By Taylor Rexrode
Would you like to phone a friend? Final answer?
Moultrie, Ga., doctoral student Shawn Sutherland competed and won $25,000 on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” Dec. 17 as the self-proclaimed “biggest fan” of the program.
Sutherland, who will receive his doctorate degree in mathematics this May, has watched the show since it began airing in August 1999, specifically since the fifth episode out of over a thousand episodes.
“I saw a question for $16,000,” Sutherland said, wearing his “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” T-shirt. “I didn’t know it was for $16,000. I just saw a lady agonizing over a multiple-choice question and I was thinking, ‘Oh, well it’s D: To Kill A Mockingbird. $16,000 for that?’ I was hooked immediately.”
When he decided to audition for the show on July 23, 2012, he did not agonize over preparation. According to the “Millionaire” website, applicants must pass a 30-question audition test. Sutherland had taken the audition test six times since 2004, failing all attempts except the final one. Within those six years, Sutherland studied more than 11,000 past “Millionaire” questions.
Joshua Sutherland, Shawn’s twin and fellow doctoral student in the mathematics department, accompanied Shawn on his auditions for “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” in 2006.
“We drove about seven hours away for an audition in Memphis,” Joshua Sutherland said. “He’s a ridiculously big fan of the show. One time he jumped over a lady to get a shirt and he has five different magnets from participating in the auditions.”
When Sutherland found out he had made it on the show, he said he knew would never walk away with the money when he could continue to play the game instead.
“I went in with the mindset of ‘Million or Bust’,” Sutherland said. “None of the producers believed me.”
Sutherland’s mother, Trish Sutherland, took the journey with him to New York City, where the segment was recorded. Producers saw Sutherland’s excitement for the show and recognized an opportunity for great television.
“One of the traditional pieces of advice they give you when you go on a game show is to be yourself but 10 percent bigger,” Sutherland said. “They said, ‘Shawn, you can probably ratchet it down to 90 percent.’ They had no idea what to do with me.”
Before getting on set, Sutherland pointed out photographs of past “Millionaire” winners — from John Carpenter to Nancy Christy — lining the hallway that led up to the green room. He met Meredith Vieira, Emmy award-winning host of the game show.
“Meredith was really nervous,” Sutherland said. “I had come in saying, ‘It’s totally not about the money.’ She just looks at me and tells me between questions, ‘No, seriously. Walk away.’ She was really nice and seemed to genuinely care.”
Shawn Sutherland worked his way up to the $250,000 question. The question asked for the name of the “Friends” cast member who had a museum in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child. He guessed “Lisa Kudrow” as his final answer but the correct answer was “Jennifer Aniston.”
Despite losing all but $25,000, he does not feel regret.
“I would never be able to forgive myself if I walked away,” Sutherland said. “I had to go for it all the way.”
“I thought he had a really good shot,” Joshua Sutherland said. “But I knew he would never walk away. I didn’t expect him to win but he had as good of a shot as anyone. He was exceptionally prepared.”
Joshua Sutherland says that he plans to accompany his brother to his audition for “American Ninja Warrior” and “Big Brother” in the coming year.