Bright lights, big money: Amherst native shines on ‘$100,000 Pyramid’

  • Amherst native Meng He appeared with rap superstar Snoop Dogg on the new $100,000 Pyramid in an episode set to air July 10.

  • Amherst native Meng He appeared with rap superstar Snoop Dogg on the new $100,000 Pyramid in an episode set to air July 10.

  • Amherst native Meng He appeared with rap superstar Snoop Dogg on the new $100,000 Pyramid in an episode set to air July 10.

Published: 7/5/2016 6:02:33 PM

By Jack Evans

@JackHEvans

Category: Things That Happen On “The $100,000 Pyramid”

Meng He had heard the soundstage was freezing cold, but with the adrenaline streaming under her skin, she couldn’t feel the temperature.

She couldn’t feel the cameras on her, either, even though they were documenting her for national television. They were hidden from view: out of sight, out of mind. And the audience — she couldn’t see them, either, even as they laughed at jokes lobbed by football-star-turned-TV-celebrity Michael Strahan.

She didn’t feel tired, even though she hadn’t slept the night before, and she didn’t feel the pressure she’d worried about beforehand — to think too much about money, to avoid accidentally saying something un-PC, to act smart.

What He did feel, as she sat opposite rap legend Snoop Dogg on the set of ABC’s reboot of the classic game show “The $100,000 Pyramid,” was focused.

“When you’re there,” the 29-year-old Amherst expat recalled, “all that matters is the clue in front of you and the person in front of you.”

Category: What You Might See on Sunday Night TV

Here’s how “Pyramid” works: Two teams of two — a celebrity and a contestant — compete in a series of guessing games. The main game features a series of thematically related words, and one teammate tries to guess the words based on another teammate’s clues. Each team gets three rounds of words, and whoever guesses the most advances to the Winner’s Circle.

In the Winner’s Circle, the team faces a series of six categories of increasing difficulty, arranged in a pyramid. The categories, with names like “Things with a Pit,” “Why You Use a Sunlamp” and “What a Freshman Might Say,” are just vague enough to reasonably fool guessers. Teams have 60 seconds to scale the pyramid; if they nail all the categories, the non-celebrity contestant wins the top prize.

In the game’s most recent format, this whole process happens twice. The first time around, the contestant who makes it to the Winner’s Circle can win up to $50,000. If that same contestant makes it to the Winner’s Circle a second time — after switching celebrity partners — the top prize is $100,000.

That prize was $10,000 in the show’s original incarnation and eventually grew to $100,000 near the end of its 1973-1988 prime run, when it won nine Daytime Emmys. Dick Clark was host in those glory days, and Donny Osmond fronted an early 2000s revival.

The Osmond revival lasted two years, the longest of any of the post-Clark reboots. Even so, earlier this year, ABC announced it — with Strahan as host — would offer another televised run of that most American pursuit: making it to the top.

Category: Ways of Getting from There to Here

Meng He’s attempt to climb the “Pyramid” started with a fall down an escalator in New York City, where she now lives and works. 

In February, He was on an escalator in a New York train station with her mother, who was visiting. They felt water dripping on them, then her mother lost her footing, and as He moved to hold her mother up, she spilled down a few steps and injured her leg.

He, a product manager in the tech industry, had to work from home while recuperating, she said, and she spent much of her time online. One day, she saw a Facebook post about the casting call for the latest version of “Pyramid.” 

She remembered the show from her youth. A latchkey kid, she’d go home after school and watch reruns of the show on the Game Show Network. Out of sheer boredom, she’d entered and won write-in contests in the past — one from Ben & Jerry’s, another from VH1 — and decided to apply.

“I feel like I discovered my superpower very early on, which is winning contests that require written prompts,” she said.

The show received thousands of applications, casting director and contestant producer Melissa Miron Stewart said. He hadn’t even bothered to submit the video part of the application — she figured nobody would bother watching it — but producers thought her application was funny and asked her to continue the process.

That meant being ready to do interviews or practice the game with producers — they needed to make sure potential contestants wouldn’t fail drastically.

“You’re kind of on call all the time, like, ‘Do you have time to do some gameplay in the next hour?’” He said.

Miron Stewart said producers wanted to make sure potential contestants had a love of the game, not just a love of being on television. After several rounds of interviews and gameplay, producers decided He hit the mark — vivacious and easy to root for, competent in the game but not too brainy.

“People who are super engaging, charismatic – we generally look for people who love life and can exude the love of life and passion to other people through the screen,” Miron Stewart said.

He was on a quiet Amtrak car when she got the call. She knew she had to answer it, but there were people around, and the producers had told her to keep the application process a secret.

“Hello?” she whispered.

They wanted her for the show. It was time for her to prepare. She had two weeks.

Category: Game Show Training Methods

To say Meng He organized her training for “Pyramid” would be like saying Tom Brady occasionally watches game film.

In the two April weeks between learning she’d be on the show and filming her episode, her practice regimen ramped up. She built and worked from a collection of spreadsheets, which contains a practice syllabus, diction exercises and hundreds of compound words, adjectives and idioms.

She learned which strategies worked best. Employee opposites, personification and the fill-in-the-blank method. Use your voice as its own clue — “if the word is ‘Whisper,’ you can literally whisper.”

And another: “Always Be Gesturing” to accent your clues, at least in the main game, when gesturing is allowed.

She ran through lists of idioms on her phone while on the subway. She stopped listening to podcasts while she worked and started listening to “Pyramid” episodes instead.

Other game shows — like the trivia-focused “Jeopardy!” — require reserves of knowledge built over time, she said. But with “Pyramid,” she found ways to develop her game in just a matter of weeks.

“There are people who start training for trivia practically in utero,” she said. “But ‘Pyramid’ is something that’s totally trainable. You can break down the strategies.”

Organization and problem solving are part of her work in product management, so she said she approached the show using those tools.

“I turned ‘Pyramid’ into my job,” she said.

Category: What Happens Backstage

Once He got to the studio, she was never alone.

On-set producers took her phone — a precaution to avoid spoilers leaking — and set about preparing her for the show. They picked out one of the outfits she’d brought, a yellow dress, and did her hair and makeup. They pronounced her name right. 

The contestants waited together in a green room where producers practiced games with them and offered food, coffee and Red Bull. In a phrase, He said, the experience was “on-point.”

“There’s a perfect balance of keeping your spirits high, but they also calm you so you’re not nervous,” she said.

ABC films three “Pyramid” episodes each day. While He waited to go on stage, any angst she had left dissolved. She knew she was there for a reason — the producers had liked her, and they thought America would, too.

“You realize that everyone is rooting for you,” she said.

Category: What It’s Like

Until the show airs July 10, she can’t say how it turned out, if she won all the money or any money at all.

That would be a spoiler.

But she can say the experience makes her want to take more risks and try more new things, that she’d definitely go on the show again and that, after a cooling-off period, she’d try her hand at other game shows, too — she’s heard rumors about a “Password” reboot.

And anyway, she said, she was never in it for the money. Of all the contestants she’s talked to, nobody solely wanted the cash. It’s not that it’s not a life-changing amount of money for some people, she said, because it is, but everyone has another motivation.

For Meng He, going on “The $100,000 Pyramid” meant exploring a space that, most of the time, is simultaneously alien and as close as the distance between the couch and the TV. It was a way to answer a question she asked herself as a kid watching the show: “What’s it like?”

“You’re screaming at the TV, and you think you can do better,” she said. “I know people will watch me and say the same thing. It’s cool doing it yourself.”

Jack Evans can be reached at jackevan@indiana.edu.

 

 




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