Musings on Being a TV Quiz Contestant
Do you lie awake at night visualising Tom Gleeson’s maniacally grinning face looming above you, goading you into an awkward foot-in-mouth trap of monumental proportions?
Do you toss and turn through what should be your REM sleep with that burning question eating away at your soul?
“Should I apply to be on Hard Quiz*?”
*Insert your favourite game show here
Whether it be the conundrum of Hard Quiz, the comforting lure of Eddie McGuire enticing you into the Hot Seat or The Chase’s excited puppy Andrew O’Keefe beckoning you on, you keep asking yourself “Should I apply?”, only to go further down the rabbit hole by pondering “What if I look like an idiot? What if I lose? What if I win?” … finally drifting fitfully to dreamland agonising over that please-let-this-be-my-final thought, “possibly it’s best I don’t apply” before being wrenched from your slumber, drenched in sweat and screaming akin to a night terror, “SHOULD I APPLY!?‽”.
What is the correct answer?
Don’t be silly, of course you should apply!*
*Caveat — if you’re vacillating this much about applying, you obviously want to, but are self-conscious about how your friends and family will perceive you after you’ve made a fool of yourself in front of hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that if your boss (or a future boss) sees your appearance you’ll miss out on that dream promotion. Never fear - these are the least of your worries. It’s highly probable you have low self-esteem thanks to years of neglect and/or abuse in your childhood. So. Tell me about your mother. I’ve digressed.
You’ve made the decision to apply!
Fortunately, Tom regularly taunts his audience to visit this website to apply if they “think they have what it takes to take home the Big Brass Mug™”.
Thus it was in March of 2019 I finally clicked SUBMIT on my application, after agonising over it for a couple of weeks.
“What do they consider interesting?” I wondered for practically every question. I kept myself in check by replying “if it would spark a fun dinner conversation you’re on the right track.” It kept my answers succinct and (mostly) PG rated.
It has to be said, from the very beginning of the process it’s obvious that the production team behind Hard Quiz run a highly efficient operation. The landing page for applications eases you through the basics, and reminds you of the raison d’être of the show, simultaneously reassuring and terrifying you by pointing out that you know something no-one else knows.
(Except you and I know that isn’t true - there are probably a million people far more expertly educated than you on your preferred topic - you’re the one who is insane enough to stick your neck out and proclaim “hey, pick me, I’m sure to freeze up at the most inopportune moment!”.)
Let’s just continue to accept the lie that you are the most qualified and move to the momentous problem you now face … you are free to choose whatever expert subject you like … except for the 545 topics already covered (based on the first 105 episodes) as the rules state that ‘no topic can be used twice’.
Curse you James on snagging Star Wars before me!
However, I knew there had to be another topic that only I could be the best at.
After all, since childhood everyone I’ve ever met has called me a know-it-all. This was my chance to prove it.
CHOOSING YOUR TOPIC
Trivia quiz shows are not something you can cram for (unless you have an eidetic memory) as you have no idea where the researcher has been digging for their information.
Hard Quiz makes it extra difficult by lulling you into believing that armed with your specialist topic you have a shot at taking home the coveted crown - er - mug, all the time knowing they have three rivals deployed with their own obscure expert topics to thwart your ambitions.
How to zero in on an unassailable obscure topic?
The best way to identify your specialist topic, is to find something you are synonymous with: something that has been part of your life for a long time. It could be as clear as the nickname your friends have bestowed on you for a life-long passion. Or it may take some digging.
Some people are lucky in having careers that are based on what they love: marine biologists, lawyers, forensic entomologists for example. They can use their skill-base as their special topic. But for plebs like you and I, the odds are we’re going to have to delve deeper.
Sadly James had already snagged Star Wars (no, I’m never going to let it go), and while I adore Sergio Aragonés Groo The Wanderer, I doubt if I’d be able to correctly recall the truly obscure characters to successfully make it past the first round (although I do know the process of mulching almost off by heart) (only a mendicant would call themselves a Groo fan without knowing what mulching is).
For me, it was obvious, I had to choose a musician as I’ve been addicted to listening to quality tunes since childhood. While Eurythmics, Models and Gotye were front-runners in my potential choices, I settled on the man who had more influence on my musical tastes (thankfully not my fashion) than most: Prince Rogers Nelson.
