Ready for some wholesome family fun? Complete this quotation from Buddhist scripture: "Who have not lived a holy life . . .

A. . . . are doomed to an unholy death."

B. . . . may never enter the temple, even with their shoes off."

C. . . . feed like rats and politicians on the goodness of others."

D. . . . brood like decrepit herons in a pond where the fish have died."

The correct answer, believe it or not, is D, the business about decrepit herons in a stagnant pond. That according to Familiar Quotations, which dates the catchy proverb to the 3rd century B.C. The other answers -- shoes and politicians and unholy death and so forth -- I made up just now. I swear. Here, try again:

In 1986, an Indonesian teacher named Sunardi sat motionless for 15 hours. Why?

A. He was a contestant in the Indonesian Motionlessness Festival.

B. An emerald frond viper was coiled on his desk poised to attack him.

C. He was protesting a government regulation forcing teachers to stand at the blackboard for the entire school day.

D. Students in his punishment hall did not realize he was dead.

Answer: A. Honest to goodness. It happened July 21, 1986, according to the Guinness Book of World Records 1989, as Sunardi surpassed all previously recorded human achievement in the ultracompetitive sphere of motionless sitting. As for the other answers, they just came to me as I sat at my keyboard. There's no such thing as an "emerald frond viper," but it sounded real to me. And to you too, I'll bet. Odds are you were completely fooled, if not by the viper then by one of the other phony answers, which are designed to sound nearly as improbable as the peculiar truth, but with perhaps the slightest whiff of plausibility.

Kind of fun, isn't it, being bamboozled by these silly bluffs and sillier facts? Or maybe you beat the odds. Maybe you picked one of the right answers. Maybe you picked both of the right answers and are feeling pretty darned smug right now. Either way -- and I can back this up with research -- you probably want to try again. Okay. One more:

Fedorov, Konstantinov and Garpenlov are Red . . . what?

A. . . . Army generals convicted of high treason in the failed coup attempt against Gorbachev.

B. . . . caviar. Three varieties of same. One from salmon, one from sturgeon, one from lumpfish.

C. . . . Wings. On Detroit's National Hockey League team.

D. . . . heads, constituting "The Three Beet Heads," Russian TV's slapstick answer to the Marx Brothers.

That was an easy one. Any hockey fan recognizes that these fellows are, yes, C, Detroit Red Wings. At least they were in 1991, when I came up with the question for my new television quiz show, "KnowItAll!," billed as "the other game in Washington where players lie, dodge and bluff their way through thorny questions they can't really answer." Because the three Red Wings were well known to such a large number of people, that particular question was never on television.

For that matter, neither was "KnowItAll!"

Despite several tens of thousands of dollars of investment by WETA-TV, a successful pilot, influential friends, official enthusiasm at the Public Broadcasting Service and a concept demonstrated to charm viewers of all ages, my pet project did not take this fall season by storm as it was intended to do. Nor will it be a mid-season replacement. Nor, in all likelihood, will it ever be anything more than what it is now:

A. The most expensive videocassette in my collection.

B. The most painfully won bit of cocktail conversation I'd ever care to have.

C. A cautionary tale about tele-ambition.

The answer is D. All of the above.

I BLAME Steve Rosenbaum.

He's my pal the TV entrepreneur who produces two weekly regional newsmagazines, "Broadcast: New York" and "Broadcast: New England," from studios in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He's a relentlessly ambitious guy, always looking to expand his talents, opportunities, broadcast outlets and, of course, revenues. By the fateful August day in 1991 when he phoned me about his latest coup, I had grown accustomed to hearing stories about his forays into the Big Time. One week a good meeting at Viacom. The next week a powwow with a top guy at Fox. Then maybe a deal producing a documentary for A&E. This call, however, was different. Steve had arranged to call on Phil Beuth, president of late-night programming at ABC.

"I told him," Steve explained triumphantly, "that I have an idea to transition from 'Nightline' to late-night."

Impressive. For years, the network had struggled for a program that would interest the news junkies who watch Ted Koppel and the actual junkies who watch after 1 a.m. A show with L.A. deejay Rick Dees had been a disaster. And a test of six live talk/variety ideas, then in progress in Hartford, was not going well. Apparently, Steve said, Beuth couldn't wait to hear the Rosenbaum solution.

