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Stealing the Show

After all is said and done, there’s nothin left to say or do.

-Daryl Dawkins-

Yeah, I know what you’re waiting for. But let me put it in context.

It’s a little known fact: you’re only allowed to go on five gameshows before you die. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an active law. My guess is that the mattress tag regulations are followed more closely. But it’s a federal law – part of the speedily enacted congressional gameshow reforms of the 50’s.

The law stipulates, under penalty of prosecution, that a person may not be a gameshow contestant more than five times in his or her lifetime. To verify this, the BIG THREE networks are supposed to submit contestant rosters to Uncle Sam for regular registration. For years the government compiled a very large, secret, OFFICIAL US record of everyone who’d ever thought they were good at guessing Turtle Wax prices.

And it’s only through the grace of god that the Russians never got a hold of it.

Notice I used the past tense back there. That’s because the big three became the big four. And then cable. And then syndicated. And then The WB and UPN. And then gamey-type reality TV that offered cash prizes but changed rules every 9.3 minutes and you had to sell 3/5ths of your soul.

The story is the Feds just kind of threw up their hands sometime in the early 80’s.

So why the 5-timer limit? In the infamous gameshow-rigging scandals of the Fifties, the same popular contestants would go on show after show sometimes multiple runs on the same show and due to the power of prayer and positive ratings, they’d keep winning lots of money.

Well that, and the answers fed by a guy with a headset.

So to prevent long-term collusion between players and producers, the law was passed. The rationale was that anyone who went on more than once, at most twice, probably had some sort of ace up their sleeve. By limiting their runs onscreen to five, you kept any schemes to defraud from running the table forever.

“And besides,” they thought, “there isn’t an honest contestant in this country who would RE-subject himself to a gameshow’s intense, public, repeat cruelty more than once. And in front of a national audience. What kind of mental case would put himself through that?”

Which brings us to me.

My name is Riley Ray Chiorando. I am 30 years old. I have reached the Federal limit for Gameshow appearances. Should I compete from this day forward, there is the potential for mandated jail time. In my lifetime I have been on the shows Turn it Up, Rumor Has It, Majority Rules, Sex Wars and finally CRAM. A total of FIVE shows.

I have lost on every single one.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I was supposed to go out a winner. Overcome tremendous odds. Walk away with a substantial cash prize. And I would win on the hardest gameshow I’ve ever competed on. The one that involved staying awake. The one with over 200 facts to remember. The one created for the GAMESHOW NETWORK for crying out loud. I mean talk about coming full circle. Win here and all my past sins would be redeemed in one tired swoop.

But I’m tell the tale. So you know it isn’t that kind of story.

So why isn’t this a happy tale? Fate. Miscalculation. A blond.

My partner in all of this was my best friend’s sister. Her name is Autumn. To recap: she’s energetic, pretty and has hair the color of sunshine. I asked her to be my partner for two reasons: 1) she stays up 24 hours at a shot taking care of autistic kids (so she has no problem being sleep deprived) and 2) she has the sort of look/personality that gameshow casting folks love.

And let me say, love her they did.

They had such a casting-crush on her that, after our tryout, they called us back within hours to be contestants. I’d been on four gameshows before. The best I ever got was a next DAY call back. At the time I have to say, I was pretty pleased with myself. Autumn was funny, hyper, she was an actress so she looked good on camera and she’d be wide awake after our time in the stir. I was pretty confident going into the box. In fact, there really were only two things I was worried about.

The first was that she kept referring to our contestant selection as “we booked the job.” Like it was an acting gig. And thing is, really, it’s not. An acting gig is a set, regular piece of on-camera work you show up to do in a fairly non-competitive fashion. A gameshow is a life or death bloodsport. It’s competitive, random and the second you say “we’re just going to have fun” the other team smacks you in the head with a brick and ties your colon to a tree.

So her use of the phrase “try our best” was a little worrisome.

The other thing that worried me? I never asked her about her study skills. It was the main talent, aside from sleeplessness, that we were going to use in the next 24 hours. I assumed since she’s a fairly bright girl she must study well.

For the record, you’re going to want to remember that idiot logic for later.

We went into the mall at 3:45PM and got our orientation immediately. Around an hour later we went into the box and got started on our given study materials to CRAM for the night. They were weather symbols, pictures of spider species, knock-knock jokes, 3 magazine articles, and a book of various lists from indian chiefs and their tribes to E-mail abbreviations. It was a lot of stuff and we got started on the studying immediately.

