back to the Black Table

When I was a young boy growing up in Mattoon, Illinois, a small town about an hour south of the University of Illinois and two hours east of St. Louis, my world was limited. I knew baseball, cartoons, my bike (one of those nasty-ass banana-seat ones, one my dad made me put an huge awful orange flag on the back so the cars could see me) and television. My heroes were small ones. Ozzie Smith. Willie McGee. Voltron. Link, from The Legend of Zelda. That kid down the street who could dunk on an eight-foot hoop. My cousin Denny, who could swallow 10 bugs and not gag once.

And Michael Larsen, an unemployed ice cream truck driver from some city no one had ever heard of, with a life nobody wanted.

You might have read about Mr. Larsen. He showed up one day on CBS's Press Your Luck (in case you've forgotten, Press Your Luck was that show where you tried to avoid the whammies -- odd little animated trolls who took all your money away -- on some electronic board; it was a very dumb game) and wowed the audience and the host by consistently missing the whammies and racking up free turns and more money. He did this over and over until he had compiled winnings upwards of $110,000. Everyone was convinced he'd somehow hacked into the master switchboard (do game shows have switchboards?) or done something equally illegal.

But Larsen was far too pathological to sink to such depths. Larsen -- perhaps in between shifts on the ice cream truck -- recorded episode after episode of Press Your Luck and studied them, freeze-framed them, scoured them for clues. He figured out how the system worked. He learned which box lit up after which box, how quickly it went, when it was smart to hit the lever so it would land on big money and free turns. He did the paperwork and calculated how much he could win. He came to the show armed and ready.

And sure enough, he just kept winning. My favorite part of the show was when, deciding he had won enough, he had to finish out his final few plunges (I think they're called "plunges."). He'd lost his concentration and was off rhythm. He had to finish out his turn, with a hundred-some-odd thousand dollars in the bank, and he actually had to press his luck. And he pulled it off.

I don't know what he did once he went home with his winnings, but you can bet he didn't hop back on that ice cream truck. I'm sure he bolted, left where he was, onto something better, something bigger, something real.

I loved Michael Larsen. He stuck it to the man and improved his life ... on national television. It's the big time, baby, and game shows were where it was at. I bought all the home games, borrowed my friend's computer games and practiced, practiced, practiced. Hard work would buy my golden ticket. I didn't even know anyone who had been on TV before; I think one teacher from Mattoon once got arrested for sleeping with a student, and they had him on there with a jacket over his head. I wasn't sure exactly how I would reach the outside world, but game shows seemed a much better bet than that.

I'm told a lot of people went outside and frolicked when they were children, enjoyed the freedom of youth bathed in sunshine and innocence. I even think I saw a few of them from my window while I was immersing myself in Family Feud, Sale of the Century, Joker's Wild, Tic-Tac-Dough, Card Sharks. This, my friends, was showbiz: Flashing lights, obscenely jovial hosts, lovely parting gifts, the ecstasy of a ringing bell, the agony of an unforgiving buzz. A seed was planted, a dream was born, a dream that an unassuming young boy from Southern Illinois could one day grow up and make it big on that national platform. I spent years waiting for that break, that chance to prove my mettle in front of the entire world. Or at least a basic cable audience.

I sacrificed much, including my dignity and physical well-being by joining the high school quiz-bowl team. It was my training, the penance I had to pay for the fame, fortune, and Price Is Right home game that awaited me.

Flash forward quite a few years. In May 1997, at the tender age of 21, I was scheduled to graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Like every red-blooded college senior in the age before web startups, I was freaked out about finding a job. And I had more to think about than just myself.


Her name was ... well, let's just call her Jennifer, until we have reason to give her the name she is now known and loved by. She was some piece of work, this Jennifer. I'd met her in an advertising class (the University of Illinois' journalism school is so renowned and pure that all majors are expected to take at least one advertising course). At the time, I'd just broken up with a (let's be honest here) psychotic, depraved, desperate woman who had worked with me at the student newspaper, and I was looking for no one, nothing in particular, just a place where I could shut the door and not be screamed at for being attracted to that guest star on Friends, a place where I could just be left the fuck alone for a while.

