Who out there could be unaware that for the past sixteen years I have hosted a game show? Every week, on Bay Area Quiz Kids, I was introduced as “the best host on the West Coast,” a subtle dig at What’s-His-Name on Jeopardy. This caused Mr. Trebek such distress that, when he visited my home ground in 2011, he resorted to all sorts of tacky maneuvers to shift the attention from me to him with, as you can imagine, little success. (Read about it here.)
After sixteen years, I was informed this week of the cancellation of my show. Peninsula-TV, the cable access station that produces us, lost its sponsor and cannot find anyone else interested in putting up money to produce a game show for teens. KRON-TV, the local station that carried Quiz Kids for most of its run, has decided to take us off the air. We had fallen into the category of “educational television” or “shows for kids” or something or other that gave KRON the right to do other things; they don’t need us for that anymore. We had also failed to come up with a new episode in over six months. Finally, KRON claims that it will now only show programming that its sister stations in other markets also runs. All stations in all cities will now look exactly the same. So long, individuality! Farewell to shows produced at home for home audiences.
You will all survive, I trust. You survived the end of M*A*S*H. You survived the demise of All My Children. You barely noticed the cancellation of MAD Men. But what about those of us left behind? What about the talent?
You out there in the dark reading this post couldn’t possibly imagine what life can be like for a star: the paparazzi accosting you in the supermarket, the constant demands on your time from civic organizations wanting you to act as spokesperson and fundraising drives asking for a lock of your hair or a used napkin, the pornographic texts sent by rabid fans, the sense of doom surrounding you that, at any moment, your top-rated show might lose some viewing points and your carefully built celebrity-fueled existence could crumble to dust. You can’t understand the fleeting nature of a mad-cap existence, the need to stay young as the lights and camera become increasingly unflattering, the exhilarating ups and downs of a life lived in the fast lane, prey to the suffocating side effects of eternal fame.
Well, neither can I.
This past sixteen years has been a most pleasant time, an era for me where someone might step forward in the market and say, “Hey, you’re that guy,” or point at me on the street, say “Quiz Kids,” shake a head and walk away, or turn around on a bus and say in a quiet, embarrassed voice, “I like your show.” Nobody ever remembered my name. Some people admitted that Quiz Kids was a show they watched in passing, flipping the channels to find the football game or trapped on the elliptical at the gym staring at the screen. Several butchers seemed to be fans, but they never offered me free meat. The parents of one former contestant still own a Chinese restaurant up the street from where I live. Whenever I stopped in, they would tell me how their grown-up son is doing, and they would throw a little something extra in the bag. Unfortunately, now that I’m gluten free, I’m allergic to soy sauce.
Perhaps the grandest effect was that at the high school where I work –where I’m just the crabby guy who teaches drama – the occasional misfit student who had treated me with a magnificent disrespect, would bestow upon me a bit of awestruck wonder after they had by accident one weekend happened upon my face beaming at them from their own TV screen.
As a child, I was a big fan of game shows, so in a sense, this fulfilled a little fantasy of mine as a performer. I was particularly a fan of the legendary Bill Cullen, who hosted the original The Price Is Right, Eye Guess and many other game shows. In addition, my last producer brought in a fellow who worked for Mark Goodsen and Bill Toddman, legendary game show producers, to doctor our show and share some great stories about Password and other shows. He brought me a gift one day: a biography of Bill Cullen, signed by the author.
But really, the best moments of this experience were the shows themselves, the amazing crew I got to work with, and, of course, the kids themselves. Some of these were the brightest children I have ever known. In fact, many did not seem like teenagers, and I had to remind them that they were, indeed, too young focus only on their intellect. During the interviews at the start of every episode, I had to pull a topic out of each contestant. I resisted talking only about Latin conventions they had attended or Science Bowls their school had won. I asked them to dig deep into their private lives and find something that would show to the world how multi-faceted they were . . . and how interesting: their wild hobbies, work with clubs, family vacations. Contestants asked girls to the prom on camera, or thanked their favorite teacher, or promoted their own business of helping helpless adults with technology.
One time, I was nearly defeated by a girl who said, as teenagers often do, that she had nothing of interest to share. For almost ten minutes, we determined together that this 15-year old belonged to no clubs worth mentioning, had never gone on a trip, never met another interesting soul, wouldn’t talk about the prom, or sports or even a favorite book or movie. She insisted I skip the interview, which I was not about to do. Finally, in desperation I said, “So what are you doing after we tape the show?” She replied that she was going to the local airport for her flying lesson. This high school sophomore had been learning to fly for a year!
Sometimes, ridiculous answers came out of the contestant’s mouths. Wouldn’t you know the only one I can remember off the top of my head was the girl who claimed with confidence that the French word for “no” was “nyet.” (“Mais non,” I replied.) Kids could rattle on and on about fractals and photosynthesis and The Brandenburg Concerto, but they would stumble over popular culture and politics. The other great source of humor was watching the host (that’s me!) stumble over the wording of certain questions about science or the ancient world: “If the Oracle at Peloponnesia wanted to worship the Muse of Music, would he offer a sacrifice to Polyhymnia, Melpomene, or Euterpe?” It got so that if I encountered a question like this on my stack, I would toss it in the air. The writer soon got the drift of my message.
One of the biggest problems were the students who were involved in so many quiz bowls that they knew not only the answers to the questions but could figure out the answer based on the format of the question plus some lucky guessing:
“In 1791 – “
BUZZ – “The Bill of Rights!”
“Which World War II Gen- “
BUZZ – “George Patton!”
“When Moby Dick was – “
BUZZ – “Ambergris!”
If you can’t get the question out in its entirety, then the home audience cannot play along! But we could never figure out how to block the buzzers until I had finished reading the whole question. Thus, whenever a student had a run like that, I would finally take a card, hold it to my forehead, close my eyes and concentrate, and say, “Go ahead.” Then, after the show, we would have another long chat with the writer about the questions.
Sixteen years on television may not have provided me with fame or money (I did get paid a tiny bit for this, and then I had to take a pay cut when the world economy took a dive. I figured, if Susan Lucci could do it, so could I), but the experience provided me with a lot of laughs and even a few tears. A brilliant young champion, our first “celebrity”, died at the end of his senior year at college, and I was asked to speak at his memorial. He was the first young person I met who reminded me that sometimes genius is a very heavy burden for young shoulders. I remember the day our first tech director, John Edmundsson, did not show up for the taping. He had passed away suddenly in his sleep. That left a hole in our hearts for a long time.
But most of the time, the studio was filled with a sense of pride among the teams and a lot of giggling from the host (“Hel of Ragnarok, the daughter of Loki and Angrboda, ruled over Niflheim, which was what kingdom?”) The Cub Scouts of America took to bringing their dens over for a taping. I always used to introduce the cubs on the air as my writers. At least, none of them would have made me read a question which included the word “sphygmomanometer” in it!
And now it seems to be over, and it leaves behind . . . what legacy? I guess there won’t be much of one. Former contestants may search for their episodes on YouTube. (Here’s a sample episode for you to peruse.) People will stop turning around on the bus, leaning over the butcher counter, or giving me a new look of awareness in class. This particular gig, or role, or shot at fame, ceases with a whimper instead of a bang.
But it was fun while it lasted, whatever it was.