All hail the new Trivia King, my Columbia friend Steve Irolla!
Don't get me wrong—I'm not saying Steve is ready to go mano-a-mano with "Jeopardy" all-time king Ken Jennings. But he'd sure be a lot more fun to watch—sort of like Kevin Costner's cheerful challenger going for broke in the U.S. Open against Don Johnson's soulless, take-no-chances champ in the great golf film Tin Cup.
With his lusty appetite for fine food, fine liquor and fine women, Steve Irolla could have inspired Rabelais had he lived in the 16th century. But, as recipients of his exuberant e-mail messages know well, Steve is intoxicated above all by words.
Alfred E. Smith said his education occurred in the Fulton Fish Market. Steve's came not only by way of Columbia, but also the New Jersey of his childhood and New York of his adult work life. What an unbeatable combination of erudition and wit!
(Internal editor: "Wait a minute—isn't that YOUR background, too? Isn't there a conflict of interest you owe it to your readers to disclose?" MT: "Okay, okay. Don't you think we owe it to all Americans to discuss the real issues?" Internal editor: "WHAT issues? What on earth are you babbling about?" MT: "That's what I was getting too before I was so rudely interrupted!!! Let's move on, okay?")
Anyway…Have you heard of The Discovery Channel's "Cash Cab"? Well, that made two of us, until a couple of weeks ago. I first became aware of this cable contest through Steve, who was featured as a contestant along with friend and fellow tour guide Sean Collins, on Episode 17. So what is it?
Well, as a taxi takes passengers to their destinations, host-driver Ben Bailey is busy converting them into contestants, too, asking questions that grow harder with each point along the way. (That's one part of the show that would scare the crap out of me, by the way—how the hell does Ben drive and ask questions, avoiding hitting or being hit by other cars? A bit distracting, wouldn't you say?)
A correct answer gets you money; an incorrect one brings a strike. Three strikes and you're out—not just out of the contest but also out of Ben's cab, no matter how far you might be from where you have to go. Oh, yes—helping you out is the "Cash Cab" equivalent of a "lifeline" with either the "Mobile Shout-Out" or "The Street Shout-Out."
Just when you think you've achieved it all, you have to endure the "Red Light Challenge" (no, that's not ex-NY Governor Eliot Spitzer's short-lived attempt to survive in office over past peccadilloes with a lady of the evening, but a single question with multiple parts) and the "Video Bonus Question," in which you double your money—or lose it all—on a question based on a clip from Discovery's library. (Hey, that sounds like my kind of place!)
This was a show I couldn't bear to miss—sort of like my first Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden in August 1978. We gathered, every man Jack and woman Jill of us, to watch Steve and Sean's moment of glory in the basement of a midtown Manhattan establishment known as The Mean Fiddler, on West 47th Street near Eighth Avenue.
At one point, just as the show was about to come on, it appeared for a minute that we might not see Steve on TV glory after all, and a bellow of tormented rage came from our shy, quiet, modest friend. But in no time this fear disappeared like a bad dream, and after the first couple of contestants were dispatched without further ado, we applauded as Steve's familiar form came on the big TV screen set up for the occasion.
Well, through all of this, Steve displayed a grace under pressure that would have done "Papa" Hemingway proud. This blog has already mentioned my own Trivial Pursuit experiences. I can't imagine what it must be like sweating it out under the spotlights with thousands the world over watching me, let alone the consciousness that my performance—every misstep – was being taped for posterity.
I'm afraid that, if I found myself in a situation similar to Steve's, I'd react like Ralph Kramden of "The Honeymooners" on the famous "$99,000 Answer" episode. (You know—the one in which his final incorrect answer was voted #91 on TV Guide/TV Land's 100 Most Memorable TV Moments in December 2004).
Not our Steve, who sat in the taxi waiting for each of Ben's questions like a mastiff eyeing a full rack of ribs. We hooted, howled and clapped our hands raw as Steve handled each question in turn. Even when he made a mistake, he came back undaunted, like Mariano Rivera after an occasional bad outing.
Steve didn't even blink an eye when it came to going for double or nothing. And here, Sean provided an invaluable assist, giving the final answer that made them the toast of the town—and, not so coincidentally, put them in the history books by setting a show record for the most dollars earned.
I’ve taken to the rule that a gentleman never asks a lady her age. So, in a similar fashion, don't go asking me how much Steve made from the event, for these reasons:
* I don't want him besieged by phone calls from charitable organizations, long-lost relatives who never gave him the time of day before, and other pests of humanity;
* I don't want him receiving any "getting to know you" calls from local IRS agents;
* Steve, big-hearted guy that he is, might well have run through most, if not all, of his hard-earned cash already, paying for all the assorted foodies and sots at the Mean Fiddler that night; and
* After this type of buildup, the true amount he won is likely not to meet your expectations (not that Steve cares—he'll keep his well-deserved gains and let you fend for yourself, ya bum!).
From one of those Mean Fiddler foodies, a word of thanks to Steve for alerting us to the opportunity to see one of the great originals of our time.
And for those of my faithful readers (both of you!) who want another chance to see this TV star, you can catch his off-camera act on one of his routes as a Gray Line tour guide in Manhattan. I took Steve's magical mystery tour last summer, and you won't find a more entertaining, informed guide anywhere.
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