Each game is played by a single contestant who earns money incrementally based on a payout ladder by answering simple trivia questions, with the game themed as a school quiz. The game relies on the premise that an adult would not know the information generally taught in elementary grade school, because it is rarely used in adult life by the type of person chosen to be a contestant. Therefore, the show is essentially a test to see how much an adult has retained since graduating elementary school. The show also derives its humor by occasionally displaying the contestant's educational attainment, implying that in spite of that, they struggle to answer some questions.
The contestant is presented and chooses from a set of ten subjects and grade level question topics. The question is then revealed. Some questions are multiple choice or true/false; others require the contestant to answer without any options.
Each correct answer moves the contestant up a payout ladder, with a final bonus fifth grade question moving the contestant up one more step to the top prize of $1,000,000. At any point up to the final question, the contestant may quit the game after seeing the question, and keep all money earned up to that point. For the final question, the contestant is only presented the subject and then must decide whether to continue or quit (and keep earned money). The contestant may not walk away after choosing to see the question. The contestant is not guaranteed any winnings until after the fifth question is answered correctly, at which point $25,000 is guaranteed.
Only two contestants have attempted to answer the final question and done so correctly:
- Kathy Cox, the Superintendent of Schools for the State of Georgia, was the first person to have correctly answered the $1,000,000 question (MDQ): "Who was the longest reigning British Monarch?" The answer was Queen Victoria.
- The Nobel Prize in Physics laureate George Smoot was the second person, answering "What U.S. state is home to Acadia National Park?", with the correct answer of Maine.
Many celebrities have competed on this TV show on behalf of various charities. The rock 'n' roll star Gene Simmons of the band KISS dropped out with $500,000 for The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, making him one of the highest winning celebrities to appear on the show. The subject of the Million Dollar Question was "Science", and the question was "What element is represented by the letter K in the periodic table?" Simmons said that he would have answered krypton, but the correct answer is actually potassium.
The 20-year old Mayor of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and the youngest mayor in the United States, John Tyler Hammons, appeared on October 24, 2008, winning $25,000 for his charity after missing the question "What's the name of the first American woman to travel to outer space?". Unsure of the correct answer (which is Sally Ride), he "copied" the 5th grader's answer, which was wrong.
Ken Jennings could have become the second person to win the million dollars but he decided not to go for the Social Studies million-dollar question ("U.S. President John Adams was a member of what political party at the time of his election?"). Upon seeing the question after dropping out of school, he answered it correctly (Federalist). However, his winnings of $500,000 were enough to regain the all-time game show winnings record from Brad Rutter, who had defeated him in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions to claim it. Seven other contestants have also dropped out at the million-dollar question.
|Correct Answer Value (original U.S. version)|
|1st Grade Questions||2nd Grade Questions||3rd Grade Questions||4th Grade Questions||5th Grade Bonus Question|
|$500 each||$1,000 each||$3,500 each||$7,500 each||10 times earned value|
There were five "classmates" (three since season 5) in the game of approximately fifth-grade age who also answer each question in secret by writing their answers. These answers are sometimes used to create tension when the classmates' answers do not correlate with the contestant's. Additionally, the contestant selects one of the classmates at the beginning of the game to help them during the game. Each classmate can only help for two questions, and then a new classmate must be selected.
The selected classmate provides the contestant with two "cheats," each of which may only be used once. The contestant may choose to "peek" at the classmate's paper, which allows them to see the classmate's answer before they give their own (once the peek is used the contestant must answer the question); the contestant may "copy" the classmate, which automatically locks the classmate's answer in as their own. In addition, the contestant has one "save," which comes into play after the contestant gives their first wrong answer. If the classmate has written the correct answer, he saves the contestant; otherwise, the game ends and the contestant loses the game and wins nothing, unless he correctly answers five questions, at which point he is guaranteed the fifth level of the payout ladder. This "save" no longer apply since season 5. The cheats are not available on the final question; Additionally, once all the cheats are used, the chosen classmate returns to the group and no new classmate is selected. The classmates continue to write answers for the questions, however, to be used for tension.
The classmates are generally the same throughout a season, and are given a "study guide" of possible question topics before the start of the season. Since the classmates are not in an adversarial role with the contestants, this only serves to help the contestants if they use the "cheats." It does, however, give a misleading impression of the knowledge level of actual fifth-graders, since the classmates on the show rarely miss the questions, having been given study material in advance. In fact, the show's title is something of a misnomer, since contestants do not actually compete against the classmates, and the classmates' performance on the show is enhanced by study materials, although they still occasionally miss a question. The title was selected to make the show more interesting, specifically making adults look stupid and then exploiting the supposed "stupidity," which is an irony because adults are supposed to teach children.
Upon leaving the game either by quitting ("DROP OUT"), or answering incorrectly ("FLUNK OUT"), the contestant must profess to the camera, "I am not smarter than a fifth grader." However, if the million dollar question is answered correctly (which has only happened twice), the contestant has the opportunity to claim, "I am smarter than a fifth grader."
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