Thursday, May 29, 2008

DO IT ROCKAPELLA!: The Epic Tale of 'Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?' by Gregg Gethard

Things just seem to happen to Gregg Gethard. After telling a few stories at comedy shows in New York City, he created his own monthly show in Philly, BEDTIME STORIES, to tell a few more. Over the past year the show has grown in audience and features some of the best comics in the city.

Here, Gethard recounts his experience on the public television game show
Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?. Stick around at the end of this epic tale as we've managed to upload the footage of his now infamous episode on Youtube. The next installment of Bedtime Stories is next Wednesday night at the Shubin Theatre (407 Bainbridge St.), 8PM, $10.

Ilan Goldberg must be destroyed.

That was the only thought going through my head. I was in eighth grade. Do you remember those kids in youth league soccer whose teams would kill yours by like 17 goals? And there was the one kid who scored nine goals already, and he’d try for one more goal, except the ref would call him offsides and he’d flip out and start cursing out everyone in sight and would start bawling hysterically? Or, at the tender age of 12, were you ever forced to be placed in a situation where you had to deal with someone who told you all the ways they were better than you (“I go to private school because education at public schools it terrible,” “I went on a tour of Europe last summer, where did you go on vacation?”)

Ilan Goldberg was that person. And I wanted to destroy him.

Hi. I’m Gregg Gethard. I’m the host of the wildly popular monthly comedy night entitled Bedtime Stories. I’m also the star and main draw of the wildly popular local sketch comedy group entitled The Sixth Borough. I’m also a known raconteur and political gadfly.

But before all of that, I was a 12-year-old boy. I was small, I was weird and, due to the fact we just got Comedy Central on our local cable system, I was starting to develop my sense of humor, which I would later refine to become one of the greatest comic minds of his generation.

I also had a major, repressed chip on my shoulder. Due to my small size and my weirdness, I was picked on a lot as a kid. It was a rare chance that I had to not just fight back, but to also win.

And against Ilan Goldberg... I had a chance to do it. On national television, nonetheless.

What follows is a tale unlike any which you have head before, unless, of course, I have already told it to you. This is a story of conflict, absurdity, hubris, triumph and love. This is the defining story of my life.

This is the story of my appearance on the early-90’s hit PBS game show entitled “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?”

Read on and watch the footage after the jump...

The Beginning

Ilan, albeit a dick, was right about one thing. His private school was definitely better than the public middle school I went to. Our first history teacher that year, Mrs. Kaplan, quit after Chris Russamano pelted her in the face with an egg. We had a permanent sub the rest of the year who pretty much sat at the front of the room chomping on gum and asking girls who they wanted to date.

One day, we entered the classroom and were told to take a test. No reason was given. We assumed it was some bullshit prep exam for the statewide test we all had to take that year. It was a simple geography test – identifying states, countries, major rivers, oceans and the like. Being one of the handful of Edison Middle School students who could read at grade level, this thing was a piece of cake.

A week later, the people who finished in the Top 30 of this test were told to report to the library. There, we were told about a new television show in the works based off the popular computer game entitled “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” They would be casting students from our school to be contestants.

They asked us a series of interview questions about ourselves and about geography. A few days later, I learned that I was selected to be a contestant on the show.

The Time I Met Ilan

About a month later, I went in for the taping of the show, which was in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. I had never taken either the PATH train nor a New York City subway before then. I had envisioned, from local news reports and the comments of my parents, that New York was a cesspool of crime, violence and despair. I didn’t see too much of that, but I did see a Muslim woman nearly dragged to her death as she threw her purse in the doors of the subway hoping to get on board.

We went into the green room, where we met our competitors. One I already new: Prema. (I won’t even bother to try and spell her last name. It’s long and she was born in India.) Prema went to school with me. She was a really shy, sweet braniac who would later go on to be one of my high school’s valedictorians. Then I met Ilan.

