A little playlet. Last night, waiting for doors to open to see the Mountain Goats downtown. (Great show, by the way, surprisingly muscular set.)
(A buttoned-down businessman type walks by the line, does a double-take. His brow crinkles in confusion at the sight of a neat single file of one hundred hoodie-wearing young people.)
BUSINESSMAN TYPE: Excuse me, could you tell me what this line is for?
GUY AHEAD OF US IN LINE: Uh, for the Mountain Goats.
BUSINESSMAN TYPE: Oh. (Long pause.) Is that a band?
“Is that a band?” He thought a crowd might have lined up in downtown Seattle to see actual mountain goats, Oreamnos americanus, rather than the John Darnielle-led folk-rock trio of the same name!
So, my Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? appearance last Friday. If you missed the show, or part of it was pre-empted for baseball in your time zone, the whole thing is available on Hulu. Those watching the show were apparently Googling along as well–check out this trend graph someone sent me for last Friday night.
I’ll admit that I originally signed up for 5th Grader for the cash. (I assumed at first I’d be playing for charity, but hey, either way. My bank account or Oxfam’s, doesn’t really matter, as long as FOX doesn’t have it!) I assumed it was some terrible lowest-common-denominator show, symbol of America’s long gradual slide into whatever America is gradually sliding into, yada yada yada.
Then I started watching the show–to study up, you know? And it turned out I was actually a genuine fan. Sure, the gameplay gets unnecessarily dragged out and amped up. But, at heart, it’s still a smart show celebrating smart kids, and it’s hard to disagree with that. (Dylan dreams of being part of the 5th Grader “classroom” in five years.) It’s probably the only quiz show since GE College Bowl went off the air that quizzes contestant only on academic subjects. Foxworthy is charming. What’s not to like?
I was a little worried about how I’d come off as a contestant. Who wants to cheer for the already-a-game-show-millionaire guy to win another million? I told the show’s producers most of any money I won would be going to charity, only to be told that this story wasn’t “relateable,” and could I mention getting Mindy a new kitchen instead? During the taping, Mindy and Dylan’s “handlers” were always telling them when to lean forward, do a “nervous face,” sigh in relief, etc. etc. Manipulating every reaction shot. So I was prepared for the worst.
Instead, watching the show, I found that they’d actually edited me to make me seem, somehow, likeable. This is pretty amazing; Mindy’s had eight years of marriage to work the same miracle on me and hasn’t really managed. At one point during the John Smith/John Rolfe question, I said out loud that “I’m pretty sure Pocahontas married one of her Johns.” Would’ve made me look like a wise-ass–but, presto, removed! Thanks FOX.
(By the way, on the way out of the studio I chatted for a minute with the guy who’d written the Pocahontas question. He admitted he hoped the Disney cartoon would trip people up. “But didn’t you remember The New World?” he asked. I was gobsmacked. For some reason, the Terrence Malick Pocahontas biopic of a couple years ago had totally slipped my mind. Oops.)
Foxworthy couldn’t have been nicer–he was interested in my résumé, because he’d also worked a computer job for years (servicing mainframes for IBM, apparently) before his stand-up took off and he could quit. Jeff Foxworthy knows Unix! Fake redneck!
He even apologized profusely for his little “I’m sorry…you’re right!” fake-out on one of the last questions. “They made me do it!” he told me. Sure, Jeff, blame the earpiece.
A couple people have asked if I was pretending to talk my way through questions I really knew, to hype up the drama. Not really: my muddling through the Pocahontas and diameter-of-the-Earth questions was totally genuine. (And edited considerably for time; I stalled much longer than you saw.) Obviously, I didn’t need to see The Namesake to tell me the Taj Mahal is in India, but I wanted to give a shout-out to one of my favorite movies of last year.
Mostly people talk about the last question. Do I wish I’d gone for it? Well, obviously, in hindsight. I was kicking myself for a few days afterwards. But really, risking almost half a million dollars on a single trivia question, of a type I’d gotten wrong before? Pretty hard to justify that. If it was literature, I was going for sure. If it was math, I might have. (I think in the whole first two seasons of the show, I only saw one math question I would have muffed.) If it had said “U.S. History,” I bet I would have gone for it. I’ve never missed a question on the show labeled “U.S. History.”
But they called their U.S. History question “Social Studies,” and I just couldn’t quite pull the trigger. The last “Social Studies” question I’d seen on the show asked how many people signed the Declaration of Independence. That’s just plain too hard–you’d never see that on Jeopardy! But sometimes they ask stuff that would be an easy top-level clue on Jeopardy! (Chuck Yeager’s name) or stuff that might be around the middle or bottom of the board (the longest-reigning British monarch, the country that shares the longest land border with Russia). You just don’t know which you’re going to get.
In hindsight, would I have liked to be the show’s first million-dollar winner, rather than a Georgia Republican previously best known for trying to remove the word “evolution” from high school textbooks? Well, yes. But she got lucky–the question she risked so much on turned out to be not so hard. I know I’d feel a lot worse if I’d gone for the Million Dollar Question and drawn a hard one.
So, no regrets! Is Mindy getting her granite countertops? Sure, but not until the 5th Grader check arrives. Is Dylan getting his playhouse in the backyard? Yep, I think we have a guy starting next week. Incidentally, in rehearsals, Dylan had much more modest ideas in mind for the money. A Lego set or stuffed animal or something. Only when the cameras were on and Daddy was trapped in the spotlight did he up the ante. Smart kid.