Image: Drew Carey, host of the game show 'The Price is Right' © Kevork Djansezian, AP

I'm a member of Mensa, but people are much more impressed by the fact that I was once on "Jeopardy."

Love 'em or loathe 'em, game shows are an integral part of our culture. Sitting on the couch yelling answers is our national sport: "It's 'St. Peter's Basilica,' you idiot! I would so kick butt at this game!"

It's not easy to get on a game show. But Cleveland radio personality Dave Ramos has been on three: "The Price Is Right" and "Wheel of Fortune," on which he won a combined $63,000 plus noncash prizes, and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (his episode hasn't aired yet, so he can't say how he did).

Of course, you might not win anything except a copy of the home game. It's even possible to lose money. Los Angeleno Megan Albertus didn't earn a dime on a game/reality show hybrid called "Momma's Boys" and had to pay to board her cats during the multiday shoot.

Even if you do win fabulous prizes, the tax ramifications can be sobering. (See "Win a game show? That'll cost you.") Or that $500 consolation prize may come in the form of gift cards to places you wouldn't have chosen on your own.

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

That said, it's exciting to realize you're no longer a member of the home audience -- the home audience is playing along with you. If you've always thought you could compete, here's how to do it.

Getting there

No all-inclusive clearinghouse exists just for game-show auditions, but here are a few ways to get started:

● "Jeopardy"
● "Family Feud"
● "The Price Is Right"
● "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"
● "Wipeout"
● "Wheel of Fortune"
● "Let's Make a Deal"

Search online for other programs' websites for contestant information, including regional tryouts. Casting directors sometimes go on the road rather than draw only from people within studio driving distance.

Plenty of options exist: classic game shows, brand-new programs that may not make it past one season, Americanized versions of international shows, hybrids like "Momma's Boys" (which, incidentally, didn't get a second year). How do you choose which show to try for?

"The one you feel most comfortable playing at home," says Bev Pomerantz, a casting director for game shows.

For 25 years she's found contestants for programs such as "Family Feud," "Catch 21," "Lingo," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics." Although the shows are varied, the same contestant qualities are needed: energy, enthusiasm and the ability not just to play the game well but to enjoy doing it.

"If you're having fun," Pomerantz says, "the audience is having fun."

A typical tryout includes some kind of written test, maybe a practice game or two and a personal interview that will likely be videotaped. The producers want to see how you come across onscreen, so channel the outgoing, confident person you become at parties or get-togethers with friends.

"Be really funny and articulate, but don't try too hard. Be the best version of yourself," says Albertus, who has been on about a dozen game shows and won small amounts of cash, never more than $500.

Be lucky -- and smart

At least one program, "The Price Is Right," doesn't have auditions: Contestants are pulled from the audience. Before the doors open, producers chat up everyone in line.

In a group of 300 hopefuls, Ramos doubted he would stand out. A lifelong game-show fanatic -- "When other kids were watching cartoons, I was watching game shows" -- he went to a 2001 taping just for the thrill of being (relatively) close to Bob Barker (see pictures of Barker here).

To his shock, he was called to compete, winning $22,000. Six years later, he appeared on "Wheel of Fortune" and won $41,000 and a trip to Jamaica. His still-to-air appearance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was taped in September.

Would-be contestants need to think about the financial fallout, according to Ramos. "The tax burden is hard," because anything you get, including noncash prizes, is taxable. And that cabin cruiser you might win -- are you prepared to moor and maintain it and maybe pay state personal property taxes on it?

His other advice? "Be yourself. Be genuine."

Well, as genuine as you can be in a medium that creates its own reality. Amy Mucken of Los Angeles was asked to wear her wedding gown and pretend she was going from a game show straight to the altar. That's because it was Brides Week on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"

Mucken wasn't actually getting married for three months, but she played along. To get ready for the program, she bought a bunch of elementary-school textbooks: "You don't want to look like a buffoon for not knowing something an 8-year-old knows."

It worked. She was up to $25,000 when the final category was announced: world geography, not her strong suit. Mucken chose the "drop out" option, which allowed her to leave with the money -- but not before making a statement to the camera.