Ilan had the smug, awful tone of a pre-teen who feels completely entitled. No doubt, his parents drove a car that cost what my dad made in a year, the tuition of his private school cost more than my college tuition did, he bragged about his SAT-prep scores (“I already cracked 1100!”) and his prowess in both basketball and soccer. And he openly talked about how he was confident he would win the show because he won his school’s geography bee. I immediately wanted to punch him in the dick.

I didn’t study too much for the show. This is because I never studied for anything at that point in my life. (Seriously – I had awful grades in middle school. And in high school. And for the first three years of college.)

They taped two episodes at a time in the studio. However, the first episode went too long. Our episode would have to happen the next week.

And this gave me time to plot my public humiliation of Ilan.

The Episode

I found every atlas I could find and studied my ass off. I learned Canadian provinces, Australian states and Russian cities. Anytime I put the book down to watch TV or goof off with my brother, I immediately thought about Ilan. And I studied some more. I was on a quest.

We went into the studio the next week. And then the episode began.

We were introduced on the show (where I did the “Arsenio Dog Woop” gesture which, in 1990, had swept through the country like it was the HIV Virus), and then we had to answer our first question. I had a ton of nervous energy, and I got a pretty simple question completely wrong.

Then came a part of the show that will live on in personal infamy. Remember how earlier I said I had started to develop my “edgy” sense of humor? (This is what we expert comedians refer to as a “callback.”) During this part of the show, we were introduced to the audience. And we had to tell them our interests and what we wanted to be when we grew up. My answers: a baseball manager or a stand-up comedian.

We had to go over this earlier with a PA who was preparing us in the green room. I told him this and he flipped out. He asked me to tell him a joke. Being that I was 12, I did not exactly have any material actually planned and, plus, I’m more of an “observational” comedian anyways. He then wrote a joke for me.

And this is what I said on national television:

ME: Knock Knock

AUDIENCE: Who’s There?

ME: Humpty.

AUDIENCE: Humpty Who?

I then started wildly flailing my arms in a seizure-like gesture that I thought was dancing.

“My name is Humpty. Say it with an Umpty.”

The audience reaction was a mixture of shock, polite applause and a smattering of boos.

I had bombed. On national television. At the age of 12.

I was also repeatedly scolded both on and off the air for leaning into the microphone. Despite my C- average, I was the captain of the Edison Middle School academic quiz bowl team. (Where we finished second two years in a row, losing to our cross-town rivals Roosevelt both years. I still hate their captain, Jared Strauss, to this day.) In quiz bowl, we had to lean in the microphone to say our answers. If not, we would be penalized points. We drilled at length proper microphone technique. It was hard to break that.

But I soon settled in. And, as you can see in the video, I kicked ass. And then… then I got a little cocky.


The final part of the first round on Carmen Sandiego was set up a little like Final Jeopardy. Host Greg Lee would run down a list of “clues” about what city he was talking about. And then, from three choices, we would have to pick that city. We would also have to select a number of points to wager. The top two after the first round then got to move to the second round of competition.

I was ahead. I could have played it “safe.” But I really wanted to rub it in Ilan’s face. I wanted him to walk away knowing I and my failing public school education had trumped his pansy rich kid ass. So I wagered more points than I needed to.

Ilan went first. His answer from the clues was Boston.


The answer I had selected was Newark. I now was going to lose to this shithead, all because I got too cocky.

There was only one thing I could do.

And that was to cheat.

I held up my placard that said Newark. And I loudly screamed BOSTON as loud as I could.

Production came to a screeching halt.

I asked what was wrong. They told me my card said Newark. I then started to freak out and made myself cry. “I’m so nervous. I’m so nervous being on TV,” I kept on blubbering.

My parents and Ilan’s parents were waiting together (and, no doubt, my parents were mortified of my earlier crash-and-burn attempt at humor) in the green room watching our episode unfold. Ilan’s mom flipped out and started calling me a little cheater. Naturally, my parents came to my defense. It was not until years later that I confessed to my parents that I actually did try to cheat.

They then asked Prema what her answer was. She, too, picked Newark. And she wagered a lot of points as well. She had finished in last place. I was in second.