Also, I had a pretty cool story to help sell the idea.
Your topic isn’t really what the producers of the show are interested in, it’s your relationship with that topic, combined with your personality, so sell them your love and commitment to it.
For me, the selling point was an incident at high school where I impersonated my idol and almost got expelled.
I can’t reveal the story here, as it was part of my audition application (and again in my in-person audition), and obviously then told during the show’s taping. Whether it made it to air is a different matter, but I’ll leave that up to the editors and their questionable taste. Knowing their passion for debasement, I’m quite sure it made it to the final cut.
That said, in high school and for many years of my youth, that story was flashed as a badge of honour to prove my love of Prince, and it obviously touched the casting nerve of the team, because a few short months after submitting my online application I received an email letting me know I’d made it to phase two: the in-person audition.
Without describing the audition process (so not to ruin the fun), it’s safe to say that no matter the show you’re auditioning for, they are looking for your personality to shine. Don’t pretend to be anyone but yourself and you’ll be fine.
Some people are quiet, others are unashamedly obnoxious, but no matter how they present themselves to the world, they are uniquely them.
No sane production team will want to cast four effervescent people on a game show panel - there needs to be light and shade. So there’s no need to go overboard in trying to illustrate who you are.
The obverse is true as well - don’t be invisible. At my audition there were a handful of people who stood out during the group chats, and sure enough most of them were selected to proceed to one-on-one interviews.
There was a class clown (me), a genius (oh boy, I’m glad he didn’t appear at my taping), a fully-blown Aussie bogan (self deprecating and hilarious), and even a very prim-and-proper-I-can’t-believe-she’s-auditioning lass (who of course got through to interviews). Variety is the spice of life - reveal your true colours and savour the experience.
- Expect to participate in a situation reminiscent of the show you’re applying for - it’s a game show, so there’s going to be trivia questions to see how you respond.
- Expect to talk about yourself. Practice telling fun stories about your life (especially if they relate to your topic) with a confidante in the lead-up to the audition if you want to quell your nerves.
- Expect the unexpected. (Yeah, I know this doesn’t seem helpful, but screw you - who’s writing this article?) Be prepared to be taken off-guard. It’s going to happen, so accept it. Enjoy the ride and take embarressment in your stride. Personal ridicule is the cornerstone of Hard Quiz anyway, so get used to it 😃
- Finally, treat your fellow contenders with the respect you would like them to show you. I’m going to repeat this later for the show itself, and it’s a good mantra to have for living, but sometimes you need to hammer it home. Everyone is nervous and (probably) doing this for the first time just like you. Striking a conversation with your neighbour will help distract you both from the butterflies attempting to disassemble your stomach.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
The audition over, the waiting game begins. As they announced on the day, ‘there’s a lot of you here today, only a handful will get through to the next stage, and there’s no guarantee any of those will make it to the show, but one way or another we’ll contact you within a certain time-frame … and if not, you might want to consider reapplying’.
What’s done is done
I managed to finish the audition feeling good about myself, I don’t think I screwed up too badly, but even if I did, my bed was made and ready to lie in.
Now it was time to play the waiting game. I don’t know about you, but sitting by the phone is so 80’s (ask your parents). The path that seemed best to follow was that of a Buddhist monk: so I decided to push it from my mind, shut my mouth and be thankful for each day - que sera sera, what will be will be (again, ask your parents (it sucks being old)).
DAMMIT WHY HAVEN’T THEY CALLED?
Sigh. It’s a horrible conflict: the potential excitement of being accepted versus the agonising shame of rejection. Just like high school all over again, except this time it actually meant something.
Having this burning in your brain every day is not the most pleasant of sensations, so I did try to follow the ‘zen mantra’ thing. Occassionally the worrying would return, but then I had to remind myself: they’re just the cool kids - it doesn’t matter if they like you.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months …
You like me! You Really Like Me!
Two long decades later (or months, I’m not 100% sure) the email I yearned for arrived: they wanted me to be a contestant! Now I know how Sally Fields felt.
Recording would occur in four months time, and over that period my production contact reached out regularly to ensure I was tracking OK. Or maybe this was their way to check if the nerves were overtaking the contestants and they were about to do a runner. Either way, it was good to know the team running the show cared about the contestants.
