BY robert mckee
After two weeks or so I get the call. I'm told that they wanted us for their special Hawaiian theme week, so they wanted us to dress Hawaiian.. Twas no problem for me since 80% of my shirts are Hawaiian shirts.. sounds like fun, but little did I know the pain in the ass this Hawaiian week would turn out to be for us.. Nonetheless, here I sit on a plane once again, this time on American Airlines flight 453 to Burbank. While on the plane I was running through my master-list of all 5,100 normal five letter words in the English language... Normal, meaning that there's another 16,000 out there that Lingo would never use due to their obscurity, that only hardcore Scrabble players would know of.. I doubt anyone on Lingo would ever guess KUGAL, SHOON, XENIC, or USQUA. :D So! With my list of words, I was trying to deduce two sets of words that start with every letter of the alphabet (except X) that we both could memorize, and that we would throw out every single time that corresponding starting letter was given. The idea is to expose the vowel(s) in the mystery word in only two guesses, giving you three more guesses to work with the exposed vowel, and if you're lucky, perhaps an exposed consonant or two. So it was important to find two words that would cover A, E, I, and O (and if none show up, obviously the word has a U -- unless of course it's one of those very few rascally Y-only words like CRYPT, GYPSY, or MYTHS). The flight was three hours, and armed with a highligher, I had some work to do!
When I got to Heather & Nick's apartment, behold! Lingo happened to be on GSN. We watched. We chuckled. A slight nervousness was starting to set in.
The list of which 50 words to use (25 for each of us to memorize, one for each letter of the alphabet besides X) was decided upon. These words were selected for their ability to get maximum results in vowel and "popular consonant" exposure, a lá the famed R, S, T, L, N that you see during the Wheel of Fortune bonus round. For example, if given an R, using the words RAISE and then ROUND would tell you by the time your third guess comes around which vowel(s) are in the mystery word. In this example, it doesn't hurt to have an S and N thrown in for good measure, too. Heather's assigned words were the list on the left, mine on the right. If we could stick to the plan, we'd be able to solve almost every word within five guesses, unless they threw an absolute doozy at us. At this point, I was too confident to assume the lights, the cameras, and the Chuck would distract from the cause!
Now it's time to test 'em out! GSN had a Lingo website of their own, so we were going to play the game until we got stumped after five guesses on a word. Surprisingly, some of our set words were actually the mystery word itself, so we got many of them on the first guess by pure chance. Note in the picture the mystery word on their game was actually CAMEO, which happened to be my set "C" word... (that word does pack a vowelly punch!) We didn't miss one puzzle out of 40, so we bailed and got Thai food :D
The morning of the taping, it was time to test the list one more time, this time on my own Lingo site. The list held up, we were good. At about this time, it hit me that as a side dish, I will be meeting the legednary Chuck Woolery. I'm not normally very star-struck, but growing up with SCRABBLE, I found this to be cool at the very least. It was all a very surreal morning, as that wacky Scrabble hi-hat began to play in my head.
This is a clip of me drilling Heather on her memorized list as she drives us down the 101 towards Hollywood for the taping. L = Lemon. M = Miles. N = Nurse. She had it down.
Before the show began we had no idea who our opponents were going to be. When we got to the gate of the studio, we noticed other people wearing Hawaiian outfits standing around, two of which would be our competition. There seemed to have been about five other couples milling about around the guard shack. The guard had us wait for about 15 minutes, so I started to feel out the competition. To my shock, most of the people I talked to have never watched the show, and a number of them have never heard of it until they auditioned. Not only did this bewilder me but it also excited the hell out of me. Here I am, twelve-year FAN of the ORIGINAL show who has a GODDAMN WEBSITE DEVOTED TO THE GAME, and I'm surrounded by people who DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT CHANNEL IT WAS ON! (Seriously, that's what one of them told us!) If I may reach into the bag of super-extreme analogies and say this was somewhat like putting George Foreman in a boxing ring with Estelle Getty, am I wrong? Should I feel bad that whoever faces us is going to get completely smoked? Ah, game show contestant cockiness, there is no greater oxymoron ;) .. But trust me, I was feeling it. As a matter of fact, there is a video clip of my elation to the others as the sedatives have not taken effect yet.
