Lingo was a game show I watched on occasion when I couldn't fall asleep. It certainly wasn't appointment television, or even something that I recorded to watch when I had the time. Contestants had five chances to guess a five letter word with only the first letter given to them. They were told when their letters were in the right spot, or if they had the right letter in the wrong spot. From there, the contestants had to rearrange the letters to reveal the mystery word. To me, the main aspect of the game was the result of mixing a word puzzle with the childhood game Mastermind, but it was then mixed with Bingo. With each correct word, you would have the chance to pull out a numbered bingo ball, in hopes of making a "Lingo". It seemed easy enough to play along at home, but I never thought about trying to be on the show.
One day I came across a craigslist ad looking for Lingo contestants. Usually these ads are the definition of sketchy, boasting "soon to be network shows" or "big money prizes". This was the first time I had seen a game that I had heard of, so I figured it was harmless to send over an e-mail.
I got a reply saying my partner and I could come in and audition next week. As excited as I was, I did not have a partner. This role needed to be filled by someone who had free time, good with words, and was not shy. My friend Matt had just been fired from our job, so clearly he had open availability and could use the extra money. He agreed to come audition and our team was formed.
The audition took place in a studio lot on Sunset Boulevard. They took us into an office building, to open corner of a random room with chairs set up and a dry erase board on an easel. Everyone took seats with their partner and began filling out various paperwork. Had you ever been convicted of a crime? Have you won money on a game show in the last 6 months? The two producers called each team up to hear a personal introduction and try a practice round of Lingo.
While the others took their turns, we had to think of something for Matt to say. It was amusing to say he recently unemployed theme park worker, but he opted for college student. I noticed most of the other teams had at least one actor who was trying to make some cash. Every time a contestant said they were an actor, a producer would stop tape and ask for something else. "People at home don't want to see actors on game shows," one of them said. "That is what sitcoms are for." Most of them settled on labeling themselves as bartenders or personal trainers. When it was our turn, I noticed Matt was a little camera shy, so I hammed it up more than I should have. For our practice round, we used all five guesses to get the word BLEED. Any word with a double letter is tricky - even if you guess the letter, it will only show up in one of the spaces, so it was tougher than expected. With that, the audition ended and we were sent on our way.
It was a while before I got a call. As it turned out, we were selected as the first alternates and a team had dropped out. We were needed to come film the following week, on Valentine's Day. The final detail we heard was that it was going to be a science fiction themed week and we were supposed to dress accordingly.
Matt and I began Lingo boot camp. I recorded every episode I could and we watched them all while we made our science fiction uniforms. These uniforms consisted of two pastel t-shirts we stamped with an atom and a rocket. We had put them together in less than an hour using $12 worth of supplies from an arts and crafts store.
On the day of our taping, we got to the studio in our home-made science fiction gear to find that we were horribly under dressed. There were two girls were wearing full Star Trek uniforms, complete with Spock ears. Another guy had a hat that looked like the planet Saturn. There were light sabers and ray guns. We were the more subtle side of science fiction.
We got into the same room the original audition took place in and sat down. There were seven teams there, six who would film that day and one as an alternate. A man who worked as a game show union fairness representative gave a speech. His job was to go from show to show and make sure contestants understood the rules and believed they got a fair chance. If a contestant felt at any time that we were being cheated we could talk to him after and possibly get a do-over. He made references to the old game show scandal on '21' and most of us just nodded approvingly to move the process forward.
All of the teams drew numbers from a bag to see who would play who, and in what order. I picked the number three, which meant we had to square off against the two female trekkies from the line. We'd also be the last game of the day. They whisked us to the actual studio where each team was isolated in their very own practice room. This was a small dressing room which had a couch, a chair, a bathroom, a table, a dry-erase board with marker and a television. There was also various snacks, a couple of bagels, some trail mix, cheese and crackers, pretzels, candy, water and soda. If we knew the length of time we'd be in there, we would have rationed it better.
We went right to the dry erase board, working out our strategy. The goal was to get all the vowels in play as fast as possible. We went over good four letter combination words to use. We tried words with at least 2-3 vowels every time, like AUDIO, DEALS, SOLAR, BOUTS and TEACH. The main trick was to not use words with repeating or duplicating letters.
We had spent three hours in the room and the food was long since finished. We were all practiced out; the dry-erase board now sat idle in the corner. The standard Springer-type morning television was terribly boring, aside from one car chase. Though we seemed out of options, we also figured that our opponents must be in a similar situation. At least the playing field would be even.
