Selling the dummy

Name a style of American roots music beginning with the letter ‘z’. I’ll bet you can’t. I couldn’t, the first time. But the second time, I could, and this was the start of my problems as a Sale of the Century contestant.

The answer’s ‘zydeco’, by the way.

It started in a Toorak church hall: a couple of hundred wannabe contestants, all wondering if we had the smarts to cut it in the studio. The crowd looked like disgruntled male schoolteachers for the most part, but there was a smattering of the demographics the producers desperately wanted—women, twenty-somethings, ethnic minorities—and a single idiot. First in with the buzzer to guess the identity of that idiot wins absolutely nothing.

We were asked to write the answers to fifty questions on a sheet of paper. Thirty seconds per answer: if you couldn’t, it was just enough time to frantically shorthand the question in the margin, in case providence squirted some WD-40 into your rusty mental cogs. After all, we were on consecrated grounds.

At the end of question time, we corrected each others’ sheets. I can’t tell you what the woman I swapped papers with scored, because I was too busy remembering how I answered each question and deciphering the body language of her corrections. She made large, flourishing ticks, but every so often her hand crabbed back in a crossing motion. Even though I knew I had passed the test, with each of those slashes the doubt increased.

I needn’t have worried. After the fiftieth answer was read, the woman turned to me and whispered, “You’ve done really well, dear.” She handed back my paper with an awed delicateness, pointing at the circled 41 in the space labelled Number of correct answers. My cheeks flared the colour of the flowers on her blouse. I had done a little too well, and given the location I suddenly wanted to drop to my knees and beg forgiveness. However, I needn’t have worried about this, either. Fate had larger humiliations in store for me.

“Okay, everybody,” said the bubbly production assistant at the front of the hall. “Did anyone get all fifty right?” The way she raised her eyebrows indicated no-one ever had or would, and the auditionees’ chuckling echoed around the room. “Thought not,” she added. “Did anyone score between forty and forty-nine?”

The stretching of time is a worn cliché, but time is an elastic old bugger and I had three nightmare seconds to realise that no-one else was going to raise their hand. Mine wavered to half-mast. “Oh, well done,” she cried, and the room turned as one and broke into applause. I was Ben Johnson, on the dais at Seoul and juiced to the eyeballs; Helen Darville, with one hand on the Miles Franklin.

But as Bubbly called down the bands of scores until she reached the ‘twenty-eights and under’ (who were told thanks-but-no-thanks), I discovered a disquieting aspect of human nature that Ben and Helen could chorus – a stolen win felt better than joining the throng of not-good-enoughs pushing to the exit. Much better. Floral Blouse touched my shoulder as she stood to leave. “Good luck, dear” she said, “I hope you do well.”

If she had known this was the second time I had sat the same set of questions, she might have wished me down the well. 

I blame the production staff. In my first audition, three months previously, I had been a not-good-enough. I think I missed the cut-off score of 29 by a question, but the mind has a way of rounding failure up and I may have scored lower. I can’t remember. Honestly. And I can’t remember if my fifty questions were exactly the same the second time around—I still answered nine wrong—but they were similar enough to make an average chump look like the love child of Einstein and Chomsky. People attempted multiple auditions to get on Sale, and most of the not-good-enoughs would be back for another crack. Surely it was up to the production staff to ensure people didn’t sit the same test?

About fifty of us survived the cut to the post-test interviews. I thought briefly of coming clean. Human nature factoid #2: the longer you live any lie, the harder it is to give up.

“Look, there’s quite a waiting list for contestants,” Bubbly told me as she nodded approvingly at my answer sheet, “but I’d expect that you’ll be called up fairly soon. You’re young, and we like a bit of diversity in our contestants.”

I went home with the good news, and I told people the truth – lying to friends is that much harder than lying to strangers. Hell, I probably wouldn’t be called up for years, and even if I was, I was the Home Champion in our household of three. I could punch above a 28.

Three weeks later I was in a Richmond studio with fourteen other contestants, three business shirts, two ties and Glenn Ridge. Like any group of mammals, the group of contestants needed to peck out seniority, and only one characteristic mattered – how we scored in the audition. Suddenly, ‘well’ was too vague an adverb, and yes, the zircon glow of my 41 was the brightest in our taping group. I shrunk under the weight of their congratulations. “If I win, Glenn won’t be able to lock the studio door quick enough to keep me on the show,” vowed Andrew, a slightly anxious guy who scored 31.

So we sat like prefects in the slouching studio audience, waiting for Bubbly to tap us on the shoulder and lead us through to the green room. The audience seemed to be enjoying themselves. During the French Revolution, the guillotine was probably a nice day out, but not, however, if your head had a date with the basket. Andrew was called up first and transformed his 31 into a $25,000 cruise with a wild, sweaty, stumble-from-behind win.

“Would you like to come back tomorrow night, and risk your cruise for other prizes from our valuable showcase?” Glenn asked him.

“Oh, no. No,” Andrew sputtered, his eyes still bright with the terror of Fast Money.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh shit, yeah.”

“Cut,” the studio manager droned, waiting for the laughter to settle. “Let’s try it without the swearing.”

I wasn’t used as a contestant at that week’s taping, but the next week I was back for a certain date with the camera. Bubbly selected more and more contestants from our dwindling numbers, until she tapped my shoulder. I suddenly wished I could keep hiding in the audience. Instead, I was slathered with enough powder to dull my sheen of panic and thrust under the downlights. Wooden enough through my introduction to make Glenn Ridge look the very definition of animated, I buzzed in with the first answer: ‘double-decker’. For ten seconds I was five dollars in front and a seedling of confidence pushed through my despair … right before a rugby player called Peter and a librarian called Lyn ploughed it flat again.

I should have worked it out. It wasn’t only my fellow contestants who were in awe of my ersatz 41 – I was exactly the type of person the producers were looking for. Young and supposedly bright; a potential champ killer. Of course, the producers didn’t throw contestants together willy-nilly, just like they didn’t want to hand out half-million dollar showcases every second week. That’s where the higher-scoring auditionees come in: to shut down the goers.

Rugby Pete was a goer, rampaging through contestants and a swiping a swag of gift shop prizes along the way. He’d already nailed a few nights closed before my show. I was no 41, and I gave him as much trouble as a front row made of cardboard. I answered a few questions to no great effect and managed to blurt correct answer to the first Who Am I? I probably deserved to win a collection of handbags, but lucked out with a few hundred dollars of DVD rentals.

Then it was over, and I slunk away with a board game tucked under one arm. I know I should have played it smart at the audition; answered just enough questions for a score around 30 and a shot at winning a low-key night, like Boat Cruise Andrew. Ah, I get seasick, anyway.

After a couple of months, my dismal effort mooched onto TV. The phone ran hot that night; mostly people laughing at the faces I pulled during the Who Am I? question as my memory struggled to transform

concept: that dancing Irish git!

into answer: Michael Flatley.

I followed Rugby Pete’s fortunes through the next week. He survived a couple of five dollar finishes, won the showcase and the car, and came back for the cash. Then the studio wheeled out a real champ killer: mild, precise Beth, who eviscerated poor Peter to the tune of eighty-five dollars, or thirteen correct questions in the old currency. There was a point in the second round where his head dropped. He stared at his fingers for the rest of the show. Counting his losses, I suppose.

My prize letter came, and I took it to the local video chain for redemption. “That’s a big prize,” the shop assistant said. “How did you win it?”

Gawd, I thought. How do I begin to explain?
‘Selling the dummy’ was first published in Offset.