Jennifer was different than the neurotic, unwashed masses of college journalists I'd typically hung out with. First off, she was blond and beautiful, sleek and refined, one of those girls from a rich family who would do anything in their power to make sure you didn't know it. The first thing you noticed about her was not her hair, or her face, or her breasts, though they were awfully tempting. It was her eyebrow ring.

Right there, above her left eye, was a little silver ring, jabbed through her skin and twisted, so set in there that you figured if she ever took it out, her face would just plum fall off. It was so odd for it to be there; she didn't have any tattooes, she appeared to wash her hair on a regular basis and she was sweet and funny rather than off-putting and confrontational. I'd never seen a woman with an eyebrow ring before; well, not one who would talk to me, anyway. It was stunning, actually, how ridiculously sexy the eyebrow ring looked on her. It was like Julia Roberts with a bone through her cheek ... beauty with a surreal splash of brutality. My first impression was that she would probably be a hellion in bed, then probably bite your head off afterwards.

She didn't notice me at first, not in that class, mainly because I was fat then and, like all of my college classes, I skipped too often to have much permanence whatsoever. But one afternoon, she, for no clear reason, decided to sit smack in the middle of Mike and I. Mike was a co-worker at the student newspaper together, my roommate and my best friend. It was strange to see someone outside our messy, dysfunctional little Daily Illini family circle actually make an attempt to communicate with us, so we were enthralled. Plus she was fucking hot. Did I mention the eyebrow ring?

"Hey, guys, I understand you all work at the newspaper?"

Uh-huh, uh-huh, yes, yes ("She was talking to me, dude." "Fuck you, man, she was talking to me!").

"Well, listen, I was thinking I might like to do some writing for the paper. I actually need a summer job; do you guys publish over the summer?"

Mike, after winning a knockdown, drag-out battle with me for the position a couple months earlier, was the editor-in-chief of the paper, with me as the managing editor. But Mike, because he actually gave a shit about his career, had an internship set up in nearby Peoria, leaving me, who just wanted to get piss drunk all summer in Champaign, to run the paper for three months. So, yes, we did publish, and yes, I was in college and understood not the semantics of professionalism, and yes, I was going to make sure this hot fucking girl with the eyebrow ring had a summer job.

A week later, Mike and I were eating lunch, discussing the plans for the summer. Because I had to at least put up a pretense of propriety (fucking political correctness ... did they not fucking see how hot she was?), I had narrowed down the final reporter position to two candidates: Jennifer and some putz named Harry Hitzeman. Harry had worked for us for a while, but he was a moron who had once arrived three hours after deadline from a city council meeting, explaining "it was so stupid, man. They sat there for two hours and debated whether they would include one little word. One word!"

What was the word there, Harry? "Not."

Harry Hitzeman, ladies and gentleman, our little Brenda Starr.

Nobody liked Harry, and they knew he was a lousy reporter, but he did have more experience than Jennifer, who had written, um, nothing for the paper. It was a judgment call; either I hired Harry and had a lousy summer, or I risked be ostracized by fellow staffers who thought I was hiring someone who wasn't a journalist just because I was clearly attracted to her (which, of course, was exactly what I was planning on doing).

Tough decision. Rather than actually be a leader and make a hard-line, fiercely deliberated verdict, I put it in the hands of fate. Like I usually do when faced with a too-difficult-to-figure-out dilemma, I flipped a coin. I sat there at Wendy's, with Mike, rationalizing. "Two out of three, here we go. Heads we hire Jennifer, tails -- shiver -- Harry. You're my witness. Here goes." Heads. Tails. Deep breath. Heads. That settled it.

