Ladies and gentlemen, I’m glad you’re with me today. This is a big moment for all of us because this is the first part of my interview with Jay Wolpert.
You remember him, don’t you? I mentioned him a few interviews back, a nice guy who just couldn’t hold onto a game for longer than a year or two. Well, now you’ll finally get to hear his side of the story.
Greg Palmer: Hello, Mr. Wolpert. First off, what made you decide to become a producer and a writer?
Jay Wolpert: As it turns out, the reason I became a television producer and the reason I became a screenwriter are intimately related. I was going to be a lawyer for lack of any other notion, except that one day I was cutting (maybe called ditching now) a college class in the Caf, and I mentioned that I was looking for a part-time job after school to a friend. He mentioned that his girlfriend’s mother worked at some company on Lexington Ave, and that they needed somebody. I went down there and found out it was a game-show company. They hired me as a runner and and sent me to the studio on an errand, and I was hooked on television and hooked on game shows. Ten years later I became the first Producer of what they then called The New Price Is Right. Twenty years after that, the girl I hired virtually out of school as my first P.A. on that show, whose name was Nancy Meyers and was to become an incredibly successful writer-director-producer ran into me at Art’s Deli and asked why I never wrote, offering to mentor me through my first script if I came up with any idea she and her partner at the time, Charles Shyer thought promising. As it happened, a week later I did come up with an idea they liked, and they both held my hand through the writing process. That screenplay, called “In The Year Of The Brat” which is faintly autobiographical, became not only the first script I ever wrote, but also the first script I ever sold…and it was sold to two studios, the last of which, MGM still owns it. But what really makes me smile about that screenplay is that the first act break has the hero arriving for a job interview at a a game show studio.
GP: I understand your first national TV appearance was on Jeopardy back in the Art Fleming days. You did particularly well, even winning their Tournament of Champions back in ’69. How much did you win? What was it like being there?
JW: Between winning the five regular games, after which you were required to retire, and the winnings from the Tournament itself, it was something like $9000. But remember, in those days the money available to win was much less and it wasn’t a night-time show. There was also a great trip to Hawaii as well. But you know, it was never about the money, at least to me, and I was a married guy without a job in those days. It really was the honor…which was embodied by a trophy. Because even then I knew, the money would be spent, the trip would be taken, but the trophy is forever…And the fun is that Jeopardy is still on the air, so my daughters, including the one that was conceived on the trip we won, have grown up with that trophy in the living room, and realize what it means. As to how it felt to be there? You don’t have enough room on the website for me to tell you.
GP: As you’re probably well aware of, the Jeopardy of today is a far different beast than the one you were on. I’m just curious, do you think you would’ve done well on the current version? Is there even any comparison in your mind?
JW: That’s a complex question. You can never really know on a given game. Some categories you will own. Some you won’t. I can say this: When I’m watching the show at home, and I’m playing along, which is to say, I try to beat the contestants to the correct answer, if I play ten games, I come up winning about three; come in second about five times, and in third place twice. What really erodes your skills is aging, not necessarily because you’re slower, although I suppose I am, but because of popular culture. When I won the Championship, these were my categories: anything to do with history, which embodied about six or seven categories, anything to do with movies, popular music, television, literature. Today, I am reasonably adept at much of that…but in popular music and television I’ve probably lost a chunk of ground.
GP: OK, you began your game show career with Dan Enright, formerly of Barry & Enright. What games did you produce for him that you’d like to share with us (if any)?
JW: Well, as you know, Dan was a pivotal figure in the Quiz Scandals. What you may not know is that he was pretty much banned from working in T.V. in the states. For part of the time that he was banned, he worked for Screen Gems T.V. in the international division at the time, which is to say Canada and Australia. I was hired as a writer by him for a show called Little People that was being originally produced out of Montreal, in which kids on a panel, who were aged from about four to eleven, gave their advice to peers who had comical problems. I very quickly became the producer and did that for two seasons, and later did another two seasons of A Doctor’s Diary which was a kind of semi- reality show in which a real doctor gave real counsel to actors portraying patients. I wrote, produced, cast, and directed the actors on the show…for $250 a week.
GP: Now, we all know about your work with Goodson-Todman, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But first off, your work with Chuck Barris. He seems like a pretty wild guy. Of course, I also saw Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. First off, what did you produce for him?
JW: I didn’t produce for Chuck. I wasn’t with him very long, although I enjoyed myself very much while I was there. I was Head of Development, and while there developed a show called The Gutsy Game which became the basis for a show I later developed at Goodson Todman called Double Dare (not the one with the slime).
GP: This is probably something that every game show fan is dying to know. In his book (which I’ve read bits and pieces of, BTW), Mr. Barris claims he worked for the CIA and did recon missions while escorting contestants on The Dating Game. Was that ever brought up in your discussions with him? Did he mention that on the set? The CIA claims he’s never worked for them.
JW: On the subject of whether Chuck ever worked for the CIA, I wouldn’t trust either one of them. The Chuck I knew would not shrink from being an agent of the CIA…nor would he shrink from claiming he was when he wasn’t. And if he was, do you really think that the CIA would ever actually cop to the fact that Chuck Barris of The Gong Show, was one of theirs?
GP: Now we get to something very interesting. It’s your work on a certain game show that has lasted a mighty long time. You were the producer of The Price is Right from its birth in 1972 all the way to 1978. First off, how’d you get involved with this?
