Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I am the Weakest Link! Goodbye!
By Barry Dutter
Whenever a new game show comes on, I try to get on it as a contestant as fast as possible, because you never know if it will last. The show could be gone in one season, and if you don’t jump on it when it’s hot, you may never get another chance.
That was the case with The Weakest Link, a show which debuted on NBC in April, 2001. The Weakest Link was based on a British program with the same name. NBC even imported the host, a caustic little red-haired British woman named Anne Robinson.
I was living in South Florida at the time, but as luck would have it, the casting department was coming to Ft. Lauderdale to look for contestants. I tried out for the show, turned on the charm and just a week later, I got the good news: I had been picked to fly to L.A. to compete on the show.
The premise of The Weakest Link was pretty simple. Eight strangers are brought together and forced to work as a team to answer general knowledge trivia. For every question they answer correctly, they earn an increasing amount of money for a communal kitty. At the end of each round, all the contestants vote to eliminate the player who they consider to be the weakest. This goes on for six rounds until there are only two players left; those two players then face off for the chance to win all the money that the team has collected in their pot.
There was a bit of strategy involved, though. Sometimes players voted to eliminate the strongest contestants, because you didn’t want to face someone who was smarter than you in the final round. But you didn’t want to eliminate the smartest contestants too early in the game, because that would greatly reduce the amount of prize money at the end of the show.
Players on The Weakest Link were encouraged to form strategic alliances, because it made the show more interesting when secret allegiances were discovered and confidences were betrayed. Each contestant who was eliminated was also given an exit interview where they were encouraged to trash-talk the people who voted him or her off.
In short, The Weakest Link had all the ingredients in place to be a long-running hit show: a nasty British host who insulted people; back-stabbing contestants who made truces, broke them, and then made snarky comments about each other; a potential million dollar prize…
It was a little bit American Idol, a little bit Survivor and Big Brother, a little bit MTV’s The Real World…
It seemed like it couldn’t miss. And while The Weakest Link did start out strong, it petered out pretty quick, lasting just over a year in prime-time. (In typical NBC fashion, they hastened the show’s demise with multiple airings in the same week and too many celebrity stunt episodes.)
I think the main reason the show failed is that America never really accepted Anne Robinson as host the way they later did with Simon Cowell on American Idol. Apparently us yanks can handle a sarcastic British man mocking us but we can’t take it when it’s a sarcastic British woman.
It’s funny, because Anne Robinson did a great job playing her part on The Weakest Link. She was stern, humorless, the very picture of the disapproving authority figure she was meant to represent.
Contestants on The Weakest Link were instructed to give an answer for every question, whether they knew the correct answer or not. This enabled the host to make many sarcastic comments about how stupid some of the answers were. As a contestant, you were not allowed to say, “I don’t know.” You had to say something!
So if the question was about which U.S. president was in charge during World War 2, and you weren’t sure, so you just blurted out “Richard Nixon,” basically you were just giving the host ammunition so she could cut you down to size.
Sure it was cruel, but it was also funny as hell. There was no telling what a contestant might say when they were under pressure and faced a with a question they did not know the answer to. (We’ll get to some of my dumb answers later!)
As mentioned above, you could form a pact with a couple of the other contestants in an attempt to try to control the outcome of the game. I wound up in one of those strategic alliances, and in the end, it was the thing that proved my undoing.
It was shortly after I arrived in L.A. that I met Beth, a 25-year-old blond from Boston, who suggested that the two of us form an alliance. When you play on The Weakest Link, you could be voted off in the first round, which means your whole trip to L.A. would have been a huge waste of time. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so teaming up with another player seemed like a smart idea.
As we rode our shuttle to the hotel where all the contestants were staying, we met a third contestant, a sweet old lady named Mary Lou. We asked Mary Lou if she wanted to join our alliance and she agreed.
Now I was feeling pretty good about this. My chances of making it to the final round seemed pretty good. Much to our surprise, Mary Lou even suggested that if it came down to the three of us in the end, that we vote her off. “You two are a lot younger than me,” she told us. “The money would mean so much more to one of you.”
What a sweetheart! I can’t imagine anyone flying all the way to L.A. for a game show appearance and then not caring if they won! We really lucked out when we got Mary Lou to be part of our team. Or so we thought!
That night, we hung out at the hotel, and tested each other’s trivia knowledge. We all seemed to be fairly equal in that department. I felt like if it came down to Beth and I as the final two that we were pretty evenly matched.
The next day we headed over to the studio for the taping. We met the other five contestants, and we considered maybe adding a couple more players to our alliance. After all, a three-person alliance is not that strong in a group of eight. If any one of us got voted off at the beginning of the game, suddenly our alliance was useless.