I could sit here and torture myself about how differently life would have turned out had that last toss turned up tails ... and I think I will. Give me a second. Need to do a little flogging, some side self-flagellation. Sit tight. Be right back.



(the final frontier, that space)

(another space)

(deep sigh)



(looking for some ice)

OK. I'm done now (you wouldn't happen to know what best reduces swelling, would you?).

Anyhoo. Jennifer came on board as a summer staff writer, and, much to the surprise of friends, family, pets and local communist sympathizers, we hit it off, big time. You wouldn't have thought so upon a first meeting, but we had quite a few characteristics in common. For example, we both were heavy drinkers and smokers. We both were close to our parents. We both thought she was really fucking hot. We both ... well, I'm sure there was other stuff. It's been a few years.

We were quickly in what all the kids today are referring to as "love." We lasted through the summer and were even stronger as school started. I was 21 years old -- we were so in love she filmed me vomiting after 18 1/2 shots of Three Wise Men (a Johnny Walker, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam combo shot, an evil concoction designed to break men's spirits) and didn't even pan away -- and was about to graduate. It all started to make sense. I was starting to grow up, and it was time to do what I was supposed to do.

My father married my mother when he was 21 and she was 20. In Mattoon, if you're 24 and not married, you're probably gay (in Mattoon, that's an ominous label). Time was a-wasting. I was nuts about Jennifer -- I learned, as the months went by, that she would never actually bite my head off after sex ... instead, it was more like "All right, that's over, get the fuck out!" -- but graduation was rapidly approaching. We had only been dating for about four months, but it felt right. I mean, she could play guitar at parties! She could roll the perfect joint! She gave incredible back rubs! We had all any relationship needed to survive. Heck, I liked her so much, she lost the eyebrow ring, and I still found her dead sexy (it was tough, I admit, to remain aroused by the loss of her navel ring, however. She took it out and a long string of pus oozed out for days afterwards. I think it helped her lose 10 pounds). To paraphrase the wise sage Heavy D, now that we'd found love, what were we gonna do ... with it? I couldn't imagine losing her.

It was time to act. One night, when we went to Mattoon over Thanksgiving, we sat shitty drunk at a local watering hole, avoiding various obnoxious former classmates (any trip to a bar in Mattoon ultimately functions as a pseudo high school reunion). She looked at me for a moment, raised an eyebrow and smiled. I returned the look.

I speak: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

She speaks: "Well, I do have to pee."

It continues in this fashion: "That's not what I meant."

"I know."

"Do you want to do it? I've had it on the mind for a while now."

"So have I."

"All right then. Do you want to say it first? Or should I?"

"I don't know. It's scary."

"Not as scary as that guy's mullet."

"That's pretty scary."

"Mattoon's pretty scary."

"I've noticed."

"Jennifer ... I think we should get married."

(pause) (smile) (quiet glance downward) (doves flutter in the distance) (somewhere, a bell is chiming)

"That's not what I was thinking."

"Oh. Really?"

"No. Just kidding. Sorry."


"Yeah, I think maybe we should."

"Good. I almost threw up there for a second."

And we were off. I told my parents the next night that I was going to ask her. My father belabored me for not having a job yet (he called it a "J.O.B., Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaab," implying an accent he doesn't have) and continuously called Jennifer "that Jennifer girl," but my mother was shockingly supportive. She began to cry, then took me to her jewelry chest. She opened it up, dug around for a while and pulled out a small ring.

"This was my engagement ring. It was also your grandmother's. I want you to have it, and I want you to give it to Jen. If it's not too (more crying) small." We hugged. She cried some more. Then I think she vacuumed for a while.

It was too small -- hands like Shaq, Jennifer had -- even though it had fit both my mother and my grandmother perfectly. I zipped out to a jewelry store and had it resized, then I drove 140 miles drove up I-57 to Kankakee, where Jennifer lived. The importance of tradition weighed heavily, and I felt the next honorable step in the process would be do ask Jennifer's parents for her hand in marriage. I arrived, and Jennifer and her brother bolted; they knew why I was there.

