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Game show royalty: Josh Woo

Josh Woo winning $41,400 (Photo by: Josh Woo)

How many game shows can you rattle off the top of your head? Odds are, Josh Woo— a pre-med student at the University of New Orleans and an Aikido martial artist— has been a contestant on it.

I paused in curiosity when I scrolled past one of his Facebook posts giving notice of his upcoming appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I thought— I’ve never known anyone who’s been on a game show. That itch lead me to reach out to Josh, who had also recently acted in a play I covered.

As we sat down at The Bean Gallery, I assumed we were just going to have a quick chat about Millionaire when he nonchalantly began listing his other game show appearances: Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, and The Price is Right… Two hours later, I found myself captivated in amazement.

At only twenty-five years old, Josh tells me we'll have to go way back to find the beginning of his fascination with game shows. “My four year old imagination thought my grandma’s sunken den looked like the contestants row of The Price is Right, he says. "She had a sliding door leading to the kitchen that I said was the big door Bob Barker would walk through. I would host The Price is Right there in her living room using the cord from the rice cooker as a microphone. It sort-of turned into an obsession. From when I was very little, I always thought to myself, I’m going to get on Jeopardy!

Josh Woo on Jeoprady! Kids (Photo by: Josh Woo)

Josh didn’t have to wait long. When a Jeopardy! commercial advertising auditions for both adults and kids caught his attention, he flew downstairs to announce the breaking news to his mom, “They’re coming to New Orleans!”

Thirty questions answered and a mock game later, Josh received a letter in the mail informing him that he made it onto Jeopardy!’s Kids Week. “What people don’t really know is how funny Alex Trebek is. He’s a hoot. He’s funny in that off-color way that makes you go, ‘What?’ Our first interaction with him was in the green room." Josh goes on to explain how the iconic clothing of a coat and tie that we usually associate with Trebek were not his usual threads. He came in wearing a ratty shirt, denim jacket, jeans, and sneakers. "We didn’t recognize him," Josh says. "The minute he started talking we were like, Whoa!, it’s actually him!”

Josh also remembers that as Alex Trebek walked out of the room, the food table caught his eye and he says out loud, "I usually don’t eat before a show, but maybe my wife would be happy if I had a banana." Josh continues that, “One of the kids— jokingly and not really expecting Trebek to hear him, yells out— 'Be in a suit!' Trebek comes running back into the room holding the banana like a gun and says, OK, who said be in a suit? Everyone is pointing to the kid and Alex Trebek walks over to the boy and pretends to pistol whip him with the banana.” In tears at this point, Josh adds, “It was probably a good luck charm because that kid won the most out of everyone that week.”

Catching my breath from laughing, I asked how he did on the show. “That final question has haunted me for nearly fifteen years,” he shares. The category was Toy Box. His final bet was four-hundred and one dollars—a number that becomes significant later on. The answer: Spud and Yam are two of the offsprings of this toy introduced in 1952. I didn’t know the answer either, but it made perfect sense when he told me: "Who is Mr. Potato Head?" Josh came in second place and walked away with two thousand dollars— not a bad day for an eleven year old.

He would have to wait another seven years before his next gameshow conquer. He was eighteen, and it was The Price is Right. Fresh into college at University of Southern California, Josh spotted a flyer announcing that there was a group going to The Price is Right and anyone was welcome. “This is part of why I came to college out here, because I wanted to at least see if I could get on the show,” Josh explains. What he didn’t realize is that it’s not random. Josh told me the inside secret. There’s a single producer who interviews everyone and based on the energy he gets from the people, he picks nine out of approximately three-hundred. In anticipation, I ask Josh what he said. “I told him my dream was to become a game show host. He laughed it off and I continued… I’m here to learn from the best! And he goes,Yup, that may be true, but unfortunately, Bob Barker has retired.’” As Josh finished, I wasn’t sure if this was a dig to Drew Carey or just a joke, but I guess it worked because after waiting six and a half hours, Josh heard those proverbial words: Josh Woo! Come on Down! and he  made a beeline for it.

Walking away as the overall winner, Josh grossly underpriced his showcase, while his opponent went over by less than two hundred dollars. Josh credits luck, “I won on a total fluke.” His winnings—T.V., luxury office chair, and sixty-five hundred in cash. Interestingly, his showcase included a private jet trip; however, it only covered the flight and knowing he would have to pay his own accommodations and taxes on the flight, he felt it wasn’t worth it and gave it up. Josh even found a Nola connection—one of The Price is Right’s models, Rachel, a native New Orleanian and LSU graduate, lit up when Josh said he was from New Orleans.