"There's just one problem," Steve said.

"Yeah? What problem would that be?"

"I don't have an idea to transition from 'Nightline' to late-night. Do you, by any chance?"

Me? Why would I? Steve's the television guy. I'm in journalism, a columnist and critic for Advertising Age, where I earn a living basically by making fun of TV commercials. I also do radio as a commentator and roving feature correspondent for NPR, and had once futilely attempted to package a business news magazine show for PBS. But until Steve's call, I'd given scarcely a moment's thought to the midnight-to-1 a.m. slot on ABC. Yet, either because he has the utmost respect for my judgment and inventiveness, or because he was a desperate man, he was looking for help from me.

"What about a game show?" he asked.

"Look, Steve," I said, in exasperation, "I understand your predicament, but I'm in the middle of writing a column. I'm on deadline and I don't think I can be of any . . . game show?"

That quickly it came to me. Virtually all of it. The look: retro '60s, in the quaintly primitive fashion of "What's My Line?" The format: a bluffing game, like "the dictionary game" I'd played at parties, but with general information (not just word definitions). The cast: weekly regulars plus a guest celebrity. I even heard the theme music: a Henry Mancini number from "The Pink Panther." It all came cascading forth. A bona fide epiphany.

How do these things happen? It had never occurred to me to fashion a game of any sort, much less a televised one, and here in the space of seconds a TV program was blossoming in my mind's eye, a spontaneously generating blueprint destined radically to change -- i.e., spoil -- the next year of my life. "I'll call you back in one hour," I told Steve, whereupon I knocked out my column and, in one remarkable burst of energy, committed breathlessly to paper ideas for a new kind of quiz show that was new principally by seeming 30 years old: "It's 'What's My Line?' meets Trivial Pursuit meets 'Liar's Club' meets 'My Word' meets 'Hollywood Squares' . . . It's spontaneous and outrageous and habit-forming. It's . . . 'KnowItAll!' "

Steve loved the idea.

Problem was, ABC had an hour to fill, not 30 minutes. Thus did his Broadcast News Network staff begin kneading and expanding "KnowItAll!" to fit the space theoretically allotted to it. The result was something called "Equal Time America," which was a talk show for the first half hour, after which the cast would reassemble elsewhere on the set to play a current-events-filled version of "KnowItAll!"

Please don't smirk. To you, with the benefit of objectivity and common sense, a talk/game show is clearly a ridiculous combination born of naked expediency. In the television world, where enough naked expediency can earn you obscene fortunes and a lifetime achievement Emmy, it is something else altogether. It is a Concept. Five days later, we were in Phil Beuth's office to unveil it.

Lo and behold, he was impressed. He was so impressed he took us -- lowly us! -- immediately into his confidence. With disarming candor, he spent an hour enumerating his problems as a programmer. Heady wine, that.

"I'm not a network," he revealed, "I'm a syndicator. I can't clear shows with my own affiliates." Turns out local stations aren't all that interested in what ABC serves up after midnight, because they can get better audiences, and more revenue, showing "Matlock" reruns they acquire themselves. Nothing personal meant toward us young folks, Phil said, but he'd just spent $1.6 million on six Concepts in Connecticut, and not one of them was likely to ever see the light of day.

Sure, it was the big brushoff, but we trundled off with smiles on our little faces. Phil Beuth, senior vice president of ABC, took us seriously! We were players! If we'd only hit on the idea a few months earlier, before he'd socked his dough in Hartford, we'd be . . . well, it was easy to imagine. Little did we know that Phil Beuth humors all pathetic, anonymous supplicants by telling them his problems.

"Did he say he was in the syndication business?" an executive at Arts & Entertainment cable network asked me, a year later.

"Uh huh."

"Yeah, that's what he tells everybody."

And that's how, in five short days, I didn't achieve wealth and fame in commercial network television. Not achieving wealth and fame in public television took much, much longer.

IF YOU'VE EVER PLAYED the informal parlor game "dictionary," or its slick board game derivative, Balderdash, you already know the basics of "KnowItAll!" In them, an extremely obscure word is chosen and players anonymously write what they consider to be plausible-sounding definitions on slips of paper. The bluffs are mixed in with the correct definition, and then read aloud. Players then vie to discern the true definition from among the bluffs, with points awarded accordingly.

