It’s a stormy day, my allergies are a nightmare, and the DayQuil I took is doing absolutely nothing for my brutal cold. If that doesn’t spell “perfect opportunity to try out for a game show,” that’s because it’s totally the opposite. The producers of Let’s Make A Deal have sent a team to Chicago (Aurora, Illinois, technically—an hour away, but let’s be clear who the big dog in the room is) in hopes of eliciting the latest round of contestants for the rebooted TV show, now in its eighth season. When it was announced there would be open auditions for the game show, The A.V. Club decided to send someone to join the ranks of the colorful yahoos whose entire job on the show is to dress like a lunatic, set up Wayne Brady for improv bits, and shriek like they were on fire the moment anything good or bad happens. The moment anything happens, really; the show is like what would happen if a studio audience made up of howler monkeys were suddenly transformed into human form and sent in front of the camera to convey their true essence.
Auditioning combines the two things I’m most uncomfortable with: Drawing attention to myself in public, and expressing genuine enthusiasm in a visible way. I’ve become somewhat more comfortable with these kinds of stories in recent years, largely thanks to the humiliations regularly imposed on me by coworkers, but it’s still essentially a form of exposure therapy for my senses. Those of us who have spent most of our lives living in big cities know that loud and strangely dressed people are meant to be studiously avoided, not given time on television, but then Guy Fieri went and ruined that rule.
Actually, Let’s Make A Deal has almost always welcomed the crazy-clothing strategy, as anyone who’s watched reruns of the original version starring host Monty Hall can attest. Soon after its inception, the show began operating like a tightly controlled carnival, with folks dressed in ridiculous costumes competing for cash and prizes. It’s notable among game shows for requiring essentially no talents, knowledge, or even above-average intelligence. The contestants try to call attention to themselves with the outfit peacocking and enthusiasm, and if the host calls them over, the process is usually simple: They can claim some small prize that may be hiding a more exciting one, or they can choose what’s in a mysterious box. Or behind a door. Or a curtain. Or they can take a guaranteed amount of cash, usually somewhere between a few hundred dollars and upwards of a thousand. It’s basically “pick a hand,” writ large on a syndicated stage.
Once a contestant makes a final choice, the actual prizes are revealed. They can be anything from a cash award, to a new home theater system, potentially even a new car, or they can be what’s called a “Zonk”—a worthless piece of crap, the show’s equivalent of a goose egg. While the prizes and awards have increased in value over the years (although not by a ton—Deal is definitely on the lower end of the game show socioeconomic spectrum), the Zonks have remained remarkably similar. It can be as outlandish as getting dropped off in the middle of a swamp, or as simple as sock puppets. One big change? No more live animals for the most part, since every once in a while people would actually claim them, back in the day.
Thanks to this lack of any talent requirement, early reviews were scornful, but the program doesn’t give a shit, and neither does its fan base. It’s the lighthearted younger brother of game shows, with nothing on its mind beyond providing a reasonably entertaining spectacle. This was confirmed when I spoke to executive producer Mike Richards in advance of my tryout. “We want someone that’s there to have fun,” he says, when I ask about what makes a good contestant. “Enthusiasm—and not fake enthusiasm—and crazy costumes… we’re looking for the whole package.” I ask him if they run into the “fake enthusiasm” problem a lot. “Well, we do shoot the show in Los Angeles. It’s full of a lot of stay-at-home actors. The home audience is really savvy, and knows when they’re faking.” He says they’ve gotten very good, when watching the audition tapes, at identifying people trying to milk their TV time. I tell him it’s not just Let’s Make A Deal producers who do their best to avoid desperate actors.
But this is about me searching for clues to my audition. Surely Mike can give me some sort of inside scoop on what I should do to get chosen—does he care more about outrageous characters, or finding people who genuinely seem like they’ll be good at playing the game? “We’re looking for that mix: The person that’s going to be fun and exciting, and give Wayne a moment, but also someone that’s going to lock in and win the game.” He pauses. “We probably err more on the side of colorful characters.” After all, he reminds me, “There’s no skill to knowing where to guess.” He ends by off-handedly mentioning he has a soft spot for couples that go on the show, work together, and end up winning. When I mention this to my significant other six hours later, they laugh in my face and say, “Good luck with that.” And that’s how I ended up with a Tinder account.
