Lynne Thigpen and Greg Lee

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

One of the only kids’ game shows that wasn’t on Nickelodeon, Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? brought the popular video game to life. Hosted by Greg Lee and co-starring Lynne Thigpen and Rockapella, the show ran on PBS from 1991 to 1995 and challenged three gumshoe kids to find international supervillain Carmen Sandiego. Essentially a geography bee with a bit of a physical challenge at the end, Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? tried to teach tweens geography in a way that was both goofy and educational, something it generally succeeded at doing.

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Gumshoe Gregg Gethard took the Carmen Sandiego challenge when he appeared on the show in 1991. The A.V. Club talked to him about bomber jackets, world band radios, and that dreaded, giant map of Africa.

The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the natural first question: How did you get on Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

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Gregg Gethard: Well, I was totally familiar with the computer game. I was always a geography nerd. We had the computer game at home, and we used to play it in the library at school. One day in eighth grade, we had to take this test. They didn’t tell us what it was for or anything. It was in social studies, and we didn’t really have tests because my middle school was really crummy. Our eighth grade teacher actually quit in the middle of the year because a kid hit her in the face with an egg, so we had a string of substitute teachers that year. It was just this nonsense class. Anyway, we had to take this test. I just thought it was this standardized thing or whatever, and it was kind of easy for me. I remember it being ‘identify the states’ kind of stuff—I don’t think it was anything harder than that. I don’t even think it was “identify European countries,” you know? It was just like, “Where is California?”

AVC: That’s the kind of stuff you should probably know by eighth grade.

GG: Yeah! I could even understand if it was “name European countries,” you know? Though, for eighth grade, it might get a little tricky after the big ones.

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A week or two after that, they said if you took that test, look to see if your name is on a sheet of paper, because that means you finished in the top 30, and go to the library. My name was on that list, and I went to the library. Pretty much all the smart kids were there. We sat down, and I remember it being a meeting with these young, probably in their 20s, people. You could tell it was young, fresh-faced TV people with their first job out of college or whatever.

AVC: And you lived in New Jersey?

GG: Yeah, you could see New York from my house. That’s how close to New York we were.

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So, they asked us if anyone was familiar with the game. I think probably most of the kids were. They said that they were making a TV version of the game that was going to start the next TV season, and they came to our school to find contestants. They called us to the front of the room, and they would ask you a bunch of questions a couple of people at a time, and then a couple of people would be brought back individually. It was all in front of everyone else. It was a weird thing.

They were explaining, “We’re not just looking for people who know the answers. We’re looking for people we think would be good for TV.” My friend Justin was really smart. He knew all the stuff. I remember we were going to lunch, and he said after, when we were talking, “Who do you think will be on TV? Who do you think will be on TV?” We immediately all thought Justin was, because I don’t think he got a question wrong. And then Justin was like, “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to be on there,” because he was a total metalhead wearing a Pantera T-shirt or something like that. He had metal hair, so he kind of knew he wasn’t going to be on the show.

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A couple weeks went by, and everyone just kind of forgot about it after that day. You didn’t hear anything about it. Then, one day, in homeroom, I started hearing a buzz. A couple people got folders that meant they were going to be on the show. I didn’t get one at first. I was heartbroken. Then, my first period class that year was reading, and I got called into the principal’s office. I was selected. They gave me the folder. They said, “The producers called; they think you’d be a great fit for the show.”

That’s how the process went. It really had absolutely nothing to do with your grades, because if they saw my grades, they wouldn’t have let me on that show. I was an absolutely awful, awful student. I had failed math class that year. I had Cs and Ds in everything. But I was still smart, so for some reason, they picked me.

AVC: Where did the show tape?

GG: It was in Chelsea in some studio. I didn’t know New York neighborhoods at all, but I remember my parents saying it was in Chelsea.

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I went over with both my parents. We took the PATH train over. It was the first time I had ever been on the PATH train to New York. I had been to New York, but only on class trips. So I took the train over, and then we took the subway. I was super excited even just for all that. We saw a woman trying to catch the subway, and the door was closing. She tried to put her purse in the door to keep it open, and she got dragged by the subway a little bit. It was just this horrifying thing right in front of me. And then the door opened, and she got on the train like it was nothing. It was a great welcome-to-New-York-moment.

