|BY robert mckee|
|Gather 'round, kids, and I shall tell you the tale of my deep dive into the seedy underworld of five letter word lists, hallucinogens, premonitions, cash, and, of course, Chuck Woolery. Here now is my fifteen-year saga that lead to one of my finest works of televised performance art.|
I grew up pretty much a game show nerd... there were so many great game shows in the 1980s, but the ones that I obsessed over the most were the word games. This may be due to the fact that I was always forced into a two hour Boggle tournament whenever I visited my unbeatable grandparents. Pictured here is my grandmother shuffling Boggle Cubes -- she had true form. See how her head has that little follow-through to it? It's passion! She was into it, trying to shuffle them cubes as shuffled as possible. Well, needless to say, the word-game obsession was hereditary.
|Although Wheel of Fortune was the granddaddy of word-puzzle game shows, there were countless game shows where the premise was simply to solve a word by having letters filled in one at a time: Fill in the blanks, guess the word. Among my favorites of these games was Scrabble, a Chuck Woolery-hosted word game show that aired for several years throughout the 1980s. Scrabble doesn't get enough credit for how cool it was: For a game that essentially had nothing to do with its namesake board game, they made it a great entertaining play-along-at-home game. The set was super-cool (I mean.. who doesn't love an enormous rotating cube?), and the tension of the bonus round's ticking clock with tenths-of-a-second precision created for some awesome buzzer-beater moments. With all the moving parts and billions of sound effects for all the various things that go on on that show, it was so well-produced for its time. And, of course, hosted by The Chuck. He was excellent at keeping things moving while occasionally interjecting his Kentucky folksiness. Scrabble was high on the list of shows I had always wanted to appear on and thought I could destroy people at. It's strange, the minutiae of things that people choose to appreciate as a child. I look back on things like this and wonder why it had such an impression on me; I was way into this stuff.|
|In the late 80s, an obscure Canadian game show hosted by Ronald Reagan's son Michael aired on our local UHF station for about a year and I was very hooked on it. Another word game, but this one was different. The clues given to you on what the word is were generated dynamically based on what your guess was. Bascially, you were given the first letter of a five-letter word and as you try guessing what the word is, the computer will illuminate letters in your word red or green based on if they were in the mystery word and if they matched the same position of those in the mystery word. You were given five chances to guess the word in this fashion, otherwise control went over to the other team. It's similar in nature to the board game Mastermind (where one tries to guess the pattern of four colored pegs chosen by their opponent.) After a team solves a word they had to draw two bingo balls (well, "Lingo" balls, as they say) and try to achieve a bingo on their little bingo card. The gimmicky bingo card bit was silly and introduced luck to a game that otherwise would demonstrate raw word-solving skill. Bingo balls notwithstanding, I loved the idea of the main game.|
|In 1982 I was assigned to Raymond Hunter's third grade class at Eagle Mountain Elementary School. Mr. Hunter was the only cat in the entire school district to have a computer in his classroom, an Apple ][c which I believe he brought from home. Among its text-based games was, of course, the legendary Oregon Trail, but also in that same collection was a simple game called "Pico Firmi Bagel" that I found fascinating. Interestingly enough, it's essentially the Lingo format but with three-digit numbers. You guess a three digit number and the computer would react back to you with hints regarding if you matched any of the digits. It wasn't until Mr. Hunter brought a box of blank 5¼" disks to class and alluded to the fact that custom programs can indeed be made and stored on those disks -- that my entire world changed. The mere idea that this was possible, that one could create their own programs on a computer was so foreign to me but nonetheless very exciting, and the wheels were already spinning. Having a computer around in a classroom in 1982 was way ahead of its time, yet Mr. Hunter recognized my interest in it to where he would have at-length discussions with me about how it worked while other kids were at recess. During a time when personal computers were still very limited, with their games low-tech and visually unappealling, I was hooked on the idea of simply creating programs. As commonplace as they are now, back then almost nobody else I knew owned a computer at home, and those that did had super-expensive ones seemingly used for serious purposes; they weren't marketed as fun things children would play on. It took a while for the rest of the world to catch up in that practically everyone owns a computer in some fashion now; but back then, pop culture would push the idea that being into computers was the ultimate textbook definition of 1980s-era nerdiness. Of course as a third grader I wasn't aware of the nerd stereotype brought on by a love of computers -- or any social implications of being drawn towards computers -- and by the time I was in high school people more and more people seemed to start discovering the world of dialing into BBSs, so as far as I saw, computers in all their forms were always cool.
