Hello again. It’s Labor Day weekend. You’ve got hot dogs and burgers on the grill, sunglasses on your face, and a smile in your heart because you don’t have to go to work on Monday. In fact, if you went to work on Monday, people would give you strange looks. Well, while you’re enjoying this long break (I know I am), why not enjoy this second part of my interview with Jay Wolpert? You remember Jay, don’t you? I hope you do.
I had some time editing this (as any blogger should do) but believe me, it’s a labor of love. You’ll see why in a moment.
JW: In Part 1 I deferred this question until now: So here it is: In the question you say, “You had a great run as a producer (of “Price Is Right”), but you ended up pulling a
McLean Stevenson. Why did you leave?”
Well, first, for the benefit of those of your readers who perhaps don’t understand what is meant by a “McLean Stevenson”: You are, of course, referring to the actor who first
played the C.O. of the MASH unit in MASH, that hugely popular and critically acclaimed show, who voluntarily left the show fairly early on, when it was already apparent that
it would be a classic. In fact, his character literally blew up in mid-air in a helicopter when he was leaving. My recollection is that he started to become an object of ridicule when his first starring sitcom after MASH, also went down in flames….Shortly afterward, his name became a metaphor for someone who leaves a good thing, only to fail miserably at his subsequent efforts. Ironically, had the show succeeded, McLean Stevenson would have perhaps been a metaphor for courage. Such is life.
GP: Indeed, c’est la vie.
JW: Anyway, to say I pulled a “McLean Stevenson”, therefore, begs two questions: 1) Did I indeed leave “a good thing”?…And 2) Did I subsequently “fail miserably”? Because if the
answer to those two questions is “Yes”, then I would have to plead guilty to your allegation. Let’s find out: The truth is by the time I started seriously thinking of leaving Price, it had ceased to be a “good thing” for me. Please don’t mistake me. With rare exception, I loved my staff; loved the show; and loved being one of the creative inner core of the company. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? And for about two or three years, it was. The show was a
massive hit, and while Mark and Bob Barker deserved the lion’s share, there were several other people who also deserved some of the credit for its success, and I was certainly
one of them. But here’s the thing you have to understand: Everyone’s different. I’ve known people who’ve wanted nothing more than to spend their whole professional life writing
quiz show questions…and got to do it! Good on them! To them doing that is a home run! Similarly when I got the Price job, I thought I could be happy producing Price for the
rest of my life. But I was wrong. It had nothing to do with the show. It had to do with who I was…and the nature of that particular company at the time. The biggest problem with the company, as I saw it, was that there was enormous clutter at the top, meaning not enough ways to increase position, salary, or creative challenge to satisfy the capable people available. Therefore things got very political, because instead of the challenge being “Can you come up with a good idea for a show?”…it became, how do you get your idea past this or that executive, who wanted his idea to reach Mark’s ears first?
So, for me, who was a young man at the time, it began to get stifling. After all, I was good at format creation, I was good at development, I could write my own material…and I
could lead a staff. In short, after a few years, I began to feel like I was about to explode…but luckily before that happened, I was offered a job as head of a game show
unit for a new company that was being formed by producer Burt Sugarman and a former head of Paramount TV, Bud Austin..with a piece of my own action. And so I sent in my letter of resignation. Mark’s letter back was somewhat bitter, implying that I just didn’t get the family concept that was G-T. But, in fact, I got the family concept so well, I
wanted to try and raise a company-family of my own. Two weeks later, Mark had evidently mellowed, because he sent me yet another letter saying that I would always be welcome if I ever chose to return. And two weeks after that, on the day before I walked out the door of Goodson-Todman for the last time, Mark and I ran into each other outside his office. He offered me his hand to say goodbye, at which point he peered over his reading glasses and said, “I’m going to miss you, kid”.
I mention that because it was not the kind of thing Mark was given to say to the people who left him. Like all of us, Mark was a mixed bag, but because his strengths were so
prodigious, his weaknesses seemed all the more sad. We would meet only a half-dozen times after that, at an industry function…or at Bob Boden’s first wedding, which was the
same thing. When we did, he was always respectful, and once or twice astonishingly complementary…Yes, I have some irritating memories of him, but I also have some genuinely warm ones, and again, of most of my staff, truly wonderful memories. Nonetheless, from the moment I left I have never regretted doing so for a micro-second…because at that time, for me, money and security were no longer as “good” a thing, as opportunity.
