I Was a Contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” and Here’s All the Behind-The-Scenes Scoop!

My episode of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” aired yesterday. And man oh man, do I have some stories to tell! SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched yet and don’t want to know how I did, stop reading now.

No, seriously, this is your last spoiler alert warning! Juicy details lie ahead!

OK – are we good to continue? Good.

First of all, I feel such a sense of relief. This episode was taped last July, and I signed contracts saying I wouldn’t reveal anything about the episode prior to it airing. It was seven long months of waiting! But now that it’s aired, I can let you in on what the whole process was like.

How I got on the show: I auditioned in May 2017, in Los Angeles. I knew what to expect, because I had auditioned once before, in 2011. There’s a long, multi-page questionnaire, about you, your history, your hobbies, and anything and everything that makes you special and unique. You have to read lots of fine print about eligibility rules, and sign paperwork saying that everything you’re providing is truthful.

Then you take a test. It’s multiple choice, just like the questions on the show. There are 30 of them, and you have to finish in 10 minutes. Do the math: that’s 20 seconds you can spend on each question. You gotta move quick!

They don’t tell you how well you have to do, nor do they tell you how well you did. They just disappear with the tests to another room, and come back a few minutes later. If you passed the test, you stay. If you didn’t, thanks for coming and the door is that way. (I didn’t pass the test in 2011.)

Those that pass the test meet one-on-one with a producer, who reviews your questionnaire and asks you a bunch of questions. This is the personality part of the audition – they’re seeing if you’re likeable, interesting, articulate, have compelling talking points that Chris Harrison (the host) could chat with you about on the air, and so on.

I was interviewed by a producer named Raphael, and he sent me on to the next step, an interview with an executive producer, Liz. Liz asked me questions, and then put me in front of a camera, started recording, and we played a mock game. She wanted to see how well I could figure out questions and think out loud, because that’s important on a TV show: they don’t want contestants standing there silently, because that’s boring.

Liz has a great poker face, so I had no idea how well I was doing – although I did get all the questions in the mock game correct. She thanked me for coming and told me I’d hear something via email in 1-2 weeks. Some people get a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email, but I got the other email: ‘Congratulations, you’re now in the contestant pool!’

The Contestant Pool is the last step before you get chosen to be on the show. Basically, my email said that I was in the contestant pool, and I might get a call at some point in the next two years inviting me to be a contestant on the show. EXCITING!

A month later, I got the call. WOOHOO! Would I be available to come to Las Vegas on July 26 and 27 to be a contestant on the show? It was only about 10 days away, but thankfully, I could make it work. Which is great, because there’s no negotiating over dates. If I wasn’t available, I’d go back into the contestant pool, and I may not have gotten the call again.

After saying yes, the paperwork started coming in. Another questionnaire. Official rules of the game. Legal releases. About 30 pages of stuff that had to be read and signed.

I also had to pick who would be my Plus One lifeline, and provide their info to the show. I thought about this long and hard, and decided to ask my friend Chuck, because he’s very smart across a wide range of topics, including some, like history, that I’m not as strong in. (And that played out perfectly, wouldn’t you say?) He also had a flexible schedule that allowed him come to Las Vegas on more or less a moment’s notice (or, 10 days), which I imagined would be difficult for many others. I was so thrilled when he said yes!

The show, by the way, doesn’t cover any costs. Contestants have to pay their own way to get to Las Vegas, and put themselves up at a hotel. (They did provide a discount code, though.)

It’s showtime! I was excited, but incredibly nervous the day of the taping. My nerves prevented me from sleeping well the night before, but I did manage a few hours of shuteye.

The show is taped at Caesars Entertainment Studios, a television production facility just off the Las Vegas Strip, behind the Paris and Bally’s hotels. I stayed at Bally’s (using that discount code) so I could walk over. The building was big but barely looked permanent, like a good wind could knock it over. That probably wouldn’t be the case, and the AC inside worked like a charm, and that’s an important thing when you’re taping in Las Vegas in the summer.

They tape six episodes of the show every day, five or six days a week, meaning they can crank out an entire year’s worth in just a couple months. I was one of about nine contestants there that day, and we were all brought into a holding room backstage. All of our Plus Ones were there, too.

