Do it, Rockapella!
Confessions of a ‘Carmen Sandiego’ Contestant
It was Andy Warhol who said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. I’d like to think my 15 minutes are still to come. The bad news is, there’s a really good chance (say, 75-80%) that I spent them losing badly on a kids’ geography game show in 1993. But the good news is, I can identify Guinea-Bissau on a map under extreme duress.
If you grew up in America in the ‘80s, you probably watched the ‘90s PBS game show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” based on an educational computer game. I happened to grow up in New Jersey, and the casting director for the New York-based show held auditions at my middle school. Lucky for me, nobody else at the audition could remember the capitals of Kentucky or Oregon. So with that, I was given my 15 minutes at the age of 12 — and much to my chagrin, the episode lives on thanks to YouTube.
My first thought when I found out I was going to be on national TV was that maybe a major teen celeb like Jonathan Taylor Thomas would see my episode. My second thought was that I should start carrying an atlas everywhere, which was really inconvenient.
I started and ended the day with my atlas. I remember coming up with mnemonic devices for memorizing the order of countries on each continent. For example, “Maybe Adam Tastes Like Eve” was my sentence for remembering Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. I wasn’t exactly the Doogie Howser of geography, but I did really like memorizing stuff.
The morning of the taping, I boarded a bus with my mom and some kids from my school who were part of the studio audience. During the drive to Queens, I kept going over my mnemonics: “Can Vanessa Get Sandra Fries?” Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana. (In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s a “Cosby Show” reference.) I also thought I might throw up all over my shirt. Thankfully, I didn’t.
When we reached the studio, I was whisked into wardrobe. This consisted of wearing my oh-so-90s red and yellow gumshoe jacket and getting a little powder dabbed on my face. I also met the other contestants, who seemed equally ready to throw up.
“I also said…”
The taping was a blur. As we lined up behind our podiums, I saw Rockapella milling around (they were the badass a cappella group that served as house band/comic relief). I was standing in the spot closest to host Greg Lee, who I thought was impossibly cool. This made me nervous.
The premise of the show was simple. Carmen Sandiego (a cartoon babe and criminal mastermind) had her lackeys, Double Trouble, steal a global treasure — the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. We learned the sordid details from The Chief, played by Lynne Thigpen (RIP!), who relayed clues with an unparalleled use of puns. Our job as gumshoes was to track down the crooks using our mad geography skills.
After the first question, I pulled my answer card out of the box and got the brilliant idea that to sound more sophisticated, I’d say “I also said” when reading out my answer if someone before me had the same response. Since the other two contestants had a habit of picking the right answer, this resulted in my saying “I also said” every single time … and sounding a little like a deranged robot.
Despite my total inability to operate a buzzer, I was tied for second place going into the end of the first round. My plan was to take the lead with the final question. Greg Lee showed us a part of the world — in this case, northeastern Canada. We had to wager a certain number of crime bucks (10, 20, 30, 40 or 50) based on our knowledge of that region.
Being a terrible gambler, I only wagered 20 points . My opponents each wagered more than me — and since we all got the right answer, I got the boot.
A geography nerd for life
The good news is, I left with some sweet swag — including a Carmen Sandiego t-shirt that gets me serious hipster cred. The bad news is, I lost in round one of a three-round show even though I knew a hell of a lot about geography.
But it was more than fair. The kid who won our episode actually won the whole shebang, which almost never happened. For the third round, there was a giant wooden map of South America on the floor, and he managed to run around and identify 8 countries in 45 seconds (harder than it sounds). I’m still a little jealous that he got to end the show by pointing to the camera and saying “Do it, Rockapella!”
These days, there’s much ado about kids’ competitions — especially ones that require memorization instead of “real learning.” But I’m amazed to find as an adult how much I remember from my days of memorizing random crap.
When I look at a map, I realize I still remember most country names, capitals, and locations. This makes me killer at trivia night at our local bar. But I’m also able to recognize how geography has changed in 20 years — new countries that have sprung up, others that are no more. I’m able to ask why. That’s the invaluable, intangible thing that memorization gives you — the knowledge of what you don’t know.
And now, for my own satisfaction… “Do it, Rockapella!”