Anyway, we went to the studio, and they took us through the process of what it was going to be. I met the other two people from my episode. One of them was a girl in my class in middle school. Her name was Prema. The other kid was from our area and went to a private school. Taping ran late that day or something like that, so they couldn’t tape our episode that day. We got to sit in the crowd and watch another episode and how it all worked, though. I think it was one of my classmates’ episodes, I want to say.

Taping a TV show is so crazy. There are so many stops and breaks and everything. The audience is all kids, so you had to keep their attention. They got some stand-up comedian to entertain the crowd during all this. I don’t know for sure if it was, but I want to say it was Marc Maron. I can’t confirm that. I know from knowing comics and everything that you take anything you can get, and that would be a gig an early ’90s or late ’80s comic would take. ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take 75 bucks to entertain some eighth graders for an hour.” I want to say it was Marc Maron, but I could be completely off by that. (Update: Marc Maron says it was, in fact, not him.)

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So I got to see the episode unfold, and two weeks later, we came back for our actual episode.

AVC: Did you study in the middle?

GG: Oh yeah. I had bad grades just because I was a total slacker. I hated school. I didn’t study ever or do homework or anything.

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Actually, let me say this: The kid I met who didn’t go to our school, Ilan, rubbed me the wrong way. He just felt like a total brat. He was from the rich town next to our town, so I naturally had a thing against people from that town, like an ’80s movie. Like, “I’m from the poor side of town.” I wasn’t, but you know what I mean. He had this ’80s movie kind of vibe about him.

So I cracked open maps like I never studied anything in my life. I remember studying Australian provinces. I knew where South Wales was compared to Queensland, and going through Africa, European countries, and everything. Since I saw how the episode worked, and they took us through the tutorial, I knew it wasn’t just maps. They would give you what they called clues. You know, the “Carmen was seen by the Empire State Building” kind of thing. You had to know more minutiae. I had this board game National Geographic put out that had a lot of questions like that, like “What’s the highest mountain in Europe?” I used to read those questions in my spare time because I was a nerdy weirdo. We also had Trivial Pursuit. I was reading the geography and history questions from that a lot, too. I did all that, and I was also on our middle school quiz team. That was my specialty area: geography and social studies stuff. When we had our practice that week, we did a lot more geography than usual to get me warmed up for the show. I definitely prepared like I never prepared. I didn’t even prepare for the SATs that hard.

AVC: You needed to win that world band radio, man.

GG: I actually have a story about the world band radio, which is really pretty funny. Since I won the episode, I did not win the world band radio. This kid who was in my middle school who I was friends with later on in high school, he was on the episode I got to watch. He was one of the contestants, and he was a total, total brat. He got the world band radio. He told me later on, when we were talking about what it was like being on this game show, that on the way home he was crying because he didn’t win and he threw his world band radio outside the moving car. He just threw it out like it was garbage.

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AVC: You won a Discman or something, didn’t you?

GG: Yeah! I won a portable CD player, which was awesome, because we didn’t have a CD payer, let alone a portable one. They also gave me all this world music. I remember Songs From The Rainforest and Viva! Zimbabwe. Then there was something about Brazilian accordion music, maybe? It was all this world music stuff. I went home and listened to some of it. It taught me a valuable lesson and it really helped me identify with that joke in High Fidelity later on, which is about how much world music sucks. It was like, “I’m not going to be into this at all.”

But what was also kind of funny is how being on this show led me to a weird path in life. My mom, to get some CDs to celebrate, went to Caldor, which was like a regional Kmart kind of chain. She went to the their music department and asked the clerk “What’s something an eighth grader would be into?” She came home with The Doors movie soundtrack for some reason. I think I liked The Doors for a little bit. And she also came home with R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. It just took me a couple of weeks, and I wasn’t listening to The Doors anymore. One R.E.M. album led to Fables Of The Reconstruction; at the same time, my aforementioned metalhead friend Justin, for some reason he bought me a CD or gave me one of his CDs to celebrate. It was The Best Of The Ramones, and they’re still my favorite band. I would think if you’re a nerdy white kid from the suburbs, and you’re kind of angry, you’re going to get into punk and indie rock anyways. But I got into that maybe a year or two before Nirvana came out, a couple of months before Nevermind came out. So, I’d like to think I have a little more indie cred than most kids.