During this period, the basics of your participation are covered, from the location of the studio, the exact times you will be required from and to, clothing you shouldn’t wear (fine stripes are a strobe hazard), even little chats about your topic.
These four months also saw me delve further into the Purpleverse, watching his four movies, listening to all of the 72 albums released under his name (or those of his proteges)**, and reading all of the obscure trivia I could find about the Purple Yoda.
You read that correctly: 72 albums!
The topic’s gargantuan scope started to freak me out. However as I pointed out previously, your topic should be something you’ve loved your whole life, so this preparation time leading up to the quiz was more about confirming existing knowledge than learning new information.
One thing I did learn is that you should avoid watching Grafitti Bridge unless you have to. A diabolically awful movie - a great soundtrack, but without a doubt one of the worst movies ever made. How did its release get approved? Ugh. He may have been a genius, but everyone makes mistakes. 💩
That poo wouldn’t be smiling if it watched Grafitti Bridge.
MAKE A PLAN AND STICK TO IT
- Don’t research, immerse yourself.
- Plan your time. An album a day in this instance covers two of the four months. Even a fan can get sick of listening to just one musician. Plan to have breaks.
- Do something nice to erase the memories of watching Grafitti Bridge. I’m not kidding, it’s left scars on my psyche.
My production contact recommended watching old episodes of Hard Quiz. Great advice - I wanted to be a contestant because I love the show - so not only was it great preparation, but a fun time to boot.
For the duration of the lead-up to the show I wrote a lot of notes. Notes about how the show works. About Prince. About how I should write an article about the process. About the chats I had with the production team.
Writing lists was my obsessive-compulsive way to prepare for the quiz: not only the information I knew that I knew, but also new tidbits I’d only just discovered.
Did it work? To an extent.
It helped me focus on the topic, but as mentioned, unless you have a photographic memory there’s no way anyone can remember this amount of useless trivia unless it’s already embedded deep in your subconscious.
Did you know Prince had pet doves? I didn’t. Sure, he wrote a kick-ass song about doves, but who in their right mind would mention them in a discussion about his life? You can look over my notes here and see all the information I put together about his pet doves (although I can save you the trouble: there are zero notes about pet doves) (but there are notes about the original concept of the Batman soundtrack - insanely they include Michael Jackson!).
Part of the discussions with the production team regarded the topic itself: should it be focussed (eg: his ‘purple patch’ years of 1980–1990) or all-encompassing?
My original pitch was to focus on his protégés only, not even his releases or cover versions of his work (which would take out Sinead O’Connor, but not Martika). This was my attempt to tamper-proof my topic; no-one else could know any of those answers!
In response, the team pointed out the audience would get more enjoyment out of learning about his entire history. I had to agree. I could be a know-it-all ass or just a simple nerd.
I’d rather be white and nerdy than that guy.
Whilst a big topic, I was reassured they would “only be asking questions that you would reasonably expect a person coming on Hard Quiz with the subject of ‘Prince’ to know” (actual quote from email).
Here’s the rub: it’s Hard Quiz.
The questions, no matter the topic, are going to be insanely hard. That’s the entire point of the show. Even if your topic is obscure, they WILL find questions you’ve never encountered. It’s the nature of the beast.
How to play the game
You can only know your topic as well as you do. There’s nothing you can do to change that. But Hard Quiz is more than just your topic.
You won’t make it past the Expert Round without stealing
At least one of your opponents questions in each set can be guessed. Watch an episode and you’ll see it. Be brave and prepared to take a risk. If you get it wrong you’ve lost 5 points, but if you’re right you jump ahead with 10.
Plus there’s a warm buzz when you steal. Maybe it’s a sign. Perhaps a life of crime was my true path? Stealing an answer could be the start of my descent into hell. I can start with petty crime, move onto drug dealing, then consider delving into bank robberies, white collar crime, or just go for broke and become a politician. Bugger. Digressing again.
No Luke, It’s A Trap!
Guessable questions seem like an easy way to get points, but beware, sometimes they’re too good to be true.
Even though it’s the first to buzz in, take a moment to consider the question. If it’s too easy, why is it being asked? It could very well be a landmine.
It’s your choice. How lucky are you feeling, punk?