For whatever berserko reason, Paul and Jami loved me, and they gave me their blessing. Paul waddled over to me and told me if I were to enter the family, I would have to have a glass of whiskey with him. I'd never drank whiskey before -- in college, it was box of wine or bust -- but I struggled through a couple of carafes of Crown Royal. Been drinking whiskey heavily since then, way too much, in fact; thanks a lot, Paul.

At the end of the night, the entire family gathered in a circle. Paul made an announcement: "If you are to enter this family, you will have to go through the gauntlet, our hazing. It is time for the Bundy family zerbet." I had no idea what a zerbet was; I thought I was about to eat ice cream. No such luck. Paul went over to Jennifer, lifted her shirt to her navel (no pus, thank God) and blew on her stomach, making that sounds suspiciously like a fart. She giggled madly. She then did it to her brother, who did it to me, who did it to her mom. We then switched places in the circle. I shit you not, people.

Everyone went to bed, and Jennifer and I went out for a cigarette. I told her I had some papers in the car I needed to wrangle up -- so smooth, yeah -- and opened the glove compartment, where the engagement ring conveniently ... wasn't located. Fuck. Where is that sumbitch? I fumbled around for a few minutes until Jennifer started getting annoyed, then finally found it. I did the whole spiel; on bended knee, glazed over eyes (the Crown Royal helped), it-would-be-an-honor-if-you-would-be-my-wife, that whole bidness. She said yes and started to weep (people do this a lot around me); we then went inside and passed out before we had a chance to properly consecrate the engagement. We were engaged. I had a fiancée. January 5, 1998 was to be the date.


Graduation. About two months before school ended, I received wonderful news. U. The National College Magazine, a ridiculously obtuse monthly publication that was distributed in college newspapers across the country, called me and asked me to apply for their fellowship position. The deal: Every year, U. took four recent college graduates, journalism majors preferably, and brought them out to Los Angeles, set them up with an apartment and let them run a magazine. It sounded like a pretty freaking sweet deal to me; cheap apartment, right on the beach in Santa Monica, nice salary, tons of writing opportunities.

Most importantly ... it was in Los Angeles. The big time. The goal since birth had been to escape my small town and prove that I was bigger than factory work and marrying your cousin. I didn't want to be an electrician like Dad. I wanted to see the world, find out if I could make it somewhere on this big planet. Sure, Mattoon was nice enough, quaint, Mayberry-esque ... but I was an adventurer, an explorer, a man with much to do and say and show the world.

Los Angeles? Los freaking Angeles? Me? Shit, dude ... I could make a name for myself out there. Once I arrived there, nothing could go wrong. The world would be my proverbial chicken coop ... I could take the place over.

Jennifer loved the idea of Los Angeles, so with her blessing, I applied. We did a phone interview. I tried to be appropriately wacky ("Yeah, I live with a woman now, so that wouldn't be a problem. The only thing I have issue with now is that she keeps leaving the damn seat up."), serious ("Journalism is in my bones," or some shit), responsible ("I've run a staff of 10 people!"), complimentary ("What U. Magazine does, you just don't get that anywhere else. It's killer!") and worldly ("Yeah, um, I've been to Chicago once or twice."). I wasn't sure how I did, but I sure did worry about it. Finally, the call came; they wanted me, don't care that you're engaged, stay at the apartment until the fiancée arrives (she was coming out a month after I did), cool, excited to work with you.

And then, poof, whammo ... I was in Los Angeles. I started the job, covering film and television, waiting for Jennifer to arrive. She gave me daily updates on how the wedding progress was coming, in which I did a lot of "yes, dear" and "I'm sure that's tough" and "I agree, having rotating swans across the front lawn to welcome wedding goers is entirely unnecessary." We talked daily about the excitement that awaited her in L.A., and if just to hold me off, she even sent me videos of herself in various state of disrobement, usually alone. It was, well, it was nice, to be honest.