"KnowItAll!" is essentially the same, except that the questions aren't limited to obscure words, embracing instead all manner of esoterica. Hence questions ranging from the definition of "hippopotomonostrosesquipedalian" (answer: "referring to an extremely long word") to the technical description of Benjamin Franklin's invention, the air bath (answer: breathing deeply while sitting naked in a window).

Unlike in the play-at-home games, "KnowItAll!" questions are posed by an emcee for a panel of four players (three regulars and a guest celebrity). Following each round of answers, contestants drawn from the studio audience evaluate what they've heard and try to identify the KnowItAll -- i.e., the one panelist who has been supplied in advance with the correct answer. The KnowItAll changes from round to round, as does the difficulty of the questions. In the last round, called "The Big Lie," all of the panelists are briefed about the question and prepare minute-long tall tales designed to amuse and buffalo the contestants, the studio audience and the viewers -- all the panelists, that is, except the KnowItAll, who spins out a true tale designed to amuse and buffalo everybody. As you can see by now, the ease of contriving bluffs as improbable as the correct answers, while generating laughs in the process, is the heart and soul of the game.

Or would have been, had Phil Beuth only recognized the antidote to Rick Dees when he saw it.

For a couple of months after the meeting at ABC, I gave "KnowItAll!" no further thought. But then, in late November, I came to my senses: You simply don't invest 12 or 15 hours in something like a quiz show idea only to let it go after meeting one tiny obstacle, such as abject network disinterest. Maybe there was another more hospitable venue. PBS? Why not? Faced with competition from cable, the network was undergoing an excruciating public reassessment of its programming mission -- a reassessment veering inexorably toward enhanced entertainment value. With a Washington spin, arcane information and its demands on the critical-thinking skills of contestants and home viewers, maybe "KnowItAll!" was just the ticket for the new PBS. Certainly it was worth a call to my friends at Channel 26.

In 1991, the vice president for news and public affairs at WETA-TV was Ricki Green. Ricki is an accomplished producer and documentarian with walls full of Peabody Awards, Emmys and other hard-won trophies of a distinguished television career. Her executive producer and immediate subordinate at the time was Dick Richter, who spent the greater part of his career at ABC News. Their boss was Richard Hutton, senior vice president and executive producer in charge of all WETA production. And I knew all of them.

How? From my previous failure as a TV wannabe, with a show-that-never-was called "BottomLine," which was to be a weekly business news magazine, but which, after 18 months of painstaking development in 1989 and '90, was judged by a mid-level PBS executive not to merit serious consideration. Never mind the gory details. Suffice to say I was well-enough acquainted with Ricki, Dick and Richard to get them into a meeting on the basis of one phone call.

"I have another idea," I told Dick. "Nothing like 'BottomLine.' This one has no substance. It has no redeeming social value. In fact, it's completely frivolous in every way. So, I'm thinking PBS will probably go for it."

"You may be right," he said. "What's your idea?"

And I told him everything. And he sort of liked it. And Ricki Green sort of liked it. And Richard Hutton, who turns out to be a games freak, sort of loved it. And on December 13, 1991, we all got together, along with Steve Rosenbaum and his lawyer and WETA's lawyer to talk about it. And next thing I knew, we had a general agreement to proceed toward a pilot.

HERE'S THE PART I won't bore you with: the part about writing scripts and quiz questions, about planning eight run-through games, about spending Saturdays in libraries poring over such dusty volumes as the Dictionary of Mythology for weird trivia, about trying to squeeze a production budget out of WETA, about working out kinks in the game format, about sitting in the U.S. Trademark Office looking to see if the term "know-it-all" was already reserved by another TV producer (answer: no, though a trademark was issued for an independently published geography board game that never made it into general distribution), about taking sandwich orders for everybody at the run-throughs and fetching the food, about learning the elusive argot of TV production ("You don't know what you don't know," Ricki Green wisely, and correctly, and witheringly informed me), about dealing with lawyers in negotiating a contract with WETA, about still trying to squeeze production help out of WETA, and about a hundred other chores connected with transforming my quiz show epiphany into reality. But you should know about casting.

