Laughter Is the Best Debt Relief
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It was nearing 10 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and a small production team gathered around a monitor in a studio on the seventh floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building to watch a rehearsal for that night’s live broadcast. On the screen, a high-energy, 39-year-old comedian fielded fake phone calls in front of a backdrop hung with college diplomas. On either side of the studio sat stacks of pizza boxes labeled in Sharpie: “DO NOT EAT. PROPS. DO NOT EAT.”
The pizzas and the people were there for a live segment of Paid Off with Michael Torpey, a trivia-style game show now in its second season on the network TruTV. Each episode features three contestants competing in a prerecorded trivia contest for a chance to have all their student loans taken care of. The new season, which had kicked off the week before, had a new feature: a live, 3½-minute lightning round held at the end of each episode, during which viewers with student loan debt could call in and answer three questions for a chance to win up to $3,000.
“That felt good, but 3½ minutes goes by like nothing,” says Torpey, an actor and producer best known for his role as the despicable prison guard “Humps” on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, watching himself on the screen. “Once we get into this, there’s really no room for jokes—I just want to get through as many people as possible and give away as much money as we can.”
After giving away $500,000 of the network’s money during its first season, the team had promised to disperse more than double that in Season 2. Torpey hopes the live rounds will help them even get beyond that. Of course, he being a comedian and this being a comedy game show, there were bound to be jokes. Exhibit A: the pizzas. If a caller got all three answers correct, the plan was for Torpey to punch through a pizza while confetti rained down. (The pizzas were, in fact, refrigerated holdovers from the week before, when nobody had answered all three questions correctly, but it seemed fitting that a show about college would stretch pizza shelf life.)
Paid Off is slickly produced, with a slightly cartoonish aesthetic, but the competition side of it is very real. Contestants progress through three rounds of play with gradually escalating dollar amounts for correct answers. The winner advances to a final, timed round, in which the percentage of debt relieved increases with each correct answer. Full debt payoff requires answering eight questions correctly in less than a minute.
In telling the show’s origin story, Torpey is careful to point out his own debt-free good fortune. “I was incredibly privileged,” he told a questioner during a Reddit AMA in May. “My parents took out a second line of equity on their home so I could leave school debt free. That freed me up to be a Theater Major, not something I would have had the courage to do if I knew I was going to owe tens of thousands of dollars.”
The idea for the show came to Torpey after seeing his wife struggle with $40,000 of college loans. After he landed his first big gig in 2011, a national Hanes underwear ad with Michael Jordan, they were able to pay them off in full. “When we wrote the checks to her loan servicers, she started crying, and I felt so ashamed that I hadn’t really understood what she was going through,” he says.
For the contestants on Paid Off, the money and the sense of relief it brings can be life-changing. The show’s premise is absurd, but that’s balanced by Torpey’s own thoughtful earnestness. Given the scope of the student debt crisis—student loans are now the second leading category of household debt in the U.S., behind only mortgages, with some 44 million students and former students on the hook for roughly $1.5 trillion—he’s under no illusion that the payoffs represent anything more than a very small drop in a very large bucket. If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound like a problem a comedian should be trying to solve, Torpey agrees. He signs off each episode by saying, “Call your representatives and tell them we need a better solution than this game show.”
The new season had begun with a “stunt week,” with new episodes on four consecutive nights, meaning four live lightning rounds. But the momentum the team had generated had inevitably dissipated, and in his dressing room after the rehearsal, Torpey was nervous. “We got into a good rhythm, but now, coming back after taking the weekend off, you tighten up a little,” he said. “So it’s like, this is where we need to make sure we don’t fall on our face.”
The crew reassembled in the studio, crowding onto a black leather love seat to watch the prerecorded 10 p.m. broadcast. Three contestants introduced themselves and their debt amounts ($59,921; $57,710; $45,610) before everyone jumped into Round 1. There were questions about childhood development and Neil Armstrong; a recurring character, a time-traveling space captain named Don Roger, came out to quiz the contestants about exercise so he could bring back the answers to an obese future. Round 2 began after a commercial break with Family Feud-type questions (“We asked a hundred people …”). A contestant named Pamela, who teaches English to non-native speakers, moved into the lead.
