Go ahead and ask

I’ve wanted to be on a quiz show as long as I can remember. My grandmother sometimes used to babysit me when I was a kid, and I remember lying on the green couch in her den, and watching game shows on her tiny TV. Sure, The Price is Right had a great sense of showmanship and the giant wheel, and Wheel of Fortune had, well, Vanna White, but Jeopardy was my favorite, because it had delectable facts.

From a young age, my librarian parents had inculcated in me a love of knowing things. A frequent refrain from my father, when asked a question at the dinner table, was “Go look it up in the Funk & Wagnalls.”1 (Which always confused me, as we had a World Book.) In recent years, my friend Paul and I have participated in a number of winning pub trivia teams before the pub in question criminally stopped doing trivia night. The bastards.

Last August, in the throes of jealousy over my friend Glenn Fleishman’s then upcoming appearance on Jeopardy, I fired off an email to the people at NPR’s Ask Me Another.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a pub quiz style endeavor, where contestants face off in a variety of games, ranging from word puzzles to pop culture trivia, with musical accompaniment provided by geek troubadour Jonathan Coulton. I’d listened to most of the first season and thought I had done pretty well by shouting out answers at the radio, so hey, why not take it to the next level?

My inquiry about being a contestant lay unanswered for a couple months, since the show was on hiatus—in truth, I’d pretty much forgotten about it by the time an email appeared in my inbox in October, entitled “So You Want To Be a Contestant on NPR’s Ask Me Another?” Included was a short quiz, with instructions to send it back as soon as possible.

Please do not agonize; we know this quiz is hard! We just want to get a sense of how your mind works. If you do well enough or make us laugh hard enough I will call you in the weeks leading up to the show for a chat

The quiz was tricky, but they also suggested that “funny/clever answers will get you far,” so every time I didn’t know something—and, believe me, there was plenty of that—I put in something completely ridiculous. Which was pretty much the entire section on completing song lyrics and anything else to do with music. (Fortunately, they asked us upfront to rate our knowledge in various areas, so I was able to truthfully report that my musical knowledge largely comes to a grinding halt in the mid-20th century—with the exception of They Might Be Giants and movie scores.)

I did almost completely nail the question on associating fictitious towns with the TV show they appeared on—thanks, brain!—as well as completing a series of names that were missing most of the letters. Asked to list all ten movies Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson appeared in since 1998, I didn’t do as well as I’d have liked (I only came up with four correct answers), but I did volunteer some extra information:

(On the off-chance you award bonus credit, I can tell you that Owen Wilson appeared as the voice of a talking motorcycle in the Ben Stiller-directed pilot of Heat Vision and Jack, created by Community genius Dan Harmon. Sadly, it never made it to series. Yep, I’m a giant nerd.)

My greatest triumph—In my life? Sure!—was when, at the last moment, my tingling Spidey sense encouraged me to change my answer for “What product is protected by United States patent #4289794, a “Process for Preparing Gasified Candy”?” from “Cotton candy” to “Pop Rocks.” My worst? While the four genera of great apes in the world do include Gorilla, Chimpanzee, and Orangutan, the fourth is human, and not, as I suggested, Grape Ape.

The final question asked me to construct a lipogram—a work where you intentionally omit one or more letters. We were asked to write a paragraph or two without the letter ‘o.’ I cracked my knuckles and got down to work.

I’m glad this quiz included a true test in which I can display my skill. Luckily, I spend all day writing, thus a simple paragraph is little impediment. Shall I explain why I’d be an excellent participant, were I selected? First, I have always been dubbed a smart aleck in matters trivial. (Sadly, it was likely in many cases intended as less than kind.) Next, I’m great at thinking quickly, even when the timer is ticking. Third, I have been smitten with puzzles since I was but a wee lad. (Plus, I annually take part in the MIT Mystery Hunt.)

But I must admit, I mainly want a way in which I can match up against a certain friend—he recently acquitted himself very well in a particular televised quiz. (Its name will remain unsaid, but I will say it is run by a Mr. Alex Trebek.) That, in a nutshell, is my argument. I’d be delighted were I given this truly brilliant chance. I sincerely pray that all this meets with the reader’s enthusiastic agreement. Thanks very much.


You never realize how much you use the letter ‘o’ until you try to write a sentence without it.

About two weeks later, I got a response from Eleanor Kagan, the show’s production assistant, inviting me to a phone interview. In it, I mentioned that my friends sometimes called me a human IMDb, a moniker which was later (embarrassingly) attributed to myself. But the chat went well, and they offered me a spot on a show recording on November 19.

