I wish I could say that I humbly refused my friend’s offer to join him in trying out for the “Family Feud: College Edition.” My time at Harvard has ingrained in me the fields worth participating in—volunteerism, academia, journalism, art—occupations that enrich society through positive change, truth, humor, and beauty. Being on a game show is just not one of those noble pursuits. I thought improving the world somehow completely defined me; That was a lie I told myself. I wanted to be on TV...and possibly win $120,000. If being on a national game show has taught me anything, it is that I am not and never will be my ideals. I didn’t reject my friend’s offer to send in an audition tape—I responded. Enthusiastically
When a friend watched my audition tape, she was physically repulsed. Stunned, she didn’t speak for a few minutes. Instead she stared at me in befuddled rage. “An average kinda guy…Good Midwestern stock?!” she finally yelled, repeating my self-declarations. “You were born in San Francisco. Your fucking favorite book is ‘Ulysses.’ You are not average Joe.” In my defense, I never lied in my audition tape. I did exaggerate my Midwestern “As” and Jewishisms—a few “oys” and “meshuganas” for good measure. For the fame, for money, I was the straightest, most average Midwesterner ever, with a dash of whacky Jew to differentiate me from my teammates.
And it worked. I was embarrassed by my excitement; the only other time I had felt that happy was when I got into Harvard. It was only when I realized this that I started to have reservations about “The Feud.” I suppressed these concerns and entered practice mode, watching syndicated episodes of the game show with my teammates nightly for two weeks. Although I’d watched the show before, I’d never realized it was basically a contest in mediocrity—teams compete to guess the most frequent responses to inane questions previously posed to 100 average Americans. For example, if asked “What’s a cure for the hiccups,” teams try to respond not with the most accurate or effective answer, but the one most common answer, which in this case is “Scare the person.” A group of Harvard kids are not indicative of home-spun average responses—I knew we were probably screwed, but I was strangely undeterred. We spent the weeks leading up to the show trying to recalibrate our thought patterns to fit those of the elusive average American. By the time my plane landed in Los Angeles, I felt just like the gosh golly normal fellah from my audition tape. The taping started with an audition run. A lovely production assistant ran up to the stage and grabbed my hand, telling me I was not enthusiastic enough. “You need to be clapping and smiling more. ‘Coolness’ does not read on television. You’ll just look bored.” So I smiled. And clapped. And jumped and danced and laughed and cheered and hugged. We finally began to tape, our podium framed by a forest of plastic fall-hued trees meant to make the set more collegiate. Somehow, the exterior act of being enthusiastic mutated into real enthusiasm.
So there I was. Or rather, there this other-I was. Unrecognizable to my friends, in my lettered shirt, I was demonstratively happy, excited, and ready to think as averagely as possible. I thought I had transformed myself into a winner. An average winner. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Our troubles began on the prompt, “Name the world’s most famous author.” After Shakespeare, I couldn’t divine what a famous author meant to the faceless, average American. My mind reverted to its natural state. Chekhov, Joyce, Faulkner, and Proust all ran through my head. A small part of me knew that these were a Harvard student’s picks, not an average homemaker’s. Flustered, I grabbed for something, anything. Melville seemed like a reasonable choice—even if someone hasn’t read Moby Dick, they know it’s supposed to be great, right? Wrong. As much as I had hoped to leave my pretensions in Cambridge, this was not the case—Stephen King made the board, but not Dickens or Whitman, my teammates’ other answers. Praised for our place ahead of the curve in every other context, on the Feud we were but idiot savants.
My average façade was crumbling. During the “Fast Money” speed round, I claimed that 13 was a good age for a parent to start treating you like an adult, a truly terrible answer. As a Jew, it seemed sensible enough—a bar or bat mitzvah is when every Jew becomes an adult, and even aside from that as a naturally precocious, overly-responsible non-child, my parents had started treating me like an adult at 13. I had given my real self away, with few points to show for it.
At the end of the taping, they wouldn’t let us keep our own name tags. I had given up my identity for this, and now I couldn’t even keep the one thing that identified me as me. I was so angry, I considered swiping it or even a prop from another show taped in the studio—a law book belonging to Judge Judy, perhaps. My teammates convinced me to remain within the law, at least until the studio sent us our prize money for coming in a respectable second. I let my anger subside and left without committing petty theft. That would have so been below me. So average.