back to the Black Table

When I was a kid, my heroes were not Johnny Bench, Rambo or even E.T. No, I looked up to Brad Whitehead, an English professor from Providence, Rhode Island, and Suzanne Thomas, a nurse from White Plains, Michigan.

I knew little about them; Brad had a beloved stamp collection, and Suzanne was an avid golfer. But I absorbed their essence. They were the few, the proud, the game-show contestants.

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 and Press Your Luck. 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 Don Goodman stage. I spent the next 13 years waiting for that break, that chance to prove my mettle in front of a national audience 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. I graduated from college, fortunate enough to have gathered a loving fiancée along the way, and we packed our bags and moved to Los Angeles. I told my family I was taking a job with an entertainment magazine out there, but those in my inner circle knew the real reason: That's where I'd always sent my self-addressed, stamped envelopes for contestant auditions.

Opportunity knocked about a month into my stay there when our office received some promotional material about a new show called Win Ben Stein's Money, which was set to debut on Comedy Central in July. I ignored the press release - who wants to read about a game show, anyway? - but immediately dialed up the contestant hotline number and gave them my vital info.

The next day, I received a call from Shoshana, the "talent coordinator" for Win Ben Stein's Money, telling me 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. I showed up and must have been adequately charismatic, because two weeks later I was told I had indeed been selected as a contestant and would be filming in three weeks.

I put down the phone and hugged my fiancée, exhilarated that I'd finally made it. She seemed indifferent, which I found curious. No matter. 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 night before my 8 a.m. taping, my fiancée and I caught a movie and came back to my apartment for some wine and relaxation. 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.

Around 11, she came out to the porch, where I was smoking a cigarette and plotting my impending world domination. She sat down next to me, exhaled deeply and stated, with eerie calm, "Will, I've been thinking. I don't think I'm ready to get married. In fact, I don't think I want to be with anyone right now. I just think I need to be alone for a while. I was thinking of maybe getting more in touch with nature, maybe hiking through the mountains, finding myself. I'm sorry."

Ahem. I would very much like to say that I took this news like a man, with a stiff upper lip and my self-respect intact. Alas, I predictably whined and bawled for about seven hours, trying to find some meaning in this and answer that unanswerable question ... Why?!!! "I feel terrible," she said. "I never meant to hurt you," she said. "It's not you, it's me," she said. This went on - save for a quick visit to the liquor store (Jack Daniels this time) - until I blearily looked at my watch and realized it was 6:45 a.m. Time flies when you're being bashed over the head with a softball bat. She mentioned we should get going, 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. We arrived, she headed to the special contestant's seating area, and I headed backstage for makeup, 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.

"OK, you're a film critic, you love Woody Allen, and you're single but engaged, right?" I informed him, through a random smattering of grunts and clicking sounds, that, in fact, I'd just gotten unengaged about three hours ago. He frowned the frown of the terminally cheery and said "Don't worry, we won't even mention it."

The time came, and I stumbled onto the set, where I shook hands with Ben Stein and his trusty sidekick Jimmy Kimmel, made some small talk and tossed a tired - oh, so tired - smile toward my now-former fiancée in the crowd. My opponents were a flighty woman who was trying to pass the bar exam 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.

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

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

Actually, that last sentence is a blind guess on my part, because I became entranced by the bright - so bright - lights of the set after the unengaged part. I stared ahead, transfixed, quietly wondering if I could name all the Phoenix brothers and worrying if I'd remembered to 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 was awakened by the sight of the show's producer snapping a finger in my face and chanting my name. I acknowledged his presence with a wave and a confused handshake, and he sputtered, "So, you really got unengaged last night, huh?"

"Am I on TV?" "No, we stopped tape. Are you OK?" "Oh, yeah, let's go. I want to Win Ben Stein's Money!"

I didn't dare look in the audience. 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. 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 fried reflexes failed me when asked where Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, 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. God bless him.

The fiancée left for the Appalachian Mountains a week later, and I saw her only once again. I found out later that when she returned, she learned she had inherited three million dollars from her grandfather and was going to move to Vermont to be with the birds and trees and things.

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 friends all across the country. 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?



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