My Time on Remote Control (i.e. RIP Ken Ober)

19 11 2009

So I’m surfing around the ‘Net today when I come across this story relating the unfortunate death of Ken Ober. For those of you who aren’t as obsessed with the 1980s as I am, Ober was the host of one of my favoritest game shows of all time – Remote Control. For those of you too young to remember the days when MTV actually played music videos, Remote Control was one of the first actual “shows” on the network. The basic premise was simple – if weird. According to the theme song, Kenny was a kid who was obsessed with game shows so when he grew up, he decided to have his own in his Mom’s basement where all the questions were about his favorite topic – TV. It was funny and anarchic and boasted early appearances by Colin Quinn, Adam Sandler and Kari Wuhrer. The thing is, not only was I a fan of the show – I was also a contestant.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine. It’s 1990 and I’m a Junior at the University at Albany when MTV comes to campus looking for contestants. I go down to the Campus Center with a few friends and wait on a really long line to audition. When I finally get in, they make you take a pop-culture quiz and then get up and introduce yourself. The idea being that while you may know a lot of stupid and useless trivia (and really, I am the king of stupid and useless trivia) they also wanted people whose personality would come across well on TV. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have never accused of being a shrinking violet and I ended up getting on the show.

Come the day of the show, I took a bus from Albany down to New York City to the Harlem studio where the show was taped. Keep in mind that this was pre-Renaissance Harlem in pre-Guiliani NYC, back when it was the scariest part of a really scary city. When I knocked on the door, staffers ushered me inside the building the way you see police ushering hostages out of a bank when they’ve just been released as part of a hostage negotiation. The only thing missing was the bullet-proof blanket.

(This was not my episode, by the way. I never managed to get a tape. If you know anyone at MTV, please let me know)

The staff itself was very friendly and they put us through a pre-show briefing in the Green Room. They also offered us as many Cokes and/or caffeinated beverages as we wanted. They wanted us to be “up” for the show. That wasn’t really a problem. I was so nervous that I had half a can of soda and my hands started shaking. They then gave me the best advice any game show contestant can receive – watch the light! The thing about game shows is that they all work pretty much the same way. The contestant’s buzzer is locked out until about a second or so before the host finishes the question. Then the light comes on and your buzzer is live. If you buzz in before the light comes on, you’re given a half-second penalty. That prevents the contestant from just pressing the buzzer over and over again. That means that even if you know the answers, the winner of a game show is usually the person with the best timing. I was thrilled – all those hours I wasted on Pac-man and Space Invaders was finally going to come in handy!

The other two contestants on the show were a guy named Doug and a very pretty girl named Lem. Lem kind of froze up under the lights but Doug was a pretty tough competitor. Its been a lot of years so I don’t really remember too many of the questions I was asked, but I do remember Colin Quinn and Susan Ashley (I was on during Season 5) re-enacting a skit from the Honeymooners and the question from “Mr. Baggy Pants.” “Knock, Knock.” “Who’s there?” “Hatch” “Hatch Who?” And the answer was, of course, “Gesundheit.” Along about the middle of the show before the commercial break they had what was called “Snack Time” where they would drop some kind of food on your head. In my case it was Hostess Sno-Balls. They were stale in case you’re wondering. I finally ended up winning on this question in “Brady Math.” “Greg and Bobby are hung on a hook in a meat locker by Sam the butcher. If their body temperature is currently 84 degrees, how long have they been hanging on those hooks and how many kids are still waiting at home?” Yes — I got it right.

The bonus round on Remote Control during the 5th season was that they strapped you to a wheel and spun you around while you tried to guess what artist’s video was playing on tiny TVs at your head and your feet. This is actually much more difficult than it sounds. I managed to not throw up and named six out of the nine videos, so I think I did pretty well. I ended up winning about $1,800 worth of prizes including a stereo, a dozen CDs, a portable TV, a set of really cool (in an ’80s kind of way) set of speakers with pulsing neon lights in them, a pair of Rollerblades and a pair of British Knights sneakers (remember British Knights?). On the way out the door, Lem asked me for my phone number, which I forgot to give here — I’m still kicking myself over that one.

This story actually has kind of weird post-script. A few years later I was working at my first job out of college and I’m paired up for training with another new hire. All day long I keep thinking this guy looks really familiar. He says the same of me and we’re wracking out brains trying to remember where we know each other from. Camp? School? College? Did we attend the same Hebrew School? Finally he looks at me and says, “Did you ever see a game show called Remote Control?” Yup, it was Doug, the other contestant. It really is a small world.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. Remote Control was a really awesome show. Rest in peace, Mr. Ober. I had a great time.