NEW YORK -- Why, oh why, didn't I know the president of Nigeria's name?
I had swept through nine questions and logged $60,000 by the time I made my fatal guess as a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
The correct name of Nigeria's leader? It's Goodluck Jonathan. My good luck had run out.
"Millionaire" host Cedric "The Entertainer" dispatched me with a sympathetic farewell. The audience applauded warmly. I exited the stage. My moment in the spotlight and my bid to be a millionaire was over.
The loss I felt was only slightly eased by the fact that this was all for practice. No actual prize money was ever at stake. I had been invited to take part in a rehearsal show that will never be aired and no one will ever see. (Which means no one will ever know my lamebrain final answer.)
On Monday, Sept. 2, the new season of "Millionaire" premieres for real (check local listings for time and channel), ushering in new host Cedric "The Entertainer," who follows Meredith Vieira's 11 seasons and, of course, Regis Philbin, who emceed the prime-time ABC version from 2000 to 2002.
The "Millionaire" run-through I appeared on was one of a couple Cedric would host just days before beginning the real-deal, five-a-day, five-days-per-week regimen that yields a season's requisite 175 shows in only 35 production days.
Cedric's credits include the "Barbershop" films, "The Original Kings of Comedy," a Broadway revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo," and his current TV Land sitcom "The Soul Man," along with his thriving standup career. Clearly, he's a seasoned pro, complete with dapper wardrobe and signature trove of jaunty headwear.
Even so, hosting a game show calls for special skills, as he noted after our taping earlier this month on the "Millionaire" stage in upper Manhattan.
"You're standing beside someone who's playing for real money while you're entertaining an audience that's watching from the sidelines," he said. "You want to be funny for the audience, but you don't want to throw the contestant off."
Cedric isn't privy to answers to the questions he asks, which suits him fine.
"It's not really my job to act like I'm the smartest guy in the room, so I can relax," he said. "But you have to know the game. They're serious about the rules."
Yes, they -- the producers -- are very serious. "Millionaire" even has a production attorney, Scott Greenberg, whose job includes making sure those rules are obeyed.
"There can't be even the appearance of cheating," he said.
Greenberg gives each contestant a detailed briefing as part of the lengthy preparation process.
"Be careful how you use the word 'jump,'" he cautioned me at one point, referring to the newfangled life-line ("Phone a Friend is gone") where you don't know an answer and want to bail. "If you say, 'Cedric, I think I'm gonna have to jump this question,' that may trigger an actual jump. So try not to use the word 'jump' unless you really mean it."
Another briefing comes from executive producer Rich Sirop, whose tenure with the show goes back to 2000, when he was hired to answer the phones for one day.
Sirop shares strategies on how to best decipher a question. He should know: He leads the team that, isolated from the rest of the staff to ensure security, writes the questions -- about 3,000 of them each season.
I guess I didn't listen well enough to what he had to say.
A question that stymied me had an obvious answer among its four choices, which happened to be the names of four department store chains. Never mind what the question was, Target seemed to scream "Choose me" over, say, Sears or Walmart. But I missed that verbal target and, instead, jumped the question.
For anyone who's somehow unfamiliar with "Millionaire" (which currently airs in 95 percent of the country and captures a daily viewership of more than 3 million), the game is played with a series of multiple-choice questions each of which, when correctly answered, has a monetary value. If the player clears the first 10 questions, the final four lead to really big money -- like a million bucks.
But just one incorrect response sends you packing with a thousand-dollar consolation prize.
That wasn't going to be me. As I was introduced by Cedric at the top of the show and greeted with applause from the studio audience, I positioned myself across from him at the Plexiglas countertop, facing the huge video screen where my questions would appear. I was briefed, mic-ed and powdered. I felt jittery, sure, but I was primed to go all the way.
The first question was a gimme.
"Which of these hair-related phrases," Cedric asked, "is used to describe someone who suddenly starts acting crazy?"
The answer was (B): "Wig Out." I had scored a fast (make-believe) $7,000.
Thinking out loud is recommended by the producers. Not only does it help the player parse the trickier questions, it also builds suspense among viewers.
So I even agonized theatrically over all the options seeking which Washington landmark was described by Eleanor Roosevelt as "that simple shaft, so tall and straight" -- a question that, of course, gave Cedric a mile-wide opportunity for cracking wise.
After answering the Washington Monument, I was (mock) richer by $1,000.
By then I was enjoying a surge in confidence. Nothing could stand in my way, I told myself, as my (pretend) earnings mounted.
"What would you do if you won all this money?" Cedric asked me just before the question that ended it all.
"I'd buy a collection of hats like you've got," I fired back smartly.
"You would look smooth in this, brother," Cedric chuckled.
Oh, well. It was fun to pretend.