The Boy Who Dreamed of Game Shows
I watched a lot of game shows as a kid because I thought fiction was for cowards and I had no idea what football was. But the idea of going on one seemed impossible. I’d never heard of it actually happening. It was one of those things sitcom families did, but never real ones.
Sure, my dad knew a woman in Dallas who was a five-day champion on Jeopardy! then lost all her money in a Ponzi scheme and died. And he told me how she gloated about the car but never drove it. How her son got a DWI in it. That didn’t help me any. It just made game shows seem even less accessible. That secondhand story was all the proof I had that an actual human being had ever gone on a game show, and it seemed apocryphal besides. Too convenient. Doesn’t everybody have a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in Dallas who went on Jeopardy! and died?
But now I’m an adult, and I know a security guard at Warner Bros., which means I’m an expert on all things television. So when my 8-year-old brother Scotty approached me and said he wanted us to go on a game show together, I was able to demystify what had seemed so absurd when I was his age.
First he said we should go on The Amazing Race. I ruled that out immediately, explaining with appropriate world-weariness that I’m pretty sure those people are all actors. The sorts of people who are on the “crime scene dramatization” circuit. And besides, I couldn’t run that fast, and I couldn’t feign urgency well enough either. The producers would immediately disregard us, even if the boy was old enough.
So Scotty began to whittle down his expectations, eventually deciding that we should go on a deep-cut basic cable game show called Family Game Night. It’s where shockingly functional families stagger their way through gigantic versions of popular Hasbro products.
“We can do that!” he said, grinning ear to ear.
I responded to his innocent joy with a darker kind. “Perfect.”
He had no idea, but he stumbled on exactly the sort of game show where I’m qualified to run a decent hustle on the producers. The contestant pool is very small, presumably, because it’s on the Discovery Channel’s sister network, The Hub. Nobody’s ever heard of The Hub, ever, including me, and I watch the damn thing. Also, it tapes in Hollywood, so I know where I can park my truck for free without it getting broken into for a few minutes.
“I’m willing to go on this show with you, boy, but you gotta follow my rules,” I told him.
He said, “okay,” but his eyes said, “I have no plans to follow through on this so I have no idea why you’re still talking.”
First, I explained personal branding to him. That’s an important skill for his generation. He needs to establish a sympathetic brand from which he will never deviate. And we need to come up with a gimmick, the nerve center of any good brand.
“If we’re gonna go on Family Game Night,” I told him, “I’m your father now, and you only call me Papa, and your name isn’t Scotty anymore. It’s gotta be something that reminds people of the Dust Bowl, like John Henry. Your mother is out of the picture. If anyone drills you for information, ‘she ran off to Carbondale and never did come back.’”
“This is stupid,” John Henry replied.
“You’re gonna need thrift store clothes,” I said, ignoring him. “Not actual thrift store clothes, but a Disney movie’s idea of thrift store clothes. Plaid shirts, tucked in, and whatever pants people wore to funerals in the ‘30s. Also, you don’t know what an Xbox is. You don’t have any Xbox stuff. That’s way, way off-brand. Dangerously off-brand.”
“Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude,” he replied, turning up the volume on the TV.
I explained that if he could only stay on-brand, we’d be guaranteed a spot on that show. There’s absolutely no question about it. The plan cannot fail. The only serious issue is managing victory or defeat. “If we win,” I told him, “we’re humbled. But if we lose, you have to say ‘I ain’t never won nothin’ in my life… I dunno why my losing streak should stop here.”
Then I told him I’d coach him on that line. “Imagine how sad it would be if your dog died in a volcano. It’d be horrible. Say your line back to me and think of your dog in a volcano.” But he wasn’t listening. The family on the game show was playing a massive version of Bop-It.
“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously, John Henry. This is all dynamite.” Again, silence. I continued plotting things out in my head. Family Game Night is a third-tier game show with third-tier prizes. The sort of show where even if you win, you still lose, because the prizes all sound suspiciously similar to work. Like three nights in Pensacola where you’ll tour the world-renowned National Naval Aviation Museum and get a $500 gift card to a restaurant where octogenarians have anniversary parties. And that just ain’t gonna cut it. So we need to leverage our performance into easily shareable clickbait.
If we win, we’re going on Reddit with a curated clip of the performance. It’ll be very, very inspiring and our faith in humanity will be instantly restored by this single dad and his son who has no idea you can play games on a computer. And if we lose, that might ultimately be better: “This WILL make you cry.” It’ll be so heartbreaking that somebody will make a PayPal account to send us to Disneyland. The marketplace will demand we go to Disneyland for at least a weekend.
Regardless, it’s going on his reel. “I don’t wanna be no actor,” he’ll tell the agencies, idly kicking his foot against the carpet. “I just want a supporting gig in a Terrence Malick movie.”
“Are you ready to sign up for an audition, John Henry?” I finally asked.
“Stop calling me John Henry,” he replied. Then he told me to shut up, so I did.