Despite having written many books, traveled to North Korea, and been the subject of a Harvey Pekar graphic novel, the most common thing that people find impressive and interesting about me is the fact that I was a contestant on Cash Cab. It’s bizarre how many people have told me that being a Cash Cab contestant is on their bucket list. Now that the show has gone to the great impound lot in the sky—though surely to be revived at some point—it’s time for me to break down what is and isn’t true about the show.
1. You are cast.
Get the tears ready: No one just happens to get into a cab, only to discover that it’s the Cash Cab. Most people suspect this is the case but desperately hope otherwise. Well, hate to break it to you, but once again the cynics are right. There is a casting process.
2. You’re not cast for Cash Cab.
Don’t give up hope completely, idealists! The show you audition for is not Cash Cab per se. Although it surely varied from year to year, I was called in by a friend of mine for a (nonexistent) series entitled City Spots. The premise as described was to have a New Yorker and pal talk about their favorite locales.
3. You’re tested, but subtly.
My interviewer gave me a verbal trivia quiz (a quite difficult one, by the way). She claimed that this was to make sure that I’d be able to speak well on camera and that I could think quickly on my feet. It was clearly also a means of measuring my intelligence.
4. They give you your destination.
The PA or whomever tells you that the producers are stuck at another location and then proceeds to hail a cab to take you to meet them. This was when I first suspected that my long-time goal of being on the show might be about to happen.
5. You don’t pull away.
You get in the cab, the lights flash, and Ben Bailey welcomes you to the show. Then he stops, gets out of the car, and the PA gets into the front seat and explains the rules to you clearly—while Bailey hangs out on the street, taking pictures with those who recognize him. Then he returns to the car and the time officially starts.
6. It is much, much harder than you think.
Everyone says this, and I later figured out why. Your adrenaline goes through the roof, and as a consequence of this it is very hard to calm down and think clearly. On two of the questions I wasn’t even capable of processing the information correctly since my heart was beating so fast. The possibility of losing only adds to the stress, which makes it that much harder to focus on literal trivia.
7. Cabdrivers are called hacks for a reason.
I’m going to give host Ben Bailey the benefit of the doubt and assume that as a stand-up comedian he’s the funniest performer since Neil Hamburger (who actually is the funniest of performers). The entire time in the cab, Bailey will be throwing out quips that wouldn’t cut it even on your typical CBS “comedy.” Consider this exchange that got cut from the show after I answered a question with “salmonella.”
Bailey: I got a friend in Jersey with that name! “Ay! My name is Sal Minella!”
Me: Gee, that’s not racist at all.
8. There’s someone in the passenger’s seat.
He will be counting off your strikes with his fingers. During the lightning round, where you have to name, say, 7 out of 10 things, he’ll be keeping a tally for you so you can have an idea of how things are going. (Side note: My original lightning-round question was so hard that we redid it. When they asked me to name cities that had been capitals of the US, I proceeded to name virtually every city extant during the colonial era. What they were counting were places such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was technically the capital because the Continental Congress stayed there for a day or so as they fled the British.)
9. Ben Bailey is trollable.
I kept messing with Bailey, knowing that most of my offensive comments wouldn’t make the air but also realizing he couldn’t do anything about it. When we pulled up to the final destination, he asked if I wanted to play for double or nothing. Coming from the bird-in-hand school, I immediately said no. “Why don’t you pretend to think about it for a second, OK?” he snapped, no longer able to contain his mounting—though warranted—irritation.
10. You don’t actually get any cash.
Sorry to end on such a sad note, but you don’t actually get to keep the cash they hand you at the end of the episode. In fact, it’s not even cash: it’s prop $100 bills with President Beaumont on the front. They mail you a check several weeks later. I told them, “This is all going up my nose!” as I left the cab, but my cocaine joke did not make the air.
Watch for yourself…