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AVC: Thanks to your CD player.

GG: Thanks to the consolation prize I won on Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

AVC: What was the taping like? Did you have to wear your own khakis? I assume they give you the jacket.

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GG: Yeah, they gave you the jacket. I think I came wearing my own pants.

I remember them measuring us. We had to find the right size gaudy jacket. I think we were trying on goofy newsboy hats with it.

AVC: And that was for the opening of the show, when one person’s in a phone booth and one’s on a barrel or whatever?

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GG: Yeah! That kind of stuff.

We had one guy who was appointed to us, who was our usher more or less. I guess he was a production assistant or something like that. I remember him being really energetic, and he was probably in his 20s. In retrospect, he was there to get our energy level up. I didn’t really need any help with that kind of thing, though. I was always how I am now. So, he took us through all of that.

It was funny; they have that thing when you’re by the phone booth, and that was where Rockapella largely hung out. When it came time for their music cue for whatever thing they were doing, they would emerge from there. You know the second round of the show, where you have to be like “Fenway Park!” You know that part? The loot, the warrant… that thing? That was where I captured Robo-Crook. That was where the phone booth area in the beginning of the show was. The map of Africa was right next to that, so a large section of the audience couldn’t actually see you in the first round, which was like the Jeopardy!-type setup. The way it was set up, some of the kids had their backs to you. It was set up kind of like T, if I remember correctly.

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AVC: So when you got there, could you see the Africa map?

GG: Oh yeah! You totally could see the Africa map.

AVC: So you knew, “Okay, if I get to the third round, I have to do Africa.”

GG: Yeah. I think they may have done it by grade level, too. Since I was in eighth grade, Prema was in eighth grade, and I think Ilan was in eighth grade, I think going in I knew it was going to be Africa no matter what—actually, I don’t know for certain. I think that’s true based on what I know from other people who were on the show from my middle school, like my friend who threw out the world band radio. He was in sixth or seventh grade when he was on, and I think the kid who won that game had the U.S.

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AVC: Easy.

GG: Yeah! I would have conquered that. That would have been no problem at all. Of course, I had to guess where Gabon was or something like that.

As soon as you walked in the studio, you saw the big map of what country you were going to do if you won the grand prize. Obviously, Africa was super intimidating. It’s Africa. It’s so many countries, and you’ve never heard of half of them.

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Actually, there’s a big inside joke with my family about that map. When I was on the show, one of the countries they asked me was Burkina Faso. I nailed it, and the reason I nailed it is for one of my classes in middle school the year before, we had this foreign language class where you did Spanish for a month, then French for a month, then Italian for a month, or however it worked. Part of it was that I had to know about a country that was Francophone, and Burkina Faso was a French colony at one point. You know, French speaking. I had to do a report on Burkina Faso, and I didn’t do it until the Sunday before it was due. So, we had to schlepp to the library, and my dad was completely furious at me for putting off another homework assignment. He was like, “Why did you pick Burkina Faso?” and I said, “It’s the funniest sounding country name.” So, one of the Carmen Sandiego clues was Burkina Faso, and I got it immediately. I think the host was shocked.

AVC: So, walk me through the gameplay.

GG: So, before the show, when we’re talking with this P.A. guy, that’s when they ask you the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” kind of questions. My answer was, “I want to be either a baseball manager or a stand-up comedian.” I know that’s the most random of choices. I’m still a huge baseball nerd to this day, but even by eighth grade, I knew I didn’t have the athletic ability to make it in the majors. I was still pretty sure my best entry into the world of baseball would be as a manager, so I chose that. And stand-up comedy I picked because that was right when we got Comedy Central. I got into Saturday Night Live, and I’ve always been into Insomniac. I started watching Carson and then Letterman if I was still awake. And then Kids In The Hall was on Comedy Central, and there was all this great comedy. Especially Mystery Science Theater. That was when the big stand-up boom was still going on. MTV had a stand-up show, and that’s when Jon Stewart first started getting attention. I watched all of that stuff. I was picked on and bullied a lot, and a lot of kids from my experience end up becoming the class clown type. My entrance into being a class clown was just ripping off these jokes from Saturday Night Live.