As we walk from the doublewide through the KTLA lot towards the studio, I believe I'm singing "Write the check, write the check, da da daaaa... Sign the goddamn check!" .. This was a happy moment.
Ok, so here it is. We're walking to the car to put the rest of our crap away, I'm all wired and hopped up and excited, mind is a whirlwind, and there is that damn SCRABBLE hi-hat stuck in my head from all morning long.. The only logical reason could be that I was about to meet Chuck Woolery .. I didn't know I actally did this until I was watching all my video clips later on, but apparently as we were walking to the car, I was trying to do it via some mini-beatboxing -- and it turns out, apparently I was doing this all morning. I know, I know, it's completely retarded, but it is kinda funny.. and it really does kinda sound like that clip on page one come to think of it.. ..whatever... :p
They drew opponents for us, and they were these two chaps named Bishop and Rob. When I went over to shake one of their hands to wish them luck, he reached out his hand and then pulled back and rubbed it along side his hair a lá "Psyche!" Snubbed my handshake? Oh bitch, it's on. I WAS going to go easy on you guys, but now you've just unleashed the fury. :D
They stuck Heather and I in a room with another couple, these fine folks named Meyoung and Michael, and sequestered us from everybody else for SIX FRIGGING HOURS.
The room came with a bowl of apples and bananas, a bathroom with a shower stall in it .. uh.. I guess incase you wanted to shower before you go on? The producers kept telling us we were third in line to go down to film our episode, but it really seemed to take forever.
About an hour before we were to go on, they escorted us over to this enormous room, a makeup lab with hundreds of brushes and makeup artist stuff. The makeup lady that was spongin' me upper chest (?) with this spongy triangular wedge was telling me she's in the makeup union. That whole top row of bottles is reserved for Chuck ;)
There was a markerboard in the room so we could practice...
..and speaking of practice, I overheard our assigned opponents in the next room. I swear I overheard one go "Ok, this one starts with a B" and the other goes "BITCHES!".... couldn't have asked for better opponents! SIGN THE CHECK
And moments before we went down to tape our episode, they called our opponents into the room so the producers could go over some more paperwork with everyone together. The papers we had to sign were about 12 pages worth of legal speak but it basically boiled down to two main points: 1. If the show never airs, they are under no obligation to ever pay you. You get paid based purely on the assumption this show will air. After all, it is from the commercials where they make their money. 2. If the show does air, they have up to 120 days after the date of airing to compensate you. Standard game show release form stuff.

The dudes on the right are the handshake-snubbing Rob and Bishop, about to get schooled. :D
Good thing I had the presence of mind to bring my Encyclopedia of Game Shows! I figured instead of a collection of cocktail napkins, if ever I were to meet certain game show hosts, this could be a cool place to have all their autographs, namely the ones featured on the front cover. (As you can see in the pic, the lovely Betty White signed it just this year right by her picture...)
Sorry for the quick story interruption: (Our kid's first game show personality enounter. Note Betty's not wearing glasses at the moment. My theory of why is found later on in the story ;) ) .. Ok, continuing on:
Chuck is on the cover as well pictured with Dick Clark. I didn't know exactly how I was going to get him to sign this since they made us keep all of our belongings in the sequestered room while we were downstairs taping. Before we left the room, I asked a production assistant if it was possible and so in a very frantic and hurried fashion, he yelled "Gimmie the book, QUICK!". It's funny how you're surrounded by lots of people with earpieces and clipboards at these things -- and almost always, these people tend to like wearing those emo black rectangular-rim glasses with some sort of ironic t-shirt on. The numerous access badges around their neck, the clipboard, and the earpiece complete a whole package. (I've seen this all before...) This guy was pretty cool, though. I don't remember his name, but during our hours long wait, he asked if he could get us anything. Jokingly I said "How about orange juice and red licorice", and ten minutes later he showed up with a Tropicana and a one-pound bag of TWIZZLERS. What service.. Ah, yes, this is a town that knows how to get it right when serving people like J-Lo who might demand the right kind of Evian served on the right sort of platinum tray, etc. Hoo-ray for Holll-y-wooood...