Fast forward four years, and Josh finds himself in familiar territory. This time: The Wheel of Fortune. It would be a long journey and a lot of patience, about two years in fact, between his initial audition and finally appearing as a contestant. Situated right next to Pat Sajak, Josh shares stories with Pat of his days as a game show host for his local college tv station and engages in some good-natured ribbing during taping (like Josh telling Pat Sajak, “Watch out, I’m coming for your job.”)

Winning by four hundred and one dollars, the exact number he bet eleven years previous on Jeopardy! (and coming from a city where superstition is just an inherent part of life), Josh advances to the Bonus Round. Category: Person. Josh calls an O for his vowel and once it appears, he solves it immediately. Final puzzle: A SOPHOMORE! Total cash winnings: forty-one thousand four hundred dollars.

“It was surreal,” Josh says still in amazement today. Next logical question: What did you do with your winnings? Josh smiles while recalling his one and only purchase, “First thing I did was buy an Iaito sword, because I practice Japanese swordsmanship. After the IRS came calling, I was able to keep a good chunk of it and invested most of it: retirement, etc…” Another advantage to making it to the Bonus Round is the winner gets to chat with Pat Sajak and Vanna White while the credits roll. Once again, Josh has me rolling over laughing, “My first words to Vanna were, ‘What the hell just happened?’” He says she leans over and replies, “You won a ton of money, I think that’s what happened.” Perfection at small talk, Vanna asks Josh what he will do with his money and he confidently replies, “I told her how I wanted to buy a sword and about my sword studies." Josh felt Pat seemed genuinely interested in it, which he found kind of amusing. While conversing, Josh also showed them two add-on prize wedges that his grandfather had made that he tucked in his pocket for good luck. "He had made a working wheel for me when I was like eight or nine years old," Josh says, sharing how Vanna and Pat said, ‘Whoa, you’ve been a fan this whole time!’"

Josh, calling himself a ‘lifer,’ enthusiastically agreed with them. A producer later asked Josh to see his hand-made wedges and when he returned, Pat and Vanna had signed the backs of them. Sharing a very touching moment, Josh continues, “My grandfather was actually in the audience for Jeopardy!, but a year later he passed away. And then, ten years later, I’m standing there and thinking, my god, what would he be saying right now.” My eyes swelled a little thinking of my own grandparents. I thought about how game shows have impacted family relationships and the bonds forged over calling the next consonant.

Josh Woo on Who Want to be a Millionaire (Photos by: Josh Woo)

That brings us to Millionaire. His first attempt at Millionaire was in New Orleans among a couple hundred others with the same hopeful optimism. Failing the test the first time, Josh was not discouraged. A few years later, he found himself with another opportunity. This time the city was Los Angeles. He was in town for a few days before heading to Japan when he—on a whim—went to an open casting call. Surprised by what he found Josh says, “I walked into the room, and it was only myself and one other guy.”  He passed and while riding on a train in the middle of Japan, Josh gets the call—You’ve been chosen.

Three weeks later, Josh was on a plane headed for Las Vegas to appear on his fourth major game show. His big decision was who he was going to add as his "plus one/lifeline." He chose his friend Ian, who was also in the audience of Wheel of Fortune. Despite being a seasoned contestant, Josh’s nerves got the best of him, “I was positively terrified. Whereas with the other three, there’s at least somebody else on stage up there with you that you can at least lean on. Millionaire, it is you and one hundred and forty pairs of eyes looking at you...During the breaks, I had noticed in the background they were playing some music. I don’t know the name of the song or who it was, but all I could hear, and I’m sure it was deliberate, because well it’s me—was the chorus of that song. It goes…Woo, Woo!” Josh shares with amusement.

Josh made it to the first threshold: five thousand with two lifelines left. “I felt an overwhelming sense of relief knowing I was walking away with something,” he shares, “it wasn’t where I had envisioned myself, but I was still in the game.” The next two questions stumped him and he burned his lifelines.

So, you’re probably wondering— what’s next for Josh? The 2017 Game Show Throwdown presented by Home Game Enterprizes is a live 24 hour game show marathon benefiting Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals via Extra Life. This Sunday, August 6, 2017, you will be able to tune in to HGE’s Twitch page on Twitch.TV to watch New Orleans’ own Josh Woo, who will be hosting a game from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM CDT to specifically benefit Children's Hospital New Orleans. For more information on how you can donate and catch Josh Woo in action (including a link to watch live) visit this site.

Could the next Bob Barker come from New Orleans? Well, after meeting Josh Woo, I believe!

 

Native New Orleanian, Sarah Isabelle Prevot is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Arts Administration at the University of New Orleans while also being a regular contributor to NolaVie. You can follow her on Twitter @siprevot and email her at sarah@nolavie.com.