As to “failing miserably”, well : 1) From the day I left Mark’s company in roughly June of 1978, till roughly the same month in 1988, I had ten straight years of employment, running my own company under various production deals. 2) From the day I left G-T until the day I decided to be a full-time screenwriter in, I believe, December of 1998, I had made something like 17 pilots based on shows I had either created or co-created, of which I sold 6 for a percentage of around 36%. If it were baseball, and that was my batting
average, I’d be in the Hall Of Fame. And while it was true that none of my shows lasted more than two years (Shopping Spree), I also benefited from a very brisk business in
foreign licensing of the formats that I controlled, which were many.
Finally, after joining several more companies, and creating and/or producing several more shows, the interest being shown in my script of The Count Of Monte Cristo, prompted
me to become a full-time screenwriter. All and all, I have written and sold about a dozen feature scripts, two of which have actually been made into movies. The first, The Count
Of Monte Cristo, being critically well thought of, and very profitable for it’s producers. The second, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl, of which I was the
original writer, was also critically well thought of and wildly popular and profitable to the studio that made and distributed it, along with being the founding film of one of
Hollywood’s most successful franchises.
If all that’s “failing miserably”, please, sir…may I have some more.
Now, let’s pick up where I left off in Part 1 of the Interview.
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: You ask if Double Dare‘s failure was just about the ratings. I say yes…at least in this regard: If the ratings of Double Dare had been wonderful, I am sure it would not
have been cancelled. But in the absence of great ratings, other things, I am sure, were allowed to come into play, such as perhaps the suspicion, which certainly I came to have,
that the show simply did not feel right for casual daytime viewing… But as I’ve said, had it come along after the advent of Millionaire, it might’ve had a night-time slot
and perhaps we’d be talking about a whole different story.
GP: Then, there’s that show with the title that’s hard to pronounce. Whew! First off, there’s the title. I mean, you can hardly pronounce it. I think the show’s great, but the
title…. ugh. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come up with the title?
JW: The title “Whew!” was totally my responsibility. I wanted it because it seemed to fit so well with the show. This was my first show in which I had virtually total autonomy
and I was bursting to make every aspect of it different than the traditional three or four people sitting behind a desk, answering traditional questions against a wall of
metaphorical gray flannel. So, I opened with Hanna-Barbara animation and laced the format with elements that I felt had not been seen before, from the nature of its material to its break-neck pace. I wrapped the whole thing in a comic book look, wonderfully realized by the enormously talented art director, Jim Agazzi, and decided that the perfect
title for all this was “WHEW!”, which was the traditional comic book exclamation when reacting to a close call, something the show featured constantly. What I didn’t realize was
how much difficulty so many people would have in saying it…and by the time I did, I knew that titlewise I had screwed this one up. My bad. Everything else? I’m prouder of
that show than any other I’ve ever created, because everything felt fresh and new, and is still talked about today by game show fans as something special.
GP: And then there’s the host, Tom Kennedy. A great guy, he ended up hosting The Price is Right. I sent him an e-mail once (well maybe more than once), he told me to leave him
alone. “Best of luck in whatever you pursue,” he did say. I think that was nice.
JW: Tom Kennedy was one of those thoroughly nice guys…and a darned good host. Reading those WHEW! questions, and not stumblling, under time pressure like that, was no easy thing.
GP: Looking here at the Wiki page, this show went up against The Hollywood Squares and was beat out every time. Of course, only being 25 minutes long was unique for this game.
In your opinion, Mr. Wolpert, what went wrong? Why didn’t this show last as long as it could have?
JW: The question as phrased gives the impression that the show debuted and then was immediately throttled in the ratings by Hollywood Squares. I could be wrong, I suppose, but my recollection is that the show debuted with a 24 share against All-Star Secrets (which might have been also named Hollywood Secrets at one point). Anyway, pretty quickly the show went to a 29, which concerned the NBC program department, who responded by yanking All-Star Secrets off the air, and moving their heavy hitting afternoon game show, Hollywood Squares down into the morning against us. As soon as it became clear to the CBS daytime programming department that such was the NBC plan, they started lobbying their promotion department for some promotion time so they could protect their rookie show that was showing real promise of being a hit, providing our existence were effectively made known to the audience. Otherwise the Hollywood Squares juggernaut would roll over us before we got some real momentum. For whatever reason (probably the needs of CBS’ night time programming, which understandably was far more important) such time could not be made available…and bit by bit we lost ground, despite such Hail Mary attempts as teaming celebrities with contestants. The above was told to me by members of the daytime programming department, and while lack of promotion might not have been the only reason we lost audience to Squares, I can tell you that certain members of the CBS daytime programming dept., were indeed gnashing their teeth.
GP: Then there’s another question that is on every game show fan’s mind. The theme music. Alan Thicke certainly did a good job with the theme, I’ll tell you that. We have 2
attempts on YouTube of a “clean” version, but not the full package. Do you know what happened to the original recordings of the theme?
