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  LIFE AS A LOSER #21: "THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION."  
   
   
 

 Vinnie is awfully upset, and Iím only beginning to understand why.

Vinnie became my coworker about seven months ago, fresh from Northwestern University, an otherwise nice enough school with the worldís most pretentious journalism program. (When asked, you donít say you went to Northwestern and studied journalism; you say you went to Medill, the name of the program; snooty fucks). I get along quite well with Vinnie, because we both came to The Sporting News under similar circumstances.

When you arrive at a new job, people like to introduce you with a cute piece of trivia, like ďTom once lived in Europe,Ē ďFrank was once thrown through a window by Bobby Knight,Ē or ďChuck served five years in a Costa Rican prison for heroin possession.Ē It gives you a short-term label until people get to know you better. Iím sure Iíll have one when I get to New York - I have a sneaking suspicion my piece of trivia is going to be that I write this column - and Iím all right with that. Better that than being known as the fat guy who smells like chicken broth.

Anyway, when I came to TSN, I was known as the guy who had been on Win Ben Steinís Money (I was also thought of as the guy from Los Angeles and as the guy everybody thought was gay, which was fine as long as the circumstances were not explored further.) Everybody asked me if Ben Stein was a nice guy (yes), if Jimmy Kimmel was as annoying in person as he was on television (oh, yes), if I had to wear makeup (duh) and if I won any money (nope).

Vinnie had to deal with a similar situation. A somewhat nondescript man of Indian origin, Vinnieís hook was not only that he had once appeared on Jeopardy!, but, in fact, that he had won $34,000 and had just missed being part of the ďTournament of Champions.Ē Vinnie, like me, knows the virtues of clinging to his label - girls think youíre smart - but eventually it gets somewhat tiring. I mean, how many questions can you answer about Alex Trebekís tie?

Because of his experience on the Godzilla of trivia game shows, Vinnie has developed a healthy skepticism about any other quiz games, including Win Ben Steinís Money. So when he came up to me the other day, an anguished feeling of alarm and frustration on his face, I knew he meant business.

ďChrist, Will, they just keep watching that damn show. Donít they realize itís Wheel of Fortune ... except for idiots?Ē

I, as usual, had no clue what Vinnie was talking about. He started muttering nothings about Regis Philbin, Spin City, moron housewives and other random gibberish. I was ready to give up any hope of decoding this gobbledygook and about to turn back into my comfortable cubicle when Vinnie, out of words, desperately gestured to the work television.

Suddenly it all made sense. Sure enough, flickering in front of me was this seriously strange TV program, with Regis Philbin (How does this guy keep getting work? Was Charles Nelson Reilly not available?) sitting across from some sweaty guy with a nasty mustache who was gesticulating wildly while trying to decide whether Au was the symbol for gold or lead.

Imagine my horror when, while still struggling for the answer - gold, you idiot! - he picked up a phone and called a friend of his!

What in the name of Bob Eubanks is this?

I half expected Philbin to say, ďOK, the answer rhymes with cuckold and starts with a G.Ē Thank heavens, the poor bastard finally answered the damn question correctly. Vinnie seemed like he was about to throw his shoe through the television, but I stopped him, though only because a Bulls game was coming on later.

ďTheyíre all cretins, Will,Ē Vinnie wailed. True, but Vinnie was the one watching. And so was I. But not for long. Iím sure as hell not falling into that trap again.

Now youíre probably wondering why I had no idea about the cultural phenomenon that is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. (Where the heck is the question mark, by the way?) Sure, Iím aware of it now because now you canít read a newspaper or visit Web sites without seeing some story about What It All Means. Even old reliables like Salon place columns about the show as their top stories, usurping their usual compelling fare like ďIs Pat Buchanan Nuts?Ē or ďShould Wives Exchange Oral Sex With Their Husband For Housework?Ē But until my usual mainstream-media sources picked up on it, I had no idea. Thatís because I donít have a television.

Iím coming up on my one-year anniversary of being TV-less, and Iím surprisingly content. I get a lot more writing done, I pay closer attention to my cat, and my bookshelf has grown exponentially.

I initially ridded my self of the evil blue glow because of my typical lack of willpower. When there was a television in my apartment, it was watched, no matter what.

I work nights, and I would record, letís see, Party of Five, Friends, Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue, Inside the Actorís Studio, Biography and daily TNT reruns of ER, then Iíd go home with a bottle of wine at 2 a.m. and watch what I taped.

Iíd sleep until noon, crawl into work at four and repeat the entire process. Thatís not including the random, mindless channel surfing that makes us men, you know. It took over my life, and one night, I decided enough was enough. I canceled my cable the next day, bought a word processor, joined a book club and sold my television. This was not to be noble or to indict television; this was simply self-preservation.

It was most difficult at first. That whole water-cooler thing requires that youíve lain prostate in front of the tube the night before, spilling salsa on yourself and shutting down the olí cerebellum, just like everybody else. I found I had very little to talk to anyone about; if I didnít know what was going on with Ross and Rachel, what good was I?

And Iíll admit, I had developed a bit of an emotional connection with some of my favorite characters. What was going to happen with Doug Ross and Nurse Hathaway? Were John Cage and that hot blonde from Australia ever going to get together? Would Bailey ever rid himself of that Sarah weirdo and get back on the bottle, where he belongs? It was like Iíd made all these friends, and then I just suddenly moved away unannounced and lost all contact with them.

I got over that, though, mainly because, Christ, these are TV shows. Still, I havenít stopped feeling like Iím out of the loop all the time. Do you realize how difficult this has made watching teen movies? Half the actors have histories from their silly WB shows, and I donít know any of this. My friend Matt constantly raves about some old guy the Weather Channel trots out whenever thereís a hurricane. Heís had conversations with fellow drinkers about this guy, and everyone nods agreeably and trades stories about particularly loony things heís done. I just sit there, silent, waiting for the conversation to come around to something I have someclue about.

Seriously, who is this Emeril guy, and why are we supposed to cook with him?

And this is just the stuff I know Iím missing. Who knows how many wacky catch phrases Iím missing out on? Iím on a constant search for conversational bon mots, kooky little pop culture jokes to toss in when talk lags, but Iím running out. Most people havenít seen David Lynchís The Straight Story, but theyíve all seen Felicity.

The common-ground meter is on empty, and I donít know how to fill it up. Without MTV, I have no clue what the kids are listening to these days, or at least what the kids on The Real World are doing. Without ESPN, I donít know what urban hip-hop references Stuart Scott is throwing out. Without CNN, I donít have the slightest inkling whatís going on in Serbia, or at least on New Yorkís fashion runways. Without E!, I donít ... well, Iím not missing anything there, I guess.

When I move to New York, barring a sudden influx of lottery cash or a senile widow looking for a boy toy, Iím probably going to have to get a roommate. This is not good. Iím now faced with a decision: Give into the TV gods - because my roommate will likely be like the rest of you and watch the damn thing all the time - or find creative ways to remain a cultural idiot. I guess I donít have a choice. Talking a roommate out of having a television isnít likely to be any more successful than talking me into doing the dishes. Television always gets its man eventually.

Just promise me that if you catch me feverishly dialing that contestant number for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire over and over in the middle of the night, youíll drag me out back, let me have a last cigarette and then coldly fire a bullet into my brain. I want your word on this.

 

*BT*

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