Who Wants to be a Millionaire debuted in late August of 1999 as a two-week game-show event designed to shore up ABC's programming in the dregs of summer. Its lead-out on the night it debuted was Part 2 of the Stephen King miniseries The Langoliers (which had originally aired four years prior). Millionaire was such a massive hit — and a rare piece of event programming — that ABC brought it back again for November sweeps, this time with hour-long episodes, and again in January of 2000, when it became a regular series. At its peak, Millionaire aired five nights a week, sparking a momentary boom for network game shows in primetime and turning Regis Philbin into television's biggest star.
Now that ABC is gearing up to celebrate (over) 20 years of Millionaire's legacy with a Jimmy Kimmel-hosted celebrity revival, it's rather fascinating to take a look back at the very first episode, which aired on August 16, 1999. The episode is available to watch in its entirety (including, blessedly, some commercials) on YouTube. What's most remarkable about this initial offering is how much of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was present from the very first episode. All of the trappings and quirks that would end up being parodied the most were present right from the start. No only is it an incredible time capsule, but also instructive about how a flash phenomenon came to be.
From the mouth of Regis Philbin himself came the acknowledgment of a brand new aesthetic for game shows, one which can still be found coursing through the genre today. The darkened studio streaked with stark spotlights. The blues and purples of the backlighting. The dramatic music that gets so extra that Regis, in this very first episode, says is driving him crazy. Maximum drama, maximum tension — that's the vibe here, even down to the monochromatic suit and tie on Reege, which sparked a legit fashion trend. To repeat: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was so popular that it made REGIS PHILBIN a fashion icon.
Contrary to my expectations, we get to the actual trivia portion of the episode pretty quickly. My recollection of Millionaire was that it was super fun in its big moments, but that it took forever and a day to get to the actual trivia questions (contrasted with the trivia-dense ratio exhibited by the venerable and far superior Jeopardy!). In this case, it's only two minutes from opening credits until the first Fastest Finger question, and that's with Regis having to explain the concept of a brand new game show. After that, the first individual question comes at minute five. So things are moving along pretty well.
The Fastest Finger questions remain one of the most unsung highlights of Millionaire. They were never too easy — the very first one ever asks contestants to put four great Valleys in America in order from east to west — and the quick time frame basically requires you to go with your gut instinct. It's a fantastic way to weed out the weaker players and get the strongest into that hot seat. Not by coincidence, these were the questions you had to answer when you dialed the 1-900 number to be a contestant, not that I ever got through, because the lines were packed. (1-900 numbers! The '90s!)
For whatever reason, my expectation was that Regis asking the contestants to confirm their answers via that most famous of catchphrases didn't begin until the show was at least a few episodes old. But nope, there it was on the very first question, as Regis asked contestant David if "stuffing animals" was his final answer to the question of what taxidermists do. And so the show's most indelible contribution to the lexicon (just edging out "I'd like to phone a friend") was born. And while you might think it would take several more episodes before contestants would pick up on Regis's cues and start declaring "final answer" unprompted, there it was just before the episode ended, as second contestant Hillary locked in her answer of "Baghdad" before Regis even had to ask.
All three lifelines were utilized in this first episode, between contestants David (who busted at the $2,000 question of whether Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of India or Pakistan) and Hillary (who made it to $8,000 before the episode ended and she carried over into the next night). Strategy for how to deploy each particular lifeline developed over the months and years that Millionaire lasted. David did a good job choosing to Ask the Audience which brand Monica Lewinsky's infamous stained dress was; that's something a clear majority would have read about in 1999, and indeed the audience was correct in answering The Gap. He screwed up by choosing to 50/50 the Bhutto question. Never use 50/50 when the question clearly comes down to two likely and two unlikely answers. It'll always remove the two unlikely, leaving you with the same dilemma you had before. Later, Hillary made the smart choice to phone her brother to ask what the capital of Iraq was, since she'd already used her Ask the Audience lifeline. In general, both David and Hillary were far too quick to burn their lifelines, but if you're not sure, you're not sure.
Obviously, nothing was a problem for Millionaire in this first run of episodes. The American public went nuts for their new trivia obsession. But the seeds for what would become tiresome about the show were also there from the beginning. Specifically, the fact that with every new contestant, we had to trudge through those first five easy questions once again. The low-rung questions were of course easy for a reason. They allowed even the dumb-dumbs watching at home to feel like they could get a few right before the smarties took over at around the $1000 level. But to anyone with half a brain, the questions were insultingly easy and took up precious time that could be spent on actually challenging questions. This was something that the syndicated version of the show tried to remedy in a few ways, but not before the primetime show began to buckle under the weight of all that dead air.
Ultimately, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire experienced the down-curve of any suddenly-popular "fad" programming. But it's worth remembering that glorious peak, when so many of us gathered around the TV with friends and family to watch a TV veteran hold out an elusive million-dollar check to anyone who could answer enough trivia questions. It was a show almost ingenious in its simplicity. And it arrived as its own fully-realized self, from night one. Is that exactly the kind of show we could all use right now? Final answer: yes.
The Jimmy Kimmel-hosted primetime revival of Who Wants to be a Millionaire premieres tonight at 10:00PM ET on ABC
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.