JW: Alan’s music was wonderful, and it was a pleasure working with him. I do not know where the full package of music is…but you are certainly not the first person to ask.
GP: Interestingly enough, all the episodes are supposedly still available but it hasn’t been rerun on GSN. Why is that? Burt Sugarman owns all the episodes, but you created the
JW: As you say, I created the show, but Burt owns it. You have to ask him.
GP: The date is January 3, 1983. Three games premiered on NBC. One of them was Sale of the Century. Another won an Emmy for Betty White. Yours was the 3rd. How did you come up with the concept?
JW: It’s a secret, because one day I might do it again.
GP: Hit Man was the first to pair Peter Tomarken with Rod Roddy, a combination that would prove to be deadly awesome for the other network. Did you have any part in this match?
JW: Certainly I did. As I said, when Whew! came along, I was determined to put in as many new elements as I could, and selecting the right announcer was easy. An actor- friend of mine, Sal Viscuso had a regular part on Soap, a hit comedy on ABC, so I watched it a lot. From the very beginning I was taken by the voice of the show’s announcer, some guy named Rod Roddy who would do a kind of permanent “Once Upon A Time” intro to each episode. The thing that got me was the smile in his voice that seemed to promise you’re going to have a fun time here. So I pitched him to Mike Ogeins and Mark Waxman who were in charge of CBS Daytime and they approved. I tried to find fresh talent for hosting as well, but frankly we decided so much depended on the host’s reading of the question under time pressure, that a new guy who could do it was hard to find.
After Whew went off the air, I then was offered a vice presidency and production deal at Metromedia Producers Corp and started to develop Rodeo Drive based on an idea by Randy Neece’s and Roger Speakman’s to do a show biz gossip game show. I liked that as a concept and particularly liked the title (clearly better than Whew!). We developed and
created it together in order to take it out for the 1980 syndicated season…and that’s how I found Peter. A marvelously talented MC, he was incredibly good with format, and
extremely warm to the contestants, able to be riotously funny, and very good-looking as well. We paired Peter and Rod together for that, and while Rodeo Drive did not sell then,
Peter and Rod did get to work together on Hit Man a few years later. Rod always gave me credit for starting him off on his game show career, and I’m proud to have done it.
GP: What was it like working on this show? Do you have any experiences you’d like to share?
JW: It had its challenges. As you know the concept was based on producing and showing the contestants two three minute stories on two different subjects, say, the story of the
production of Gone with the Wind and the life of the great magician Houdini, each supported by stills, music, and the use of humor whenever possible. We would ask the contestants questions based only on the info used in the stories. Thus, by the time the actual game play began, the audience was armed with as much knowledge
as the contestants, which was a key element to the show. I had great people with me. Randy Neece was co-producer with Roger Speakman, and also handled the music. Joel Hecht of Whew! and Match Game wrote many of the stories and supervised the other writers. Tess Ayers supervised the visuals connected to the stories, with help from Fred Westbrock, future co-author of the Encyclopedia Of TV Game Shows and ground-breaking talent agent, in his first T.V. job. As the show-runner, I was ultimately responsible for making sure all of it worked…so it was a long, long day, but I got to do two of the things I loved when producing Price: Write stories, and be involved in choosing some of the music. When the show was cancelled, we were saddened, in need of a rest, and very proud of it.
GP: Back at the Wiki page, you went up against The Love Boat and Price. Let’s face it, you got screwed by your former employers. That must’ve been tough for you. Of course, it
gave us one of the most famous contestant plugs in TV history.
JW: I hate to disillusion you but I wasn’t “screwed” by Goodson-Todman, I was merely beaten by them in the ratings, and why not? Price was the better show. Heck I helped make it that way. Thanks for the kudos regarding that last contestant plug. I wrote it. If I remember, it went: “If you’d like to be a contestant on Hit Man…Forget it.”
GP: You stayed out of the game show spotlight until 1988, when you created Blackout. How did you come up with the idea for that?
JW: Simple. It occured to me that if we could demonstrate that there was a skill attached to judicious audio censoring, we might have a cool show, and a funny one at that. In
my view, it was, and it was one of CBS’s highest testing daytime pilots at the time.
GP: You found Bob Goen to host. A great choice, IMO. You ended up picking him over Robb Weller. Why?
JW: Actually, we didn’t. We liked Rob very much, but from before he signed the deal to do the pilot, he made it clear that there would likely be a conflict in some way with an
existent project, perhaps Entertainment Tonight , that would preclude him doing the series.
GP: I ask this about every show, but what was it like working on it?