...and so, emo guy brings back the book, and Chuck had indeed signed it -- not on the cover but on the inside, but it's cool.. twas very nice for him to do it.. and in a way, I felt maybe it peppered him a little that someone on his show is actually an old fan of his from back in the day! Not that it would matter gamewise... but sucking up to the host never hurts ;) Oh, and if given the chance, we gotta talk some Scrabble, dammit! I had no idea what to expect and how this was going to go, but while taking a moment to pause and relish the autograph, I'm hearing this "COME ON COME ON GO GO GO!" No, it's not a terrorist attack, it's that WE'RE ON in FIVE MINUTES. Yes, I was excited and nervous, but seriously, what the hell was the emergency? I soon learned what the hurry was.......
So now we're on the set! There were tons of overhead lights, but also lots of lit tiki torches, fog machines going, all sorts of zany things going on, all while Heather and I are trying to take in this very surreal moment. I've always scoffed at people who say "once you get up on camera under the lights, it's easy to lose focus and do something stupid". I just never bought that -- sure, there's a nervousness factor, but why would that all of a sudden make you all bewildered? But strangely enough, I was so distracted by everything going on, from the stage guy putting the microphone on to Chuck coming out and chatting with crew, I was worried I myself might not be able to stick to the plan! I was hoping the sight of Chuck wouldn't trigger that hi-hat soaked in my head. I yelled "Thank you for signing my book!" to Chuck before the game began and he said "Oh, that was you? You're welcome".. off to a good start so far --

Now, once the game started, for some reason, Chuck and Shandi both got on my ass a little because apparently I wasn't screaming out my lingo numbers, but as you can see in the clips, my audio level was perfectly fine.. Then, in the middle of round 1 they had to throw a puzzle out, and as the board operator (no, it's not Shandi :P) was backspacing back through that errant puzzle, Chuck seemed slightly annoyed, as if he was in a hurry to get out of there.
And here's our opponents, the football and kickboxing-loving (and non-GSN-having) Bishop and Rob.
Ah, the interview portion. This is something I thought about on the plane on the way out there. "What am I going to say when Chuck comes over to chat?" Definitely I had to work in a little brown-nosing because, let's face it, this is Chuck Freakin Woolery. While on the plane, when I took a break from looking over the five-letter words, I decided to pass the time by trying to jot down all the countries my wife and I have visited together, and come up with a list of countries we'd like to see in our lifetimes. At that time, we had already visited twenty countries, and it seemed like a minimum of 50 in our lifetime sounded like a neat goal, so that was what I ended up deciding to tell Chuck. Fortunately for me, Chuck tells me I have plenty of time left in my life to accomplish this -- "hopefully!" haha
I think during Heather's interview portion, Chuck went into a Love Connection spell of sorts, as he was quizzing her about her fianceé (at the time) Nick almost to the point that he wanted to see if Nick stacked up to Chuck! "Is he good looking?" "Is he rich?" .. I was waiting for him to say "Is he a game show host??" Bwahaha
The ball is a cross between a racquetball and one of those spongy personalized promotional foam balls with a company's logo on 'em that you see at conventions.. If you watch the clips, you'll see they do indeed bounce .. a lot higher than I thought they would ;) .. After you pose with the ball and say the number, you drop it into a cylinder about a foot deep built into the podium. If someone drew a wild "?" ball, they do not stop tape and fish out the number you chose as a wild like a lot of people seem to think: if you actually draw a number that you already used as a wild, the game simply continues and they will tell you to draw again and edit it all together as if it never happened.

The game board is projected onto an enormous screen behind where Shandi sits.
