NEW YORK — Why, oh why, didn’t I know the president of Nigeria’s name?
I had swept through nine questions and logged $60,000 by the time I made my fatal guess as a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.”
The correct name of Nigeria’s leader? It’s Goodluck Jonathan. My good luck had run out.
“Millionaire” host Cedric “The Entertainer” dispatched me with a sympathetic farewell. The audience applauded warmly. I exited the stage. My moment in the spotlight and my bid to be a millionaire was over.
The loss I felt was only slightly eased by the fact that this was all for practice. No actual prize money was ever at stake. I had been invited to take part in a rehearsal show that will never be aired and no one will ever see. (Which means no one will ever know my lame-brain final answer.)
On Sept. 2, the new season of “Millionaire” premieres for real (check local listings for time and channel), ushering in new host Cedric “The Entertainer,” who follows Meredith Vieira’s 11 seasons and, of course, Regis Philbin, who emceed the prime-time ABC version from 2000 to 2002.
The “Millionaire” run-through I appeared on was one of a couple Cedric would host just days before beginning the real-deal, five-a-day, five-days-per-week regimen that yields a season’s requisite 175 shows in only 35 production days.
Cedric’s credits include the “Barbershop” films, “The Original Kings of Comedy,” a Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” and his current TV Land sitcom “The Soul Man,” along with his thriving stand-up career. Clearly, he’s a seasoned pro, complete with dapper wardrobe and signature trove of jaunty headwear.
Even so, hosting a game show calls for special skills, as he noted after our taping earlier this month on the “Millionaire” stage in upper Manhattan.
“You’re standing beside someone who’s playing for real money while you’re entertaining an audience that’s watching from the sidelines,” he said. “You want to be funny for the audience, but you don’t want to throw the contestant off.”
Cedric isn’t privy to answers to the questions he asks, which suits him fine. “It’s not really my job to act like I’m the smartest guy in the room, so I can relax,” he said. “But you have to know the game. They’re serious about the rules.”
Yes, they, the producers, are very serious. “Millionaire” even has a production attorney, Scott Greenberg, whose job includes making sure those rules are obeyed.
“There can’t be even the appearance of cheating,” he said.
Greenberg gives each contestant a detailed briefing as part of the lengthy preparation process.
“Be careful how you use the word ‘jump,’ ” he cautioned me at one point, referring to the newfangled life-line (“Phone a Friend is gone) where you don’t know an answer and want to bail.
Another briefing comes from executive producer Rich Sirop, whose tenure with the show goes back to 2000, when he was hired to answer the phones for one day.
For anyone who’s somehow unfamiliar with “Millionaire,” the game is played with a series of multiple-choice questions each of which, when correctly answered, has a monetary value. If the player clears the first 10 questions, the final four lead to really big money, like a million bucks. But just one incorrect response sends you packing with a thousand-dollar consolation prize.
That wasn’t going to be me.
The first question was a gimme.
“Which of these hair-related phrases,” Cedric asked, “is used to describe someone who suddenly starts acting crazy?”
The answer was (B): “Wig Out.” I had scored a fast (make-believe) $7,000.
Thinking out loud is recommended by the producers. Not only does it help the player parse the trickier questions, it also builds suspense among viewers.
By then I was enjoying a surge in confidence. Nothing could stand in my way, I told myself, as my (pretend) earnings mounted.
“What would you do if you won all this money?” Cedric asked me just before the question that ended it all.
“I’d buy a collection of hats like you’ve got,” I fired back.
“You would look smooth in this, brother,” Cedric chuckled.
Oh, well. It was fun to pretend.