Meanwhile, I had a job to do. Basically, I just assigned stories and went to film screenings, taking calls from pathetic publicity people about why I should see this movie, review this show, listen to this band. One day, a press release from Buena Vista Entertainment came across my desk.

"COMEDY CENTRAL TO DEBUT GAME SHOW "WIN BEN STEIN'S MONEY" IN JULY" blared the headline. I remembered Ben Stein, the former Nixon speechwriter, as the morose, charisma-challenged schoolteacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the great Wonder Years on TV. I knew he was a professor at nearby Pepperdine University, but only because I read the press release. Supposedly there was this new television program where Ben Stein would not only host a game show, but also actually play against the contestants. The idea was that anyone who could beat Ben Stein would win $5,000, Stein's payment for the episode. If he beat you, he kept his cash.

Sounded moderately interesting, but I had no plans to do a story about it (who in the world wants to read about a stupid game show?). And then I caught the end:

Those wanting to become a contestant on "Win Ben Stein's Money" can call 818-234-4022 and leave their name, address, age and phone number.

Ding! We have liftoff! Of course! A game show! My chance! Imagine what the boys in Mattoon would think if they flipped on their TV and saw good old Will buzzing in and answering questions with that shit grin on his face! They'd know I made it then! I'd be a hero!

Dial, dial, dial. Busy. Fuck. Dial, dial (softer this time). An answering machine. I leave my information. I wait by the phone. The next day -- they were far more desperate for contestants at this infant period of the show -- Shoshana, the "talent coordinator" for Win Ben Stein's Money, calls. I needed to come to so-and-so building at so-and-so time, where I would take a trivia test and then have my "charisma quotient" evaluated. It was on.

I showed up and took some test, and they weeded out anyone who didn't score high enough. I made the cut, proceeding to sit in a group of people and slap playing cards on a table when it was time to buzz in. I tried to be funny and charming when I buzzed in and picked my categories, but I ended up only answering one question correctly, what city Northwestern University was located (Evanston, you moron). We were shuffled out, and it seemed my chance had been blown.

One week later, Jennifer made it into town, finally. Her first night, in an attempt to be romantic, I booked us at a hotel overlooking the ocean. Jennifer ended up sick; she spent half the evening vomiting, the other half crying, presumably over the strain of leaving her home, family and all she'd ever known. It was very sexy.

Actually it wasn't.

But no matter. She moved into my apartment, already stacked with four people, and we searched the greater Los Angeles area for a place for the two of us to lay some roots. We didn't find anyplace for the first week, but we had some nice leads. She also searched for an advertising job, just like Amanda on Melrose Place, our favorite Wednesday night show.

Then the call came. It was Shoshana. "Will, you've been selected to be on Win Ben Stein's Money. Congratulations!" I was to film in two weeks, so "start studying up. Ben's a tough competitor!"

I put down the phone and hugged Jennifer, exhilarated that I'd finally made it. It was my time! Welcome to The Show, kid. I couldn't contain myself. I was hopping around the apartment, laughing, loony, exultant. I was going to be on television! Will Leitch! From Mattoon! I leapt into the bathroom and began practicing my intro in the mirror. "Yes, my name is Will Leitch, I'm a writer, originally from Southern Illinois, living in L.A. now, and boy, lemme tell you, this city's crazy. Smoggy, I tell ya. It's so smoky here, the other day, I went outside and thought I was on fire. Started stopping, dropping and rolling. Oh! Crazy!" Talent agents would see the show, realize they had a blazing new talent on their hands and climb all over themselves to sign me. Money, fame and the other trappings of comedy stardom would roll right in.

Amy Garrett, that girl who never talked to me in high school, she'd get it then. You thought I wasn't cool enough, but I'm bigger than Mattoon now. I'm on TV! Take that!