JW: Terrific. It was a smart show. There was not, nor had there ever been, anything like it on before. I loved Bob Goen and the celebrities seemed to enjoy doing it. It was
especially fun to have Markie Post appear on the show, having been an alumni not only of G-T, but also of my own company (She had written many of the questions on the Whew!
pilot, and now she was a big celebrity because of Night Court, and it was she who won the end game on the pilot.) Legit!!
GP: I asked Mr. Goen why he thought the show got cancelled, and he thought it was probably because “it was just too complicated for the audience to follow”. Just look on the
bright side, though. You’re the first producer in GS history to have a game replaced by the game you originally replaced in the first place (that being The $25,000 Pyramid,
which was created by Bob Stewart who…. well, you know where this is going to go). It’s hard to believe, but I don’t think the fans really ever gave you a chance. It’s too bad,
because I liked it. It’s underrated, to say the least.
JW: I love Bob, but I think he’s wrong about that…and by the way, not that I haven’t done my share of complicated shows. As far as your comment about the fans not giving it a
chance…The real problem in general is this: The familiar feels comfortable. The unfamiliar at the outset does not. Blackout was very new, with a whole new way to play a
communication game. But from virtually the day we got bought, the network was telling us that “we might hear some rumors that Pyramid would replace us in 13 weeks but it really
wasn’t true and that if we got good ratings they’d keep us on the air”. Well, maybe they would have…but what was clear was there would not be anything like an opportunity to
build. So, instead, we were yanked as soon as Pyramid was ready,..and after a decent period of grieving because I loved that show, I sold the format to about a half-dozen
countries and put my kids through school with the money. And, by the way, thank you, Greg, I’m glad you liked it.
GP: BTW, do you know where I can find a copy of the theme music? It’s very catchy.
JW: Seriously, I don’t know. Its probably buried down in some storage facility with the Whew Music and Citizen Kane’s sled.
GP: Now we come to your first cable game, Rodeo Drive. You originally tested this out in 1980 with Peter Tomarken. What happened in those 9 years that convinced you to go with
Louise DuArt as host?
JW: Louise was talented, funny, eminently likeable, smart, a joy to work with, had a very cute way about her…and on top of all of that came this unbelievable bonus that she
could do some marvelous impressions. I loved that show too. It had a great sense of whimsy and good question writing. It should’ve worked, and maybe it would’ve, given more than one cycle. I don’t say all our shows were great…or even most of them…but I do say this: There was almost always something unique and humorous about them. And that’s
because I really did strive not to settle for ordinary ideas. In our company, we would start the development process by saying “What can we do, that hasn’t been done
before?”…as opposed to, “what can we do that’s working now?” and I had with me the kind of people who valued that sensibility.
GP: This was also your first game with Burton Richardson as announcer. I like the guy, I really do. He ended up being your announcer for all your shows in the ’90s.
JW: I didn’t realize that Burton was my only announcer throughout the 90s, but, after all, Burton is a great guy; a truly wonderful announcer and an all around pleasure. Who
wouldn’t want to work with him for at least a decade?
GP: What was it like creating and producing this show? Was there some added difficulty working for a women’s cable network?
JW: It was a little bumpy but I hasten to say it had absolutely nothing to do with Lifetime being a woman’s cable network, and everything to do with the fact that what makes a
game show tick is a pretty esoteric field of study, and the Lifetime folks, though very nice and smart as well, were not yet conversant with the form, nor should’ve they been
expected to be, and so misunderstandings and miscommunications occurred on both sides. Supermarket Sweep, I believe, went on at the same time, but their way might’ve been
smoother because they were a veteran show. [Actually, that’s partially true. It did begin in 1965 and ran 2 years on ABC. The most successful version of it, though, premiered the same day Rodeo Drive did.]
[The folks in the pic from left to right are front row: Meridith Fox Stewart; Randall Neece; Jay Wolpert; and Phred Tinampay. Second Row: The chin behind Jay’s head is Joel Hecht. Photo courtesy of Mr. Wolpert.]
GP: We’re starting to approach a trend here. This show lasted 12 weeks.
JW: To everyone’s misfortune, sadly, yes.
JW: I’m going to try and answer all your questions re the Paramount syndicated Price in bulk, …. Here goes: By the time I returned to Mark Goodson Productions, the syndicated
Price had been already bought, mostly staffed, and the only thing that was still at issue was the host. The favorites were indeed Doug Davidson and Mark Kriski, but my
impression was that Davidson had the edge with the people in charge of the show. When I re-joined the company, I was not on the staff of the show, and made it clear to all that
that was how I liked it. I was, however, asked by Jonathan Goodson for my opinion re the host pick, and while I was impressed with both, my preference too, was Doug. He looked
great, was funny, was wonderful with format, and warm as could be with contestants. I was asked to go to the first tapings by Jonathan and did so. At one of the last tapings I
was scheduled to be at, Jonathan approached me and asked me to be Executive Producer, specifically charged with keeping an eye on Showcase quality.