I was still pretty confident that we would win, since Bishop and Rob had tons of turnovers and we were rippin' up puzzles left and right, taking an early lead 225-0; however we got a little derailed when I threw out my list word FOILS, for some reason I was conferring with Heather before she got to say her word FRAME. They buzzed us due to time, but as you can see below:
I mocked the buzzer with a hearty eye-roll. And then....
They get the word FRIES. You see, had we have gotten "FRAME" in, we would have had the FRI-S in place with a green E, giving us that puzzle, but instead the dudes got it. A bad miscue on my part, but interestingly enough, one of 'em reached in and pulled out the red ball which turned control back over to us...
but then I got stumped! What's this? Could it be that the system is failing? I couldn't believe I blew through five guesses trying to get this word, but there was a small hole in my system, even from my training back in childhood. You see, when I programmed the first BASIC version of the game, I never programmed in any words with repeating letters in them simply because I didn't know how to handle telling the player that "yes, your A is in the word, but wait! ANOTHER A is too!" By avoid those words early on, I accidentally trained myself to see the A turning red to be the ONLY A in the word, tuning out any other "A"s. I think what they should do, say, in this example of PASTA, is on my fourth guess the A should alternate red and yellow to indicate "yes, the A is there, but it's somewhere else as well!" -- You'd go nuts if the mystery word is LEVEE but you guess LEMON and the E turns red. So that did stump me and I was again very disgusted that I lost our turn to those guys -- UNTILLLLLL
The unthinkable happened. Shandi had just finished telling the guys that all they needed for a "Lingo" (which was worth 100 freakin' points and would have had them TIED with us!) was the 45 or the 3. Ok?

During the ball draw, Rob draws the "?" ball, which is a wildcard ball and can be used to fill any number on your card. Rob looked around and seemed confused not saying anything, and as this is going on I'm staring at them thinking "does he not even know how to play BINGO for God's sake??" He thinks some more and decides on --- 41?! Fortyone. My jaw dropped. I couldn't believe it.
NOW: I know a lot of my fellow online game show brethren have had this theory for a long time that since LINGOs are only worth the same value (100 pts) as solving two words (@ 50 pts ea), and since when you get a LINGO your turn is turned over to your opponents, the real strategy when pulling a "?" ball would be to PURPOSELY avoid a Lingo so you could keep control and rack up more points. Perhaps true, and doing that would be necessary if you're behind; however, on stage, you really have no concept of when the game will end -- throughout the tossed-out puzzle and the breaks and the machinery malfunctions, there was a lot of waiting and downtime, so whenever the game resumed, it was impossible to tell "are we close to the end?" But having said that, if any of you out there ACTUALLY BELIEVE that these guys were trying to implore that strategy by PURPOSELY avoiding a Lingo, yer nuts. These guys have never seen the show before they auditioned, and they clearly didn't have a good grasp of the game itself, so how could they possibly have had the presence of mind to know "hey, if we purposely avoid lingo, we'll remain in control and get more points by knocking out words with our nonexistent madskills!" No way. Besides, there wasn't enough time for them to solve two more words and hope for a Lingo on their next draw, so in their case, that strategy would have failed. It is indeed an interesting stragtegy, though, so I promise you if we get invited back for any Tournament of Champions ;) ;) ;), just for you guys, I'll do it :D
Needless to say, we did indeed win, even though a couple of times the careless turnovers had me a little worried. Even still, I'm pretty sure RobBishop felt like a total tool for avoiding my "good luck" handshake. KARMA is not only a five letter word, but it's a BITCH, ain't it? The transition to the bonus round was interesting: Two stagehands rushed out and actually UNBOLTED the main game podiums from the floor, set the losers' (I'm not maknig a statement about their character, but simply that they did indeed lose ;)) podium aside and took ours, moved it about three feet closer to the cameras, and using a torque wrench, BOLTED it back into the stage floor. For the bonus round we will not be playing off of the projection screen anymore. Instead, we had to look at what appeared to be a 19" color television about ten feet away. Why they couldn't/didn't project the bonus round on the large screen is beyond me. I didn't think to ask why.