We retaped the segment. This time, I hold my card and, in an incredibly sad tone of voice, I say “Newark.” Then, a little bit of a suppressed smirk appears on my face, as it started to sink in that this entire day had become a complete and total public fiasco.

But, alas, I was onto the second round.

The Next Part

The second round of the show was a simple guessing game. On a board were various attractions in the city of Boston. Behind the name of each attraction was either a blank space or The Loot, The Warrant or The Crook. We had to find The Loot, The Warrant and The Crook in that order.

We did battle and, eventually, The Loot and The Crook were found. But The Warrant still remained out there. Ilan had a guess to find the answer. He was wrong. There were only a few places left we did not guess. And, with a lot of anticipation in my voice, I guessed correctly. I had, finally, defeated Ilan.

Victory confetti fell from the sky. I took it all in. And then, I arrogantly turned around to Ilan and shook his hand and said a very condescending “Good Game.”

The camera closes in on his face as co-host Lynn Thigpen (aka the mysterious DJ lips in cult-classic “The Warriors”) told Ilan his numerous runner-up prizes. He is clearly welling up with tears.

To this day, whenever I watch the tape of the show, I still get a sense of satisfaction as I watch a pre-teen cry at my hands.

I then went on to the next round, where I had 45 seconds to identify seven African nations by placing a lighted pole on them. I missed the first one, but then was given two easy ones: South Africa and Madagascar. Then, I was given Burkina Faso. I had written a paper on the nation formerly known as Upper Volta the year before. I nailed it. Then, somehow, I guessed where Uganda and Central African Republic were. Then time ran out. I came really close to winning the grand prize, which was a trip to anywhere in the lower 48 states.

But I did, at the end of the show, get to point up to the crane camera and say the three words which would define our generation.

“Do It Rockapella!”


We taped the show that spring. That fall, the show debuted on PBS. My episode aired a few weeks into my first year in high school.

I was so incredibly nervous. Your fist weeks of high school are so incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. And here I was, on the air, showing the world what an incredible geek I was. And, not just that, but I also tell a spectacularly bad joke and make a complete ass of myself on national television. I could only hope that no one would actually watch this show.

But how wrong I was.

Being that is was a new show, a lot of kids did watch it. And not just that, but it was also on PBS. There’s a broadcasting rule that dictates all cable systems have to carry every local over-the-air channel within a certain radius. In New Jersey, there are an insane amount of PBS affiliates within broadcast range: Channel 13, a variety of New Jersey Network channels, another New York City based PBS channel, Long Island’s PBS channel and one from Westchester County.

And while the show was on PBS, it did not air every episode in order at a certain time. They could show whatever episode they wanted at whatever time they wanted. And my episode aired, seemingly, for every single day for three consecutive years. I would casually flip through the channels… and there I was, doing The Humpty Dance again. And every single person I went to high school with saw this. I would consistently get stopped at places like the supermarket with people asking me if I was the kid from Carmen Sandiego.

Eventually, I grew to love how ridiculous the whole ting was and came to embrace it. It became a personal “party favorite” to tell people I am meeting for the first time.

And this led to something incredibly important to my life.

One of my best friends from high school, Kirsten, loved the entire story. In fact, I would venture to say the only way we became as close as we did was because she enjoyed my performance so much. She used to make me play her the tape pretty much every time we hung out. Kirsten went away to college in DC. I went to school in Philly.

Years later, we’d start to hang out again. And we were going to a party together with a bunch of her friends from college. One was her old roommate and best friend, Ilana. I heard about Ilana for a while from Kir but I had never met her.

I finally did. And the first thing she asked me was if I was the guy who was on Carmen Sandiego.

I was. And, four years later, we would get married.

The ultimate theme to the story: sometimes cheaters do prosper.


Anonymous said...

Great story again from Gregg! On a side note, is this your former nemesis?

Kent said...

I can't even watch the videos because I'm at work, but this is already my favorite post ever on CvA. What a great, great story.

boozeman said...

I used to always watch this show. I absolutely love this story!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant story.

You hit him where it hurt. The only way you could have been more badass is if, when you had to write down where you would like to travel, you put "Ilan's mom's house."