But there were problems with adding more people, notably, how do you decide who stays and who goes once you get down to the end? Under the rules of the game, players were forbidden to split the money with each other, so you would have to turn against your teammates at some point. The alliance existed only for the duration of the show. At the end, one player walks off with all the money, and the rest, as Anne Robison was so fond of pointing out, “go home with nothing!”
So you had to be real careful who you picked as your partners. There was even a chance that your “partners” might double-cross you and vote you off. There were no rules against that. Clearly trust was a major issue on this show.
Because of all these variables that were out of our control, we decided not to add any more players to our alliance. There were just too many things that could go wrong.
We were pretty comfortable with the three-person team that we had. I even suggested a way we could vote off the other players. Since the players were all lined up in a semi-circle, and we knew I was going to be the first person in the line, I suggested we simply start by voting off the person to my left in round one, and then just moving down the line, picking off the other players one by one.
Everyone agreed that this seemed like the best way to ensure that Beth, Mary Lou and I all voted for the same player in every round. All we had to do was hope that none of us got voted off before we had a chance to put our plan into action.
We arrived at the studio and met the other players -- five more folks from around the U.S. who all seemed like a pretty decent bunch, over all. Little did they suspect we were secretly plotting to destroy them all!
When we made our alliance, there was one thing we hadn’t counted on -- that one member of our unholy trio would turn out to be the worst player in the history of the game! Mary Lou was a sweet lady, but she froze on camera, and was unable to come up with any correct answers during the show.
Worse yet, she ate up a lot of time on the clock with her hemming and hawing. In a game where you are under a time limit to answer as many questions as possible, and each correct answer is worth money, the last thing you want is a contestant who wastes thirty seconds trying to jog their memory.
Because of her poor game-play, Mary Lou was in danger of being voted off by the other players in every single round. And if we lost her, our alliance was dead! Beth and I found ourselves in the unenviable position of having to rely on the worst player on the stage.
Interestingly enough, Beth got a little stage fright, too. She missed a couple of easy questions that she later admitted she knew the answers to. As I watched my teammates botch a few questions, I began to wonder if our alliance would fall apart before it even got started.
By some miracle, Mary Lou survived the first round. As planned, she, Beth and I picked off our first victim. Based strictly on gameplay, Mary Lou should have been the next to go in round two. But in a bizarre stroke of luck, one of the other players made a major error that cost him the game.
His name was Arthur, and he was possibly the smartest guy out there. But even smart people can make one dumb mistake. When it came time to eliminate a player in round two, Arthur looked up and saw me standing directly across from him. Without even thinking, he wrote down my name as the person who should be voted off next.
Problem was, I had played the game very well up to that point, so no one else voted for me. In essence, Arthur had just thrown away his vote.
And so Beth, Mary Lou and I picked the next person in the line to be voted off in round two.
Now there were only six contestants left, which meant our three-person team had just gotten a LOT stronger. All we needed to do was to eliminate one more player, and then, mathematically speaking, there was no way we could lose.
Round three came. Again, Mary Lou performed poorly. Again, she miraculously survived elimination. And once again, our Unholy Trio picked off the next player in the line. Against all odds, our plan had succeeded. Taking out the remaining players would be like shooting fish in a barrel for us from that point on.
An interesting thing happened as we knocked off another player in round four. Host Anne Robinson brought the game to a temporary stop as she called out Beth, Mary Lou and I on our remarkably similar voting patterns. The jig was up! Our plot had been discovered!
The people working behind the scenes on the show are very good at finding for patterns in voting. They noticed that Beth, Mary Lou and I had all voted for the same four players in the first four rounds. I hasten to add that we had not broken any rules here. We were not cheating -- in fact, we were playing the game the way we had been instructed to play it. It just makes the show more fun and more interesting for the audience when alliances like ours are exposed.
Based on all the evidence, it was clear to all that poor Arthur, the recently unemployed electrical engineer, would be the next to go. Anne Robinson asked him how he felt about that. Arthur put up a good front, saying all he could do was play the game as well as he could and hope for the best.
But he knew in his heart he was doomed.
Sure enough, we kicked Arthur to the curb at the end of round five. In his exit interview, the still-smiling Arthur was a good sport, saying if there had been no alliance, the outcome would have been very different.
The rest of the show proceeded exactly as we had planned. Dear, sweet Mary Lou was sent packing at the end of round six. You never saw someone so happy to not win any money!
And so it came to pass that Beth and I would face off in the final round for the chance to win $62,000. Anne Robinson was quick to point out that out of a possible $1 million, the best our group had done was to get the total up to a paltry $62 G’s. “So much for strategy, “ she sniffed.
The final showdown began. Now, I should mention here that prior to appearing on the show, all the contestants were given questionnaires where we were asked to name our best and worst categories. Like an idiot, I had told the truth.
I said that pop culture was my best category, and that science and history were my worst. Beth had said that pop culture was her best, too.