Initially, I told him that while I loved doing the show years ago, I wasn’t interested in doing Price again, being much more involved in new show-creation. Well, blandishments
were offered, including flattery, always a sure-fire strategy with me, and, I believe even filthy lucre may have been mentioned, so finally I took the job. And while the
showcases did improve, there was a much bigger problem than showcases at play, that, thank heaven, I had nothing to do with. My understanding was that what got it cancelled was not that the the show was produced particularly badly. In fact, I thought it was produced fine. Nor were it’s numbers particularly bad…It was that the show’s ratings could
not justify the cost of such a big show. As to why this night-time Price got “so much heat” from the daytime version, that’s not a debate I want to get into since I had zippo to
do with its inception and don’t know whether Bob was handled in a suitable way or not, when it was first decided to do the show.
As to Mike Richards (a lovely guy, by the way, who allowed me to bring my five year old grandson on the set to see a taping. You see that? You get a little older and all you
care about is who’s nice to your grandson.) I think he’s right in that it can be a great 30 minute format, but I would, and I’m sure Mike would as well, make sure not to settle
for what was done in that former 30 min. format, before investigating what could be done. You never know what great idea is waiting around the corner. Now whether the show is
a great fit for a syndication run in the daytime market, I’ve been away from that area a long time, so I don’t really know.
GP: Fair enough.
GP: After Price went down in a blaze of glory, you went to The Family Channel (now ABC Family) with 2 games for them, Wait Til You Have Kids and Shopping Spree. How did you come up with the concepts for both those shows?
JW: First of all, I didn’t conceive Wait ‘Til You Have Kids at all. As a matter of fact, it was while I was working for Chuck Barris in the winter of 1972 that I first became
acquainted with the show under its previous title, The Parent Game. It had been created by one of Barris’ stalwarts, a very funny big teddy-bear of a guy named Gary Jonke who
was one of the Dating Game writers. The show was sold in ’72 and I think was on for that syndicated season. Years later, Jonke brought the show to his friend Michael Ogiens , a
former network daytime executive, who now had his own production company. It was around 1993, and a time that I was out on my own, shortly before re-joining Goodson. Ogeins, much more interested in primetime programming, asked me if I would produce the pilot, which I did. Nothing much happened until Ogeins became President of MTM and brought me over in a production deal. The company, which owned the Family Channel, immediately wanted two game shows. Ogeins had brought over Kids which I was already attached to because of the pilot I had done and I quickly created Shopping Spree…and suddenly I had a pair of shows on the air.
GP: Ironically, your last original show Shopping Spree was your longest-running show (at 2 years). The game is seemingly so simple, a test of human observation. Why do you
think it was the big hit that it was?
JW: Shopping Spree‘s premise was simple and unique. It was a visual communication game, in which one person, solely by means of physical visual clues to their likes and
interests, would try to convey to their teammate who they’d never met, which items in a street of store windows they would most like to have. Then, against a clock, the
teammate would try and get his partner’s stuff more quickly than the opposing team could collect theirs. It was dynamic and physical, and big time fun, first because of it’s
style and our stamp…but also because of the contributions of Ron Pearson, an all-American man-child-magician-juggler, with a great sense of humor and a streak of silliness
(for which I’ve always had a soft-spot ) that just wouldn’t quit. Unfortunately, the Family Channel was sold and got re-purposed, I guess. I did attempt to make a deal for the
rights from the new company before the show got stored in the proverbial basement along with our aforementioned Blackout music and Citizen Kane’s sled, but ran into a
bureaucratic wall, which is too bad, because I think we all could’ve made some money.
GP: Your host for Spree was Ron Pearson, with whom you had worked before on Skedaddle (a short-lived 6-week game show that was part of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbara).
JW: Yes, Skedaddle was a fun kids show created toward the end of the prime of slime. It was the first time I used Ron. His persona and energy was exactly right for the show. It
was, once again a very unique show, made far more so by three huge comic Hanna-Barbara dinos; Slam, Dunk and Seymour. It was designed as part of the Funtastic World Of Hanna-
Barbara, as you mentioned. But, as in the old familiar story, Taft, who had bought Hanna Barbara, was then bought by another company [Great American Broadcasting], and then another company bought them [Turner] etc….And nobody seems to know who owns what anymore or where it is. Look under Sled, Kane, Citizen.