The downside to that particular date was that my lovely girlfriend would be unable to join me, as she’d already flown home for Thanksgiving. In her place, I instead recruited Brian, my best friend from college, so I could avoid navigating the streets of New York City alone (and also so I had some place to sleep that night).

Somehow we ended up missing the first train from his place in New Haven into the city, which meant that when we arrived at Grand Central, we literally ran down East 42nd St. trying to find the F train stop (neither of us has particularly good New York geography). Fortunately, a nice stranger overheard our befuddlement and pointed us towards an entrance underneath the New York Public Library. Which we then ran through, only to miss the F train.

I started composing a message to Eleanor, letting her know I was running late, but the lack of signal meant that I couldn’t send it. So, by the time we arrived all the way in Brooklyn, we once again found ourselves running to the show’s venue. The realization that I hadn’t brought my inhaler—flashbacks to elementary school gym class—and that I didn’t want to show up sweaty and out of breath got me to drop it back to a brisk walk.

At first, we weren’t totally sure that The Bell House was the right place, since it seemed to be at the end of a street of deserted warehouses. (I understand now that this is simply how you know something in Brooklyn is “hip.”) But we wrangled our way inside, and turned out to be in plenty of time.

Brian offered to buy me a beer once we’d filed in and been to shown to our VIP contestant section (a small wooden box at the back of a large room); I declined since, despite my protestations to the contrary, I was pretty nervous.

Eleanor ushered the contestants aside, at which point we were told in which order we’d be playing, who our opponents were, and what our subject area was. I ended up going up against a nice fellow, Alexander. We shook hands and exchanged some jokes as we were walked through the process of coming up on stage, speaking directly into the mics, and instructed on how to use the buzzers.2

That done, we filtered back to the box and waited for the show to start.

I’ve been to a bunch of radio shows before—even been on a few—but this is the first time I was in a non-professional capacity, or in front of an audience. Moreover, I was going to have to prove my mettle by answering questions about something that I’d claimed to be knowledgable about. And I was all too aware that, though I felt confident in my knowledge, that could all go out of my head the moment I got up on stage.

Indeed, I watched a few of the contestants in games before me do just that. The first had to do with candy names, and though you could watch the participants warm to it a few questions in, it’s tough to have a break-in time in a game that lasts only a few minutes.

For the second game, my opponent and I were whisked to just offstage, so I got to watch this one from close up, and thank the merciful heavens that I hadn’t gotten this segment, about animal sounds in other languages, because I would have been curled into a fetal ball by the end.

Then it was our turn, and we were brought up under the bright lights—Lights? Don’t they know we’re on radio?—to talk into a foam rubber microphone an inch from our faces. (I’m going to blame that for the reason I flubbed my joke to host Ophira Eisenberg.)

The game itself went pretty well—the category they gave me, TV show finales, was right up my alley, although I did notice in listening to the replay that they cut some of the questions: There was one about Six Feet Under that it took a couple of hints for me to answer. (I’d never seen the show.) I missed the one about Sex and the City because I’d only ever seen maybe two episodes, and I knew Newhart (in fact, I’d been thinking about it since they mentioned what our topic was), but didn’t ring in fast enough.3

Still, I acquitted myself well enough to earn a place in the final round. The spelling bee style was a little odd: We were lined up in order on the steps leading to the stage, and on our turn, we would walk up, speak our answer into the microphone (I had to lean way over, because it was at a height more appropriate for my shorter competitors), and then, assuming we were correct, walk back down the stairs to the back of the line. Rinse. Repeat.

But that was where the wheels came off the bus, ensuring that I will now never forget the movie Uncle Buck, despite never having seen it. You have failed me for the last time, IMDb brain.

So, mission accomplished! I’ve been on a quiz show. What’s next? Well, this past week, I went to register for the Jeopardy online test again (making the third time I’ve taken it), but as I was filling out the form, I realized that being on a competing quiz show in the past year disqualifies me from being on Jeopardy this year. (Somehow, I suspect this is all Glenn Fleishman’s fault.)

Jeopardy will have to wait, then. In the meantime, I have redoubled my efforts to submit answers for the Weekend Edition Sunday Puzzle. Watch your back, Wil Shortz.

  1. Like many of my other father’s favorite expressions—“Was you dere, Charlie?”—this appears to have originated elsewhere, in this case from the classic comedy show Laugh In.
  2. Ask Me Another instituted buzzers this season after people kept ringing the manual bells they used before the question had been finished. This was a great improvement. Plus it felt like being on Jeopardy.
  3. If you hear whooping or cheering after I give a correct answer, it’s Brian. He’s the loudest damn person I know.

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