The emcee, from the very beginning, was Emil Guillermo, a fellow I knew from his brief stint as a weekend host on NPR. I feared Emil would be resistant (what journalist wants to be the next Wink Martindale?) but I also thought he'd be perfect for the job. He's quick-witted, has a great voice and is sort of impishly handsome. Fortunately, when I phoned him about an audition, Emil latched onto the idea instantaneously. This is the advantage of epiphanies; they reveal absolute truth.

Casting the panel was trickier. If there were to be three regular panelists, and I were to be one of them (look, it's my bat and my ball), there remained two slots. One, I was sure, had to be Timothy Dickinson, of whom I shall say more presently. The other had to be a minority woman -- this for all the good reasons of diversity and cultural representation, and for all the bad reasons of satisfying the gender/race bean counters. Thus did I consider it kismet when, out of the blue, I picked up my telephone one December day and found, on the other end of the line, Anna Perez.

Barbara Bush's press secretary, a total stranger to me, was calling to remark about something I'd written. Anna is professionally glib, funny, both Hispanic and black, and a woman. I quickly turned the conversation in another direction.

"So tell me," I said, "do you happen to remember 'To Tell the Truth'?" She remembered it all right. On December 17 we lunched at the Bombay Club. On January 16, 1992, she was on hand for the first run-through of "KnowItAll!"

On hand too was Timothy, a rumpled, heavyset English gent who at one time supplied columnist George Will with pithy quotations, historical references and other bits of erudition. This would have been easy work for Timothy, who knows everything. Everything -- from the day of the week of any date you give him to the origins of marzipan to the nitty-gritty details of the Peloponnesian War. Cobbling out a meager living as a freelance editor and consultant, he has no checking account nor visible assets, but possesses a remarkable knowledge of the classics, combined with keen wit and phenomenal memory. He's also a bit . . . shall we say, iconoclastic? A disheveled fixture on the streets of Georgetown, he dresses in grubby striped trousers, waistcoat, bowler hat and formal shirt often bedaubed with traces of his most recent meal. His hair is longish and unkempt, flopping over his forehead. He looks, in short, like a refugee from The Pickwick Papers. A font of knowledge and a genuine eccentric: the perfect panelist for a quiz show trading on personality.

Thus, with my poet friend Miles Moore filling the seat of the guest panelist, we commenced the first attempt at playing "KnowItAll!" The culmination of a month of 80-hour workweeks! The test of my epiphany!

Conservatively speaking, it was pitiful.

Marching orders were for answers to be brief. Pithy. Authoritative. In the run-through, however, they were typically long, tentative and, worst of all, dull. Timothy, asked to supply the definition of "anacardic," launched into a 50-second discourse on something to do with the "evacuation of Persia by the beaten army." His precise text I cannot be sure of, because in addition to having total recall of material you and I don't really care about, he also has a tendency to mumble and swallow words in an already barely penetrable Etonian accent.

Later came the question: "A 'tormentor,' a 'wheel' and 'stretchers' are found where?" To give you an idea of how the game is supposed to work, my response was, "In Madonna's rec room." That is what we in the TV business call a "joke," and everybody laughed, whereupon I quickly disavowed the answer and tendered my actual bluff: "Tools an artist uses to stretch canvas over frames." Between the gag and the real bluff, I expended about 15 seconds. Timothy, by contrast, consumed 90 seconds in a flight of mostly unintelligible fancy about Copernican astronomy.

The whole game was supposed to last 27 minutes, give or take 30 seconds. It ran to 48 minutes, or exactly one third my diastolic blood pressure. And yet . . . and yet . . . the thing was . . . fun? Yes, fun. The panelists, the contestants (my office mates) and the representatives of WETA all had a very good time. They were engaged by the questions, challenged by the bluffs and amused by the repartee. Anna was particularly brilliant. Having signed on provisionally on the chance of becoming, as she put it, "the black Dorothy Kilgallen," she required no warm-up to assume the air of arch authoritativeness required to cheerfully, convincingly, charmingly lie through one's teeth. She had but one lackluster bluff, in response to the question, "Complete this quotation from Aeschylus: 'A great ox . . .' " The correct answer was ". . . stands on my tongue." Anna's bluff was, ". . . pulls a great wagon" -- the triteness of which drew a derisive remark from Emil. But Anna was not about to concede the point. "Look," she retorted, "he didn't hit them out of the park every time."