GP: Now, you were the executive producer of the 1998 version of Match Game, a show that tried to bring the risque humor back but just went over the top. I’m not going to blame you personally, Mr. Wolpert. It’s just that the show had no returning champs, no multiplier from the previous iterations, and a cable-level budget. No, I’m not going to blame you. I’m going to blame Pearson Television. However, I must ask…. were most of the format decisions yours or corporate’s?
JW: Actually, Greg, it’s been almost fifteen years ago, so who remembers? Actually, here’s what I do remember. Pearson owned the show. I was hired to try and rejuvenate the
show since there had been several attempts before and they had basically failed. When we were re-developing the show, the process went like this: A given idea would almost
always begin with my company. If we thought it was viable, we would bring it to Pearson. If they liked it, and it survived the run-thru process it would become part of our
format. If they didn’t approve, it didn’t get on. So I guess Pearson and I both deserve the blame. But before you distribute that blame, let me repeat that we are all victims
of the familiar, because we are all comfortable with it. You say you want to blame Pearson for no returning champs. I say Jeopardy can have returning champs because the large
accumulation of money seems justified in a game that requires hard knowledge and therefore seems important. But when you watch Match Game, you’re watching for the laughs. It’s just not a game that that feels like it needs money, except as a nominal reason to want to win. You’re just familiar with a returning champ on Match Game. Had the show
stayed on longer, you’d’ve gotten used to a non-returning champ. For example, do you really think that when Price‘s first show went on in ’72, as a game that rewarded accurate
price estimation, that there wasn’t a burst of letters, all complaining about the fact that the actual price of an item was say $100 and the closest bid was $ 101 so the
winner is Mildred who bid $70!!! Are you kidding me? That was the most counter-intuitive rule ever created in a game show…but you know what? You got used to it. Now try and
change it. Anyway, you get my point. As far as I’m concerned, “It’s always been this way” may be comfortable, but it’s a lousy reason to do anything, or more precisely to NOT
do anything. That kind of thinking is how you never find out what’s on the far side of the hill.
GP: In the game show field, it seems you are now listed as a consultant for the current “shuffle” version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The only possible thing I could think
of that sounds Wolpert-esque is the “Jump the Question”, with the up arrow. That reminds me a bit of Whew. I’m curious, what parts of the current format did you institute?
JW: One day, out of nowhere, Brian Fronze of ABC, lets it be known that he wants to talk to me regarding bringing a fresh eye to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire in order to see
if there are any reasonable changes that can be made to boost the excitement level of stations and fans for the coming season. I was intrigued by the challenge which I saw as
kind of unusual: Could I come up with an idea that would give an already great show a zap in the arm, while leaving virtually all that everyone loved, and I loved as well,
pretty much intact? Also, it would be fun exercising that game show muscle again just to see if I could do it, all without any long term obligation, and therefore no threat to
my screenwriting career. Besides, I felt I had a good idea, not that I could guarantee that the ratings would improve, but I knew this was worth a try because it made sense.
When Millionaire exploded on prime time in, I think, the late nineties; I, like everyone else, was extremely impressed with all its innovation regarding both format and
presentation. But as I watched it now, I was struck by the fact that what seemed a small weakness in the midst of so many unique elements when the show first began… now seemed to be more of a problem, once we had grown used to the unique elements. The weakness I’m referring to, of course, is that of the increased money proceeding in predictable lock-step with the increased difficulty of the question, leaving us with the inexorable problem of a built-in lack of drama in the the opening stages of the game where the questions are always easy and the pay-off always small. So then I thought, what happens if we randomize both the questions and the money, so what used to be only one climax per question (Will the contestant answer the question correctly?), now becomes two climaxes (Now that we know that he did [or didn’t) answer the question correctly…Let’s find out how much it was worth!). I put in “Jumping The Question” to save the contestant and us from an early bad decision. i.e. since, in this system, a hugely difficult question could
appear in the first position and knock the contestant out of the game immediately. Jumping the Question gave us yet another type of drama that cut both ways. “Let’s see the
amount of money you decided not to go for!…Oh no, it was the 25 grand!” or “Let’s take a look at what you passed up, I hope it’s nothing big…Great, it’s only 500 bucks!”
Plus it gave Meridith, who I always thought was one of the most naturally talented hosts ever, more to play off.
Once I submitted the idea to the network and it was approved, I worked on it with the producer and the staff for several weeks, as we all tried to figure out how much money
could actually be afforded on the board. All and all, it was a very enjoyable experience. The network people could not have been nicer, and the same was true of the staff, once
a few of them really believed what I had told them from the start, which was that I was just a hired gun passin’ through. Go away, Shane!
GP: Mr. Wolpert, it seems you’ve also gone into the screenwriting business. You recieved a story credit in the incredibly successful Disney film Pirates of the Caribbean: The
Curse of the Black Pearl. My family loves the series of films and has all 3 of them on DVD. I saw the 4th one (On Stranger Tides), and I thought it was great, but I kept looking
for something you had written in. What did you contribute to the Pirates universe?
JW: It’s a complicated thing to explain when there are multiple writers on a picture, so let me simply say this: I contributed significant elements to Jack’s character, as well
as to the story, and a number of other contributions all of which combined, were sufficient enough to entitle me to that which we writers prize most of all, screen credit and
the goodies that go with it.
GP: Mr. Wolpert, I think you’re one of the most prolific and most underrated game show producers I’ve ever interviewed. You’ve created a lot of brilliant formats, but most of
them don’t last any longer than 16 weeks. It starts off great, but then something happens to it and it gets canned. Why do you think this is? Why do you keep getting all this
JW: First of all, Greg, you’re very sweet to say all that. It’s a serious question and it deserves serious consideration which I’ve given it. I think there were a number [of]
challenges we had to face as a new company, and by far, the toughest obstacle to get over was the nature of the period in which we were first trying to do business; a period
which began in 1979, when there were very few network time periods available for game shows in general, let alone new-title shows. And such game show slots as there were, were
generally filled by Goodson Todman and Bob Stewart on CBS; Heatter-Quigley and Merv Griffin on NBC; and post-Barris, nothing much beyond Family Feud at ABC. The afternoons were dominated by soaps and they were especially favored at ABC. In syndication, it became well known that unless you had a previously successful show (old-title), trying to get on the air was virtually a non-starter. Mind you, I’m not saying there weren’t exceptions…but that was more or less the case, so even with a great show, your chances of the world getting to see it, were greatly diminished, especially if it were brand new, and, of course, being a new packager, all our shows were brand new.
I think a second challenge had to do with a personnel problem…not with who I had. I had the best…I really did…but with who I didn’t have. I never had my own intelligence
operative like the most successful packagers did. And I’m not talking about an agent here, although I’ve had the best, and valued them highly. . .but I’m talking about someone
who works only on behalf of your company, because only you are paying them. I didn’t know them all, but Goodson-Todman famously first had Bill Todman and then Bud Austin and then the masterful Jerry Chester. I believe Chuck had Buddy Granoff who was his guy. And I think Merv had Murray Schwartz who was a former Morris Agent. They might’ve called themselves salesman, but they weren’t really that. They couldn’t begin to answer a network’s questions about the creative innards of a show… Jerry Chester (arguably the best who ever was) used to catch a little shut-eye on the floor of the Green Room during the endless meetings we had readying the launch of Price… but they were the production
company’s exclusive eyes inside the network or syndicator. They always knew what buyer needed what and when; which one of their pilots they were disappointed in, and when a
head of network daytime was about to leave willingly or unwillingly…all of which impacted on where one took their business. Perhaps the second-worst professional decision I
ever made, I made because I didn’t have such a person to give me that intelligence. As to what was probably the worst professional decision I ever made: That would be not having
such a person in the first place… But they were very expensive, and I needed a show to be on the air a long time before I could afford one.
Oh, yes and finally there was one more occasional challenge to overcome: Me…or at least that part of me, which, on a few occasions probably favored the unusual to the
detriment of the commercial, always because I was convinced the particular unusual show would be commercial… and I was wrong. But, as I say, those occasions were very few. I
really believe that Whew and Blackout, which were very unusual in premise, could’ve caught on and possibly been big hits at night and/or during the day, had they had a little
more network support. I think Skedaddle on its own (as opposed to being embedded in the midst of other shows) would’ve been a heckuva Saturday morning show. And I think Double Dare and Hit Man might’ve done much better at night than their short daytime performance indicated. So, to sum up, Greg: scarce time periods available for new titles and packagers.. not enough penetrating knowledge of the market place… And every once in awhile, mistaking my audience. One might call it unfortunate, but bad luck had nothing to
do with it. After all, if I had constantly been launching shows, I wouldn’t have been able to write movies, which would not have given me the kind of life that has allowed me to
work anywhere (I wrote my script of Pirates on a tall ship in the Andaman Sea off Thailand)…or to play with my grandsons. Nonetheless, I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to produce Price and make the contributions I made to it, and to have had the privilege of working with the wonderfully talented people on the game shows that
came out of our company. We worked hard, and we laughed a lot.
GP: What are you doing now? Is there anything you’d like to promote?
