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How I Went From Aspiring Joker to Joker’s Wild Champion

David on The Joker’s Wild (Photo provided by the author)

My sophomore year of college, I took a leave of absence from NYU Film/TV after my sophomore year and set out for LA with dreams of becoming the next Freddie Prinze (minus the suicide). One of my best friends from high school and I had made a pact: We’d find an empty office on the Universal lot, set up shop like Steven Spielberg and take Hollywood by storm. I was the advance team and flew out via PEOPLExpress (one way just $99) to couch surf with an ex and her sister in Orange County until I could find a place.

My arrival coincided with the reign of The Night Stalker Killer, and, as it turned out, my ex’s sister’s place was this latest Satanist’s favorite stalking grounds. The very first night, after the girls went out clubbing (leaving me alone clutching a broomstick), I was shocked awake at 3 a.m. by the phone ringing. On the other end, the most menacing (although not-particularly inventive) obscene caller told me how much he’d like to make me his hand puppet…I told him he definitely had the wrong number.

This was followed by half a dozen other calls — that night alone. They were different guys, all of whom I seemed to have had at “hello.” After three sleepless nights, I finally caught up with my night owl roommates over breakfast. Turns out my ex’s sister had placed a singles ad in the local free newspaper (“it’s so hard to find a date around here”). Mystery solved. IMHO, none of these “gentlemen callers” seemed like “dinner and a movie” material.

[pullquote]To this day, I feel my fifth show was a bit suspect. My opponent was a breeder of champion show dogs, and the first category that came up was “K-9 Questions.”[/pullquote]

I packed my bag and went looking for a new place immediately, leasing the first new-looking place I found in North Hollywood. By the way, back then, North Hollywood had absolutely nothing to do with the glamour of Hollywood; it was just a savvy real estate naming ploy for a pretty barren area that faced the back of the Hollywood Hills. Update: today, pretty much the same deal.

As soon as my phone was set up, I got a call from my friend and would-be business partner who sheepishly confessed that he wasn’t up to the challenge and was backing out and heading back to school.

Now with an apartment that cost twice as much as I can afford, I needed to think fast. An ad in the LA Times for “Unlimited Winnings” tempted me to try out for The Joker’s Wild, a quiz show dominated by a massive one-armed bandit. As a game show fan, I felt confident I could do pretty well, as the questions didn’t seem all that difficult.

I auditioned, got fast-tracked (they crave out-of-towners) and I suddenly found myself wearing my grandfather’s suit and tie on a rickety set that looked way better on TV.

Bill Cullen: “This 1984 hit song won an Academy Award for superstar Stevie Wonder. What three words complete these lyrics, ‘I just called to say I care. I do.

I just called to say…’ What?”

Me: “I love you.”

Bill Cullen: “I love you too, Dave…”

Our love lasted about a week. Netting me $10 grand, a “some expenses paid” trip to Waikiki (the show’s announcer was right; I was “happier in Hawaii”), a Betamax HiFi…and a wood burning stove.

Among the gifts that keep on giving? The near-endless amusement of friends and co-workers who discover me on YouTube, mocking my overblown ‘80’s hair, my Elaine Benes-style victory fist pumps and my attempts to play along with the show’s host obviously scripted “unscripted” banter:

Bill Cullen: “How long you been here?

Me: “Just recently; I don’t even have any furniture.”

Bill: “What do you want to do eventually?”

Me: “I’d like to be a stand-up comedian.”

Bill: “Well, that’s very good, if you don’t have any furniture,

you gotta be a stand-up comedian…”

To this day, I feel my fifth show was a bit suspect. My opponent was a breeder of champion show dogs, and the first category that came up was “K-9 Questions.” I immediately lost my mojo, and my winning streak came to an end.

Well, not exactly…

When I went back to the studio to reclaim a pair of shoes (they shoot five episodes a day, so, like Lady Gaga, you have to bring multiple outfits in case you’re on more than one episode so it looks like multiple days), they offered me a job.

And the rest is history. I started as a Contestant Coordinator, became a Run-Thru Host and then moved up to Writer & Development Consultant for the now late Chuck Barris for shows including The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Family Game, Comedy Courtroom and, later, working with Columbia Pictures Television as a writer/developer for the pilot of A Question of Scruples.

Eventually, I went back to NYU to finish up and landed a job in advertising where I’ve been lucky enough to parlay my game show experience into launching branded content series like Date Court (“Where the trials of dating get their day in court,” with a pre-Academy Award-winning Octavia Spenser) and Office Court (“They make 9-to-5 seem like 25 to life…” with Chris Gethard).

Movie rights still available.

Filed under: Games

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Dave Statman

Dave is happily married native New Yorker and father of two, recovering stand-up comic, ex-game show writer / developer and co-author / editor of two books on esoteric philosophy. Extra credit: Jimmy Fallon was cast to play him on TV. He made the cover of TIME magazine. Twice. And am possibly the only link between Led Zeppelin, Pacific Rim gazillionaire Dr. Stanley Ho and JD Salinger. You can find him on Twitter at @StatmanDave.

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