Tom’s Round is pot luck
Unless you’re extremely lucky, you won’t know a single thing about Tom’s topic. While it’s great that each week he’s been really getting into something different, the fact he’s expanding his range of knowledge means squat to you.
These questions can be a shot in the dark, there’s no way to know if you’re going to get lucky with your guesses, so do your best in the expert round to create a buffer here.
KISS (Keep it simple, stupid)
The production team explain it clearly before each round, but it’s good to be forewarned. There is an ideal way to answer each round:
- short answers: Expert, Tom’s and the People’s rounds
- long answers: final Head to Head
Thinking out loud during the final round is a great way to unearth the answers lodged deep in your hippocampus. It’s also highly entertaining for the audience, watching you squirm as you buy time to remember that elusive tidbit.
Long explanations in the early rounds isn’t a good idea as it’s first response given. If you go into a sentence (or heaven forbid a full explanation) you could very well be giving the actual answer to a competitor who can steal it once you’ve been closed out for not saying the correct word in your opening spiel.
Listen carefully not only to Tom’s questions, but your opponents answers for this very reason.
The actual recording of the episode is a fantastic experience, and well worth all the stress in the lead-up.
ABC’s Melbourne studios were already bustling with audience members queuing up for an earlier taping when I ambled in, trying to calm myself with a take-away flat white in my hand and Prince’s best songs in my earphones. The coffee probably raised my heart rate rather than calm me down, but in an alien environment it’s best to cocoon yourself with things familiar.
In this whirlpool of meeting the various staff and being shown backstage to your preparation area, it’s a good time to remember that the people you’re about to be competing against are coming up against the exact same situation as you are. Treat them with the respect you would like them to show you.
I’m glad to report that my fellow HardQuizzers shared this mantra, and we all had each other’s backs. A lovely group of people who helped each other stay focussed, and contrarily, distracted each other when our nerves were getting out of control.
Stay in the moment!
Concentrate on the here and now. Listen to everything the production team tell you - they want to keep you safe so you can enjoy the process. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement, but especially when you’re in a new environment (like a TV studio) you need to remain vigilant.
I’m writing this because I didn’t follow my own advice and almost came a cropper by not taking a step down during my practice run of ‘exiting in shame’. They thought it was a joke. It was not. I got lost in the shiny lights and failed to be in the moment. It could have been a nasty trip. I could have got hurty knee. So listen and keep your eyes peeled.
Think about the consequences!
After being shown the stage, having our make-up and hair checked, and running through all of the permutations of how to exit after being told to get “OUT” by Tom, we were asked if we wanted a toilet break.
You can decline if you don’t need a toilet break, but if you don’t go, you’re left on the set while the audience files in.
I wouldn’t say I felt uncomfortable because that would be admitting I made a big mistake. But gosh I felt uncomfortable. If they give you an opportunity to pop off the set, take it!
RELEASE THE HOUND!
And it begins.
Cleverly they don’t get you socialising with Tom before filming begins - you might discover he’s a nice guy and relax. No-one wants that. Hard Quiz works because he acts like an a*hole and then proceeds to tear all his guests new ones. Best to keep your guard up!
If I can be honest, one of the many reasons for applying for Hard Quiz was to see if I could match wits with Tom. He’s sharp as a razor, and in my heyday I’m pretty sure I could have been a formidable opponent.
That’s what reminiscing is all about though, isn’t it? Colouring our past glories and making us believe we once had the power of Gods.
Who was I kidding? There’s no way I could have bantered with Tom at any point in my life and come out victorious.
He’s a professional and has been doing stand-up for years - dealing with hecklers has given him the ability to destroy a person’s defences, slicing through their hypodermis, bypassing their bones until he unearths their very soul.
But I didn’t come this far to not get my moneys worth, so even though I decided not to joust with weapons, I still had to interact.
I needn’t have been concerned that Tom would utterly humiliate me, I did that all by myself.
Having watched enough episodes, it’s obvious you don’t ‘talk back’ or try to stir the hornet’s nest.
Being a small target is also a bad idea, because Tom will keep on rattling your cage until he either gets a response or decides you’re not worth the effort.
Once Tom smells blood he’s going to circle you until you’re just a smeared memory in the churning waves.