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When I said that, I remember the P.A. laughed and thought it was awesome. In retrospect, I can see why. I watched most of those episodes at the time, and I remember thinking a lot of these kids are total drips. “I want to be a doctor.” “I want to be a lawyer.” More power to you, you’re doing something actually productive with your lives and have aims and goals and everything, but I remember thinking a lot of kids didn’t have the most vibrant personalities. And you’re on TV, so it’s intimidating to start with. But I’m obviously a ham and always have been, so the P.A. thought that was awesome, and asked me to tell a joke. But I was 12, so I didn’t have a full 20-minute set down yet. I didn’t have a joke. So I just said “I don’t have a joke.” He told me, “I do a lot of comedy,” which I was so happy to hear. He told me he did improv, which in retrospect, is hilarious because of how much I hate improv now. So he says, “We had a joke at improv that we thought was really funny. Do you want to use that?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So, he told me this joke: “Knock knock / Who’s there? / Humpty / Humpty Who?” And then you do the humpty dance. That was a really popular song at the time. I remember thinking it was really weird and funny. And he’s like, “You’ve got to do the dance. You really got to dance with it to make it funny.” So, I was all in on it. And also at the time, if you’re 12, you don’t really have the cachet or sway in the entertainment industry to say, “I want you to rewrite that into something else.” So I just ran with that, and it was completely ridiculous.

Then we had to go over, in that part with the phone booth when you make your hand gesture, we each had to pick one and work on it for a little bit.

AVC: Did they give you stuff to pick from? Or did they say, “Do whatever you want?”

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GG: It was “do whatever you want.” Of course, I had to do the Arsenio dog whoop. I think Prema did this shy wave, which is perfect. I don’t think I said more than one word to her throughout the 10 years of school we went to together. And then Ilan did a point to camera, like an NBA player after he would dunk.

Another interesting thing is, if you see in the first round when the three of us are lined up, we’re all kind of the same height, which is funny, because Ilan was really tall. He was super tall. I don’t even think I was 5 feet tall at that point. I was probably even shorter than Prema. They had these platforms to even us out. I think they had to put a platform on top of a platform for me. That’s how they had to make me look at tall as I did on the show. It was really funny. I remember that cracking me up, like, “I’m really this short that I need a booster?”

I want to say the prep work for everything was 90 minutes to two hours before they set you up to play the game.

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AVC: Did the show move pretty fast once you started taping?

GG: No, absolutely not. They have a lot of editing cuts they have to make. I remember at one point in my episode, someone plays timpani drums. He was from the New York Orchestra or whatever. So, they have to bring him out and set all that up and get the camera ready for that. And then they have to get the cameras back—I guess there’s probably a hard camera on us so they wouldn’t have to change that. But then they have to do close-ups, and zooms, and there were handheld cameras. I remember it being a really big production. There were some people holding boom mics over the crowd to pick up their responses and claps and everything. I remember the host stumbling on a lot of his words. My parents hated him. They could not stand him. He later went on to host this extreme sports show on ESPN2, which I always thought was kind of funny. That’s an interesting career arc from innocent kids TV show to this skate/surf show. And then in between, they’d show video or something like that. It was a lot of production. If you have a complicated thing, there are just going to be complications. I also think we were the fourth episode they ever taped, so they were still figuring it out. It was far from a well-oiled machine. It was really draining. I think we maybe even had a lunch break at one point.

AVC: It’s not even that long of a show.

GG: It’s really not. What is it, a 24-minute show, probably? But it was interminably long. I’m sure I had to have gone to the bathroom at some point, that kind of stuff.