Note I am putting my glasses on — a total move I stole from Betty White when she used to call the clues on Password Plus. Seriously. It's as if she were saying "we're about to throw down some bonus round, for I'm bustin' out the glasses!" In actuality, my short-distance vision is perfect.. I seriously just wanted to pull a Betty. Layin' obscure props to the BW. This is where the line between fanaticism and obscurity start to blur a little.
This seriously is the moment I was waiting for. I was dying to get the regular game poop over with so we can cut right to the really fun part. I felt I was skilled enough to solve these words with just the first letter, and now they're giving me two! I really do give Heather a lot of credit for allowing me to just take the reins and run with this, at the risk of her looking useless to people who didn't know the inside story. She saw me play the practice games at home and knew I was hardcore enough to just rip those puzzles apart solo-style. I wasn't trying to be selfish, but I knew if I was in the zone, I could guarantee us at least $5000. There was no question in my mind that I was going to get less than 9 words. As a matter of fact, I said to Chuck while they were preparing the podiums "I'm going to get NINE words" and you know what he said?? "Yeah, ok." Hm. Check it. I love Chuck, don't get me wrong.. the guy seriously is a legend, there is no question... But his dismissal of my gleeful little prediction actually hit me... it was as if this was wishful thinking towards the impossible. Imagine as a child a little kid says "when I grow up, *I*'m going to be president!" and some Eddie Haskell walks by and goes "keep dreamin', kid!" That's kind of how it felt, in a most gameshowy of ways. Most couples tend to end up getting anywhere between 4 and 6 words out of the two minutes alotted and I suppose Chuck was just in no mood for some overconfident guy from Texas with a flower in his hair. But now I had something to prove. And so, along with the supersonic Betty White Optical Powers move, the fury was to be unleashed!
This all went so fast and I was so focused on the cause I really didn't hear Chuck as he kept track of how many words I solved. On the eighth word, I was truly stumped for a minute. "What the hell starts with AFF--?" Well, AFFIX is the only five letter word in the English language that starts with AFF, and it just wasn't coming to me, so I had to burn those two bonus letters. That was indeed a tricky one. Pretty sneaky, sis.

I don't remember during which word, but once during the bonus round, the typist mistyped one of my words, and they had to backspace and correct. This distracted from my flow and I remember asking in the middle of the bonus round "am I going to get a time credit for this? Chuck responded "yes, keep going." You see, we can't see the clock, so we have no idea how much time is left, and I suppose that is for occasions like this. The editing was great, as I have watched the clip many times to find out when that happened; they edited this show so seamlessly, you cannot tell where that was.. a fantastic job.
After the tenth word, I had no idea I solved ten words. You can see me put my hands up and ask "Are there any more?" because the screen went blank. It seemed for a minute that there was some scrambling, then a producer off camera yelled "He got ten, that's it!", and then Chuck remarked "With SEVEN SECONDS LEFT you got TEN WORDS!" The reason this is peculiar is because in the clip the clock is at :14 when I solved that tenth word. Apparently I did get that time credit I was asking for ;), but what was ingenious was, again, their ability to edit that up to look like all of that happened naturally. Obviously, they superimpose the clock in during post-editing.
Any more? Come on, bring 'em!

Finally, after a full hour of Chuck getting on my case for not being loud enough and mocking my claim to get nine words, he came around and recognized who the master of this game was. :D He did reiterate a heartfelt vibe that he was impressed, and that made it all better. I was feeling the respect and it was warm fuzzies from that point onward.
Here's a fun editing quirk I caught. When I got that tenth word and said "any more?", in the clip you see Shandi saying "You only get ten words!". That never happened. At least while we were there ;). They clearly had to go back after watching the tape and get her to say that so they can stitch it all together. Note on the screen behind her there is a puzzle loaded and the first two letters are ST, which doesn't match any of my bonus round words... then --
When they cut back to her and she says "you didn't let Heather play", the puzzle board behind her is blank. Not a huge flub by any means, and no one would know any differently if they weren't there to witness it themselves ;)..