They confiscated our phones almost immediately. No phones, tablets, or any electronics that we could use to access the internet or communicate with the outside world. Chuck and I managed one quick photo before our phones went bye-bye: me in the original contestant chair that was used on the primetime version with Regis Philbin. (Contestants now stand up during the show, as does the host.)

Our day began with about 90 minutes of briefings. The lawyer spoke to us, then one of the executive producers, then the publicist. We were told over and over that we couldn’t share how we did, or how much money we won, before our episode aired, and signed multiple documents agreeing to that.

We were also told that we wouldn’t know when our episode would air until 1-2 weeks before the airdate, and that it could happen anytime between September and June. Any prize money we may win wouldn’t get sent until 30 days after the episode aired.

Then more producers came in, and went over all the rules. They brought in examples of questions that prior contestants got wrong because they made silly mistakes, like misreading the answers, or not taking a few moments to understand what the question was really asking. Lots of cautionary tales.

The staff, by the way, from the executive producers down to the assistants, were all really friendly and nice, and they all genuinely wanted the contestants to do well. They stressed over and over that being on stage is a completely different experience than playing along at home, so pay attention, reread the question and the answers, and use the lifelines wisely. After all, when you play at home you can get all the questions wrong, with no consequences, and still play along every single day. Here, if you get one wrong, you’re done. That’s it. You only have one shot in your lifetime, and if you blow it, it’s over.

We were taken to the stage for a rehearsal, where the stage manager went over all sorts of stuff, from how we’d be walking onto the stage to how to clap the right way (not too loudly, because it’ll get picked up by the microphone clipped to our shirts). We all got the opportunity to answer a question behind the podium, under all the lights and with the music playing, so we’d know what that experience was like.

Then we got in a big line, and one by one had a mini photo shoot with the show photographer. Mine are the first two photos in this post. By this point, the audience was being brought in, so my sister Laura was able to take this photo of me getting my photo taken:

My cheering section in the audience consisted of my sister Laura, cousin Aaron, and friend Steve, whom I’ve known since sixth grade. It was so awesome that they were all able to come!

They sat in the audience all day, while Chuck (and all the other Plus Ones) stayed backstage with the contestants.

Here’s the whole set, from the perspective of an audience member. Click on it to see it bigger. The big screen on the right is the one that’s never shown on TV – it’s the one that Chris Harrison uses to host the show.

After the rehearsal and photo shoot was over, we were all herded back to the holding room. They started taping the six episodes for that day, and for all of us, the waiting game began.

We weren’t told in what order we’d be playing the game. We sat around, and every so often a producer would come and ask a contestant and Plus One to come with them. And then we’d never see them again.

We couldn’t have anything to entertain ourselves. One contestant and Plus One pulled out a deck of cards, and they were confiscated. Someone else was told they couldn’t have their crossword puzzle book. We weren’t allowed to watch the episodes that were being taped just a few feet away – all we could do was watch a TV that was playing old episodes of the show.

It was agonizingly boring. It wasn’t a good time for me, but I really felt bad for the Plus Ones – Chuck and the others had to endure all this waiting for the chance to possibly help out on one question.

One by one the number of contestants in the holding room dwindled, but I remained. After being there eight hours – five of which were spent doing absolutely nothing – they told me I could leave. They were almost done for the day, and Chuck and I, along with two other contestant/Plus One pairs, would have to come back tomorrow, when we’d be the first contestants to play the game.

Sigh.

Day Two. The good news about coming back the second day was that we could show up a couple hours later, and skip all the meetings and briefings, since we already sat through them. I had the choice of whether or not I wanted to attend the on-stage rehearsal, and I chose not to, because I had already done it, and I was feeling much calmer on day two, since I had done it all already, and I didn’t want any nervous energy from the new group of contestants to rub off on me.

Then the waiting game began again, but thankfully, Chuck and I didn’t have to wait long. We were taken to the hair and makeup room, where lots of magic happened. Actually, we were told to come to the studio camera-ready, and their hair and makeup staff only did touch-ups.

From there we were taken to a tiny Airstream trailer, parked inside the building and just offstage. Raphael met us in there, and he went through a checklist of things to remember, and also briefed me on the talking points that Chris might talk to me about.