I pillage the Onion costume room to look for something appropriately ridiculous. There’s a Thor outfit, a bunch of standard stuff like cops and army guys and the like, and then a huge mishmash of random crap. A lot of it doesn’t fit me, and the stuff that does is on the less unusual end, but eventually I pull this beauty out of a box on the floor. It reminds me of Gilbert and Sullivan, or possibly a fifth member of the Village People.
I spill club soda all over myself the moment I get in the car, which is how I know it’s going to be a fun ride. According to Waze, it will take just over an hour to get there, so I allow myself an hour and a half, like a sensible person. Of course, a sensible person would’ve also remembered that he lives in Chicago, where highways are mostly just excuses for people to reenact the video for R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” so rather than getting there 15 minutes early, I arrive 15 minutes late. I’m worried I will now be at the end of a very long line. Just based off my past record with anticipating things, draw your own conclusion.
The auditions are being held at the Hollywood Casino, which is an awfully disingenuous name for a casino in Aurora, Illinois. Pulling up, the neighborhood looks like many I’m familiar with from my childhood in Wisconsin, an economically depressed area that fell for the lie about how a casino would really rejuvenate things. Across the street from the parking lot is a store bearing a sign that honestly just says, “Kayaks.” Okay. With just a few tweaks, this story could transition into a Harper’s-like assessment of the failed plight of gambling parlors as a metaphor for the false promise of the American dream. But it won’t, because that’s when I smell pizza and immediately forget about anything else.
I find a parking spot right in front of the casino and can’t believe my good luck—until I get halfway to the door and notice the “90 minute parking” sign. I’m already late, but that seems optimistic, so I pull around back to the 6-hour lot. Hollywood Casino has very cleverly established a rule for anyone wanting to get anywhere from this entrance: You have to walk the entire casino floor to get to the other section of the complex, where the auditions are being held. Clever girl. I hurriedly threw on my costume while getting out of the car, and my cape got stuck in the door twice (I was distracted by the pizza smell), so I’m already skittish about encountering any other obstacles, especially ones with canes that could land on my dragging cape and yank me backwards. Yes, I’m that confident a retiree has more force in their elderly hand than I have in my entire body.
Finally, I make it. Two guards and a middle-aged man wearing an “FBI: Female Body Inspector” T-shirt give me accurate enough directions that I make it to the ballroom, apparently attached to some sort of hotel, and I round the corner, cursing my tardiness. Luckily, I needn’t have worried. I walk into the room where everyone’s lined up, and… no one is in costume.
Well, maybe one or two are. One in 10? That’s not good. Admittedly, it’s probably good for improving my odds of getting picked for the show, but as for making me comfortable, it’s the environmental equivalent of receiving an enema and then being told to act natural. Instead of the costume emboldening me, helping to strip away my normal reserved persona and become the kind of outsize personality Let’s Make A Deal wants to showcase, it’s become a vise grip around my sense of decorum. I’m totally mortified. It’s like showing up to the DMV dressed for some light bondage play. I briefly debate asking where the bathroom is and then running away, but just then the person at the check-in table notices me. “You have a costume!” she says with approval. My fight-or-flight response drops, and suddenly I feel like it’ll be okay. Teacher likes me.
She hands me a standard information form to fill out, along with a sticker and identifying number—A16—to slap onto my outfit. I meekly claim my spot in the back of the line. I had a whole plan that involved chatting up the other contestants, comparing costumes, maybe bonding while we recounted stories of the odd looks we got outside the ballroom. Now, I’m scared to even approach the one other colorfully dressed person. The people in front of me appear grimly determined, the look of inveterate gamblers who happened to notice the sign for a game show audition and thought, “Fuck it.” I smile and introduce myself to the couple in front of me. They nod without turning around. No interviews here, it seems.
An employee at the front of the line reminds us to put our cell phones on vibrate, because we’re going in front of a camera. I’m again astounded at my own naiveté. I assumed there’d be some sort of breezily informal sit-down interview with a line producer, where they’d ask me about my costume, and I’d offer up some witty rejoinders involving CBS and daytime viewers. At one point, I literally look down at myself to see if I’m “camera ready.” (I know, I’m disappointed in me, too.)
