I don’t want to bury the lead. I did NOT win on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, I crashed and burned taking a guess on a question when I should have walked away. I had discussed strategy with family & friends for weeks about how I’d walk away and take the money if I had a decent amount in the bank and didn’t have a really solid idea of what the answer was. That’s not what I ended up doing.
I’ll tell you this: It’s a very different thing answering questions from your sofa at home than it is when you’re standing on that stage with the bright lights, music, 360 degree studio audience and Terry Crews exuding energy from every pore 3 feet away from you. Something about the whole environment screams “GO FOR IT!!” When you really know you shouldn’t.
In the weeks leading up to the episode I had hundreds of people wish me luck. I had a tremendous amount of luck on the show, including getting the question pictured above as my $25,000 question. ME. Getting THAT question. Two DC comics super-heroes and a guy who had Vietnam figuring into his 1963 origin and then the hero who is kind of synonymous with World War II. Even if I couldn’t conjure up crystal clear images of all 4 of those heroes 1st appearances in my mind’s eye it would have been pretty easy to suss out what the right answer was. I should go on to add that the questions and dollar amounts are randomized at the beginning of the game. The hardest of the 10 questions in round 1 could be worth $100 while the easiest (like the one above was for me) being worth $25,000. Doesn’t get much luckier than that. So yes, I had luck on my side. Luck, unfortunately, was not able to stop me from the one-two punch of greed and stupidity as I went one guess too far when I didn’t know the answer to my final question.
But let’s step back a bit and talk about my road to the moment pictured above that was one of the high points of my Millionaire adventure.
This was for Guinness World Records week on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, so I’d never have been invited onto the show had I not gotten my World Record for Largest Comic Book Collection. The Guinness publicist passed my name to the Millionaire producers and they got in touch with me. I had to do a video interview with the producers over Skype where they asked me 20 questions and I got 18 of those correct (with NO lifelines). If only I had been able to repeat that performance on the air! One of the things that they told us in the green room on the day they recorded the week of shows was that they had interviewed over 100 Guinness record holders and only 11 of us actually got called out to be on the show, and all of us had scored as good or better than people who audition through the normal process to be on the show. Of those 11 in the green room I think 6 made it on the air. So, regardless of how I ended up money-wise, I still acquitted myself fairly decently in the large scheme of things by even making it onto the air. They booked my appearance on the show for Saturday, October 18th. They were recording the entirety of Guinness week on this one day, including a number of other episodes. Impressively, they told us they were recording the entire season (I think it was 135 episodes) all during the month of October!
All contestants were responsible for their own travel expenses and I figured if I was going to travel to the New York City area I’d build a mini vacation around the travel. Recording was in Stamford, CT (the city that touched off Marvel’s Civil War, for those of us with comics on the brain!) so I took some extra days to visit friends in the area and spent a few days exploring NYC as well. In this respect, the trip was a HUGE success. I met my pal Rick Gordon for the 1st time face to face after doing the Pop Cult Online podcasts with him (audio and video) over the course of 6 or 7 years. I got to spend time with friends Lenny, Tony, Ian, and Arlen. I visited the Valiant comics office. Overall an excellent trip.
I stayed in Norwalk, CT the nice before the taping at the same hotel as Rick, who had made the trip down from Albany with his wife Becca, to be my Plus One lifeline on the show. We met in the hotel bar for a drink Friday evening and while we hugged it out for the first time it was also unlike a first meeting since we had spent so much virtual time together over the years. We had breakfast together in the morning & drove over to the studio together (we had to be there at 8:30am).
The first thing I noticed as we were standing around in the lobby of the studio was “Hey, is that Ken Jennings, the guy that won all those episodes of Jeopardy over there??” And yes, it was! He formerly held the Guinness Record for “Most cash won on a game show.” Meeting and talking to Ken was one of the coolest things to happen that day, he’s one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. When he found out I read comics he talked about comics he has read and enjoyed. Best part? Most people who try to talk to me about comics go straight to X-Men or some other popular super-hero. Ken talked about Grimjack by John Ostrander & Tim Truman which immediately gives the guy super “geek cred” in my book.
A few things about the show: We weren’t allow to have electronics of any kind from when we entered the studio until we left. No phones, iPads, etc. We had to sign NDAs about not revealing the outcome of the game until AFTER it aired (thus me posting this blog today after my episodes have both been on air). In recent years they have done away with the “phone a friend” lifeline. Personally, I think it was because people were starting to just call people who were sitting in front of an internet search engine. That lifeline has been replaced with “Plus One”, a friend that you bring along to sit in the audience and call up when needed to stand alongside you on air and help answer a question. The 50/50 lifeline was replaced with “Jump the Question” where you can just skip a question that you don’t know (but don’t get the $ associated with it). The Ask the Audience lifeline remains unchanged.
