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Slow Finger Hurts MIT Student on ‘Millionaire’

By Eun J. Lee


Have you ever watched those million dollar television game shows and thought,“how do they pick the idiots to be on this show?” I was once a member of the television viewing public that went aghast at the stupidity of contestants on game shows. That is, until I became one of those idiots.

This past weekend, I was one of the ten finalists on the ABC television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I was one of the ten people introduced at the beginning of the show, who must race to win the fastest finger question (putting four things in order) to get into the “hot seat.” You are probably wondering how I did.

I’m sorry, but officially I am not supposed to reveal the results of my show. All I have to say is that I had the chance of a lifetime to show my stuff on national television and to counter the stupidity of all those people before me that I had so loathed in the comfort of my living room. Although my mind was willing, my fingers were slow and weak.

Cutting class not all bad

I am still not sure how I even got to be on the show. The progression of events still puzzles me because it happened in a whirlwind that spanned about two weeks from start to finish. On the morning of Friday, October 12, I heard on the radio that there were auditions in Boston for the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I entertained the thought of going to the auditions in the back of my mind as I rushed to class, but I didn’t think that I would seriously go.

I have to admit, though, that I found some perverse satisfaction in formulating hypothetical conversations I might have with Regis. For example, the other day I was watching an old Kung Fu, the Legend Continues episode (why do I get the feeling that I am incriminating myself by telling this anecdote?) and Regis made a cameo appearance. I just kept thinking to myself “man, Regis, you’ve come a long way since then.”

After my last class, I was talking to some friends, and somehow the topic of the auditions came up. At the last minute, we decided to go just for fun. My friend Kavitha and I literally ran to the Park Plaza hotel downtown, where the auditions were being held.

When we got there, a line had already formed an hour before the next audition. After waiting on the sidewalk, we were let in, but I don’t think that I realized the madness that would soon ensue. In hindsight, I have to say that the entire process which led me to my 15 minutes of fame was, to put it nicely, very sketchy.

I have realized that nothing in show business is what it appears. Including game shows.

The audition was composed of three parts: a 12 minute, 35 question multiple choice test, a written application, and a short interview with the producers of the show. I am not sure what it was about my audition file that made me stand out among the others.

What they told us at the auditions was that if they liked us, we would be put into an audition pool from which they pick contestants to be on the show.

After we took the test, we all had to wait in this room while they were scoring the results. To pass the time, the producers gave out t-shirts to people who went up to perform certain talents in front of everyone. There were several MIT students in this group, and one of them went up and recited pi to 100 digits.

All I remember is that everyone was screaming out “how do we know if you’re right??” while he was concentrating on dividing the circumference of his head over its diameter, or however that works (this guy was obviously course 18, and God knows what thought processes go through their heads).

The funny part of this story, though, is that the producers had this utter look of confusion on their faces the entire time, and right after he sat down, one of them gets up and asks “okay ... Can anyone do a Britney Spears impression?”

Two Mondays ago (October 22) after a long day of classes, I had a message from a stranger waiting on my answering machine. When I called him back, he said that I was chosen to be a finalist on the show that would be taped the following Monday. I had a 7.012 test that day, but I figured that I could get out of it, so I said that I would go. Needless to say, I was elated and preoccupied the entire week with organizing travel arrangements, my phone-a-friend list, and finishing my problem sets (a distant third).

I left for New York last Sunday morning, the show taped on Monday, and I was back to school on Tuesday. It was my first time ever in New York City, but I didn’t really have much time to explore. The entire experience was serendipitous. When people congratulated me for being on the show, I felt weird because I hadn’t really done anything to deserve it. It was just all random. I felt bad because when I met the other contestants that were going to be on my show, they had all waited months or years to be called to appear on the show.

The day of reckoning

The day of the taping, all the contestants and their companions left at 6:45 a.m. for ABC studios. There were two shows taping on that day, and mine did not begin taping until that afternoon at 4 p.m. Don’t ask me why we had to leave that early, or what we did the entire time before the show, because I’m still not sure. The entire day was a blur. All I remember is that they had to escort us to the bathroom every couple of hours, and we weren’t allowed to have any newspapers, cameras, cell phones, or playing cards with us. So essentially, all the contestants were sequestered in a room with snacks and drinks, which wouldn’t have been so bad if we could have gone to the bathroom.

At 10:00 a.m., we went to the set of the show and were given a talk by the show’s lawyer, who went over the rules with us. We were also allowed to practice the fastest finger questions and to go over what we were expected to do during the show.

The fastest finger process was not as easy as it might appear on television. It wasn’t the questions themselves that were hard so much as punching them in correctly. There was no lock on the letter keys, so if you slipped, the same letter could be punched in multiple times, messing up your answer.

Also, if you did not hit the keys straight on, they did not show up. After the four letters were punched in, you had to push an “ok” key to stop the clock. It was kind of confusing because the keypad had the four answer choices in straight line, but on the screen, the answers were arranged in a square pattern. Florida ballots, millionaire style.

The set was very small and didn’t look at all what it looks like on television; in fact it was sort of disappointing. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the sketchiness factor. They spent a good 30 minutes during rehearsal showing everyone the “right and wrong” ways to get into the hotseat. Apparently, the chair is top heavy and very unstable, so a lot of people have been very close to falling out of it.

An hour before our show was taped, we went to get dressed and get our hair and makeup done. The show took about an hour and a half to tape, and after it was over, I was relieved to finally be able to freely go to the restroom. All in all, it was a good experience. I got to meet Regis (who is also very different in person from what he might seem like on television), and I got a free trip to New York City. If you are curious as to the outcome of the show, it airs on January 3, 2002. I didn’t win a million dollars, but I think the whole experience made me realize that I don’t have a clue what I would do with a million dollars.

Though it probably sounds cheesy, but really, money isn’t everything, and I am not that disappointed that I came home empty handed. As all the excitement from my fifteen minutes of fame dies down and my life returns to its normal crawl back at MIT, I am beginning to appreciate the wealth of friends and family that love and support me through my mundane moments, and who have always known that I am worth a million bucks.