I thought it was funny watching this broadcast because I never knew how many different facial reactions I made throughout the show. One that made me laugh is the trademark modesty look when told that I "Broke the bank". Don't get me wrong, I was exploding with all sorts of crazy emotions inside, but during that game, I blocked everything out for those two minutes of time and just had a little one-on-one with the puzzle board. "Just you and me, pal". I was so stunned and shocked and bewildered, I really did not know what to think at that moment. It didn't hit me quite yet..
Unfortunately, regardless of how badass you do ripping up the puzzles, the luck element of the game comes into play, and this is how you win the money. Although skill has a hand in beating your opponents, in the end, luck is really what wins the money in this game, and unfortunately you are not directly rewarded due to skill.

And now for the strange telepathic part of the story. Earlier when they were setting up the podiums, they asked us to turn our backs and face the wall while they load the bowl full of balls. This was peculiar to me; why can't we watch them toss balls into the hopper? Then one of the coordinators instructed us that when we draw balls we are to swish them around first. I swear this part is true: three or four days before, I had this very strange vision that if it came down to it and I were to draw the first ball, I had this sense that the winning ball was going to be laying on the top -- just sitting there awaiting the grab. When I was told to swish, I was like "oh shit, my vision has told me the ball is on top! If I swish, then I don't know where the hell it'll go! So, when it was time to draw, I had to stay true to the vision and *fOink!* There it was....
..the one ball we needed to win $10,000. (Because we got ten words, we were allowed to draw ten balls from the hopper in an effort to complete a "Lingo". Getting a "Lingo" during any time in the bonus round nets you $5,000; however, if you happen to get a "Lingo" on the first draw (which there was only one possibility -- in this case it was the 10 ball, you win $10,000.
...and so it was. That look on my face is a genuine look of disbelief. After I handed the ball to Chuck, the cameras caught me looking very speechless and shocked. I really was stunned and didn't know what to say.

The show automatically splits the money for you and your partner when they finally pay, and I believe Heather certainly had equal importance throughout the entire experience. There definitely was immeasurable value to having her as a partner and I was so happy this money could go to the good cause of helping them fund their ironically Hawaiian wedding. It was a great time and I'm glad she was able to share in the quirks and giggles with me.
And here is the bonus round clip featuring our record-breaking feat!
They ushered us back up to the SequesterRoom2000 to get our stuff, and for a moment I just had to collapse on the couch and take all of this in. It wasn't the money. All these visions of me as a child sitting on the floor spending hours on end playing this very game, all of the hours collecting five letter words on my spiral notebook in class, all flashed through my head, as this is the pinnacle achievement of anyone who endured an entire childhood growing up with Lingo -- and sticking with it well past the one year it aired on TV. To break these peoples' record on national TV really felt like this is where it ends, as far as I can take my hardcore Lingo skills. It was a strange mix of sadness and elation as the emo assistant was trying to hurriedly usher us out of the building. Just then I snapped to and couldn't help but laugh at my brief little sappy moment. It was great, hilarious, and again, very surreal.
And we're back on the street. Now, I have been on a game show before in 2002, and in that experiece at the end before they escorted the contestants outside, winners who won money stepped into an office to sign some papers and got a triplicate form with the episode number and payment details. During that experience they even gave an estimated airdate. That didn't happen here, and it concerned me. At that moment, there basically was no handheld proof we were ever on Lingo nor was there proof we won anything. Sitting there standing on a sidewalk, I suppose there wasn't much else to do but leave and believe that one day the show will air and one day the money will arrive...
Immediately after the taping, we raced to the airport to pick up Heather's niece Jessa who flew in from Illinois to hang out with Heather and Nick for the week. I was still in a daze...
A big daze... We went to some snappy seafood restaurant in Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway and I was still stunned and shocked and giggly... It is a weird thing..
Bodie, Heather and Nick's cat was themed up for the occasion. My flight left back for Dallas/Fort Worth the next morning. A successful "business trip" to Los Angeles.

So when does it air? Now starts the saga... :|