Jennifer seemed indifferent, which I found curious, but she had been sick again the night before. I started studying up, poring through encyclopedias and playing countless games of Trivial Pursuit. But no amount of last minute cramming would ultimately make much difference; I'd been training my whole life for this.

The fortnight passed, and we still hadn't found an apartment. I felt like I was a bit more into the process than Jennifer was. That was fine; I was a family man now, and that was the type of real-life business that husbands are supposed to attend to. I also searched around for jobs for Jennifer; she tended not to like any of them. Too stuffy, too corporate, too boring, too "L.A." Money was also beginning to become a problem; my job was nice, but it wasn't set up to support two people. And Jennifer was still planning a wedding, deciding which invitations to use, what color the bridesmaids should wear, whether we should have a three- or four-course meal. The stress was starting to mount.

But it didn't matter, because we had each other and we had this incredible, exhilarating new life ahead of us. And we had Ben Stein.

The night before my 8 a.m. taping, Jennifer and I caught a screening (took her to the Sony lot; thought she might enjoy that brush with Hollywood glitz) and came back to my apartment for some wine and relaxation. Bed by 10. Must be well-rested. She had seemed strange all evening, but I attributed that to nerves. After all, her future husband was about to take the entertainment world by storm. That kind of impending jolt of fame can make one somewhat skittish. Would she be able to handle the spotlight? Would her private life be interrupted? And what would we do about those blasted paparazzi?

We had this wonderful porch at our apartment. It overlooked Schatzi's, a fancy-pants wine restaurant that happened to be owned by popular thespian Arnold Schwarzenegger. You could sit out there and overlook the city, remind yourself that oh, shit, I really do live here. I used to sit out there for hours, reading a book and smoking a pack of cigarettes. Later on, I would include much, much alcohol in that equation, but for this night, at this point, it was just some Boone's Farm.

Around 11, Jennifer, after heading inside to check her email, came out to the porch, where I was smoking and plotting my impending global domination. She had the oddest look on her face, and she appeared to have been crying. I asked her what was wrong. She told me to sit down. I was sitting. I told her to sit down. I tried to hug her, comfort her. What was wrong this time?

The speech was quick. It had clearly been rehearsed. This was not the first time she had said it. It was just the first time I'd been around to hear it.

She exhaled deeply. "Will, I've been doing a lot of thinking. And I've decided ... well, I don't think I'm ready to get married. I don't think I want to be, I don't think I can be, with anyone right now. I just think I need to be alone for a while. I was thinking of maybe getting away, maybe leaving all of this big world, getting more in touch with nature, maybe hiking through the mountains, finding myself. I just ... I just can't marry you."


Reader, dear reader, close friend, loyal supporter ... I would very much like to say that I took this news like a man. With a stiff upper lip, stoic demeanor, chiseled features, rugged humor. I would like to say that I told Jennifer that I supported her, that I understood, that much has happened in the past few months and it's been very stressful. I would like to say I kept my dignity.

Eh ... no. I whined. I bawled. I begged. I crawled. I whimpered. Went through 'em all, denial, anger, whatever the other two are, all of 'em but acceptance. I dragged through the muck, pleading for a chance, weeping, wailing. It was pathetic.

This went on for about seven hours, save for another quick trip to the liquor store (Jack Daniels this time). "I feel terrible," she said. "I never meant to hurt you," she said. "It's not you, it's me," she said. I won't delve into the details of all that happened, mainly because I've either forgotten them or blocked them out, but eventually, I blearily looked at my watch -- the one she got me for Christmas, a nice one, a Dakota Quartz -- and realized it was 6:45 a.m.

She mentioned we should get going. She then paused and handed me her engagement ring.


