Comedian Guy Branum’s Talk Show the Game Show premieres tonight at 10/9c on truTV. The show aims to cut through the formulaic nature of modern late night shows by unloading a series of challenges that force celebrities to compete for the honors of Best Guest of the Night. Branum, known for his work on The Mindy Project and Chelsea Lately, is a longtime fan of the talk show format. He created the concept as a tribute to the best of what these shows have to offer, and as an answer to what he sees missing in most shows today. “Publicists have ruined talk shows. Talk show hosts have stopped being funny and now they just sing all the time. When was the last time a talk show host made a joke where you were like, ‘Oh, damn?’ They have a team of monologue writers and they’re doing shittier work than most people on Twitter.” I talked to Branum about taking the show from the stage to the small screen, what makes the perfect guest, and his all-time favorite talk show moment.
Talk Show the Game Show is based on the live show of the same name that you were doing in LA, right?
Right. I came up with the idea for this show like 15 years ago on a van ride to a quiz bowl tournament in the midwest. I was talking to a friend about TV and we were pitching shows that should exist. I said that there was a right and wrong way to be on a talk show and that there should be a game show where you prove that you’re good at talk shows. For 10 years it was just an inside joke. After I left Chelsea Lately I was doing a lot of frustrating career things and didn’t feel like anything was moving forward. I missed working on a talk show. One night I typed up the rules for how this would work to amuse myself and then realized, “Oh hey, I could probably just ask the Improv Lab if they would give me a night.” I went and did it and it worked. It wasn’t perfect. There were still a lot of bugs, but it was one of the happiest nights of my life. I couldn’t go to sleep that night because it had worked. This stupid idea I had turned into a thing that was fun and funny. I kept doing it for four years and God knows it felt like a trial for much of the time, but it was always super fun.
At what point did you adapt it for truTV? Did they approach you and ask for you to come up with an idea for them?
I had had development meetings with truTV. I had brought up the idea and… the problem with the show is that every time I pitched it to people, they didn’t quite understand what I was talking about. It didn’t quite make sense to them. It was only when people saw the show that they were immediately like, “Oh, I get exactly what this is.” I sort of understood that you needed to see the show to get it. I was having trouble getting my agents and managers to get people to see the show. I finally decided to go guerilla and ask Page Hurwitz – who is a very talented producer who produced Last Comic Standing and a bunch of other stuff and is Wanda Sykes’ producing partner – to come and be a judge at one of the shows. She came, was amazing and hilarious, and at the end of the show was like, “We should make this show.” She got people from a bunch of different networks to come. Other people were kind of interested, but truTV, from the moment they saw it, we’re like, “This is a show. It doesn’t need much in the way of tweaks. We’re going to make this show.”
When you were doing it as a live show was it mostly comics that you had on the panel or were you getting some notable celebrity-type guests?
I always wanted to prove that this show is viable with people who weren’t standups. It was always easiest to book standups, but I always tried to make sure there was at least one non-standup on the show every time. Tony winner Marissa Jaret Winokur, Diablo Cody, the guy who starred in Step Up 2: The Streets. I would reach out to friends and friends of friends who I knew were amazing, funny, and talented. It was really cool to see a guy who was primarily a professional dancer come out and compete in this game of charm and wit.
Who are some of the most interesting guests this season?
Rashad Jennings from the New York Giants, he’s a running back and is now on Dancing with the Stars. We had a couple of athletes on the show and he was the one who just showed up and everybody fell in love with him. He was so funny, so charming, so natural. It was a perfect booking. Also he showed up looking amazing. I cannot emphasize enough how him showing up with his grossly expensive watch and cool pants made clear that this man had come to play. TJ Lavin, who hosted the Real World/Road Rules Challenge… again we were like, “Who is this guy? How is he going to do?” He was amazing. He was so delightful, so perfect for the game. A lot of these bookings were people who had done the show or know the game, but then there were people who were coming out of nowhere, like CNN correspondent Ana Navarro. Ana Navarro and her glass of wine came to play.
Your contestants have to go through a series of challenges that mimic what they might encounter on a regular talk show. For instance, during the interview portion they are graded on telling anecdotes, name dropping, making the audience laugh. Is that a sly nod to how structured and over-produced most late night show interactions are?
Absolutely. I’ve said before that publicists have ruined talk shows. They have turned them into these choreographed, boring activities that no one wants to participate in and no one wants to watch. Our show accepts that you do have to promote your project. This is what you are there for. You have to do it, but do it beautifully, do it well, do it charmingly, or do it too much. The show is a balance between doing those technical things that you have to do on a talk show and the aesthetics of it. It’s why we have two judges also giving scores. At the end of the day you want someone to step back and say, “Was this well executed?” I feel like straight guys are going to be like, “This is an ironic deconstruction of a talk show,” where I feel like it’s possible to love something and still ridicule it for its specificity. This show isn’t irony. It’s camp.
Talk shows didn’t always used to be this way. They used to feel more spontaneous. If you go back and watch an old clip of David Bowie on Dick Cavett or something you realize that you would never have an interview like that on late night television today.
All the best shit happened on Dick Cavett. Would you like to know my favorite talk show moment of all time?
Absolutely. It seems fitting.
Gene Simmons was on Dick Cavett [Interviewer’s note: it was actually The Mike Douglas Show, which didn’t hold a candle to Cavett, but the clip is still incredible]. He was being like, “I’m scary. I’m so creepy.” He was doing beginning-era KISS material in his KISS makeup. There’s an older Jewish actress by the name of Totie Fields who says, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if underneath all of that makeup was just a nice Jewish boy?” Gene says something like, “You might be surprised,” and alluded to being Jewish and then Totie says, “Honey, you can’t hide the hook.” It was like, “Don’t pretend you’re an evil bat. I know exactly who you are. I’ve been to a thousand Bar Mitzvahs of people like you.” I just want those moments where you have real dynamics, real things going on, between celebrities who aren’t supposed to be in the same room together. I feel like this show tries to structure things just enough to lead to chaos. The best moments of the show are when three people are out there talking to each other and I just get to enjoy it.
A lot of your work in television has been supporting or behind the scenes. How does it feel to be at the helm of your own creation?
I feel very lucky. I know there a lot of networks that would not have purchased this show and allowed me to host it. But I’m less at the helm because I do have to host the show, so there are so many production things I just can’t pay attention to that would normally be part of my job. One thing that is astoundingly helpful is that both of the judges, Karen Kilgariff and Casey Schreiner, are really experienced, talented television writers and producers who are able to handle shit. Page Hurwitz, who is Wanda Sykes’ producing partner and the executive producer of the show, runs a tight ship. I’m able to focus on the stuff I need to focus on and not worry about it. Mostly it’s just weird to be on posters because I’m very fat. Every time I see myself on a poster it’s like, “Guy, you’re very fat.”