a day in East Hanover, NJ, we would sit around their kitchen table and play games for hours on end. We played all kinds of games, including hundreds of hours of the requisite "500 Rummy" and "Scrabble." No matter how many games we played and replayed around the kitchen table together, the experience somehow never waned in enjoyment. (Somewhere, there's a landfill comprised entirely of our notepad-sized score sheets with three columns of scores and my sloppy elementary school math all over them).
- Around the House:
Our gameplay wasn't limited to the kitchen, mind you. No childhood game-a-thon was complete without capping off the day with our nightly game show ritual. Here, we'd routinely watch both Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, while my grandmother enjoyed her "special tea." **Note to young grandchildren: DON'T DRINK GRANDMA'S "SPECIAL TEA". **Note to older grandparents: DON'T SUBSTITUTE THE WORD "LAXATIVE" for an ENTICING KID-FRIENDLY WORD, like "SPECIAL." Also, don't unwittingly mislabel the bottled version of the tea as something deceptively benign like "juice."We'd play along with the contestants, deciphering the puzzles together, and solving them aloud when they came to us as if Pat might actually be able to hear us that time. I know I've just described half of your childhoods. But did you have a feisty, sharp Italian grandmother who would lambast the occasionally clueless contestant without missing a beat? Classic. After laughing hysterically together and inevitably discussing Vanna's wardrobe choices during the credits, the evening would come to a comforting and predictable close.
- What Are You Doing?
Well, after all of that Wheel watching, something had to be done to ratchet up our primitive and completely uninspired "Hang Man" game. Being an industrious and creative kid, (and also an ber dork who was about to unknowingly guarantee his future exclusion from any social group that would ever be characterized as "popular"), I hand-crafted a homemade paper wheel and mounted it to cardboard while my Grandfather showed me how to use a brass-coated paper fastener in the middle to make it spin. After a few exquisitely drawn prize, bankrupt, and dollar amount wedges on the wheel, our game was ready to go. Do you know we used that same homemade wheel every time thereafter until they finally sold their house in 2001? (Consequently solidifying my geeky, game-loving social status throughout the majority of my formative years.) Simply put: they were some of my happiest childhood memories.
- Before & After:
Fast forward to adulthood. (I mean make-believe adulthood when you're still in college and you think you've got it all figured out.) Before filming Wheel of Fortune, my "gaming life" could essentially be split into two halves. Before "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and after "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."Still just as much of a game-enthusiast as ever, nearly a decade ago, I auditioned in NYC to get onto Millionaire for my shot at revolutionizing my life in 15 short questions. Success! I landed in the infamous "hot-seat," staring down Meredith Vieira as she dangled four tempting (and expensive) answer choices in my face. I remember thinking at the time that best way to feign calmness, poise, and charisma was to do -what turned out to be- my most awesomely bad impression of a guy who was significantly more charming and breezy than I. My faade aside, I honestly did feel ready to compete and win. I knew how to play the game. I knew an obnoxious, often embarrassing amount of useless trivia. I also knew how badly I needed that money. Notice how there was no mention of "having fun?" I was an invincible college undergrad at the time of filming and "having fun" while I was there simply wasn't a priority to me. A poor undergrad isn't interested in "having fun" they're interested in money. Wait I might have that backwards.
Anyway, I sat down, guns blazing and game-face on, as my brain involuntarily calculated every risk, strategy, outcome, and choice in mere fractions of a second. Without being aware of it at the time, I was taking it far too seriously. I was absolutely forgetting to enjoy the moment. I was forgetting to embrace every second. I was forgetting to have fun. I became so fixated on strategizing for the win, that I made a nave and painfully gutsy call, which sent my winnings and morale nose-diving unexpectedly from great heights. I was in utter shock. As an infinite number of regrets flooded into my mind, I stood up in a daze and shook hands with Meredith, and walked confusedly off-stage with my premature departure embossed on a fake $1,000 check.