"This is the happiest day of my life," she said, referring to the wedding gown. "But I am unhappy to say I'm not smarter than a fifth-grader."

Her winnings embellished the honeymoon and plumped up a retirement account. But she still wishes she knew what that geography question would have been. A correct answer would've won her an additional $250,000.

Know how to play

If you have a chance to audition, it's crucial to know the game very, very well. Mattye Bresnen of Austin, Texas, tried out for "Catch 21" while spending a summer in Los Angeles. She knew the basics, but her lack of deep preparation showed.

The casting director nearly ruled her out, but Bresnen asked for another chance. She practiced the game and, when called to appear, won $2,000.

"Practice it. Study it," Bresnen says. "No matter how enthusiastic you are, how personable, how charismatic -- if you don't know how to play the game, you're not going to get on."

Will you be chosen?

You might ace the written test, whip through a practice game and bubble with charm during the videotaped interview, but you won't be chosen unless you fit what the producers are seeking.

"It's not a personal thing. It's more based on the needs of the show," says Nicole Dunn, who worked for the syndicated version of "The Weakest Link."

She sought a mix of personalities: "You had your brainiac person who knew everything, and you had your eye candy -- the woman or the man who's going to get the viewers' attention. Then you had your nurses or doctors or firefighters, America's favorites."

Sometimes they even pick journalists. I was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News when I was chosen for "Jeopardy." A co-worker, Linda Billington, also passed the audition but was never called. (I have no idea why, since she's more interesting than I am. She once wrestled a tiger, for heaven's sake.)

But in 2002 Billington appeared on the syndicated version of "The Weakest Link." Toward the end of the episode, she was voted off by a pair of contestants who went on to fail the last round spectacularly.

"And I knew every answer," says Billington, a Mensa member who's semiretired and works part time on the newspaper's copy desk.

It wasn't Billington's first brush with game-show stardom. In the late 1960s she appeared on "To Tell the Truth," impersonating a former nun. She snookered one panelist, actor Tom Poston, and took home $33.33.

How much can you win?

We can't all be Ken Jennings, who won $2.5 million in 74 days on "Jeopardy." Depending on the show, you can go home with a few hundred dollars or a few hundred thousand.

It's unlikely you'll land on the high end of the paycheck scale, even though prime-time game shows love to use the phrase "a million dollars." Carrie Grosvenor, who writes the Game Shows Guide for About.com, has been watching just about every game show there is for the past four years. During that time she's seen fewer than 10 million-dollar winners.

That's not say that big wins don't happen. One of Pomerantz's shopping-mall finds won $500,000. A young woman she met at random was on two shows, winning a total of $350,000.

Even so, the casting director tells people to forget about the money and just have fun playing the game. Someone has to lose, and it might be you -- especially since there's a lot of pressure once the cameras roll.

On national television

I well remember the pressure. The stage lights were hot, and the presence of a live audience made me very nervous. I rang in too early a number of times, which locked me out for two-tenths of a second -- plenty of time for the know-it-all next to me to chirp things like "Who was Pliny the Elder?"

It was still a blast, though. I flashed back on a childhood memory of watching "Jeopardy" while home from school, sick. I remembered thinking: "Boy, those people know a lot. I wish I could do that."

A couple of decades later, there I was on national television, winning enough money to pay for my daughter's orthodontia.

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Looking back, I wish I'd had more fun and fewer heart palpitations. I wish I hadn't locked myself out of answering so much. I wish I'd been bolder about answering questions I wasn't sure of, because most of the time my answers would have been right.

I also wish I hadn't wound up paying taxes on prizes I didn't really need, like silverware and hair-care products. I didn't own a dog, yet I won a year's worth of pet food. Sadly, I was offered neither Rice-A-Roni nor Lee Press-On Nails.

But at least I can say I've been on a game show -- and maybe I'll do it again. Doing the research for this column has intrigued me. I'm starting to wonder whether I really want to be a millionaire. Or if I'm really smarter than a fifth-grader.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Bev Pomerantz as a casting director for the Game Show Network. She is an independent casting director who works on programs that appear on the network.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").