Blaming the dull answer on Aeschylus! The woman was a natural. Timothy, on the other hand, struggled somewhat with the concept. Steeped as he is in ancient history and the literary classics, his answers tended to concern the Middle Ages. "The University of California at Irvine's basketball team is called what?" he was asked. The correct answer was "the Anteaters." Timothy's answer was: "The Isaurians."

The Isaurians? Sure, the Fightin' Isaurians of Irvine. That scans. Yet, when all was said and done, the single element of the game everybody seemed most to enjoy was . . . him. Nobody had the slightest idea of what he was talking about at any juncture, but still they found him fascinating, lovable and hilarious. As we broke up for the evening, Ricki Green and I had little to say to each other, but there was something in her smile and expression I could read. It said, "Bob, this game is a diamond in the rough, but a huge and valuable diamond it is. In the coming weeks and months, together we will cut it, polish it and make it sparkle like no gem has sparkled before!"

Sure enough, the next run-through went better, and the next better than that. Then, a critical test: our first live production of "KnowItAll!," March 3, 1992, for approximately 40 students at George Washington University.

With pilot tapings scheduled for March 17 -- exactly two weeks hence -- the GWU run-through was our first objective measure of how well the game worked with a live audience. Would they get into the game? Understand the rules? Enjoy the panel? Like the host? If the answer to all of those questions was "yes," the future of my brainchild was merely in doubt. If the answer to all of them was "no," well, thanks very much, Bob, you didn't win fame and fortune, but we hope you'll enjoy the home version of your game.

We did two shows. Both went . . . splendidly.

Asked to grade the game and participants in 19 categories, the students were virtually uniform in their approval. On a scale of 1 to 5, they rated "KnowItAll!" 4.36 on "entertaining," 4.32 on "funny," 4.04 on "challenging." In the areas of capability, charm and entertainment, the panelists as a group averaged 4.2. Thus spake the students! The young people! The future of public broadcasting!

TURNS OUT that I misread that significant expression on Ricki Green's face. What I took to mean "this is a diamond in the rough" turned out to be, "Buddy, I am outta here." On February 5, the day after the second pair of run-throughs, Ricki quit WETA to start her own company. I was truly sorry to see her go. She had been an ally through two of my tilts at the PBS windmill, and wise counsel in both. Still, Dick Richter, who would temporarily fill her position, was on my side. And the big production boss, Richard Hutton, was utterly committed to the project.

For instance, a couple of days before the GWU test, he and Dick at long last assigned associate producer Kate Urbank to work with me. WETA also came up with a studio, director and crew for the pilot shoot -- although not on March 17. We had to push the date to the 10th of April, the day before the vacation I'd planned for six months. No problem. (How difficult could it be to get four panelists and an emcee to radically change their schedules on virtually no notice? Hardly any of the participants were White House employees subject to the travel whims of the First Lady.) In any event, the extra few days of planning time looked like they might come in handy. In the five weeks after GWU, all we had to do was write two shows, design and build a set (for no money, because WETA couldn't come up with actual cash to build or rent furniture, flats etc.), locate a Washington celebrity willing to be the guest panelist, recruit and assemble a studio audience, audition and hire an announcer, build the opening title sequence, locate and produce the Henry Mancini number I wanted for the theme ("It Had Better Be Tonight"), persuade the Encyclopaedia Britannica to donate two sets of books as prizes, finish negotiating the contract and hire an outside producer to oversee the production. Among 100 other errands.

Which we succeeded in doing. Then WETA canceled our studio date again, in favor of a cash-paying customer wanting to rent it April 10.

This is where Steve Rosenbaum, who was my ever-more-frustrated adviser/partner in this venture, began to lose his patience. The combination of unilateral rescheduling, the station's refusal to spend real money on a set and its too-little-too-late providing of Kate's half-time assistance had his blood boiling.

"Do you see what they're doing?" he asked, in one of our daily phone conversations. "Do you see what these people are doing?"

"Being a plodding, impoverished bureaucracy?" I replied, giving my WETA friends the benefit of the doubt.

"No. They're killing you with indifference. They don't care about this show."

"They care," I said. "They just don't have many resources."

"You just wait. They are incrementally compromising your idea. They are a malevolent force."