Suddenly our door opened and a lowly P.A. grabbed us and took us to visit the make-up department. Matt went in first as I argued with the wardrobe woman that I should wear my silver shirt unbuttoned over my hand made one. When I got to the chair, Matt's face looked as pale as a kabuki performer. I was worried. We had seen a previous team come out of there looking foolish, with their hair blown out in a wild rejected Jetsons style. One of the ladies said "Let's match the symbols on their shirts on their foreheads also!" We tried to talk them out of this idea, but they had the final say. It would have been fine, but the atomic symbols on our shirts seemed to be too difficult for these women to replicate. Their barely passable ovals looked more like cocktail hot dogs, but the make-up women thought they were fantastic. Looking ridiculous as ever, we were ready for our date with the game show gods.
The set was actually big despite not having a studio audience. I found that amusing, because when watching, I could always hear people laughing at Chuck Woolery's jokes. We became the yellow team and the girls were now the red team. Chuck came out, with rather orange looking skin. He didn't come over to talk to us until the second round when he was required to. Shandi, or however you spell it, came out wearing a tight, black leather outfit which was impossible to walk in. Some brilliant person in wardrobe must have told her it was related to science fiction. Chuck was fascinated by her outfit and repeatedly told her to stand up so "the viewers at home" could get the full picture. The duo had an unusual relationship. When one of them attempted banter, often the other would not respond at all, making it very awkward. Chuck kept making comments about her dress, at one point saying "You're dressed like you should be in one of the movies I rented this weekend." Matt and I looked at each other, not sure if he was saying she looked like a whore or was admitting to renting dominatrix pornography.
The rules were then explained to us by a man in a shiny purple robe who was holding a big green alien mask. I assumed he was dressed up because he would be on screen at some point, but he never actually made an appearance.
The game started, and we had to stare across the stage to this tiny camera in the wall to do introductions. It was nerve wracking, especially knowing there was a stand-by team waiting in the wings in case we stunk up the joint. We won the coin toss, so we went first, took immediate control and didn't let go until we had won. We nailed the first three words. With each correct guess, Chuck would say "reach in there and grab a couple of balls," while we tried our hardest to not giggle. We achieved a Lingo before the first commercial. When the break ended it was time to meet Chuck.
Our strategies proved to be very successful, but we also figured out that the science fiction theme wasn't just for the set. A majority of the words were related to the science fiction genre. The words used for the regular game were: ATOMS, DEMON, RISKY, STEEL, LOSER, CLAWS, PORCH, TOWER, BREED, ROCKS, OUTER, NERDY, and LASER.
The girls finished off the game by getting a few words in a row, but one of them was our own fault. They had guessed NERDS, which had every letter except the last one correct and had flustered them. I leaned over to Matt and whispered "nerdy." As soon as I said it, both of the girls jumped up with the same epiphany and yelled it out at the same time. It was a good thing we were so far ahead, or I would have been upset with their treachery.
As the game went on, the girls became more and more fed up with the fact they were losing. By the time they were able to pick Lingo balls in the second round, they had a noticeably sarcastic tone, knowing there was no way to come back from the deficit. The final score was 575-175. Chuck Woolery said "Some teams just dominate," as he continued to apologize to the girls for the beating we laid down on them.
The words from the bonus round were: FORCE, TITAN, BONES, DWARF, TREKS, EVADE, SPEAR, WHILE. We ran out of time before we could guess the ninth word, which turned out to be GRANT. We had eight chances to win the bonus money and went through almost all of them. By the time we were down to our last three picks, we figured out that mathematically there was no way to lose.
I was scolded by the wardrobe lady for wearing my button down shirt over the home made one. I had forgotten if she told me not to or to keep it on, so when I did, apparently I made the wrong choice. She made some kind of remark about slapping me around in her British accent.
Back in the dressing rooms, we both washed the make up off so fast that our skin hurt. There was no way we'd look that stupid in public, just on expanded cable television. On the way out, we noticed a box of Lingo t-shirts sitting in the hallway and I asked if I could have one for my Grandma. They told us that only the losing team gets to have t-shirts. I even offered them to deduct the price of the shirt from my winnings, but the assistant firmly stood by the ruling that only the losers got to have them. I immediately called my Grandma to tell her that I won, and my mom and dad and sister, but that's it. Everyone else I only told to watch when it was on. The episode aired in June of that year. Six weeks after the episode aired, a full five and a half months later, we each received our share of the $5,000. Not bad for one days work.