Let me say this: it began well

We went through the entire knock-knock joke book using different voices, I made weather flash cards from brown paper bags and I’d even come up with a theme song by The Guess Who to remember the American House Spider.

In fact, when our visitors stopped by the mall to wave hello and wish us luck, we took a long break to catch up, yell through the glass and take embarrassing pictures. All in all, given our inexperience at working together, I was pretty confident.

Then came the book of lists.

All in all, there were ten lists of 15 to 20 facts each. Aside from more than half being on pop culture themes, the types of lists were disparate. So we made flash cards of all the lists and ran and reviewed them. It is now over 24 hours since my gameshow loss. I still remember each and every fact. Over 150 of them.


– Chiefs & Tribes: Geronimo was leader of the Apaches – City Nicknames: The nickname for Cape Hatteras, S.C. is “Graveyard of the Atlantic” – IM abbreviations: J2LUK is the e-mail abbreviation for “Just to let you know” – Scientists and Science: A Limnologist studies freshwater lakes – Actors Birthplaces: Bruce Willis was born in Germany – Crispin Glover movies: He played a creepy fashion designer in “Where the Heart Is” – Toy Story voices: Laurie Metcalf played the voice of Andy’s Mom in “Toy Story” – Actors who died at sea: Spencer Tracy died in the movie “Captains Courageous” – Actors in military comedies: Eddie Murphy was in movie “Best Defense” – Actors who played Ghosts: Alan Rickman played a spook in “Truly, Madly Deeply”

I studied harder than any time since junior year of college. And, for my part, I did really really well. For better or worse, spiders, knock-knocks, weather and 150-200 facts I didn’t know before Wednesday are now trapped in my head for time immemorial. My partner, on the other hand, spent 20 minutes on the e-mail abbreviation LOL for ‘laugh out loud.’

It didn’t take.

And this is where it began to get ugly. We tried different study techniques, repeated drilling, even some behavior modification theory. I tired punching her in the arm to add a memory stimuli.

She just punched me back.

Nothing worked. As the hours drew on, the smoke breaks increased and tempers got shorter. Eventually Autumn began to resent any input from my side. She came up with a plan where she would learn five lists and I’d learn all ten. I told her that they would be asking us BOTH the same questions and if she didn’t know, we were flat out screwed.

And this kind of set her off.

“You keep saying all of this stuff like you know!” Autumn berated. “You say it in this matter of fact voice but you don’t know, you’ve never been on this show before!”

Which was true. But thing is, aside from eating jerky and drinking scotch, my favorite thing to do is WATCH TV. And especially TV GAMESHOWS. And after you’ve watched all 10,000 of them ever made, after you’ve studied them, after you’ve lost on FOUR of the bastard programs IN A ROW you get a kind of HIGHLY DEVELOPED INSTINCT DAMN IT!

Unfortunately there was no way to convey that to Autumn in a voice short of a bloodcurdling roar. She was on shaky study ground already. I didn’t push it.

Morning’s light came. My partner Autumn mastered weather symbols, had a good grasp on cities, a decent grasp on the scientists, knew some of the knock-knocks and had read all three magazine articles repeatedly. Unfortunately that left spiders, the rest of the knock-knocks and 8 other lists where she was as likely to know the answer as win a scratch off ticket. I sighed.

That’s when I realized: this girl had no cramming skills.

Yes she was smart. Yes she was fast. Yes she had energy. But when it came to the ability to read a bunch of facts and spit them back out, she had all the talent of Kelly Ozzbourne as a singer. All we could do is keep rotating the flash cards we’d made for the lists till we went on the show. We could do that and we could hope for the best.

There was a knock on the door. It was a producer.

“Yeah, hi, we’re just giving you your 10 minute cut-off warning for caffeine. Oh and if you could pick up your materials and put them in the box that’d be great.”

“Wait,” I asked. “Is it a 10 minute cutoff for studying or caffeine?”

“Yeah, both,” he said, “And that includes your flash cards.”

We spent our last 10 minutes furiously running down the magazine articles. Now all we could do was hope for the best. After some camera shots of leaving our cubicles we headed to the studio. There was some commotion when another contestant, a big boned girl who wasn’t one of our competitors, began throwing crying fit when she couldn’t get her hands on a meal.

