Win Ben Stein's Money was an American television game show that ran from July 28, 1997 to December 31, 2002 on the Comedy Central cable network. Reruns aired until May 8, 2003. It featured three contestants who competed in a general knowledge quiz contest to win the grand prize of $5,000 from the show's host, Ben Stein. During some segments of the show, Stein would actually participate as a "common contestant" in order to defend his money from being taken by his competitors. The show, which won six Daytime Emmy awards, was notable for its combination of serious quiz questions with a playful, irreverent tone and often risqué humor.
As noted in a disclaimer during the closing credits, prize money won by contestants was actually paid from a prize budget furnished by the producers of the show. However, any money left over in the prize budget at the end of a season that had not been won by contestants would be given to Stein. (If the total amount paid out during a season exceeded the prize budget, the production company would pay the excess, so Stein was never at any risk of actually losing money out of pocket.) Stein was also paid a standard salary as host which was not affected by his game play, so he customarily donated his prize money to charity (not mentioned on the show).
Stein always had a co-host to exchange jokes with and to ask some of the questions in the game. Jimmy Kimmel was the co-host for the first three years of the show's run, but he left in 2000 (though he did make occasional guest appearances after that). Nancy Pimental replaced Kimmel and co-hosted the show through 2001. Kimmel's cousin, Sal Iacono, who took over the role in 2002, was the show's last co-host.
The game began with three contestants and $5,000 in Stein's bank. Five topics were always available for players to choose from, with punning titles hinting at the questions' content. After a player chose a topic, Stein would ask a toss-up question that was assigned a dollar value, depending on the level of difficulty; questions in this first round could be worth $50, $100, or $150.
Players were equipped with signaling devices; the first player to ring in on the toss-up earned the right to answer the question. If the player answered correctly, the question's value was deducted from Stein's bank and added to the contestant's score; if the answer was incorrect, the other two players could ring in and attempt to answer. After a player gave a correct answer, Stein would ask that contestant a follow-up question on the same topic for an additional $50. Again, if the player answered incorrectly, either of the other two players could ring in and attempt to answer. If none of the players correctly answered the original toss-up, the follow-up question became a second toss-up on which all three players were eligible to ring in and answer the question correctly for $50. After both questions were asked, a new topic replaced the old one and the player who had given the last correct answer got to choose the next topic.
At the end of the first round, the contestant with the lowest score was eliminated from the game and that player's money (if any) was added back into Stein's bank. If there was a tie for second place after the first round, a tie-breaker question would be asked to determine which player would advance to the next round.
In the second round, Stein himself would "defend his money by becoming a common contestant," replacing the player eliminated at the end of the first round and competing against the two remaining contestants. The co-host would take over asking the questions, with the disclaimer that "from this point on, Ben has no advance knowledge of any of the questions to be asked."
Like the first round, the second round also contained five topics at a time, but the question values increased to the range of $200 to $500 in increments of $100, depending on difficulty. All questions in this round were toss-ups, with no follow-up questions asked. As in the earlier round, any money earned by the other two players was deducted from Stein's bank; when Stein answered a question correctly, his bank total simply remained unchanged. Stein was thus playing to defend his money by preventing the other players from taking it away, hence why his podium showed only a "$".
At the end of this round the player with the lower score (other than Stein himself) was again eliminated from the game, with that player's winnings going back into Stein's bank. The other player advanced to the final round to compete head-to-head against Stein for the grand prize of $5,000. In the event of a tie, a tie-breaker question was again used to decide which player would advance (without Stein answering).
The final round was known as the "Best of Ten Test of Knowledge." Both Stein and the winner of the second round were placed in isolation booths
, so that neither could hear the other's answers. The isolation booth for the contestant was plain, with a hardwood stool and a bare hanging light bulb, while Stein's booth was more luxurious, with a leather wingback chair and other lavish furnishings. (In later seasons, the contestant's isolation booth was made to appear in disrepair, with a large crack running down the back wall.) The contestant had the choice of playing first or second (whoever played second would have headphones on while in their booth); the co-host would ask each of them the same ten questions, and they each had 60 seconds in which to answer. Any missed or passed questions could not be returned to. If the contestant answered more questions correctly than Stein did, the contestant would win all of the $5,000 that Stein had put into the bank at the beginning of the show. If Stein answered more questions correctly, the contestant would keep only the money won in the first two rounds. If both gave the same number of correct answers, the contestant would keep their winnings from the first two rounds plus an additional $1,000.
"Ben Stein's Cup" episode
At the end of the fourth season, three of the best players of the season (who had already won $5,000) returned for a special "Ben Stein's Cup" episode, for a chance to win $25,000. In Round 1, the question values were $200 to $800. In Round 2, the questions were worth $1,000 to $2,000. The winner attempted to beat Ben Stein for the entire $25,000.
Running gags and classic moments
The show consistently maintained a light, humorous tone and featured a variety of running gags and other horseplay:
- Upon his entrance on stage, Stein always opened the show with a line from a popular song, speaking it (in his usual deadpan delivery) instead of singing it to make it sound like he was waxing philosophical.