Great work.

Anonymous said...

Gregg, awesome. Awesome. Your nemesis is a dick. "I like Jerusalem because it's safer than here and the people are nicer there. Oh, and I hate baseball and freedom."

Anonymous said...


Nice job, that kid was indeed a dick. But I have two burning questions:

1. What was your destination choice, if you had won the grand prize?

2. Is Carmen Sandiego a "sticky-fingered felcher"?

Anonymous said...

This was an incredible story, and I feel more fullfilled having read/watched it. Thank you Gregg, for sharing this.

In high school and early college, when I would meet new people, I would sometimes tell them that I had been a finalist on Family Double Dare.

And I am with Doogie. That kid opened his mouth all of once, and that was all that it took to show how much of a little shit he was.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the comments, everyone. I am so glad that the story came off to everyone well. The video speaks for itself, I think.

The next step with this -- trying to confirm if Ilan Goldenberg the prominent Huffington Post blogger is the same Ilan Goldenberg I beat. I always thought his name was Goldberg, but I was wrong.

Honestly -- watching the beginning of the episode is REALLY hard for me. Most of the time, I have to leave the room when I tell that joke. I was watching the Internet version with my friend Kir (mentioned in the story) today and I couldn't bare to watch.

I had a copy of the tape in high school. I brought it with me to college and then lost it bouncing betweeen dorm rooms, apartments and houses.

I scoured the Internet for years. I finally found someone with a lot of game shows on tape. I got a copy of it a few months ago. Then I finally got around to putting it on the Web.

To answer Mark's question: The producers of the show, before hand, told us that we could not put down Florida or California as our answer. They feared EVERY contestant would put that. However, if you won, you could actually go there. I put down Chicago as my answer.

Thanks again everyone.


Anonymous said...

You're right. It is the same Ilan Goldenberg who blogs for Huffington Post. You beat an accomplished geo-political analyst who speaks both hebrew and arabic at a gameshow about geography.


Anonymous said...

Hey. I just found this. Hilarious. Enjoyed it very much. And yes I blog on Huffington Post.

Years have passed since our bitter rivalry and I feel it is time to clear the air. I was also an awkward 12 year old and my dad drove a Chevy Corsica.

If it makes you feel any better I cringe when I hear myself talking about Israel. I didn't get off to a great start as a Middle East analyst saying Jerusalem is safer than Livingston NJ...

Spencer Ackerman said...

First of all, his name is Goldenberg. Second of all: fucking with my friends is a big, big mistake, pal.

Sara said...

Great story! I enjoyed Carmen Sandiego also, and was very happy to be able to read a story from a contestant.

Another contestant on the unaired Auld Lang Gone, and his brother are describing their experience with WiTWiCS.

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Anonymous said...

From the podcast where Gregg recounts his story:

..."I would later refine to become one of the greatest comic minds of this generation"!

Are we serious!?!

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SarahJrslm said...

My brother sent this to me. Really Fabulous! I was supposed to be on the show, bur broke my ankle the week before, so a good friend who was the "alternate" from our school went instead.

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Anonymous said...

I could tell that jewish kid was a douche the second he started speaking to the host.

Bob Dobalina said...

Great story and awesome that your nemesis posted here.

Anonymous said...

I feel like im being duped

Krista said...

I really enjoyed your story. I used to love that game show as a kid! Watching the videos brought back so many memories! I still could recite some words to Rockapella's songs! =)

Unknown said...

The only way you could have been more badass is if,
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Unknown said...

Wow, eff off Daniel.

Anyway, I just have to say, that final round with the African geography is WAY harder than I remember!

Also, now I realize I can thank Rockapella for my romanticized image of cool, older, long-haired, freewheeling Xers...

Daniel said...

I will not be "effing off". You are a coward who cannot even use a name. Who are you? Are you Gregg? If you are, then you chose this path and are reaping the shitstorm that you brewed up.

If you are not Gregg....who the fuck are you to tell anyone to "eff off"? Get over yourself.

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