It was nice to see someone as worked up as us for a change.

Then they showed us a tape of one of the shows. It was pretty much how I thought it would be. We both needed to know the answers to questions. Spiders and Weather were going to be physical tests. The only bright spot came when we figured out that the magazine articles would be used for a book report section where we had to tell about what we read. And they were going to let us go and strategize.

We went out and worked for a half an hour. We listed facts for both topics, ran them, and repeated. After that Autumn gave me the impression that she felt we were okay and that we could stop now. Well actually she gave me the impression she’d bite my thumbs off if I gave her any more direction.

Actresses. Can’t tell em what to say. Can’t stick a chip in their head to say it for you.

The rest of the time till the studio passed slowly. Another little rumble started when all the contestants started to let loose on the contestant producer. She asked if there had been any problems the night before. They all told of a time for two hours in the morning when we had been kept from smoke, bathroom or air breaks. Which was true. The producer was shocked and promised to look into it.

A few minutes afterward, Autumn followed her out to tell, no matter what everyone else had been saying, her time “had just been wonderful and it’s been a pleasure to be on the show.” Like it was some sort of acting gig.

Now I was worried.

The rules producer came over next and went over some differences between the tape and the show we were going to be playing. Then he asked us our tiebreaker question: how many knock-knock jokes did we study? I figured 67. Autumn figured it was less. I said I was probably right. She went into a smaller version of the rant where “I know everything.”

I told her to fill out the card. We were screwed for most of her questions already. One more wasn’t going to make it much worse.

After the rules finished, we went into the studio with our competitors. They were a foppish pretty boy with long hair and a very studious looking black girl with glasses who, just judging from our brief convos, knew a lot about film. They had been quiet most of the night, studying hard, except for the few times they broke into showtunes. Which made me pretty sure at least one of them was gay.

It’s gameshow logic. It doesn’t make sense.

The producers showed us our lead positions. They explained our setups to come in. They walked us around and the host gave us a cursory nod. Then that was it.

The show was about to start.

They took us backstage and set us all up to come in. The other couple hugged sincerely and seemed to be there for each other 150% percent. We looked at them. We gave it a shot. I put our number at around 45%.

The door opened.

The first Gameshow appearance for Autumn Terrill.

The last for Riley Ray Chiorando.

For nine seconds there I thought we could win this thing.

They led us to giant hamster wheels where we walked when the cameras were on. This show was about testing folks who were supposed to be dead tired. For being up 24 hours I was surprisingly energetic. Still, I tried to conserve energy and walk slow on the hamster wheel. Autumn punched me in the shoulder and told me to walk faster. We had to “keep up.”

Clearly the time awake had driven her completely insane.

The other couple went first. They had to pick one of the three magazine articles we were supposed to read about and talk about it non-stop for 40 seconds while hitting key phrases. They chose the Winona Ryder shoplifting piece. They said ‘um’ and ‘ah’ several times and were penalized for it. All told, they were down ten points when it came to our turn.

We picked the piece on the movie “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Autumn ran her paces like a true actress. For 20 seconds she talked with no ums or ahs. For her part, she even said some of the key phrases they were looking for. Then it was my turn.

Well I have no problem keeping a person from getting a word in edgewise. At the end of round one we were up 50 points. This was to be our high point for the day.

Then came round two.

Before it started they began to wheel in some sets. One was a giant map of weather symbols. The other was crudely painted spiders that had to be stuck in jars. One of these Autumn knew very well. The other, not so much. Our chances were one out of two.

A producer brought over two covered choices to be picked. Under one was weather and success, under the other, spiders and doom. I was about to pick one.

“How come you’re making all the choices?” Autumn barked.

“Fine,” I grumbled, “Whatever. YOU freaking pick.”

They started the show again and brought us down for the on-camera pick. Before they did, the host used some time to do a little Q & A with us both. He asked Autumn what the hardest thing was about the 24 hours in the box.

Autumn went into a detailed account of my BO on national television.

I sputtered something about swiping her sister’s deodorant before we went on in reply. I came very close to comparing her study skills to Forrest Gump and pointing out she had taken more cigarette breaks than an AA meeting. I didn’t. For one thing it would have been heartless. For another it would have decimated confidence before the round. Turns out it was moot.