- Stein would feign disdain for being forced to fight three everyday people for his money. His standard introduction at the start of the show always included, "I'm putting $5,000 of my money on the line, and giving these three (insert insult here) a chance to take it all away from me—if they're smart enough, quick enough, and lucky enough." This was often followed by, "Now why have I done this? Call me crazy." The audience would reply by shouting, "You're crazy!!" Stein would then add, "But you can also call me fairly sure they don't have a chance against me!" Before the final "Best of Ten Test of Knowledge" round, Stein would often tell the contestant, "You have a chance—albeit a small one—to walk out of here with all $5,000 of my money." If a contestant won a large sum of money, Stein would say that he/she had "more than a good chance" of winning it.
- Although the questions were always serious, the topic titles were humorous and often scatological or sexually suggestive. For example:
- "Don't Cry for Me, Ike and Tina"
- "One Fine Day, Uganda Want Me for Your Girl"
- "While Tony Fix-a My Ferrari, I Drove-a the Rigatoni"
- "The Lager I Drink This Czech Beer, the Cuter That Fat Slav Looks"
- "Borneo, Borneo, Wherefore Art Thou Borneo?"
- "Mnemonic Plagues"
- "If You Drink Enough Salt Water, UPC"
- "He Plays Blackjack in His Shirtsleeves and Craps in His Pants"
- "That Greek Guy Took Acropolis in the Museum"
- "I Stand to Tinky Winky, but I Sit to Take a Po"
- "Like a Rhinestone Cow Pie"
- "I Wish I Were Oscar Wilde's Wiener"
- "Passion Sunday...Is That Nine Months Before Labor Day?"
- "If You Da Pimp, Idaho"
- "Show Me Your Signature and I'll Show You My Hancock"
- "Don'a Ask-o, Donatello"
- "Rubbing His Crystal Balls Made Him a Happy Medium"
- "The Telephone Repairman Tried to Tally Up the Outlets, but He Was a Jack Off"
- "Honey Your Bush Is Bare"
- "She Turned Evergreen When Everyone Saw Her Fir"
- "Silly Bobbitt, Tips Are For Kids"
- "When I Told You To Bone The Chicken That's Not What I Meant"
- "Mama Caught You in the Bathroom and Urine Trouble"
- Stein often poked fun at the rival quiz show Jeopardy! Players who accidentally answered in the form of a question were made to wear a dunce cap for the rest of the round. After the first round, Stein once said, "And now I'm going to do something Alex Trebek would never do: I'm going to dive into the pit and actually become a common contestant!"
- A cuckoo clock was rung to signal the end of each round, with the cuckoo replaced by a small animal or other figure (such as a rubber duck or a Ben Stein bobblehead doll) that changed for every show.
- Famous paintings or other art works were often shown as "bumpers" leading into commercials, modified to include Stein. These included Stein on a classic Uncle Sam "I Want You" draft poster, as the Mona Lisa, and as the Statue of Liberty.
- When Stein asked Kimmel to explain the rules of the "Best of Ten Test of Knowledge," Kimmel would reply with a humorous, usually off-color pet name, such as "Yes, Nipple Nuts," "Sure thing, Squeakypants," or "Yes, my little butt nugget."
- After asking Stein the last of the ten questions in the final round, Kimmel would often follow up with a joke question, especially if Stein had already bettered his opponent. For example, after asking the last question, Kimmel might ask, "Will you have my baby?" or "Do you want to cuddle after the show?" or, if Stein were on the losing end, "How does it feel to lose $5,000?"
- Beginning in the second season, contestants winning the $5,000 would be showered with fake money falling from the ceiling.
- Upon losing the final round, Stein would half-bow to the winning contestant, reluctantly open his safe, hand the contestant $5,000, and say, "I bow to your superior intellect. I'm amazed, I'm impressed, I hate you, take my money, get out of here, you've done enough damage!"
- At the end of the show, Ben would encourage viewers to "Write, call, or email to futility.com, in the hope, infinitesimal as it might be, that on some distant planet, on some distant day, you might (insert echo) WIN BEN STEIN'S MONEY!"
- In one episode, Kimmel made a bet with Stein that if he lost the "Best Of Ten," he and Kimmel would both drop their pants on camera. The contestant went on to answer all ten of his questions correctly, and Stein and Kimmel kept their word, with even the contestant joining in.
- During one episode, a young woman who had been eliminated earlier in the show returned after a commercial break, apparently as the new host. Near the end of the episode, it was revealed that she had tied up Nancy Pimental and taped her mouth shut. The bound and gagged Nancy (comically) hopped out onto the stage and eventually freed herself and returned to hosting.
Versions outside the USA
Win Beadle's Money
, a British version, hosted by Jeremy Beadle
, ran in the United Kingdom in 1999. The grand prize was £1,000. It aired on Channel Five
Win Roy & H.G.'s Money, an Australian version, hosted by Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson, ran in Australia in 2000. The grand prize was $5,000 (Australian). It aired on the Seven Network.
Various pieces of classical music were used as the themes. The opening theme was the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Ode To Joy, which was repeated to begin the second round, and again if the champion won the $5,000. The closing theme was Ride of the Valkyries, from the second opera of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. (The Ride of the Valkyries was also played in the contestants' headphones in the isolation booth, to prevent them from hearing the other contestant's answers.) Other classical music pieces used on the show included:
While not used explicitly in the program, the group Too Hip For The Room recorded a song titled I Wanna Be Ben Stein, which Stein later told them was played prior to each taping.