Showtime. I changed clothes -- we were halfway to the studio when I realized my pants were on backwards -- and headed to Hollywood land, specifically Studio City. We mulled around with other contestants and their wives and husbands for a while -- "I hear Ben's a fucking genius, man. I'll be happy to get out of here with a parting gift." "Screw that. I'm here to win." "Anybody have an aspirin?" -- and eventually a producer came out to direct me backstage and Jennifer (who heretofore shall be referred to as she is known by all, as the "ex-fiancée." I have close personal friends who to this day don't know her real name) to the front row seating are. They placed me in the makeup chair, which, as you can probably guess, was dearly needed.

"Hey, Will, are you ready to WIN SOME OF BEN STEIN'S MONEY?!" some producer guy with a nasty comb-over bellowed to me as I was awaiting our call time. I mumbled something -- it might have been "There is no God" -- and he mentioned that we needed to go over some biographical information before we started. Okey-dokey.

"OK, you're a film critic, you love Woody Allen, and you're single but engaged, right?" Uh, no. I informed him, through a random smattering of grunts and clicking sounds, that, in fact, funny thing happened to me on the way to the show, ha, ha, I'd just gotten unengaged about three hours ago. He frowned the frown of the terminally cheery and said "Don't worry, Will, we won't even mention it." Mention what?

It's time. I stumbled onto the set and shook hands with Ben Stein and his trusty sidekick Jimmy Kimmel -- who now annoys at least a couple of viewers a week on The Man Show -- made some small talk and tossed a tired -- oh, so tired -- smile toward the ex-fiancée in the crowd. My opponents were a flighty woman who was trying to pass the bar exam (Ben had some lawyerly advice for her during the intro) and an angry-looking compact young man who told me in the waiting room that he'd been rejected for Jeopardy and figured this was the next best thing (Ben was scared of him during the intro, as was I).

Stein came out to huge applause from the bused-in crowd, who were paid 20 bucks and given lunch for their day of canned excitement. I found out later that a couple of the grimy non-proletariat asked Jennifer before the show who she was rooting for, and why. She mentioned I was her ... well, she wasn't sure what I was. They were confused, but they figured out the deal soon enough.

The other two contestants shared some witty on-air banter with Kimmel, and then it was my turn.

Quoth the Kimmel: "And our final contestant is Will Leitch. He's a film critic who loves Woody Allen and, I hear, just got unengaged last night. Wow. That's amazing. How are you feeling today, Will?"

Man, look at those bright bright bright bright bright lights they've got on the set. They are mighty pretty! How do they make them that bright? Do they need special amps? Wonder if Letterman does that? Probably not, as cold as he keeps his set. When police interrogate suspects, do they keep them that bright? Wonder if the sun started out that way, as a really bright light on a set, and then worked and struggled and kissed ass enough to become the center of our solar system we now know and love. It's a long road to the top.