A bit harsh, I thought. The Evil Documentarians of Shirlington? Nah. But this difference of opinion on WETA's motives served us well in the contract negotiations, an episode so horrifying I won't recount it, except to make one observation: The station's naked greed and self-dealing was of astonishing proportions. It was opportunism, avarice and arrogance on a mythic scale -- exceeded only by our own. In a dispute over (strictly theoretical) revenue, we wound up in a nightmarish game of chicken that extended to 10 minutes before an 11 a.m. deadline on Friday, April 10. Words alone cannot convey the tension, the harrowing, nerve-racking misery of that deadline day. Steve and I made it quite clear we were prepared to let the whole thing go up in smoke unless WETA conceded more compensation to us. We'd been invited to share in a meal, and we weren't about to be fed scraps in the kitchen -- although, if we didn't have an agreement by 10:55 a.m., I, personally, was prepared to call WETA and say, "We'll take the scraps."

There was no need, however. At 10:50 a.m., the other side blinked. We struck a deal. The pilots were rescheduled for April 16, smack dab in the middle of my vacation. Here again, no problem. I made arrangements to fly in.

HENRY KISSINGER couldn't make it. Nor Jesse Jackson, nor any of the 50-some Washington heavyweights we recruited for the guest slot. Hodding Carter and Jody Powell provisionally agreed, then ditched me. This left Christopher Matthews, the author/columnist/pundit, who graciously agreed to waive his dignity for the good of public TV.

It had been an obstacle-strewn path, but finally, thanks to an Olympian eleventh-hour effort by WETA, we had arrived. In mid-March, Dick had hired Consuelo Gonzalez, ex of ABC, to produce, and she was wonderful. With no budget to speak of, she crafted a cleverly cartoonish opening sequence (featuring the Mancini musical theme) and a mainly monochromatic visual look to suggest our black-and-white progenitors. The set, executed by WETA's Eric Schaeffer, was what you might call stylized minimalism -- mimicking the stuffy, filigreed formality of a 19th-century parlor in simple, whimsical line drawings.

Kate Urbank, meanwhile, despite numerous scheduling changes, managed to fill the studio with a live audience and recruit four skilled, personality-filled contestants: a National Symphony personnel staffer, a retired French and Latin teacher, a housewife/student and a Navy captain, in uniform, no less. By the time the music came up for the first show, everything that could be in place was in place. The only thing that could go wrong was . . . everything else.

It didn't.

The shows went smoothly. Seamlessly. Entertainingly. Wonderfully. Sometimes hilariously. Miraculously!

Chris Matthews was capable and charming. Anna was typically, persuasively engaging. Emil was affable, pleasant and generally well in control. I was . . . well, modesty forbids. And even Timothy was almost succinct and on the hilarious verge of being coherent. Asked to name the landmark in the direct vista of Ferdinand Marcos's temporary Hawaiian tomb, he replied: "The temple to Captain Cook as a slain god. This was felt to be obscurely appropriate, but the obscurity has defeated me so I shan't elaborate."

Later, the question was, "The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a rule change that would permit airline pilots to do what their military counterparts have done for years. What may they soon be permitted to do?"

My answer was: "Secretly bomb Cambodia," which got a nice laugh before I, as KnowItAll in that round, withdrew it in favor of the truth: "Sleep, on transoceanic flights." Timothy said something about giving name, rank and serial number in case of capture. Capture? The audience roared.

Throughout both games, there was not only laughter, but gales of laughter and spontaneous applause. The bluffs not only fooled, but fooled completely. Despite having been cooped up in a poorly ventilated lobby for an hour waiting for our technical run-through to end, the audience was palpably enthusiastic and unequivocally won over. Shooting both shows took an hour and a half, after which the mood in the control room was a kind of suppressed euphoria. Entertaining! Informative! Challenging! Funny! We had succeeded on every score. And in exactly 27 minutes each time. I flew back to Tennessee that night, visions of Emmy statuettes dancing in my head. Amid pirouetting dollar signs. Bob Garfield, heeeeere's what you've WON!!!!!