Later in life, whenever I'd buy a fresh box of disks and break them open, after taking a whiff of that sweet magnetic media and plasitc, I am taken back to that same spirit of excitement when Mr. Hunter first brought a box into the classroom, recalling the visions that I was going to somehow make all sorts of ridiculous things to store onto them. At the time, I didn't know how programs got on those disks; but Mr. Hunter was very encouraging in learning the BASIC programming language and how it was so easy, a child could master it. Indeed he was right; as clunky as it was compared to modern day languages, BASIC's logical flow really made sense to me; it was almost as if the language was created with children in mind.
|The next year, lo and behold, our school got a computer lab. Apple was very smart to give schools computers so kids would run home and beg for an Apple, as I indeed fell into that trap; however my folks ended up getting us an IBM PCjr for Christmas - and while I really was bummed that they "got the wrong one" - I quickly changed my tune the moment I flipped it on and saw bars of color and triple-tone sound! It did make a nice graphical presentation over the Apples, but the downside was that most of the software available to IBMs at the time were business applications, with a limited amount of shitty low-tech games, so if I wanted a game it seemed I was going to have to make it myself. Thus, my life-long programming career inadvertently started when I tried to emulate game shows with the ol' BASIC language. When Lingo made its appearance on television, it hit me that would be a really great solitare game to try to write. I already could envision how the logic and letter compairson would generally go, I just needed to try to make it. Now, all I needed was a decent list of five letter words to draw from.|
|Ah the word list. There was no Google to ask for lists of five letter words, so whenever I had spare time, I'd just jot down lists of them that came to mind. This went on literally for years. All I really remember about 9th grade English class was jotting down in my three-ring binder five letter words I could add to the array in the big Lingo game I've been programming since the age of twelve. When I got home I'd add them to the game. In the BASIC code I had it randomly pick a number between one and the total number of words, so whenever I added new words I had to update the array old-school style... Good times!|
|This is a shot of the crude but functional Lingo game sans the silly bingo balls ;P .. it worked well and it was pretty fun to play. I actually played it for hours at a time.. Much like in The Karate Kid when Daniel-San was inadvertently learning karate moves while being made to wax Mr. Miagi's friggin car, little did I know I was building some sort of long-term preparation for what was to come! After a while, I got to really know the often predictable (but occasionally wacky) patterns of English language five-letter words. There are a handful of pattern obscurities, but I started to quickly recognize which words would be the only possible fit for certain letter combinations after obsessively playing for hours-on-end.|
|This is a clip of me playing the Lingo game written in BASIC that I completed in 1988. (The clip is set to the theme to Taxi for no good reason; |
Update! Youtube informed me "due to copyright infringement" for featuring the song "Angela" by Bob James, so my video was flagged, so I was given the option for the audio to be swapped out with one that was in the public domain. To my surprise, this song is not called "Theme to Stargazer with Jack Horkheimer" but Debussy's Arabesque No.1)
|My lil' game became picked up by the rabid world of the online game show community -- a collection of game show superfans from all over the world, many way way WAY more hardcore than myself. Through that community, though, I formed lots of great friendships with people who aspired to be on (or have already been on several) game shows. One of the fine folks I met along the way was Matt Ottinger (the one person throughout Ken Jennings' famous string of 74 wins on Jeopardy to briefly surpass him during the main game). Matt knew of my game and my obsession with what was then seen as a very obscure little-known (to the masses) game show -- and was very kind to send me a tape with some classic 1980s Canadian Lingo episodes to further my game (as the current incarnation of Lingo on the Game Show Network didn't exist at that point.) Ah, Lingo. Not the most well-known show and certainly not considered anywhere near the level of 1980s monster big-money game shows that EVERYONE wanted to be on (Jeopardy!, Wheel, etc) But me? Ol' Lingo was my game. Five-letter words, I knew them all. But the version I knew only lasted one season, was last broadcast when I was 12 years old, and was taped in Canada. Therefore, actually going on Lingo was never even a realistic thought - it was a dead foreign gameshow from over a decade ago. Not a thing. Oh, but thennnn......|
|In 2002 the Game Show Network started to air a remake of Lingo -- with Chuck Woolery of all hosts! I was shocked. This is a game I always knew of, was very proficient in, and had always written it off as a cancelled foreign game show of the past, and here they are bringing it back! Phil Gurin, a game show visionary who discovered the Dutch version of Lingo, was intent on revitalizing the game and bringing it back to North America with his own production company. When I heard this, I HAD to get on this show. Living in Texas, there's the obvious disadvantage of having to fly out to audition, then flying out again if you get called upon to be on the show -- keeping your schedule opened for a large window of time and buying a plane ticket with a week's notice could be costly but I knew I had to make an attempt. But, if you think of it as a business venture with the only "risk" being the cost of travel, it was worth trying. I figured perhaps an advantage would be that because I'm from a different state I would be seen as a novelty by the staff since most of their contestants come from southern California. Maybe? Or maybe that's to my detriment as they would think that locals could much easier just drive down and appear when called upon. Wasn't really certain how it would go, but I made the call, told them I live in Texas but am willing to fly out to audition. The audition date was set for June 9th, 2005, heyyo.|