Becoming a contestant on the TV show “Win Ben Stein’s Money” was more difficult than getting into graduate school. More expensive, too. I wish I were kidding.
This all began because I’ve been e-mailing the show for years: “I would love to match wits against Ben. I would even wear a costume. Heck, I’d wear my nightgown!” It’s been my favorite quiz show since the first season, due to its double-whammy of hard questions and meager prize money. My fandom was such that the people where I used to live began calling me “Lynn Ben-Stein” (this when I wasn’t “LB” or “Bin Lenson” or “Osama Bin Lenson”). How could I not be attracted to that?
So one day last October (y2k) my cell phone rings while I’m serving booth duty at the International Tandem User Group. I stepped out of the booth so as not to be a hypocrite and break my own rule of “no cell phone usage in the booth,” and answered it. “Lynn Benson.”
“Hi, Lynn,” a friendly woman’s voice said. “This is Chris from ‘Win Ben Stein’s Money.’ We received your e-mail and would like to run you through a 10-question phone test. Are you someplace where we can talk? It will take 5-10 minutes.”
“Not really, but I can quickly remedy that. Let me have your number and I’ll call you right back.”
After excusing myself from the booth with muted-but-hyper mutterings, I scooted out the hall’s main doors, sat down on a bench and returned Chris’s call.
“Hi Chris, this is Lynn. I’m calling from the San Jose Convention Center on my cell phone, and if we get cut off I’ll go elsewhere and call you back. I’m ready.”
We talked for a minute about what I do (“Head Honcho, Motormouth Marketing, founded the company more than two years ago…”) and then she asked me the 10 questions.
I said I’d get back to three of them, but at the end of the test Chris informed me that my seven answers yielded a qualifying score. Woo hoo!
My next step: Fly to Burbank for the show’s 30-question written exam. While talking with my friend Becky that week, we happened upon the happy coincidence that my plans and her upcoming business jaunt to Southern California would overlap. She offered the spare bed she’d have in her double room.
I now had corporate sponsorship. Thanks, Siemens.
The Southwest flight to Burbank was just the way I like ’em: uneventful. I rented a car from Cheapy Car Rental at the airport Ramada and drove through the drizzle to the KTLA studios. Figuring that the producers sought people who are not only smart but also kind of eccentric and out-there, I wore my pink snakeskin jacket and my brown fuzzy hat. I smiled at every person I saw working on the studio lot, and just happened to have a brief conversation with the primary contestant wrangler as I walked through the roll-up door. “Nice jacket,” he told me.
“Thanks. The pink snakes are girls and the blue snakes are boys.”
“I always wondered about that,” he mused. “The hat is terrific.”
“It keeps the rain off my glasses.” We waved our good-byes.
About 120 of us filed into a large studio building. I looked around. Darn. No casting couch.
We seated ourselves at the long rows of tables and listened anxiously as the coordinators gave us a run-down of what the night would bring. “First, you’ll all take our 30-question written test,” the man I spoke with earlier, whose name turned out to be Harv, explained to the room. “Short answer, no multiple choice. I can’t tell you how well you need to do on it but… you’ve seen the show. So figure you’ll need to do pretty darn well on the test. When we come back from grading your tests, if we call your name, please stay in the building because that means you passed. If we don’t call your name, well, thank you very much for trying and we’ll hope to see you again next year.”
We completed our one-page contestant information sheets.
“This is where you write your name, address, plus the facts that you’d want to talk with Nancy and Ben about,” Harv told us.
I was amazed that some people hadn’t already thought of two interesting facts about themselves for the application. My problem had been choosing just which adventure to document. I wrote, “I was once fired from a job for being too honest, and during a junior-high youth-group game last year, I became the coolest adviser ever by eating an entire tin of smoked oysters in four bites.”
Finally, they distributed the test booklets. “Don’t turn them over until we give you the signal,” they advised, transporting me back to my AP-exam days in high school. They gave the signal and we began.
Question one: ‘Easy. No problem,’ I thought.
Question two: ‘I know that,’ confidently writing the answer on my answer sheet.
Question three: ‘I don’t remember that right now, but I know I will when I come back to it,’ I thought.
Question four: ‘Uhhhhhh…’
Question five: ‘Uhhhhhhhh…’
It was the most difficult test I’ve taken in 17 years of education.
No cracks about California public schools, please. I can tell you that while I struggled through it, the labored breathing of my tablemates told me that they weren’t doing so hot, either.
“What is the name of the Israeli intelligence organization?” it asked me.
‘Damn! Katherine quizzed me on that, I knew there would be an Israel question… what is it?’ I couldn’t pull it out of my interior monologue and needed to move on. I wrote, “Ishtar.”
I filled in answers for every question, most of which seemed at least pretty close to the mark (though I never did learn the correct response for their question about a specific Indian soup). Mercifully, shortly thereafter the governor called, and we were all asked to pass our answer sheets face-down toward the aisle.
My forehead buzzed as though electrified, and I turned my head to see that the rest of the hopefuls wore slackened jaws and were mouth-breathing from the effort. After a couple of minutes we somewhat regained our composure, and the ones who bounced back quickest started milling about.
A tall Scandinavian man stopped and asked me, “How are you doing?” “Better than I will be in 15 minutes, I bet.” I replied glumly.
When Harv and his proctors returned, some people bolted to their seats while others walked languidly, feigning indifference. I just wished they’d all hurry up so we could learn our immediate fate. Imagine my surprise when mine was the fourth name called. I passed the test!
