The 57,600 Seconds I Spent at the Million Second Quiz

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 12 2013 2:15 PM

The 57,600 Seconds I Spent at the Million Second Quiz

seacrest
Would you like to be Seacrestered?

Will Hart/NBC

A short while back, in the midst of crushing the Sunday night trivia contest at my local Brooklyn pub, I was recruited by some sort of high-powered quiz-talent scout. He said he dug my trivial style. He invited me to come to a midtown Manhattan studio where they were filming a new game show.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

And so I showed up at 10 a.m. Wednesday, not entirely clear on what I was doing. I signed reams of releases. Watched a video about game show industry “compliance standards.” Aced a short written test.

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I soon got herded into a large tent in the parking lot outside. Along with dozens of other eager hopefuls, I was being queued up to appear on Million Second Quiz—the latest Ryan Seacrest assault on the monoculture’s senses. An NBC primetime TV appearance suddenly seemed to be in the offing.

I kept quiet and sullen, on the chance that my intimidating aloofness might aid me when it came time for head-to-head game play. A few loudmouths debated questions of strategy. I listened intently—mostly because I still had zero clue about even the most basic rules of the show. “Money chair”? “Doubling button”? I wondered if I should take some notes. I was especially alarmed to learn that, given the show’s format, if I hoped to win any money whatsoever I’d need to remain sequestered (or Seacrestered™) on this set for about six straight days, with almost no outside contact.

Everyone else had packed airline carry-on bags full of snacks, toiletries, and changes of nice, TV-ready clothes. I’d come in a T-shirt and jeans, armed with nothing but my cellphone and a crackling hangover. The phone was immediately confiscated. The hangover I kept.

I spent the next 14 hours in that tent. There was a psych test with a friendly mental health professional who asked if I’d be bringing any problems from “out here” (a concept indicated by expansive hand gestures) onto the set. There was then a battery of medical tests. Production assistants whispered that a few contestants who’d pounded 5-Hour Energy shots—in an effort to stay alert—had been registering terrifyingly rapid resting pulse rates.

At 8 p.m., the primetime broadcast began. We watched from folding chairs on the parking lot tarmac. We could see only the top of the outdoor set on the roof of the studio, with its blazing klieg lights, and could hear strains of Seacrest’s mellifluous voice. It dawned on us that we’d not be appearing on TV tonight. The show ended just as we were wrapping up our 12th hour in confinement.

At about 11 p.m., I was summoned from the squalor of the tent (it looked like a refugee shelter at this point) and ushered into the “Story” trailer. A producer asked me leading questions, and then berated me to boost my “energy levels” and “vocal projection” until she elicited a shrieking, crazed performance that bore no resemblance to my actual personality. The videographer’s lone comment was that I should smooth down my “flyaway hairs.”

At last, after midnight, feeling punchy and delusional—half suspecting that the actual show here was about pranking people into voluntarily jailing themselves in a midtown Manhattan parking lot for six days—I was mic’d up and brought to the indoor set. No TV broadcast. But I was livestreamed to any sad souls hanging out on NBC.com in the middle of the night.

I quickly vanquished my first foe and assumed my rightful spot in the Money Chair. Four more opponents were casually slayed. I overcame my severe knowledge gaps on questions involving the zodiac, the U.S. presidency pre-1900, and Courageous Cat. My provisional winnings climbed to about $40,000.

And then came an IRS worker from Long Island who, in the moments before our game started, told me that Slate was among his favorite publications. This spelled doom. He outbuzzered me on the tiebreaker question, even though we both knew the answer was Bob Hope (duh).

I stumbled out onto 11th Avenue at 2:15 a.m. this morning, two calendar days after my internment began, and waved down a taxi. I hadn’t won any money. I hadn’t met Ryan Seacrest. And my unhinged “Story” interview will now live in NBC’s video vaults for perpetuity, in any and all media formats now existing or ever to be devised throughout the known and unknown galaxy. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what the release said. I’m still too amped up on 5-Hour Energy to be sure.

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