The euphoria, of course, quickly gave way to a more realistic assessment of the pilot episodes. Yes, as a game, "KnowItAll!" worked. Yes, the studio audience was won over. Yes, the cast -- individually and as a group -- worked well. But there were plenty of bugs to be worked out. Timothy was still largely unintelligible. There was no major Washington celebrity. A few of the set elements looked not so much minimal as amateurish. And, above all, the pacing was too slow, with the correct answer so long in coming that it was easy to forget what the original question was.

Nevertheless, of the six top WETA executives who filed written comments on the pilots, four were overwhelmingly positive. A fifth liked the game but emphatically thought it wasn't WETA's cup of tea. Then there was the one person who didn't bother to list detailed impressions, and instead scribbled her reaction in a note to Richard Hutton:

"Almost a parody of PTV {public television} . . .

"Not that engaging . . .

"OK to proceed if want to . . .

"I don't have instant reliable reaction . . ."

I'd have dismissed those remarks as careless and superficial, except that they came from the station president, Sharon Percy Rockefeller. Not THAT engaging?! Should I have worried? Richard Hutton said no. The only important words, he said, were "OK to proceed." On this basis, we decided to do two things: (1) plan another pair of pilot episodes, and (2) show the first pilot to Mitch Semel, vice president of programming at PBS. The idea was to give him a chance to recommend changes himself -- just on the off chance we might want to incorporate them into the next pilot. ("Bob, don't you think green would be a nice color for Emil's tie?" "You read my mind, Mitch." "Bob, don't you think the panel should be fired?" "What, those clowns? They're gone, Mitch." "Bob, would you be kind enough to lend me one of your mother's kidneys?" "Left or right, Mitch?")

This strategy was not without risk; the pilot had a lot of rough edges. While Mitch could not himself green-light "KnowItAll!" -- that would have to be a consensus decision, hinging largely on the feelings of Mitch's boss and PBS's top programmer, Jennifer Lawson -- he could certainly kill it all by himself. So crucial was his positive reaction, in fact, that Richard Hutton and Dick Richter made another strategic decision: not to let me talk to the guy. Apparently they were concerned I might somehow submarine our chances, perhaps by making an intemperate remark, or a small joke ripe for misinterpretation.

Why would they be concerned about that? They weren't with me at the National Press Club on the day I ran into Jennifer Lawson at a reception and briefly mentioned my project.

"Well," she said diplomatically, "I look forward to seeing 'KnowItAll!' "

"I hope so," I said, "because I know your home number. I know where you park your car. Basically, I will stalk you for the rest of my life. I swear I will. I swear!" Then I laughed diabolically, like Dracula's sidekick Renfield, and excused myself.

I'm pretty sure she knew I was kidding.

As it happened, I was out of town on June 8, when Dick met with Mitch. But Dick faxed me a memo on Mitch's reaction, the key sentence in which was:

"He liked it."

"He thought it might be good at 8 o'clock," Dick reported. Eight o'clock! Family hour! Prime time! We set a late-July date to shoot a second pair of pilot episodes, refining the game and otherwise incorporating Mitch's suggestions. Then, as a practical matter, it would only be a question of impressing Jennifer Lawson exactly as we'd impressed him.


The sound you just heard was cash registers going off in my head.

ON JULY 9, 1992, Richard Hutton quit WETA. Three weeks thereafter, Mitch Semel quit PBS.

"No use panicking," I told Steve. "The show is exactly as good as it was in April. If Semel liked it, whoever replaces him will probably like it too."

The sound you just heard was denial setting in.

The next few weeks were filled with the frantic activity of preparing for the second pilot shoot, preparations repeatedly frustrated by Dick Richter's preoccupation with the Democratic convention. As executive producer of "Washington Week in Review," he was basically out of pocket for the duration. Scripts had to be approved, decisions had to be made, and our communication was reduced to dueling phone messages and -- from me, at least -- increasingly testy faxes. Meanwhile, I immersed myself once again in bizarre arcana. My reading matter for the summer was the accumulated intellectual achievements of What's What?, Do Penguins Have Knees?, More of the Straight Dope, 2201 Fascinating Facts, The Bathroom Reader, Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words and the like.

Every spare moment was devoted to one aspect or another of "KnowItAll!" On airplane trips I skipped the in-flight meals and labored over a legal pad, adding to my forlorn list of fake ad-libs -- cheap stalling tactics that I imagined to be a running joke for National Quiz Show Personality Bob Garfield on an 8 p.m. weekly TV event, but that were destined never to be delivered.

