We (Don't) Have a Winner

Ben Stein does not want you to win his money. Stein desperately wants to keep his money.You probably recognize him as the "Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?" teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the science teacher in The Wonder Years or, more recently, the pitchman for a certain brand of eye drops. But Ben Stein is actually a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He's also a novelist, screenwriter and journalist. Now he adds game show host to the list.A host who, unlike Bob Barker or Wink Martindale, doesn't want the contestants to win money. You see, unlike other game show hosts, Stein puts his own money where his mouth is, as contestants try to win cash in a battle of general knowledge. (Actually, the money in question is the show's prize budget, which breaks down to $5,000 an episode. But at the end of the season, whatever the contestants haven't won Stein keeps.)Having just wrapped up a season's worth of shows, Stein is asked if he's collected the remaining portion of the prize budget."I've collected it," he says from his home in the Hollywood Hills. "I can't tell you how much. It's nowhere near what I'd like it to be."A few contestants walked away with Stein's money, and they worked hard to get it. "Between 20 to 25 percent (of the contestants) beat me," he says. "It's a hard game."Shooting four shows a day, Stein says he becomes fatigued by the time the lights come on for the third installment. By the fourth, however, he seems to get a second wind. "By the fourth one, I'm usually so furious if I've lost the previous one that my mind races," he says. "I don't usually lose the fourth one."In round one of the game, Stein asks questions of the three players. Round two sees the contestant who's in third place supplanted by the host. Announcer Jimmy Kimmel steps behind the quiz master's podium at this point. It's then a playoff to find which of the two remaining challengers go on to the final round. Stein answers questions in this round, but only to protect "his money." His score is not tallied.The final round finds Stein and the surviving contestant put into soundproof booths. Each is asked the same 10 questions by Kimmel. Whoever answers the most wins. If it's the contestant, he wins $5,000. If the host wins, he gets to keep the money, minus anything the player won in the previous rounds. But why Ben Stein?"As explained to me," he begins. "I don't want to claim that I know for sure. I was the only person who was well known and spontaneous and funny on the one hand who could win a fair percentage of the games. They could have had many better known hosts. They could have had Pamela Sue Anderson as host. But she probably wouldn't have won many games."Indeed, Stein's eclectic resume would seem to make him the ideal choice for the post. After his time in Washington, he worked for The Wall Street Journal as their pop culture columnist but hated living in New York. He headed to Southern California, where he wound up being "a fairly successful screenwriter." He left that occupation, though. "It's a job filled with humiliation," he points out. When John Hughes was putting together Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a mutual friend arranged a meeting between Stein and the director. "When I got to the set, they thought I was very funny," he says evenly. "I wound up getting hired."Stein remains a big fan of Hughes. "I think Trains, Planes and Automobiles is the best revelation of what it's like to be a human being in 20th-century America," he says.One wonders how Richard Nixon would have done on his former speechwriter's show. "He would have done incredibly well," says Stein, who goes on to describe Nixon as a "genuine genius."Currently the show is between production periods, but Stein is not idle. He's just finished the first draft of a book called Traveling With Mr. Perfect, which is about him and his 12-year-old son, who, by the way, doesn't have an interest in trivia. "Not at all," Stein says. He quickly notes that "we don't call it 'trivia.' We consider it things you should have learned in high school and college."Stein adds that he doesn't do well in trivia. By his reckoning, knowing great authors, who made scientific discoveries and significant moments in history is important. Who played guitar on some Rock album, conversely, is not necessary. That's a difficult distinction to make, however, as you listen to some of the questions on Win Ben Stein's Money. "The musical duo The Judds broke up after the retirement of which member?" is one that comes to mind.Most of the questions, though, are more closely related to Jeopardy than, say, Tic Tac Doe. Stein gets stumped at times, too."I do well in history, law and economics," he says. "My worst is cooking. I'm not as good on science questions as I should be, and I sometimes draw blanks on state capitals."Seemingly upset when he's losing, Stein is also gracious in defeat and near defeat. In the pilot episode he constantly exclaimed "Wow!" as his two opponents correctly answered some tough questions in quick dispatch. "These two are whirling dervishes," he said with a stunned look on his face.Stein's dry sense of humor is apparent in both the show and the interview. But he also comes across as very engaging -- something you don't get a feel for from some of his acting roles. "If you were to see me in my everyday persona," he explains, "it would probably be much as you see it in Ferris Bueller. But if you were to see me at home, it would be very different."His show merely demonstrates the ability to memorize facts and recall them quickly. Stein asserts that it has nothing to do with how smart someone is, himself included.Production begins on the show's second season in February. Now that he has a year under his belt, the number of show winners might very well diminish. "No," counters Stein. "I think they'll probably be more winners, because now the word is out. Every psycho maniac who spent his entire life trying to escape nerd-dom by winning something on a TV show will be after me."Better brush up. Steins is no doubt studying."Oh, yes, you bet," he confirms. "I study all the time."


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