I stared ahead, transfixed. Hey, I wonder, could I name all the Phoenix brothers? The Baldwins? What's the name of that guy Willie McGee was traded for? Did Mom and Dad ever smoke pot together? Is it true Bob Hope lives with a commune of dwarfs in Palm Springs? Remember Mr. Willison in high school English? He was my favorite teacher. Hope he's doing well. I bet he was gay. We always thought he was. It must have been tough being a gay schoolteacher in Mattoon, if he was indeed gay. And did I sign my name on that third-grade spelling test for Mrs. McRoberts? You get no credit if you don't sign your name, you know. I'm sure I did. But you never remember those things. You know, I'm really beginning to believe that Bill Clinton probably wasn't that popular in grade school. It's tough; I bet he was always the last guy picked in dodge ball. He sure showed them though. And what a strange sport dodge ball was. It seems odd to think that our recreational activity when we were eight was taking large plastic balls and whipping them at the heads of our classmates. Hard to imagine our parents and teachers let us do that. Do the kids today play dodge ball? Or do they just trade Pokemon cards? Is that fad over yet? Does it even count as a fad? I think raves might be a fad. I don't know much about them. I'm never invited to them; I think I just read about them in Time. Now, I'm new to this whole "rave" thing, with all the "kids" "raving," "having fun" and "enjoying their time at a 'rave.'" I'm not "hip" with the "rave" mainly because I'm a "dork" with "mother issues" and a sticky film that just won't "rinse away." You know, I think I might be out of soap. I've been borrowing my roommate's, but eventually she's going to notice. I'm a bit of a slob, and she might yell at me. I hate to be yelled at. Remember that one time, on ESPN, when Jim Everett, quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, started yelling at host Jim Rome to stop calling him "Chris Evert" because he was injured all the time. Everett, obviously incensed at being compared to a women's tennis star, albeit one who accomplished more in one month than Everett did in his entire career, pushed him over and they had to stop the show. I wonder if that was staged. I hate it when people think the NBA is fixed. It's impossible. I remember when I had my cat fixed. I felt so bad for him; I bet sometimes he pisses on my head when I'm asleep as revenge. I probably deserve it. Seems like a relatively insensitive thing to do to a fellow guy, even if he is a cat. Hey, what is it exactly that Cat Stevens changed his name to? Isn't he a Muslim now? Or a Hindu? Heck, I don't know. You know, I've always felt Denzel Washington was screwed out of his Oscar for Malcolm X. He lost to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, which was just a terrible movie. I think Al lost his mind in the mid-'80s. Now he just screams all the time. HOO-HA! HOO-HA! HOO-HA! IF I WAS HALF THE MAN I WAS 10 YEARS AGO I'D TAKE A FLAME THROWER TO THIS PLACE! HOO-HA! HOO-HA! HOO-HA! MOTHERFUCKING HOO-HA! HOO-HA!

"Will? Will? You with us there, buddy? Hey, Will!"

The sight of the show's producer, snapping a finger in my face and chanting my name, awakened me from happy happy land, hoo-ha, hoo-ha. I acknowledged his presence with a wave and a confused cold fish limp handshake, and he sputtered, "So, you really got unengaged last night, huh? Jesus."

"Am I on TV?"

"No, we stopped tape. Are you going to be OK?"

"Um .. oh, yeah, let's go. I want to Win Ben Stein's Money!"

Eeeps. I didn't dare look in the audience. After a brief and crucial break, in which my corner men applied substance to my cuts and told me to stick the body, hit the one in the middle, set him up with the jab, hang in there, you're up on points, they started up again, and Kimmel -- or, as he's known around my family these days, That Bastard -- coerced me into doing a wretched Woody Allen impression that became a running joke throughout the show. They even mocked me in the bonus round, to which I did not advance. The game was on, and I knew that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the all-time leading NBA scorer and that Mary McDonnell had been nominated for an Oscar for Dances With Wolves. But my toasted (cooked? stir fried? scalloped?) reflexes failed me when asked where Lee Harvey Oswald was shot (in the back was not the right answer, I'm afraid), and the law lady edged past me into the next round. Ben Stein gave me his heartfelt good-byes, made fun of my Allen impression and then, off camera, patted me on the back and told me to hang in there. That Fascist racist son of a bitch. Fucking Nixon man. I should have known.

The ex-fiancée left for the Appalachian Mountains a week later. She hiked around for a few months, then returned to Kankakee. Upon arriving, she learned she had inherited three million dollars from her grandfather (to be honest, I'm not sure about the figure; maybe it was two million, maybe it was four, maybe it was one. Does it fucking matter?). She packed up and moved to Vermont, to be with the birds and trees and things. I never saw her again.

About a month and a half later, Win Ben Stein's Money, featuring Ben Stein, Jimmy Kimmel and a shriveled corpse of a man aired on Comedy Central, and I received congratulatory calls from all my friends in Mattoon for finally striking the big time. But they all wondered one thing: If I was out in Los Angeles all this time, near the beach and sand and sun, why was it that looked so pale?



Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: