Real talk: “Talk Show The Game Show” will penalize a guest for murder, but it adheres to strict guidelines for what that means. “If you murder someone during the course of the game, we don’t have to wait for the entire legal process to play out in the state of California,” host and creator Guy Branum said. “[Head judge] Casey Schreiner can just put you in the penalty box for a period of time, possibly even throw you out of the game.
“Though not necessarily,” Branum added. “It depends on the terms of the murder.”
Branum was being facetious…right? It’s hard to say with “TSTGS,” which is just one aspect of its charm. The format mash-up, which just premiered on truTV, takes deliberate aim at the pretenses which drive traditional talk shows, by gamifying them. Guests earn points and suffer punishments based on the way they perform while interviewed by Branum, with their scores determined by a predetermined set of rules and a judging panel comprised of Schreiner and Karen Kilgariff (who have both worked for years in the talk show production trenches).
It’s hilarious because the talent involved takes it so seriously. The host and judges demand excellence from its guests. And the guests come to win.
To understand its origins, let’s go back a few years, and also learn about the ways in which Branum’s unique background has made it like nothing else on television — which might have been abetted by being born as a live show, something this writer was lucky to witness intimately.
A Friend’s Comedy Show
One of the things about living in Los Angeles is the perhaps ominous invitation to a friend’s comedy show. More often than not, when your friend invites you to see their show, you attend knowing that it’s less about the comedy and more about supporting your pal — it is an act of friendship, undertaken with the knowledge that you might be in for a rough, unfunny night.
That said, when I saw “Talk Show The Game Show” for the first time, I was optimistic. It was 2012, and I’d known head judge and writer Casey Schreiner for several years through a mutual friend; we’d also been working together as writers on G4’s “Attack of the Show” for over a year.
Occasionally, Casey’s friend Guy, working in a separate part of the building, would wander by our cubicles to visit, and his dry wit would be one of the day’s bright spots. So, while technically “TSTGS” was “my friend’s comedy show,” I knew that the people involved were funny, and that it would be worth checking out.
After watching that first live show, the anarchy of the concept in combination with its strict rules system became an addiction. Because what was clear, as an audience member, was how good the bones of the concept were — with a monologue, three interview segments, the lightning round, and the judges’ critiques, the pacing was non-stop, and Branum’s dry wit translated beautifully to the talk show host format.
But while I have happily paid to see several more of the live shows since 2012, the show’s origins go even further back than that.
“A Right and a Wrong Way to Be on Talk Shows”
Branum has been the sort of comedian known and beloved by many, with writing credits including “Billy on the Street” and “The Mindy Project” (a gig he got after Mindy Kaling DMed him on Twitter — “the best way of getting a job,” he said).
According to Branum, the show’s origin story begins 10 to 15 years ago: “I was in a van on my way to a quiz bowl tournament in the Midwest and I was talking to my best friend about TV and I just came down with the hard opinion that there was a right and a wrong way to be on talk shows. So, we started joking about ‘Talk Show The Game Show’ — the show where you prove that you’re good at talk shows.”
Years later, Branum began hosting an annual Hanukkah party, which doubled as a “Small Talk Competition,” where contestants would be evaluated on the basis of their ability to chat under pressure. Judging those comparatively informal parties was Branum’s work colleague Schreiner.
Those ideas (and Schreiner’s presence) began to percolate together in Branum’s brain in late 2011. “I had left ‘Chelsea Lately’ and missed being on a talk show and didn’t know what was going on with my career,” he said. “So, one night I just stayed up late and I was like, ‘Talk Show the Game Show’ — what if it were real? How would it work?”
Prior to his career in comedy, Branum completed law school before getting his first writing job, at nascent cable channel Tech TV (which eventually became G4, and thus how Branum and Schreiner eventually met). But that legal training hasn’t abandoned Branum, which becomes clear once you read the official rules of “Talk Show The Game Show,” a seven-page document that specifies not just the show’s structure and procedure, but every potential offense and element of judging criteria.
On the show, Schreiner is decidedly playing a role as Head Judge but he does take those rules seriously. “I am on the show fulfilling my constitutional obligations to enforce the rule set,” he said. “I feel that in today’s America, we need and want a show where rules are followed and people are held accountable for their actions.”
There is something pretty true about that.
“I Want to Win This Thing”
The first episode of “TSTGS” (you can watch it here on truTV.com) was dominated by an mind-blowing performance by comedian Tiffany Haddish, who’s having an incredible spring thanks to a ton of guest appearances on shows ranging from “The High Court” to “Comedy Jam” and her series regular work on “The Carmichael Show.”
“It was so much fun being on the show, but I wasn’t that prepared,” she said. “They just told me that if I had a pet and I wanted to bring it, I could, and they asked me a couple of stories about the shows that I worked on… I tried to talk about everything under the gamut.”
The clip below illustrates just how well Haddish played the game, while also dancing on the line of danger when it comes to name-dropping (an easy way to earn points, but also an easy way to run afoul of the judging should you go overboard).
“What’s been great is that during the taping of the show, even if guests didn’t really get it when they started, during their segments they figured out what was going on,” Schreiner noted. “And almost every guest after the show was done would talk to our guest producers and say ‘You have to have me back on, because now I know what to do. Now I have a strategy. I want to win this thing.'”
“Deeply Campy and Deeply Queer”
Haddish first met Branum after the two of them did a show at the Improv together: “It was really fun and he said ‘I want you to do my show’ and I said, ‘sure, you seem really cool.’ I thought he was going to ask me to dinner and then we’d hook up. But then I found out that I’m not his type.”
Branum being gay is a fundamental underpinning of him as a public persona — just look at his Twitter feed, and you’ll discover how seriously he takes being loud and proud about his sexuality. And that’s a fundamental undercurrent of the show as well.
“I do think that ‘Talk Show the Game Show’ is about making explicit the subtle social games that we’re always playing,” he said. “I think when you’re a queer person, you’re having to play somebody else’s game all the time and you’re having to mouth the words of straightness, but have your own separate gay things go on that you’re not allowed to really talk about or deal with. So, I think taking social games and turning them into a party game is deeply campy and deeply queer.”
The show’s journey to television began after Branum met both Push It Productions producers Page Hurwitz and Wanda Sykes after appearing on Push It’s revival of “Last Comic Standing” in 2014, and he asked Hurwitz to be a guest judge for the stage show. Hurwitz said she “immediately thought ‘oh my god, this should be a television show.'”
For Sykes, there was an immediate personal connection to the subject matter. “For someone who is often a guest on a lot of these talk shows, for me I was like ‘wow, that sounds like so much more fun, to participate in that type of show where it’s like a competition instead of doing your normal ‘I gotta go on this talk show to plug something,'” Sykes said. “You still can get the information that you need to get out there, as far as promoting your show, but you’ll have way more fun than just sitting there and doing the regular, normal stuff.'”
TruTV: The Perfect Fit
In Branum’s opinion, “No one but truTV would have let me host this show. On any other network they would have been like, ‘That’s cute, but there’s that bald gay guy… We’ll get some nice, straight, handsome guy that fits in a suit well and we’ll let him host the show.'”
Both Hurwitz and Sykes felt strongly that Branum needed to remain on camera. “It was critical that he remain the host because the show is very much from his point of view and obviously, he created it,” Hurwitz said. “It just wouldn’t have the same tone. He’s really able to walk that line between having some edge and some snark, yet always supporting the guest and making them feel welcome and having fun. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
“Yeah, it would be a totally different show with someone else doing it,” Sykes added. “Because, a lot of the show is Guy’s personality and what he brings to the show. He has this… I don’t know… incredibly smart but, for the lack of a better word, doesn’t give a fuck type thing…”
Sykes trailed off, laughing, as Hurwitz stepped in: “He doesn’t pander.”
“Yeah, that’s it, thank you! That’s so much classier than ‘doesn’t give a fuck,'” Sykes said.
That’s part of why truTV ultimately landed the series: While other networks expressed interest, according to the producers, truTV was happy with the show as is. “From the very beginning, they were very supportive, saying ‘Let’s try to adapt this show to TV as cleanly and as simply as we can, because we really like what it is as a live show,'” Branum said.
There have been changes — most notably in length. While the live shows tend to run about 44 minutes, “TSTGS” comes in at 24 minutes an episode. (That’s slightly longer than your standard half-hour of commercial-supported television, thanks to Turner Entertainment’s reduced ad loads.) The cuts that make it possible include trimming the guest interviews down to three minutes, and eliminating Branum’s monologue.
“That was probably the hardest part of the development process,” Branum said, “Because I always really enjoyed it. A monologue, it’s such a talk show trope. It’s also the opportunity for me to put some point of view in there and tell you who I am. So, that was very hard to lose, but truTV from the beginning was very committed to maintaining a three-guest talk show. And I love that, because I do feel like if it were just two people you wouldn’t get the interaction and the chaos.”
Just because “TSTGS” is now a television show doesn’t mean that the live version is dead. In fact, there are plans to stage live editions at the Austin Television Festival, as well as other fests, allowing audiences to enjoy an expanded version. Prior to the premiere, the show staged a live edition at SXSW.
No matter how you experience it, from stage to screen, the series has maintained its initial identity, fully centered in who Guy Branum is, as a creator and a performer and uniquely himself — especially as a gay man. “It’s not sassy finger waving, and god knows I love sassy finger waving, god knows I identify as sassy,” he said. “But just the fact that you have Casey Schreiner there, who is a type of gay guy that you haven’t seen before, along with Karen Kilgariff, who is a sort of woman who frequently is not seen on television outside of sitting next to RuPaul telling people that they beat their face wrong — I do think it is a type of queer commentary we haven’t seen before.
“What gay people have been able to be on TV and in film has been very limited for a long time,” he said. “It is now exciting that we live in a richer world.”
“Talk Show the Game Show” airs Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. on truTV.