"Bob, define 'aprosexia.' "

"I'll take 'famous legumes for 50,' Emil."

"Bob, what is an ASCOB?"

"Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with the candlestick, Emil."

"Bob, the Republic of Nauru's single export is what?"

"I refuse to answer on the ground that it may tend to humiliate me, Emil. Will this be on the final, Emil? You didn't say 'Simon Says,' Emil. Yes, Emil, Charlie Weaver to block."

Ominous signs were everywhere. The project's three greatest champions were out of the picture. Sharon Rockefeller was on the record as being un-bowled over. Twice more WETA canceled studio dates for the re-shoot. As the Democratic convention gave way to the Republican one, my key remaining WETA ally, Dick Richter, was virtually inaccessible. My partner Steve tried to warn me about impending doom, but I preferred to accentuate the positive. A woman named Kathy Quattrone had been promoted to succeed Mitch Semel at PBS. If WETA's interest was flagging, it would take only her encouragement to revive enthusiasm. Furthermore, word of "KnowItAll!" was leaking out to the game show world. A Hollywood "game doctor" called me, trying to get hired, as did the agent for the inveterate TV game host Art James.

Art James scrounging for work from me? How pathetic. How wonderful.

How futile. The summer of frustration came and went without a shoot of new pilot episodes. Finally -- after a campaign of hectoring from bad-cop Steve Rosenbaum and good-cop me -- WETA decided to show the original pilot shows to Quattrone, and sent her the same reel Mitch Semel had viewed so enthusiastically four months earlier.

"Frankly," Dick Richter wrote to her in the cover letter, "it is so different from our normal efforts that we don't want to travel down an unfamiliar road if the detour is not warranted." Ah, salesmanship, beginning another unendurable wait until Quattrone, learning the ropes as vice president of programming, finally got around to viewing the tape. In December. Dick got back to me with her commentary.

"She liked the panel, and she liked the humor of it," Dick reported. "She basically liked the game."


"But she had a problem with the bluffing," he said. I didn't know what problem with the bluffing Quattrone had, but I knew from Dick's tone that it was not a small problem. After 14 months of effort, 14 months of highs and lows, 14 months of divining hidden meanings from inscrutable executive utterances, 14 months of gestation for a project that had very much become my baby, it was very clear to me that bluffing was going to have a material effect on my tax planning. That is, I was going to have to do less of it.

"What do you mean she had a problem, Dick?"

"She doesn't want the bluffing. She said, 'We can't have people lying on PBS.' "

"Has she ever watched 'McNeil/Lehrer'?" I retorted darkly.

"She said maybe if the rules could be recast so nobody would have to give misinformation . . ."

"Dick, it's a bluffing game. It's about bluffing. To recast it would . . . would . . . would . . ."

He chuckled uncomfortably at the absurdity of the situation. It was over, and we both knew it.

"I understand," he said.

"So do I."

THE ENDGAME was grim formality. I wrote to Quattrone, reminding her that "KnowItAll!" wasn't supposed to be "College Bowl," but rather "designed to be educational by demanding critical thinking, and developing listening skills." Sensing a desperate rationalization, she was unmoved. In subsequent weeks, WETA officially bowed out of the project, whereupon I immediately got in touch with Mitch Semel at Comedy Central cable network, informing him that the pilot he found so entertaining was now a free agent. "Uh," he said, "could you just remind me what it was all about?" Upon having his memory jogged, Semel referred me to his head of development, who found the show to be too much game and not enough comedy. The Arts & Entertainment network has expressed interest in "KnowItAll!," in the event that three pure comedy shows it is testing all fail miserably, but nobody there is exactly badgering me to sign a contract.

The one person on whom I most pinned my hopes has, to the best of my knowledge, never seen "KnowItAll!" She, of course, is Jennifer Lawson. I regard this unfortunate circumstance as her loss, and PBS's. On the other hand, she may yet have an opportunity to see a wholesome, entertaining, family bluffing game on TV. Last summer, my wife and I were visiting Los Angeles, where we spent a day touring Universal Studios. There we had the opportunity to see the pilot taping of a real, live TV game show, featuring a panel of real stars. The game was called "Balderdash."

We didn't go.

Bob Garfield writes frequently for the Magazine.