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But it was also funny when we were setting up, because the person everyone wanted to see was Lynne Thigpen, who was the Chief. Everyone wanted to see her because that movie Lean On Me came out around then, and she’s the villainous housing or school board member in that movie. And that was a really popular movie with us because it takes place in North Jersey, so we all knew about that movie. People really wanted to meet her. She was super nice. She was really gracious and signed a bunch of autographs with people. I love that movie The Warriors, and she’s the DJ in The Warriors, so I only wish I knew that then because I would have asked her, “What was it like introducing the Baseball Furies?” and that kind of thing. But she was so nice. She could not have been sweeter or funnier. I think she passed away, and you can kind of tell she was the type of person that if you asked someone, “What’s it like working with Lynne Thigpen?” someone who was be in a show with her would say, “Oh my God. She’s so great to work with,” but would really mean it. You know what I mean? She’s so nice.

Anyway, it took a long time. There were a lot of production hours. And I caused several myself because I was constantly leaning into the microphone, which messed up their sound mixing. I just had that quirk from being on the quiz bowl team; we had to lean into the microphone. I was nervous, so I had to break that habit. Of course, I also tried to cheat, which caused us to have to re-tape a whole segment.

AVC: You pretended like you thought you had written the right answer even though you hadn’t, right?

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GG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was in the lead, and I was trying to do the mental math to see what I needed, and I couldn’t do it that quickly. And I also really wanted to rub it in Ilan’s face that I beat him by a big score. So, he went before me and he got it right, and the answer was Boston. I picked Newark for some reason. When they came to me—I still remember this—I just came up with the plot on the fly. They got to me and asked “Gregg, what’s the answer?” And I just hold up the placard, and I said it so enthusiastically, like I really tried to sell it. I knew my card says Newark, and I said “Boston!!!” I super, super exaggerated it. Then there was this air in the room. Everyone just kind of paused, and then the host, Greg Lee, says, “No, Gregg. Your card says Newark.” I looked at it, and I pretended to have a panic attack. Like, I made myself have a panic attack. “I picked Boston! Oh my God, I picked the wrong card. I swear to God, I’m just so nervous being on TV.” I’m sure they knew I was totally lying.

In the green room, Ilan’s parents were calling me a liar and all this stuff in front of my parents. My parents obviously thought I was on the up-and-up. They didn’t think I was cheating. They didn’t think I would do that or anything. It was really funny. In the version that’s on the air, when you see me say my answer is Newark, it’s a total acting job. I’m so hilariously morose in it. I’ve seen it on an actual TV on a projector screen, so not just on my laptop on YouTube. You can see me trying so hard to suppress a laugh. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure they could tell I was trying to cheat, but they just spent a whole day of producing a TV show with me.

AVC: Either way, you were still going to be in the second round.

GG: I think it was more that they didn’t want to waste a whole day of taping, because that costs so much money and effort and time that they were just going to let it go. “We know this kid is cheating. We’ve just got to re-film it, and he’s just got to act.” So, that’s what I did.

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AVC: And then you made it to the second round, which takes no skill.

GG: It’s a pure guessing game. I remember when they were running through how the game works, they actually had a different type of board up. There was a weird thing where on one of the boxes, there was a star. They just told us to ignore that because “we had a different version of this game that involved this star, but that’s not going to be on this show.”

AVC: I liked how you didn’t pick Faneuil Hall until the very end because you obviously didn’t know how to say it.

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GG: Yeah, I didn’t know how to say Faneuil Hall. I lived in Boston for a while and I still don’t think I know how to say it.

I got it out of order from just the random guessing, so I had to go and pick one I knew was wrong already. That went by quickly. I don’t remember that being too hard or complicated, that segment. It was a camera on us, then a camera on the game board, so that was really quick.

AVC: And then when you won, there was confetti.

GG: Yeah, and Rockapella was right there and everything. I remember that going really quickly. After you win, they have this chain they wanted you to pull down. It was just a prop; no matter what, the confetti was coming down, but you had to pull it.

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Also, and I don’t know if they edited it in or had it during the taping, but there’s also an alarm that goes off. On the show, that’s when you see the animated jail bars go over the face of Robo-Crook. That was pretty funny.

