I’d like to preface this by saying I planned on taking this tale to my grave, or at least not telling it until Cash Cab went off the air. I don’t want to be the guy who ruins the fun, you know? But a number of stories have popped up on the internet in the past few days, saying things along the lines of “Cash Cab is fake!” I was on the show, and I’d like to set the record straight. It’s not fake. It’s just kind of fake. The methods Discovery uses to screen contestants and get them in the right cab are deliberately misleading, but only to better the show. And it’s not like the actual game is fixed. The night I played, I signed some papers that said I’d get my winnings revoked if I squealed. But that’s of no concern to me, because I lost on the final question and got no money. Spoiler alert.
Three years ago, New York City. My friend N was browsing at the Union Square Barnes & Noble when he was approached by two Discovery Channel producers. They told him they were working on a new show called When In Rome. Each episode would feature a different resident of a given city giving a tour of his favorite, off-the-beaten-path restaurants, bars, etc. They asked him for three examples he would use if given the chance to host an episode.
Apparently he answered well enough, because a few weeks later he got the call that he'd been chosen to host an episode. He was encouraged to bring a friend or two—his fiancee and I rose to the challenge—and meet the producer one evening at 81st and Columbus, by the Museum of Natural History.
She was very late, and showed up breathless and apologetic. The van had broken down, she said, so instead of driving us all to our first destination, she would hail us a cab. She stood at the curb, and a number of cabs passed us by before she saw one she liked. She shoved a $20 bill in N’s hand and ushered us in, telling us to go to the Bryant Park Library. The fact that the library had closed hours ago didn’t really register.
From the outside it looked like a normal van-cab, but it was more hollowed out than normal. The driver made a weird moaning sound as we got in. Suddenly the lights and the sound came on, and along with them the quick realization that being on Cash Cab was the real reason for this setup.
I sprang into action. I whipped out my cell phone. I knew you were allowed one phone call on this show, and I wanted to make sure it counted. When I was in college, my roommate and I used to talk about how we would be partners in impossible emergency situations—we’d meet up and survive together if there was a zombie apocalypse, for instance, or we’d sit by a laptop, Google-ready, to be the phoned friend if the other was ever on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. So I texted him: “EMERGENCY. CAN’T TALK. NEED YOU. WILL CALL W/IN NEXT 30 MINS. PLEASE BE SMART.” Ben Bailey, the host, asked us to turn off our cell phones, and I obliged.
Then we got out of the car to deal with paperwork. We signed a couple papers, agreeing that if we won we would act like we were receiving cash straight from Ben, but in reality would give the cash right back and expect a check in the mail. We gave the producer back the $20 she handed to us when she first told us to hail a cab. We were told to not lean forward when sitting, because the camera uses a fisheye lens. And we hailed the cab a few more times to make sure they got a good exterior shot.
Once we got back in the cab, the game was on, and it was real. Frankly, I was very impressed with Ben’s ability to host a game show and drive in Manhattan at the same time. Few of the questions were easy, and I mostly sat in the back and nodded my head whenever N came up with an answer, and he was usually right. We were more than halfway there and had missed one question when we were met with a second that stumped us: “"In the classic arcade game, Pac-Man played cat and mouse with four ghosts nicknamed Inky, Binky, Plinky, and what?”
I knew this would be easy to Google. I announced I was ready to phone a friend, did, and he answered immediately. I started to ask him the Pac-Man question, but he interrupted me. “Are you okay? What’s going on? I’ve called your parents, your girlfriend, but no one knows where you are! Why has your phone been off?” He had, of course, not realized what I intended by the cryptic-in-retrospect “EMERGENCY. CAN’T TALK. NEED YOU.” and “PLEASE BE SMART.” He was nowhere near a computer. We missed the answer, which is Clyde.
If you catch my appearance as a late-night rerun on the Discovery Channel, you will only see us incorrectly answering the question. You won’t see me booting up my phone, or trying to explain that I don’t have time to explain that no, I haven’t been kidnapped, I just need the answer to a video game trivia question, and I need it immediately.
We then answered a couple more questions correctly and arrived at the library just as Ben started his final question, which meant that getting it right would give us $800 to split. Getting it wrong would mean we would be kicked out of the cab, though were already at our stated destination—which was, again, a closed library.
"Also known as Strabismus, what facial feature can keep Siamese cats from succeeding as a show breed?" Clueless, we used our remaining “shout out” to ask a passerby. The area around the library is almost exclusively populated with tourists, though, and many are weary of strangers shouting trivia questions at them, at night, from a parked taxi. Finally, we caught the attention of an older couple, who had no idea. “Nose?” they offered. Ben insisted we answer immediately, so we weakly threw out “nose.” It didn’t stick. Cross-eyed-ness is the answer. On TV you won’t see us shouting at the sidewalk and being ignored, just meekly suggesting that it’s Siamese cats having noses that keeps them from succeeding as showkitties.
Ben asked us to leave the cab. We did. The producer was there, and she asked us to enter the cab and exit again to make sure the cameras got everything. We did. We each received an XL t-shirt that reads Cash Cab. And then we walked to the subway to go home, because cabs in New York can get way expensive.