Ah, such good memories. There’s really no advice I can give you here. If you’re crazy enough to expose yourself to Tom Gleeson, it’s your fault.
I salute you.
None of the questions I thought Tom would ask were asked. I was 100% convinced my five opening questions would come from this selection ...
- Name the song Prince was accused of plagiarising The Most Beautiful Girl In The World from.
- Australian musicians have released songs directly inspired by Prince, including Wa Wa Nee and Regurgitator. What are those track names?
- What was Laydown’s track number?
- In roman numerals, what was the SuperBowl where Prince performed his halftime show.
- Prince co-wrote Love Song with Madonna for her Like A Prayer album, along with what other track he essentially created?
- Art of Noise wasn’t the only UK act to cover Kiss in 1987. Who was the other?
- Name the HBO documentary that inspired the writing of 1999.
- What Prince song did Gotye (Wally de Backer) cover as a tribute, and upload to YouTube in the days following Prince’s death?
Of course there were no questions even remotely like them, probably because I overthought the entire thing.
But I’ve watched every episode of Hard Quiz, I know the trivia can come from left field. Additionally, it can be so microscopically targeted only a true devotee would have a clue (see Charles from Series 4 Episode 2 for evidence - if you ever need a Meccano guru you know who to contact).
I have no doubt there are other Prince fans out there who could have answered every question posed, but I was the fool who stuck his hand up first. Sorry my Purple friends, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
That said, I’m still very proud of my performance (perhaps not my foot-in-mouth answers), and can honestly say it was an awesome experience that I’d do again in a heartbeat.
This has been annoying me since the very first episode.
When Tom says “let’s play … HARD” it’s a constricted sound from the back of his throat. It’s not shouted.
Only a handful of people have enunciated it correctly when they get to do the sign-off at the end of the show.
It was one of the main reasons I applied — to win the mug so I could then go on and show everyone how it was meant to be pronounced.
I have no-one to blame but myself.
Do as I say, not as I did.
My Episode of Hard Quiz
Fellow Australians, if you are reading this now it means that my credibility has been murdered. Do not let my awful inability to zing back at Tom distract you even for a moment. For the sake of our children and our children’s children, you must fight on.
To watch my episode for the first time, or to revel in my embarrassment for the umpteenth time, jump onto ABC iView and look me up: series 5, episode 29.
If you are serious about appearing on a game show, immerse yourself in the not-so-subtly-titled How To Win Game Shows by writer/former quiz show winner/ hilarious actor, Stephen Hall (follow him on Twitter). A treasure trove of resources, from behind-the-scenes interviews to tips & tricks for all stages of the process. There’s even an ebook for those who couldn’t be bothered reading Stephen’s exhaustive blog posts (although you really should — they’re good reads).
Answers to unasked questions
If you’re too lazy to do the search yourself, the answers to the questions Tom never asked (or maybe he did in my convoluted nightmares) are…
- Takin’ Me to Paradise. The decision is a joke IMHO. An awful song.
- Sugar Free (Wa Wa Nee) and the Gurg’s ! (The Song Formally Known As)
- 77. The ‘secret track’ on 20Ten plays after 68 tracks of silence.
- XLI (41). Of course it rained during his performance of Purple Rain.
- Act of Contrition, the closing ‘track’.
- Age of Chance. Glorious electro-punk.
- The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (about Nostradamus) - recalled by Bobby Z in a fun story about their early days of touring.
- Sometimes It Snows In April. Already a touching lament, Wally’s heartfelt performance was a perfect response to his passing.
**72 Albums Clarification
Technically Prince only (ONLY) released 40 studio albums. But like many other Prince fans, I consider his output to be much, much more.
I’ve written an article about this if you want to get into the nitty gritty. But keeping it short: to avoid legal stoushes and reasons known only known to himself, Prince released music under different names; including New Power Generation, Madhouse and the NPG Orchestra.
Additionally, Prince wrote and performed all the instruments on most of the 15 albums he created with his protégé’s (including Sheila E, The Family, Apollonia 6, and The Time), so I included those in the total. Shoot me.
About The Author
Stephen Scott. Writer of Words. Yet Another Creative. Many names, some printable in decent company. He’s been plying his trade in copywriting and creative management since, well, before you were born (if you were born in the 90’s). Yes, he’s obviously a Star Wars fan. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.