He read through the names and bid adieu to those who weren’t called. I noticed that the only person at our table who’d thought he’d done well was excused. As the others were leaving, the rest of us had our picture taken by an assistant with a Polaroid camera. I went to the ladies room, jumped up and down and called John (dear friend/other half of Motormouth) to tell him I’d passed the test by the skin of my “Ishtar.”
Harv then corralled us to the other side of the room, where a table had been set up with three dry-cleaners bells, facing a chalkboard. He announced that we’d be playing a mock game, with three of us up at a time. Those of us not playing would be the audience and offer applause and support. I got the feeling we would be graded on this. I went up with the second group and did not exactly cover myself with glory, answering “hockey” when the actual answer was “basketball.” But I did so with a big smile and confident voice, which they said they were going to judge very highly.
“You already passed the test so we know you all are already smarter than the average bear. This is where we see how you’d look on TV.”
Hell, I’d look great on TV. I had control of the board only one time, though. My group’s questions seemed a lot harder than everyone else’s (isn’t that always the way?), so I smiled more than I spoke.
The coordinators must have realized this because at the end of the line, there were only two people left to play a game so they called me back up. I did better this time, answering one question correctly and making a joke answer to another that the other competitors had already missed.
Everyone laughed. I smiled harder.
When our round was over we sat down and Harv told us what the next step would be. “We’ll go over the notes and answers tonight and if you hear from us tomorrow, that means you’re on the ‘Win Ben Stein’s Money’ Active Contestant List. If you don’t hear from us, please don’t call. There’s always next year. Also, being on the List does not guarantee that you will be filmed, as it has more names than we’ll actually need for the filming.”
They let us out into the night. The rain had cleared and when I returned to the car I called Becky, who was just dropping her colleagues at the hotel after their dinner. We agreed to meet at the bar of Musso and Frank, the Hollywood icon that’s been there forever.
I arrived first and noticed that the actor Vincent Schiavelli was at a large table close to the bar. He’s the tall actor with long, dark, often stringy hair and a prominent, imposing forehead.
I spoke with an old lady who had spent most of her day on the bus, trying to find another apartment. She’d recently adopted her deceased sister’s cat, but her building had a “no pets” clause, requiring her to move elsewhere. “What else can I do? I can’t leave the kitty.” She said it as much to her martini as to me.
Becky arrived and I told her the story as she drank a light beer and I drank my cosmo, the color of which matched my jacket. I discreetly pointed out Mr. Schiavelli to her. “Oh, I loved him in ‘Ghost.'” Becky said. “Remember? ‘Get off of my train!'” We laughed.
As we were finishing our drinks he got up to leave and passed by us. We stopped him and said how much we admired him. He handed our star-struckedness with charm. Becky repeated his “Get off of my train” line and he smiled, but she looks like Yasmine Bleeth so most men would smile at her even if she were reading a list of breakfast-cereal ingredients.
We had a great dinner around the corner at an Italian place and then I followed her back to Carson. When I awoke in the morning she and her bags were long gone, and I smiled after seeing the note she’d left: Dear Ms. Test Passer, Hope the rest of your day is fabuloso! It was great seeing you! She’d signed it with a smiley face and “P.S. Get off of my train!”
My Southwest flight back to San Jose was as uneventful as the first. Another prayer answered. When I made it to the curb to be picked up I called voicemail from my cell phone. “Hi Lynn. This is Chris at ‘Win Ben Stein’s Money’ and I’m happy to say that you are now on our Active Contestant List. Congratulations!”
I saw John shortly thereafter and got into the car. “I made it, John!”
“I figured you were going to,” he answered. “They called the office this morning and asked me a bunch of questions about you.”
“Questions? Like what?” I asked.
“Stuff like, ‘What role does Lynn have at Motormouth? Is she gregarious? How long have you known her, where did you meet her? Where do you live? Do you think that she’s funny, can you tell me any funny anecdotes.'” John said.
“So, what did you tell them?”
“Well, when he asked about where we met, I told him about the Spartan Daily and how half the people in the newsroom had a big thing for you, but you had no idea.”
“I still want names for that,” I reminded him.
“But to be fair, I told him that everyone else knew that the girl I was dating was a big ho, but nobody told me.”
“What’d he say to that?” I asked.
“He said, ‘turnabout is fair play, huh?'”
“Did you say anything else?”
“Yeah, the guy seemed interested so I told him about the time at George’s graduation party when George kissed Brooke as she was leaving and we were all around the front porch, and she was so gay and had such a look of revulsion on her face that it prompted you to ask the group if anyone had a toothbrush.”
“… and Don Ritchey pulled one from his backpack and handed it to her.” I said, finishing the story.
We laughed. “Geez, John, anything else?”
“Just your newsroom attitude.”
‘Uh oh,’ I thought.
John continued with his thought as though he hadn’t noticed mine. “…Especially when you’d be waiting for me to finish my story because you wanted to lay out the paper and go home, and the first time you’d be all nice and ask, ‘Do you think… anytime soon?’ and the second time you’d say, ‘We really have to get going.’ Then, by the third time you’d come by and explode, ‘What the hell are you doing? Who are you to hold up the whole production? Finish the freaking story already!'” John laughed.
“Yeah. The guy even asked, ‘What happened the fourth time?’ I told him that with me, there never was a fourth time.”
Ahh, the good old days.
“Nice that you mentioned my nurturing side,” I said as we turned onto the highway.
“Well, after scamming your way through the test I figured I needed to do something to bolster your likelihood of appearing,” John rationalized. “Ishtar, Lynn? I mean, really…”