I sat down backstage still in earshot of the next hyper-enthusiastic contestant barreling onto the set with similar delusions of grandeur. I'll never forget the feeling of sinking so low into that chair that my comatose and dejected body looked sloppy. There was a distinct moment when I really connected with Goldie Hawn's character in Overboard when she properly cracks-up and starts muttering syllables with a goofy stare. You remember the scene? She's in an oversized armchair rambling repetitive sounds like, "bah-bah-bah-bah-bah." Mid-trance, the show's lawyer came back for our exit-consultation. Somehow, by only moving my fingers, I grudgingly signed the paperwork, my limbs still draping lifelessly over the studio chair. My game show dreams were crushed.
Unresponsive, I left the studio with my grandparents at my side. Yup. They had come all the way into NYC with me (for the first time ever in their old age), just to see their grandson win it all. They couldn't wait to see how all of the hours of childhood game playing would pay off in colossal fashion. Instead, we left with enough money to afford a year's supply of pasta sauce ingredients and knowing unequivocally that the naval ship prefix, "S.S" stands for "steam ship" and not "sovereign ship." Oh, sure you totally knew that.
The passage of time healed most wounds, and aging out of my twenties brought great wisdom and maturity. Ok fine: brought great wisdom. When the opportunity to audition for Wheel presented itself, I couldn't pass it up. But this time, I couldn't pass it up for all the right reasons. I wanted to have fun. I wanted another chance to enjoy the experience. I wanted the chance to appreciate feeling grateful just to have the opportunity. I wanted to make my grandparents proud. I wanted to be a contestant on the game show that started it all.
After a multi-step audition process spanning two months, I received a letter notifying me that I would be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune within the next 18 months. When I stopped jumping up and down like a preschooler from my elementary school, it sunk in that I was actually going to be on Wheel of Fortune.
Having that exciting conversation on the phone with my grandmother felt like I had won already. All of the sudden, we were right back on her couch together, intently watching NY-ABC7 at 7:30pm, as she sipped her "special" tea.
Given all my life experiences at this point, it's safe to say I went into this with a whole different outlook. Now a hard-working, appreciative fifth grade classroom teacher who loves every second of his job, I was ready soak up every ounce of fun this provided and be grateful to win anything no matter how feeble the winnings. After all, in the famous words of my grandmother, "Every little bit helps!" (I heard this optimistic mantra reiterated every single time one of us had a low-scoring round in anything.) So, that aforementioned landfill of note-pad sized score sheets represents physical proof that I've heard this phrase at least a million times. It's actually a rather profound assessment when you think about it. Every little bit helps. Don't you love how unexpectedly wise your grandparents were the whole time?
- Classic TV:
The day had arrived. The previous day I had left my hometown of Philadelphia straight from work and flew to LAX. 7:45am the next morning, I was finally in Culver City, getting ready to film my episode of Wheel of Fortune. After prepping all morning with the amazing contestant coordinators, and an impromptu early-morning meet and greet with the one and only Vanna, we walked out onto the set. If I stared into the cameras hard enough, I could almost see my grandparents on their old couch looking back at me. (Or I was just cracking up again a la Goldie in Overboard.) I don't quite remember to be honest this part was all a blur.
Looking back, there were entire puzzles I still can't remember. Time passed by inexplicably quickly. I still struggled to be myself on camera, nervously producing awkward poses and mannerisms. (See: the 37 obligatory waves to the camera that indicate I had no idea what to do with myself when I was told to look directly into any TV camera for a prolonged period of time). I'm also reasonably sure I word vomited everywhere during my interview with Pat. All. Over. The. Studio.
You know it's bad when you ask the contestant coordinator during the commercial break how terribly your interview just went, and she sees your, "It was a disaster!" and raises you with, "It was endearing!" A kitten is endearing. A person referring to their spouse by an adorable pet name is endearing. Word vomit is not endearing. Nothing with the word "vomit" in it is ever endearing.
But how did I do in the end? What happened next? Did the epic interview fail rattle my confidence? You'll have to watch on June 13th!
Don't forget to come back to read my post-show blog too!
Watch me spin on Thursday, June 13th!