Who WantsTo Be an Idiot?

By Tony Kornheiser Washington Post, Sunday, November 14, 1999; Page F01 I can't talk to you now. Call me back later. I'm watching the mega-hit "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." I'm hooked on the show, just like billions of other Americans. I like the cheesy pulsating music and the dancing spotlights; I thought I died and woke up in Tony Manero's basement in "Saturday Night Fever." I love the tall, coiled seats they put the contestants in--they look like ejection seats in an F-14. I'm hoping that after a wrong answer the departing contestant will be blasted through the roof of the ABC studio in Manhattan and land on Florence Henderson's lap on the set of NBC's unwatchable "Later Today." "Millionaire" runs 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Of course if you took away Regis Philbin's dramatic pauses, it would run five. It's great to see Regis in Armani, by the way. Clothes by Armani, delivery by salami. "Millionaire" is a quiz show for people ugly enough to put out a fire just by showing up. You rarely see people like this on network TV--unless it's "America's Most Wanted." All the contestants are geeky and nervous; one guy was so wired that if his teeth were in backward, he'd have chewed himself to death. Seriously, the people on this show are so unsightly, I could be a contestant. And I might win, too. You have to answer 15 questions to win $1 million. The first six or seven are so easy even George W. "But I Know Who Jack Daniels Is" Bush could answer them. Here's a typical one: It's white and it comes out of a cow. Is it: a) milk. b) eggs. c) a porcupine. d) Chester A. Arthur. "I believe it's milk," the contestant says. And Regis asks, "Are you confident?" Is he confident? It's white and it comes out of a cow. What else could it be, the Space Shuttle? "I'm pretty confident." Regis, God bless him, pauses and leers, like this is high drama here. "Is that your final answer?" "Yes, milk." Regis ponders the answer, like he's surprised you came up with "milk" when you had so many other terrific choices: You can't get any whiter than Chet Arthur. Finally, Regis peeks at the answer with a look of surprise: "You're right. It's milk!" On to the next level. "What's the color of the yellow submarine?" (Please do not confuse ABC's "Millionaire" with Fox's shameless rip-off, "Greed." "Greed" is hosted by Chuck Woolery, formerly of "Love Connection," where he wore a gold Rolex the size of a parrot. Sadly, Woolery does "Greed" without the Rolex. It's like Samson without his hair. As you'd expect, the Fox show is aggressively sleazy. They ask questions about types of condoms! Whereas Regis warmly holds out a check for contestants to examine, Woolery whips out a gob of cash and commands, "Smell it! Smell the money!" And whereas Regis calms contestants by asking them innocent, cheerful questions, you expect Woolery to ask, "Has anyone in your family ever been charged with murder?") On "Millionaire" you start at $100 and double your money with each correct answer. You can get to $64,000 quicker than Hillary Clinton in the hog futures market. Man About Town Chip Muldoon says these questions are so easy that if they'd come up with this show 30 years ago, Uncle Joe of "Petticoat Junction" would be the richest man in America. Remember Herb Stemple, the homely know-it-all who was on his way to acing "The $64,000 Question" in the 1950s? If Stemple were still alive, he'd be pounding his fist and screaming curses at the TV set. He got questions like: Who was the first theoretician to identify the third law of thermodynamics? These guys get: What company invented the Xerox machine? And the great news is, if there's a question you can't answer--like: "Can you believe the crap Kevin Costner's done lately?"--you can get help. You have three "lifelines" to pursue. You can choose "50-50." In that case they eliminate two of the wrong answers. I'm not sure this is such a bonanza, though. On most questions two of the wrong answers are obvious. For example: A potato is a member of what family? a) tuber. b) legume. c) Corleone. d) Partridge. Clearly, "d" and "b" are ridiculous. The tough part here is whether Frankie "Mr. Potato Head" Pugatch was a hit man for the Corleones or the Barzinis. Another "lifeline" is to poll the audience. Are you kidding me? You see the audience. These are the people you see standing in line outside Denny's waiting with twofer coupons for the Grand Slam breakfast with extra toast! Ask the audience? Oh, please. The third lifeline is the telephone call. You can use this once, and call anybody you want to help you with the question. The other night on a question about how many tentacles a squid has, the contestant called his friend. When the friend got on the phone he began doing shtick with Regis. He said, "Hey, Reege, first-time caller, love the show, babe. Give my regards to Kathie Lee." But when Regis asked him the squid question, he wasn't sure. That's your one call? To some friend who'll guess? I wouldn't waste my call on some bozo sitting at home trying to figure out if Miller Lite tastes good because it's smooth or because it has choice hops. I'd call someone who I knew could really help me--a computer librarian or Catherine Zeta-Jones. (My friend Denis wants to be in position where he's saved up his lifeline call, and he's going for the million, and he knows the answer cold. So he uses the phone to call 1-900-SEXLINE on the air.) Early in the week one of the contestants was a fat drooler. He made a lifeline call and somebody came on the line and said, "Pizza Hut, please hold." A few days later they had a guy who dreamily promised that if he won the million, he would pay off his debts "and get a dozen pairs of shoes at once." I was certain he'd use his lifeline call to dial Bette Midler. I wonder if anyone will call Kathie Lee. And ask if she knows what she's missing. © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company Reprinted without permission.