It’s been 10 minutes, I’m almost to the front of the line, and no one else has come in. It’s like any audition hopefuls saw the deranged Napoleonic army magician walk in and decided to call it a day, instead. They call my letter, and I’m ushered through the wood-paneled doors into a larger room in which three camera setups occupy the far end, separated by black curtain stands. I walk to the one indicated by the door guy, where I’m greeted by a very friendly young woman and a camera operator whose job appears to consist of wishing I, and possibly everyone else on Earth, were long dead. She positions me in front of the lens, tells me she’ll ask me to say my name, and then ask one simple question, which I can answer however I see fit. I remember Mike’s words about enthusiasm, and prep myself to speak animatedly. She cues me, I say my name, and then she asks the question.
“So: Why do you want to be on Let’s Make A Deal?”
And I completely freeze. I had no idea what the question would be, and I’m totally unprepared. The obvious answer—“I thought it’d make for a fun story”—obviously won’t fly, and my brain hemorrhages the moment I start casting about for alternatives. I enjoy the show; it felt like auditioning would be a goof; who hasn’t wanted to smell Wayne Brady up close? None of them seem like winners. The camera is rolling, and this perfectly friendly woman is looking at me expectantly. I start to panic, and so I do the first thing that comes into my head: Lie through my teeth.
(The following is obviously not verbatim, since I couldn’t recall exactly what I said, but here’s my honest best approximation.)
Well here’s the thing see my mom and I always used to watch Let’s Make A Deal together every day when I was growing up, like every day, and I know you’re thinking that couldn’t happen once he went off to school but you’d be wrong, see, because she taped it and then we’d watch it when I got home from school, it was like ‘our thing,’ you know, and then I went to college and then moved to New York but now I’m back in the Midwest after a decade and my mom lives in Milwaukee and I thought, “Hey what better present for dear old mom than to see her son on the show we both love…” [Sees nice young woman spinning her finger, indicating talking should continue.] …and of course my mom is the best, the absolute greatest, and I honestly think Wayne Brady and I would get along very well, it would just be so great, especially because my grandfather up in heaven would be smiling down on us because he also loves the show!
None of this is true. Not a lick. I did watch Let’s Make A Deal growing up, and I do enjoy it, and I did move to New York for a few years. That’s the extent of the honesty. I still don’t know where any of that came from. I felt like one of those 4-year-olds who steals a candy bar but doesn’t know how to process guilt yet, and just starts talking about how a giant bird flew off with it or whatever. The woman smiles and thanks me, and, still dumbfounded, I silently shuffle out the side door into the casino hallway. It may have all been crap, but I wore a costume, and I was enthusiastic. Maybe my chances are good?
I sit outside the side door for a few minutes, and I hear the sounds of people who really want to be on Let’s Make A Deal. There are shrieks, hoots, hollers, and lots of yelling about “I WANNA DANCE WITH WAYNE BRADY, AWW YEAH.” It’s a potent reminder that my idea of enthusiasm is other peoples’ concept of an NPR monologue. Everyone else sounds like someone who should be committed, and that’s almost certainly what Mike Richards and his fellow producers want: Lunatics.
Lesson learned—I suck at being exuberant. I’m reaffirmed in this suspicion when I try to accost a few people coming out of the audition. Most are still nodding and giving me a wide berth, thanks to the outfit, but a few are willing to go on record. A very nice couple, Krista and Elgin, say that in response to the question, they said they wanted to dance with Wayne Brady (I heard you, Krista) and to have Wayne make up a freestyle rap about him, respectively. Those are good answers. Lamely, I return to the check-in desk, where the nice woman who liked my costume allowed me to stow my bag, including the complimentary water bottle they handed out, under the table. She offers to take a picture of me post-audition. I think she thought it would seem celebratory.
Reflecting back, this much is clear: I made an idiot of myself, but not in the right way. I was an embarrassment as a normal person who should’ve just been more excitable at the chance to hang out with Wayne Brady, and I also embarrassed myself as a costumed weirdo, by sucking at it. I let down my nice handler woman who asked me the question, by lying to her. I debated staying and trying one of the casino machines, but I have a secret fear I’ll win $5 on my first attempt, and then max out my credit cards trying to recreate that success. Besides, it was depressing in there. I check the time when I leave. It’s been about 20 minutes total.
I could’ve kept that first parking spot.