JW: Currently, my life’s work appears to be finishing this interview. I’m kidding. Literally, in a matter of days, a script I have just completed will be let loose on the world,
and the producers and I will be attempting to find favor with a director and subsequently a studio or other source of financing so we can make that film.
GP: What do you think about the current Price with Drew Carey? It’s celebrating its 40th season this year. Have you seen it recently? If so, what do you think?
JW This may shock you, but other than the shows I was involved with when I worked with Jonathan, I have never seen a Price is Right episode from beginning to end since the day I
left. This was not caused by hostility of any sort. I have enormous respect for the show and a true attachment, having invented a number of games (Hole-in-One; Golden Road;
Temptation and others), and many other ties. We’ve already talked about the “Story Showcases”, but I also was the originator of a number of practices that are still used in the
show’s production. Nor was the reason I’ve never sat down to see a Price SHOW, indifference. In fact, it was quite the opposite. You see, after I left, I immediately made the
decision that watching the show involved a Lose-Lose situation for me, because if I did watch, and then saw the show being produced BETTER than when I produced it, I would
feel sorry for myself…or…if I saw it being produced WORSE than when I produced it, I would be sorry for the show. After Drew took over, I tried to remember to watch, curious
to see how he attacked the challenges that would face him, and how his rhythms would impact the show, but I had so gotten out of the habit, that up to now, I haven’t really seen
him. When I came to see it with my grandson, I think we saw one game played, but my focus was obviously on how my grandson was enjoying his visit, which he was immensely. But having been there for a whole rehearsal prior to the start of the show, I thought it was time to take him home. Anyway, what I did manage to take away from what little I saw,
was that Drew came across as enormously relaxed, kind and talented in the Will Rogers, Herb Shriner (names most of you do not know, but trust me, talented and unflappable guys) tradition.
GP: Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to enter your field of work?
JW: I don’t quite know what you mean by my field…T.V. game shows…or writing feature films? You know what, it doesn’t matter, because the professional advice I have for a
young person wanting to enter show business in general would still be the same. And here it is:
In 1992, I wrote and sold my first movie script, and in it, as it turns out, an important character advises a young man regarding starting a career. What follows is the essence
of what he tells the kid, and, in fact, what I would tell my grandsons if they were starting out. I would tell them that life is a pyramid. At the broad bottom are all those
people who can do what anyone else can, sweep floors, deliver messages etc. And it is only when you look higher up that you find those who have skills that fewer and fewer
people possess. Till at last, you can make out the top, where lives the home run king, the neurosurgeon, and back when I was first entering the business, the person with the
rarest talent of all, the Jaguar mechanic. Now, those people at the top derive two great benefits from being at the top. They have gotten very rich…and they can get away
with being asses. It is no coincidence that great divas throw a large number of vases against dressing room walls. They do…because they can… But kids who are just starting
out, who can be replaced in a heartbeat because there’s no great art to sweeping the floor, those people, while they’re at the bottom, can’t afford to throw vases, meaning
whatever they do, they’ve got to do with a great ATTITUDE. That’s right, no matter how dirty and difficult the job, do it with a smile. And when you’re finished, ask what
else…No! Don’t ask…FIND what else needs to be done and do that with a smile too. In other words, do that lousy job with such good grace that when an opening occurs on the
the next level on the pyramid, you won’t even have to ask for it… But even if you do, then don’t be bashful, go in and ask. All of what I just said worked for me. Now, one
Let’s say you get the new job because of that splendid attitude and you even got a promotion or two after that, there will come a day or night when you’ll want to throw it all
away. Maybe you’re a first P.A. on a new game show pilot, and for two days you’ve been in the studio and spent each night in the production offices re-typing the script and the
new host notes, and now, this morning, after leaving your eyeballs stuck on your computer screen in the green room, you’ve spent the last three hours answering questions from
the other P.A.s and putting out all kinds of fires so the producer will never know they were ablaze in the first place. And now, you’re ten minutes away from taping, with the
audience finally seated in the house, and though you feel like a zombie, you know you have to give the announcer who’s all the way across the stage, the prize copy and
contestant intros. So you grab your clipboard with all that, which is when you recall that you were so busy, you forgot to mail your rent check last week, which feels like an
explosion under your heart.
When that moment of that day comes…all I ask is that you remember, as you cross that stage in front of that audience…every one of them wishes they were you.
You do that…and you’ll be fine.
GP: Thank you so much, Mr. Wolpert.
JW: Thank you Greg.
The moral of this story: “Rosebud” was the name of Citizen Kane’s sled.
Oh gosh, I enjoyed that so much. I hope you did too. My many, many thanks go to Jay Wolpert for this interview. It was certainly worth the wait.