Picking time came: Autumn, again, dramatically chose the one closest, just as before. They lifted the cover with a flourish. It was the one with the spider.

We were doomed. DOOOOOOMED.

Then they revealed the questions that would be used along with spider for this round. They chose “The Creepy movie roles of Crispin Glover.” It could not have been worse: there was only one answer that she knew in the stack of ten here. As they led us to our starting position I whispered to Autumn “go for the easy spiders first” (the ones she knew) “and no matter what, keep saying PASS” (so I can answer my questions).

She clenched her teeth and replied with, “Riley just SHUT up.”

Just to be clear, this whole “pass” thing was not to be mean. Autumn didn’t know the answers. Her saying pass would let me answer MY question right and keep getting points on the board. And I would. I know everything we were taught and I still do.

CRIPSIN GLOVER – MOVIES & CREEPY ROLES: Olivia Newton John fan The Orkly Kid, oversexed teen My Tutor, undertaker What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, reporter Nurse Betty, dead cat owner Rubin and Ed, train fireman Dead Man, weird teen River’s Edge, guy who puts bugs in his underwear Wild at Heart, Michael J. Fox dad Back to the Future, fashion designer Where the Heart Is

See? That crap is stuck in my head till I’m a corpse now.

Anyway, the round started. Autumn tore off towards the wall of spiders to stick in jars and they asked her the one question she knew first (Back to the Future). She got it right. The round started well. We chucked the first couple of spiders in jars and Autumn kept saying pass fast enough for me to answer my stuff right.

Ideally would it have been better for her to know the material? Sure. But this was as good as it was going to get. Chuck a spider in jar, hope it’s right, lemme answer my stuff.

Then that system fell apart too.

Autumn began to hesitate longer at the end of each question before she passed. Maybe she was hoping that she might know the answer somehow. Or might have remembered me saying it. Or maybe she just wanted to give the impression that it was on the tip of her tongue and she just couldn’t remember it. Whatever it was she kept hesitiating.

Right at the end of our 45 seconds, Autumn froze. She paused over a jar with a spider in hand and stalled on a question. She stood there for 9 seconds. For you newbies, that’s an ETERNITY in gameshow time. Time enough to answer two, maybe ever three questions. I yelled at her to “come on and pass.” She didn’t. The round ended and the buzzer sounded. Out of reflex she dropped the spider in the jar. It was the right spider.

It didn’t count.

Total we got three spiders right out of seven and I got all my questions right. Normally that would, even with the hesitation, be a pretty good position. Except since Autumn had chosen the one with spiders, the other team now had weather symbols. It was so easy that that Autumn had mastered it after three tries. And these guys were good. We could only hope that they got a really hard series of questions to go with the symbols. Something to shake them.

They got Cities and Nicknames.

There is no way it could have been easier. These were Autumn’s two favorite categories. When she felt like she was failing at learning the other nine sections, she’d go back to those two because she was good at them. If we had gotten weather symbols and city nicknames there is a good chance we could have aced it together.

But they got em instead. Doom.

Predictably, they got all of their weather symbols right. And along the way they got all of their questions right too. All totaled, we were 90 points down now. Even one or two more questions we could have snuck in would have helped. And that spider? Definitely would have helped.

As they led us to the bathroom I did the math. 90 points down. That meant that for us to win, we would have to do exceptional in the last round AND our opponents would have to screw up. I sighed. It was over. Autumn tried to reassure me and told me “we’re still going to win this thing.” I thought about explaining the math. Then I thought about how I’d feel when I had to re-explain it to her in 10 minutes.

I decided to chew the inside of my mouth raw instead.

They led us into the studio to our last challenge. They put Autumn on a bike and told her she had to keep pedaling above 10 mph so I could answer in the bike’s sidecar. If I got a question wrong, she had to keep it above 13 mph. Another wrong, 16 mph. The topic? Knock-knock jokes. I knew a lot of them. At least we had a shot.

Plus I had a sharp pin in my pants that I’d smuggled in to jab my leg and keep awake. I was more than willing to apply it to Autumn if she slowed down.

The round started. The first knock-knock I got wrong and Autumn had to pedal harder. A thought flashed about getting several wrong to see if she would have a stroke. It left quickly. Revenge took a backseat to a pathological need to win.