JW: In July of 1971 I and my wife and six-month old daughter, and our Irish Setter left New York City for Los Angeles to work on the Movie Game for a Producer named Bob Noah. The show was canceled and I left and worked for Chuck for virtually another six months. During that time, Price was sold to CBS Daytime by Goodson-Todman and they needed a Producer. Noah, who had worked for Goodson-Todman and Howard Felsher who was producing Password for the company in Los Angeles, and for whom I had worked in development, both recommended me, and I commenced to be summoned to the Beverly Hills hotel for what threatened to be an endless amount of interviews with Mark Goodson and his consigliere Jeremy Seamus, who was Mark’s son-in-law and a very good guy. Anyway, after about the fifth Interview, I let it be known that I was done…that whatever flaws they had spotted in me were not going to get any better, and whatever assets I possessed had already been revealed…It wasn’t arrogance, but clearly they were hesitant, and I just wanted to get on with my life. As soon as that message was delivered, I was hired.
GP: It was long thought that you were one of the first people to create the “Showcase Skit”. Reportedly, the first one was based on “Little Red Riding Hood”. I’ve been writing showcases for my own Internet version of the game. How much work actually goes into matching prizes with this storyline and keeping it under 5 minutes?
JW: If by creating the “Showcase Skit” you mean the idea for making the prizes, in effect, props in a Story, whether an original story or a fairy tale, or a satire on a movie, yes, I was the person who came up with that basic idea. It just seemed so logical and funny, and if I had to choose two things I’m kind of good at, it’s logic and fun. However, having said that, and once having established that blueprint, I did not do those showcases alone. Roger and I would spend every Thursday with him pitching his ideas for these special skit showcases , with a few ideas for the prizes, and I would offer mine the same way. As the producer, if there was anything I didn’t like we didn’t do it, but we would more or less agree most of the time..and much more important we laughed a lot on those Thursdays. After we knew what the prizes were and where they fit into the story, I would lock myself in my office and write the jokes and the continuity of the story lines, for the next couple of days.
GP: What was it like working on the show? Are there any experiences you’d like to share with us?
JW: That’s a big question. For our purposes this time around, let me simple say this. When you are on a show that last as long as Price did for me (six years) the experience is never simply of one complexion. People come and they go. New Ideas get tried, some of which succeed, some of which fail. People get fatigued. Rating go up, but they also go down. Tension ebbs and flows. I will say this. Virtually, without exception over those eight years, I loved my staff, and it was a joy to come to the studio, virtually right up until the day I left.
GP: I’m just curious about something. You had a great run as producer. You could’ve stayed on for a long time, like Fingers and Roger. You ended up pulling a McLean Stevenson. Why’d you leave?
JW: As you know, Greg, because this is such an extensive Interview, I’m going to push that to Part 2, because that’s really something I want to talk about and give it the thought it deserves. So just re-number to put at the end. [OK, we’ll do that.]
GP: Onto your first official created game show, Double Dare. How did you get involved with that? How did you come up with the concept?
JW: As I indicated in Question 4 of this gigantic tome, Double Dare was originally Gutsy Game which was developed during my time at Barris. While I was at Barris, we showed the show to Bud Grant who was then in charge of CBS Daytime and he passed, but when I moved to Goodson-Todman Bud approached me again and asked me if I had the rights. I didn’t but I asked Chuck for them and he was kind enough to assign them to me…and so it became a G-T show. Thank you for appreciating it. I’m very proud of many things about that show. I think it was on for only 19 weeks, but I believe had it come at a time when Quiz Shows were on in the evening, instead of during the day, when viewing was more casual and required less concentration, it would have been very successful. It now resides with Fremantle.
GP: Alex Trebek, as you know, was fresh off his first run of High Rollers. How did G-T end up landing him?
JW: Was it really after the first High Rollers…I thought it was after Wizard Of Odds. [Editors’ Note: No, it was after the first run of HR. That ended on June 11, 1976; DD began December 13.] And how did we come to Alex? He was great looking, he was hot careerwise…and most of all, he was smart…and he loved information and trivia. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard Alex’s impression of Billy Fish, the comic relief character in The Man Who Would Be King.
GP: What was it like working on the show? Do you have anything you’d like to share?
JW: It was terrific for a whole bunch of reasons, but the biggest was that as Executive Producer, I was in charge of the series. I remember on the first air show, when, for the first time, Mark got out of his corner table seat in the booth, from which he guided every pilot, and ceded the seat to me. Over the six years that I spent at Goodson-Todman, Mark and I had our differences, some during the development of this show, which he actually did not want developed probably because it was not coming from inside G-T organically but was originally created somewhere else. Nonetheless, he went along because the network wanted it. Despite that, at the office , a few days before we taped our first show, Mark called me in and handed me a box. When I opened it, I saw a watch and know immediately what it was and then I saw the hand-written note that said”Every game show creator deserves a Cartier watch”. Nineteen weeks later the show was canceled. Mark came to the last five shows, and I think, on the fourth one we taped he walked over to my chair and said “It’s alright, kid…This was a success d’estime”…which, in English, meant basically, we may not have made a ton of money with this show…but I’m proud of it”. One more thing about Double Dare, at Goodson-Todman I shared the development chores with Jonathan Goodson, Mark’s son, who was a terrific logician and who also edited Material with me and with Markie Post, yes, that Markie Post. Jonathan produced the show when it went to air, and went on to run his own Production Company.
GP: I’m reading the Wiki page on Double Dare, and you had a rough time against both Wheel and Sanford. I’m just curious. Is that all we can amount this up to? Ratings? I personally think the show was brilliant.
JW: There is so much I can say about this subject. I can’t even begin to start. If we were sitting around, it would be different. I talk more easily than I type.
That’s certainly true. As we were getting things arranged, I ended up enjoying a 30 minute conversation with him. He’s a nice guy. I hope you’ve enjoyed this first part of our interview. There are more parts to come, just wait.