Rick and I met a lot of interesting people in the green room while waiting to go “on air”. In addition to Ken Jennings we met Susan Baroncini-Moe, who holds the record for longest uninterrupted live webcast at 36 hours and 23 seconds. Another person who went slightly off the beaten path in her comics of choice, she’s a big fan of Adam Warlock! Erin LaVoie holds the record for chopping down the most Christmas trees in two minutes, 27! She comes on about 2:50 into this video clip, but watch the woman before her chop at the trees to see how impressive Erin’s chopping skills are, she is taking these trees out sometimes in one stroke compared to 5 or 6 chops from her competitors! There was Fran Capo, the world’s fastest talking woman and Stephen Clarke, who holds the world record for fastest time to carve 1 ton of pumpkins (though his ability to carve lifelike art onto a pumpkin was even more impressive), he brought along a pumpkin carved with the likeness of Millionaire host Terry Crews that was fabulous. I’ve got to say, stick 11 people with Guinness records and their plus ones in a room with no electronics to serve as distractions, hours of time to kill, and there are going to be a lot of interesting conversations!
In and amongst the waiting around, we got briefings from the Millionaire legal counsel, publicity person, various producers, and went out to the stage where we practiced with all the lights and music, each one of us answering one of the questions in a simulated round. I must say, we did quite good as a team, we made it way to round 2 with the 11 of us answering 11 questions. Too bad that didn’t carry through to the live broadcast for me…
In one of the briefings we got advice about how the questions were written. We were told that we shouldn’t overthink the questions and that typically the question writers didn’t try to ‘trick’ you and there were often clues to the answers built into the question. This second piece of advice would ultimately be my undoing as I took it to much to heart in the question I ultimately got wrong, but more on that later.
Since there were 11 of us and only 5 episodes of the show, it quickly became apparent that not all of us were going to make it on air. I think the producers knew that we knew this, since they pulled people out of the room kind of “on the sly” as it got near time to put them on. Erin was the 1st to vanish from the green room, and she led off the Monday episode of Guinness week. She was closely followed by myself & Rick, as we were called to “hair & makeup” (not much hair to work with between the 2 of us, so let’s just call it “makeup”) and we went on 2nd. As I was getting ready to go on, they brought Susan and her Plus one (husband Leo) into the holding room, she went on after me. After I was done, we exited the building, so I’m not really sure what went on after that as far as the results for the week went.
The game was on! My very first question was one that I thought was fairly obvious:
Currently jailed for Money Laundering, what Panamanian dictator is suing Activision over his portrayal in the Call of Duty: Black Ops II game
A. Daniel Ortega
B. Robert Mugabe
C. Manuel Noriega
D. Hugo Chavez
I immediately went to Noriega, but then fell prey to the “don’t overthink”. I knew Noriega was from Panama. Mugabe was from Africa (Zimbabwe) so he was out. What about Chavez and Ortega? I didn’t recall them being from Panama, and rightly so, Chavez was from Venezuela and Ortega from Nicaragua. I ended up using my “Ask the Audience lifeline right out of the gate on this one, and75% of the audience went with Noriega so confirming my initial gut feeling I went with Noriega and added $15,000 to my bank. I was off to a good start.
Question 2: The infamous “Who Was Punching Hitler” question shown at the top of this blog. How could I not know this one? Captain America, final answer. Another $25,000 into the bank. Two questions in and $40,000 in the bank I was on a roll, answering the 1st two questions for the top 2 dollar amounts on the board! Then the buzzer went off and the show ended, putting an end to that momentum. At this point I was hustled off the stage to change clothes in a bathroom and come back in my secondary outfit for “Day 2” of Millionaire’s Guinness week.
Day 2: After a bit of banter with Terry, I got another easy one (see picture above). I seem to have a particular smile & leftward head tilt in these situations….. This led me to another question that is in the category I’d call “easy if you know it”:
Rick Gordon to the rescue! Calling on my Plus One lifeline brought my “Pop Cult Online” cohort up on stage, and like the super-hero he is, Rick of course knew the answer and added another $2000 to my bank. I jumped the next question (something I didn’t know) and then banked another $5000 answering a question about not touching the blowholes of dolphins (they don’t like it) before hitting my undoing.
Smallpox Claims Another Victim
What ended up being my final question involved a disease rampaging through George Washington’s revolutionary army that he was immune to, having been exposed to it when he was a young man in Barbados. My choices were Syphilis, Spanish Flu, Smallpox, and Malaria. This is another one where if you remember the fact from history, it’s easy. If you don’t know it, you’re going to be guessing. If you remember the talk from the producers about there being clues in the questions you key off of “Barbados” and think you’re being given a clue to some kind of tropical disease. My stupidity got ahold of me and I dismissed the correct answer (smallpox) right out of the gate. I further got carried away in the moment when Terry asked me if I was a “risk taker” and made a snap decision to guess. STUPID!! Walk away with half your bank, it’s $23,550 you IDIOT!!! Nope. Guessed (which I had been telling myself is the one thing I would not do for 3 weeks) and was wrong. Won $1000. That momentary lapse of judgement cost me $22,550.
Oh well, I had a great time on the trip, which I’d never have made had I not gotten on the show. Got to meet Rick Gordon live & in person. Spent several days in New York. Met Ken Jennings & Susan Baroncini-Moe. Got to be on TV. I got over the loss after spending a few days of my vacation, and the ‘sting’ came back again today as I watched myself lose all over again on TV. I’ll get over it again.
…and I’ll never forget that it was smallpox that ravaged Washington’s Army of the Potomac.
Bob Bretall: firstname.lastname@example.org
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