I got the next 8 knock-knocks right and the last one wrong by omitting one word. There was a doubt as to whether the judges would give it to me. They didn’t. Still I accomplished what we needed to do to win.

Now the other team had to do their partand screw up.

We sat in some nearby lounge chairs sipping water that the show’s supermodel brought over to us. Autumn kept going on and on about how we were a lock. How we were going to win. Then our competitors walked over to the bike. The pretty boy fop got in the sidecar and the studious looking black girl with glasses got on the bike. The color drained from my face.

“There’s no way they could know as may knock-knock jokes as us,” Autumn said reassuringly. I shook my head and pointed to the guy as he settled in to the bike sidecar and shook out his long hair.

“That guy is clearly gay,” I said ominously, “Knock-knock jokes are kitsch. They live for that crap!”

For the record, it wasn’t till about three hours after the show I realized I was wearing a mic the whole time. Including when I had to pee.

So what happened next? The gay guy got 7 knock-knocks in a row right but came awful close to the buzzer. If we’d have gotten one or two more questions in on round two and if the spider had gone IN the jarbut then I can play that game for hours.

Generally I do in the hours before I go to sleep.

The host wished us good luck and was smart enough not to ask us if we enjoyed our time. Whatever diatribes I held back before wellI was a dam fit to burst now. But he moved on with the winners and we sat backstage until we were given the okay to do otherwise.

The casting director came over and told us that ours was the best show she’d ever seen. She also told us that she’d keep us in mind for other projects she worked on. Autumn seemed fairly excited about that, smiling and shaking her hand. I think she’d always seen this like an acting gig. In the end that worked for her.

I just kept squeezing my fists.

In the end, our competitors went on to win the 5000 bucks each in the bonus round for getting all five answers right. I’m sure we would have done the same. And, given my history, with gameshows I’m sure it would have been profoundly triumphant.

And I’m also sure I would have been struck by lightning the second it happened.

But it was over now. They kept us after for a pretty long time filling out forms for our consolation prize of 250 bucks. and sitting in the same room with our competitors. Autumn congratulated them repeatedly. I clenched my teeth and hummed silently.

My friend Devon came to pick us up, Autumn’s sister, and was waiting when we exited the studio. Devon asked me for an update. I told her we lost and got in the backseat. Autumn elaborated and told Devon that “we had been really close and if a choice had gone one way instead of another we’d have won.”It was true enough and I was too tired to say otherwise.

Plus, at this point, I didn’t care.

On the way home Autumn apologized repeatedly to me. Finally I told her that “She’d done the best she could and that she couldn’t have tried any harder.” The former was definitely true and the latter pretty much the same. It seemed to make her feel better. Devon, got to my house and I got out of her car tripping over the seat belt and nearly taking out some trash cans.

It was a fitting end to the night.

I went to bed shortly after and tried hard not to let the it bother me. My continuing nightly nightmares about prize wheels and timed torture don’t seem to be on board with that strategy.

In the end I don’t blame Autumn. I wish she’d just followed my directions in round two. I wish she’d studied more. I wish she hadn’t publicly disparaged my body odor on national TV. But I don’t blame her.

The fault was mine for assuming she was a good crammer. I should have checked. There were other people who could have done it and I didn’t do due dilligence. She may not have had great study skills but I was the big idiot.

Still, at the end of this, you’re left with one incontrovertable fact: I didn’t win. And that bothers me more than the money I didn’t win. The money I desperately needed to stay afloat in LA. That’ll bother me tomorrow. Today it’s my label, the one I’ll wear for the rest of my life.

I’m the Buffalo Bills of bonus questions.

I’m the Red Sox of lightning rounds.

I’m the Walter Mondale of fast money.

I’m a five time gameshow loser who, under penalty of prison, can’t try again.

And those labels, while cute, are never going to be funny to me. Thus this story. You know exactly what happened. From this day forward do not ask me about it. Do not joke about it. Use the same hushed, pitying tones you would use if I had cancer. Really. I don’t want to go over this ever again.

Except one other thing – A new Riley rule.

Ff we’re at your house and Jeopardy – or any other gameshow comes on – you have ten seconds. Change the channel. After that time I will rant, rave and eventually mave your TV into a planter. So, unless you want to spring for a new Sony, from this day forward, change the channel.

I know you think I’m kidding. Seriously. I’ll throw both shoes. And I wear boots.

Thanks for your support.

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