If you watch it, I was still on one of those boxes because of the height differential. And I actually fell off of it a little bit, and you can see the height differential between us. Ilan was not on one of the boxes. He looks like Yao Ming compared to me. That’s how tall he was compared to me.

I shook his hand, and it was such a jerk move on my part. I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t love doing it, though. I totally loved doing it. I love wrestling, and I always love the bad guys more than the good guys. So, I finally got to embrace that for a minute of my life.

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AVC: Then you have to talk to Robo-Crook on the fake phone.

GG: I don’t remember what happened with that. I remember, now that you say it, that I had to use the fake phone. I don’t think they had that voice of Robo-Crook. [Deep voice.] “Carmen is in Africa. You have to find her there.” I think that was in post-editing. I just had to pretend I was listening to something they’d do in editing later on.

AVC: Then you have to write down where you want to go. Where did you want to go? Since you didn’t win, they don’t show it.

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GG: Actually, they had a ground rule for that. They said you could go anywhere you wanted to go in the continental 48. You could go anywhere you wanted; they didn’t care where you actually ended up going. They just did not want you to write down Florida or California. You could totally go there, if you want, but they just didn’t want you to write down there. You had a year to decide where you wanted to go, according to the rules. They just wanted you to put anywhere but there, because they were afraid everyone was going to put Disney World or California. So, I put down Chicago. I wanted to put something like Scranton, or something really bizarre for no reason whatsoever. But then, I was just “Nah, I’m going to put Chicago.” I got a little too nervous for that, so I put Chicago. It was just because it was the first place that came to mind, and I think if they were to ask me, I’d say, “I want to go to Wrigley Field.”

AVC: How long do you have to run the map? One minute?

GG: It’s 45 seconds.

AVC: Oh my God.

GG: Yeah, it’s hard. I came in with a strategy in mind, which was this: If I got to Africa, and I didn’t know the country, if I had no idea where it was, I was just going to put it up top. Like if they said Botswana and I had no idea where it was, I was just going to go to Egypt and then Libya, just to speed up the time.

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Also, the things you have to carry? They were so heavy for me. I was super small, I was 4 feet 10 inches, probably 65 pounds, and they were really heavy for me. I don’t know how heavy they were; they were probably 15 pounds for all I know. That’s how small and weak I was.

Every country I got right, I knew that was the right country. I knew Burkina Faso, and I knew Central African Republic and Uganda, and I knew them from staring at maps all week and just memorizing. They always have a couple easy ones too, like South Africa or Madagascar. Ones that are really easy to identify. I was proud of my efforts. I got five out of seven.

AVC: That’s a big map to have to run all over in 45 seconds. If you miss one, you’re pretty screwed.

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GG: If you miss one, you don’t have time to correct it. You really need to get all seven in a row. Even with that, I think if I was six out of six and had one more to go, I don’t know that I would have beaten the clock. You’ve got to sprint, and those things were heavy for me. That was really hard.

AVC: Is it weird to be on top of the map like that? Does it mess with your perspective?

GG: I remember thinking it was definitely weird. You’re looking down from the north, so you’re looking at the map upside-down. I remember that being a little tricky, but at the same time, my adrenaline was amped up.

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I think it’s just one of those things where you quickly get over it. I want to rewatch the YouTube video to see if I turn around when I’m running toward somewhere, because I might have done that even, just out of instinct. Your perspective is totally the opposite from how your eye is used to looking at maps.

AVC: Even though you lost, you got to say, “Do it, Rockapella!”

GG: Yeah, I got to say, “Do it, Rockapella,” and everything. I was really not disappointed that I lost. I really was fine. It was just fun. The whole thing was really ridiculous and really funny to me. Just coming close to winning and not winning the grand prize… that’s kind of apropos to my whole life. It was just fun, and I got to do that, and I got to say, “Do it, Rockapella” with the rest of the crowd and everything.

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AVC: Since you were in one of the show’s first episodes, you probably didn’t know how popular the phrase “Do it, Rockapella” would become.

GG: Absolutely not. Who knew, you know? Who knew I would say the catchphrase that would later go on to define a generation?

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