We waited in that cramped Airstream until the contestant before me finished their game. It was a woman named Muffy, who did really well, and won $100,000. (Her episode aired months ago.) So we had to wait in that airstream for about an hour, not knowing what was going on onstage, but hearing increasing exuberant rounds of applause as she climbed higher and higher up the money ladder.

I was starting to get ridiculously anxious. Meanwhile, Chuck, who is naturally very chatty and curious, managed to get most of Raphael’s life story.

Finally Raphael got word on his headset. “You’re up, let’s go!” Raphael gave me a little pep talk as we walked a few feet to the stage, and Chuck was escorted to the Plus One seat in the audience. The sound guy put a microphone on me. Liz greeted me offstage and gave me a little pep talk, and Raphael asked me what song they could play that would pump me up. I chose Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up” and seconds later, it was booming through the speakers.

I had wanted this moment to happen for nearly 20 years, ever since I watched the premiere episode with Regis Philbin, and here I was. It was actually happening! As soon as I walked on stage, I felt my fingers get clammy, and my entire mouth went dry. I asked Raphael for water, which they had ready for me anyway.

Here I am, a minute or two before my episode began taping, trying to focus and take deep breaths:

Everything became a blur once the taping began. It moved quickly. Chris Harrison made me feel at home, but it was still ridiculously nerve-wracking. The screen where the questions are displayed for the contestant is enormous – so big that you can’t see the entire question at one time. You can see, on the show, my eyeballs shifting as I reread the questions.

I remembered the advice I received again and again: reread the question. Understand the question. Consider each answer. Don’t make foolish mistakes. It felt so good every time I got one right, and before long, I was up to the $5,000 question. I used my Plus One lifeline to reach that threshold, and Chuck came through for me. And then it was time for a commercial break.

Raphael and Liz told me, in the break, that I was doing great, and Raphael gave me a heads up that Chris would ask me about my weight loss when the next segment started. And he did. Then I was playing the game again.

It was devastating to get the $10,000 question wrong. There’s not much I can tell you that I didn’t say on-air. I considered the options, decided to make a strategic decision to hold on to my lifelines, and made what I thought was an educated guess. And it didn’t pan out.

In my defense, the question wasn’t in my wheelhouse. I don’t drink alcohol, don’t drink much caffeine, and don’t suffer from migraines. Heck, I don’t even get headaches very often. Being knowledgeable with any of those things would’ve helped me tremendously, but what could I do? I can only answer the questions I was given, and I wasn’t prepared to answer that question.

I blew it. I felt horrible, that I had wasted an opportunity. I was escorted offstage, where they took off my mic, I signed another document, collected my belongings, thanked Raphael for shepherding me through this experience, and headed out.

I was depressed for a few days afterward. I replayed that question over and over in my head, hundreds of times, envisioning different outcomes, scolding myself for not using a lifeline. It was bad.

I could talk about the experience with Chuck, Laura, Aaron and Steve, since they were there, but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else, which I was thankful for, because I wasn’t ready to relive the emotions of getting that question wrong again and again. And I had barely told anyone that I was even chosen to be a contestant, so I wasn’t hounded by people trying to coerce me into revealing the outcome.

Then, after a few days, it wasn’t so bad. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I left Vegas $5,000 richer, and that’s a nice chunk of change. Enough to fund my heroin addiction for an entire month! (Kidding.) I beat out thousands of people and was selected to be a contestant on one of the most famous game shows in television history, and I did pretty well, up until the part when I didn’t.

Now that the episode has aired, I’ve been flooded with compliments: that I looked and sounded great on TV, was charming and witty and natural, and that I didn’t seem nervous at all. (Oh, but I was!)

I am so glad that for every moment of this experience. It’s a cliche to say that it was a dream come true, but I can’t think of a more fitting cliche. I may not be a millionaire, but it sure was fun trying!

Keep it up, David! FINAL ANSWER.

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Follow me! I’m @keepitupdavid on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, and I’m on Google+ too! There’s also a “Sign Me Up” box on this page (at the top of the right-hand column) where you can subscribe to receive new posts via email!

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One Response to I Was a Contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” and Here’s All the Behind-The-Scenes Scoop!

  1. Jeff Dinkin says:

    Amazing read! It really gives a complete perspective of how the whole process works. I never would have known all that’s involved. Loved seeing how natural you were on the show. Congrats on winning $5,000. Our next lunch is on you! 😉

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