Once a national obsession, imagine a game show airing in prime time three nights a week on a major network, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has been canceled — final answer. And with Millionaire’s departure, I can close the books on the one — and only one — time that I was pranked in public.
I've got to admit, it was embarrassing. They got me good.
You remember how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? worked, right? Contestants kept answering multiple choice questions until they got one wrong, quit while they were ahead, or ran the table all the way to $1 million. Contestants had three “lifelines” along the way: they could poll the audience, eliminate two of the incorrect answers, or “phone-a-friend” at home for help.
Getting the call
One day back when, a “producer from Millionaire” called to say that a possible contestant had listed me as a phone-a-friend, and I should be home between 10 am and 2 pm that day, when Millionaire was taping several shows for later airing. The show wanted phone-a-friends to be somewhere they would answer on a landline.
I knew the routine. Several Houston Chronicle readers had made it to the Millionaire contestant pool, and a few put me down as a phone-a-friend. As instructed, I would stay home that day. I’m such a rule follower. But my contestants never made it to Millionaire’s “hotseat.”
Things would change this day. Another call, this time the producer said, “Your friend Adam (I didn't know Adam from Adam) has made it on the show, so be ready, just in case. If the phone rings, it will be Regis. He will say hello and put Adam on the phone. He will read the question right away. Don’t get into a conversation with Regis, ok?”
Regis on the line
Ten minutes later … ring! “Is this Ken Hoffman? Hi, this is Regis Philbin in New York, and your buddy Adam is on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He’s going for $100,000, and he needs your help. I’m going to put Adam on, and he will give you the question and four possible answers.”
Let’s pause for a moment. The person on the phone did not sound like Regis Philbin. But I’ve been in similar situations when a celebrity phone interview sounded fishy. Like the first time I interviewed Jimmy Buffett. It was over the phone, and I was struck by his Alabama/Mississippi accent. It didn’t sound like Jimmy Buffett in concert or on TV talk shows. My friends knew I was going to interview him on the phone, they knew I was a big fan, and I thought maybe they were playing a trick on me.
Another time I interviewed John Fogerty and his speaking voice was higher pitched than I expected, nothing like his growl on “Proud Mary” or “Travelin’ Band.” Even recently, I talked with Gilbert Gottfried on the phone, again the voice was not what you hear on Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts.
So I didn’t blink when Regis Philbin put Adam the contestant on the phone. The question was:
If a dish is labeled “Florentine” on a menu, what vegetable will it likely contain?
As a world traveler and professional food critic (under $10), I knew this one. I confidently said, “Spinach … 100 percent!”
That’s when things took a horrible turn. Adam said, “I can’t hear him.” I heard Regis ask, “Ken are you there?”
I spoke louder into the phone, “I’m here, the answer is spinach, 100 percent!”
Both Adam and Regis said they couldn't hear me. So I yelled even louder, "spinach!"
I could hear them, they couldn't hear me. Finally Regis said, "Adam, five seconds left."
"Spinach! Spinach! Spinach!” Now I was screaming. “Spinach!” I had lost my mind. We’re talking $100,000 for Popeye’s favorite vegetable. This is the easiest question ever. I didn’t stop screaming and banging the phone, “Spinach!”
Finally Regis, “I’m sorry the phone connection didn’t work, Adam, but I’m going to need an answer.”
Adam said, “I really don’t have a clue, I thought Ken would know this, so I’ll guess D, asparagus, final answer.”
Regis, “I’m so sorry, the answer was B, spinach. I’m sorry you didn’t win the $100,000, but you were a great contestant, thanks for playing.”
I hung up the phone and just sat there. I couldn’t believe this happened. I knew the answer, and Adam missed out on $100,000. He lost all that money because of a bad phone connection. I felt extra horrible because Millionaire winners usually rewarded the phone-a-friends who helped them.
Five minutes later, the phone rang, it was Regis Philbin … “You’ve just had your nuts cracked!”
Lander! The whole thing was a radio show phone prank! You remember John Lander from his Q-Morning Zoo on Houston station KKBQ. Now he was working in Boston. His show was the “Nut Hut,” and his phone pranks were “Nutcrackers.” Regis and Adam were two of Lander's sidekicks on the show.
I used to work on Lander’s show in Houston. I even did performed on some of the phone pranks, called “Zoogerizations.” We were one of the few shows where the phone pranks were real, not like current shows where prank calls, like War of the Roses, are staged with actors playing the culprits and victims.
I used to fly to Boston every so often to help out Lander on his new show. I knew how his Nutcrackers worked. Like everybody else in the studio, I would shake my head, “How could this person be so stupid to fall for this?"
And then I fell for one. I will never forget yelling “Spinach” as loud as I could like a crazy person. You can hear a few of Lander’s Nutcrackers on YouTube, but not mine, thankfully.
Lander’s show was a big hit up in Boston. Every time he played the Millionaire Nutcracker, I’d hear about it down here in Houston. People would ask, “Is that really you?” “Was that set up in advance?” What they really were asking was, “How could you be so stupid?”
Lesson learned: don’t ever think that you can’t be got.