The final round began: I was given a rather hard science question: name the lightest element. By some miracle, I got that right. (Hydrogen) Beth was thrown an easy pop culture softball. Name Fred Flintsone’s boss. (Mr. Slate.)
My next question was an impossible history question about a Spanish queen. I took a wild guess and named the only Spanish queen I had ever heard of: Queen Isabella, the gal who had sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage to America.
My lucky guess was right. (If they had asked me to name another Spanish queen other than Isabella, I would have been screwed.) Beth was tossed another easy pop culture softball: What writer once used the pen name of Richard Bachman? Gee, could it be the best-selling author of the last 30 years, Steven King? Yep! She got it right!
The round continued in this manner. Super-hard science and math questions for me. Easy movie & TV questions for her. Notice a pattern here?
That’s right -- all of my questions in the final round were in my worst categories. All of hers were in her best category.
During the early part of the game, I had been a pretty strong player over all, and Beth did not play up to the level of her abilities. It seemed like a slam-dunk for me to trounce her in the final round. Unless the producers took a hand and did a little tweaking to make it more interesting…
I got lucky with a couple of my answers but it was only a matter of time until I took a fall. I got the third question wrong. Beth got her next two right. This meant I had to get question five right or the game was over.
The question was asked: “In 1976, Idi Amin allowed a plane filled with hostages to land at which Ugandan airport?” Now, a little bit of back-story here. In 1976, I was 12 years old. At that time, I never watched the evening news, and the only section of the newspaper that I read was the funnies.
Sure, I had heard of Idi Amin. I knew he was a bad guy -- so bad, they even made a movie about that hijacking incident. (What was the name of that movie again?)
Over the years, I developed a much greater interest in current events. But I never went back and filled in my knowledge of all the stuff that had happened when I was growing up.
Bottom line was, I never knew what the name of that airport was, and even if they had given me three hours to answer that question, there was no way the answer was ever going to come to me.
As noted earlier, on The Weakest Link, you are required to give an answer, even if you don’t know it. Anne Robinson pressed me for an answer. I weakly muttered, “Uganda International Airport.”
She revealed the correct answer was “Entebbe.” (It turns out there were two movies made about that fateful day. One was Raid on Entebbe, and the other was Victory at Entebbe. If only I had seen either one of those movies!)
With that, Anne Robinson pronounced me as “the weakest link,“ and proclaimed Beth to be the winner. (I prefer to think of myself as “The Second Strongest Link,” not the Weakest…) The game was over. Beth had won the $62,000.
It seems my strategic alliance had blown up in my face. In retrospect, I think the game would have gone very differently if that alliance had never been formed. In all likelihood, it would have been me vs. Arthur in the final round, competing for a whole lot more money than $62,000. Arthur seemed like a smart guy, and he probably would have beaten me -- unless the producers wanted the underdog to win and threw me those easy pop culture questions in the final round!
A friend later commented that he thought my final answer was kind of clever. I had to inform my friend that I was not trying to be clever or funny. With $62,000 at stake, all I wanted to be was right. But given my limited knowledge of world events from 1976, that was not possible.
Overall I played the game pretty well. I was asked about 25 questions during the show, and I answered about 18 of them correctly. As for the ones I got wrong… well let’s just say they rank right up there with any of the stupidest answer ever given on the show.
Asked to name “the Butcher of Bagdad,” I said “Fidel Castro.” In a war between England and France, I thought their opponent was Spain. And asked to name a North American country that is north of the United States, I said Mexico. (One contestant later asked me if I could answer any questions that did not involve movies or TV. I think I proved pretty well that I could not!)
Host Anne Robinson had loads of fun at my expense. I was her favorite punching bag during the show. At the time, I was working for a humor magazine, so Anne called me a guy “who claims to be funny.”
I sassed her back pretty good. When I first met her, I spoke to her in a cockney British accent, saying, “’Ello!” And when she really started ripping into me, I just asked her, “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?”
Got some good laughs with that one.
My appearance on the show pretty much went the way I wanted to (except for the part about me losing). All I really wanted was to make it to the final round and at least have a fair shot at winning.
I didn’t want to fly all the way to L.A. and bumped off in the first few rounds. At least I can say I had a chance.
After the show, Beth took me and the other contestants out to dinner. Beyond that, I never saw a penny of the $62.000. She was forbidden from sharing the money with any other contestants. Seems to me she could have found a way to skirt those rules a little bit. I mean, if she handed me an envelope with $2,000 in it, it’s not like anyone would ever have known…
I felt kind of bad about not winning the big prize on The Weakest Link, but I didn’t have time to sulk for long. Just a short time later, Pat Sajak and Vanna White were on their way to Florida. My appearance on Wheel of Fortune was right around the corner!