“We’re live in 15 minutes!” said the show’s director.
After another break, one contestant was sent home, his $600 in winnings rounded up generously to $2,000, leaving the remaining two contestants to compete in a game that asked them to decide whether a given song title referred to a kiddie earworm from Kidz Bop or the heavy metal band Slipknot. Pamela triumphed, the other contestant went home with $4,900. The show’s final round was muted so the crew in the studio could better focus on preparing for the live segment.
“Phone lines are open in four minutes. Live in about nine minutes!”
Indebtedness from higher education is fast becoming a generational crisis in the U.S., skewing behavior, limiting career choices, and hampering borrowers’ ability to attain economic independence. Since 2004, total student loan debt has more than quadrupled, from $345 billion to $1.5 trillion, a reflection of both a greater number of indebted young people and escalating individual debt loads. Ten percent of student loans are delinquent by at least 90 days, compared with just 1% for mortgage debt and 2.5% for auto loans. Meanwhile, the promised rewards for taking on all that debt—higher salaries and better career prospects—have failed to materialize. “I have a higher standard of living in a Third World country than I would in America, because of my student loans,” one young person told CNBC for a story about people fleeing the country to escape loan payments.
Structurally, Paid Off is an homage to classic game shows such as The Price is Right and Concentration and the more recent Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But perhaps its most important antecedent is a show near and dear to many a child of the 1990s. “The touchstone was Remote Control on MTV,” Torpey tells me, referencing the early 1990s game show hosted by Ken Ober, with Colin Quinn as his sidekick. It was saturated in TV culture, alternately bizarre, surreal, and sophomoric, and featured walk-on appearances by then-little-known comedians that included Adam Sandler and Denis Leary, as well as athletes and other celebrities. There were sound effects and graphics and a cartoonish set design, all of which feature in Paid Off. “We wanted that same irreverence, the looseness, the interaction with the live audience—the way that if something happened, they could follow it,” he says.
Another important similarity to Remote Control: The trivia is meant to be more play-along-at-home accessible than Jeopardy-level. Stumping people is not the point. “The game play isn’t so precious,” Torpey says. “This is a game show, obviously, and we have questions that we work super hard on, but at the end of the day, the most important part of the show is that the message gets through.”
Torpey took the idea to his manager, who connected him with a small production company called Cowboy Bear Ninja in fall 2016. (The name refers to a rock-paper-scissors-like game incorporating full-body miming: Cowboy shoots bear, bear mauls ninja, ninja beats cowboy.) It wound up being a perfect match. “We had a reputation for doing work that married comedy and cause closely,” says Michael Melamedoff, a partner at Cowboy Bear Ninja and an executive producer of Paid Off. Melamedoff also directed the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, which examined systemic racism through the lens of the convenience store-operating Simpsons character.
Neither he nor Torpey had developed a game show before, and they discovered, Torpey says, that “there are a lot of rules around making game shows that you never know until you try to make one.” In addition to being funny and entertaining, the show also had to be legit, so they brought on a former producer from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and hired a consulting company that specializes in game show compliance to advise them on how to phrase questions fairly and judge answers accurately. They eventually found an enthusiastic home for it at TruTV, a part of the Turner empire geared toward a millennial audience. “It’s a ridiculous game show for a ridiculous problem, and it couldn’t speak more directly to our audience and sensibility,” says Lesley Goldman, the network’s head of original programming and development.
The second season is more polished than the first, and more money has led to more buzz. A recent video clue was delivered by Shaq and Charles Barkley from Inside the NBA, which airs on another Turner network, TNT. So far this season, it’s pulled in about 90,000 viewers each week, with 7,000 to 8,000 calls per night for the live portion. The show has also benefited from a surge in conversation around debt. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator, has been outspoken on the topic, announcing in April that she would offer some level of debt forgiveness to 95% of borrowers, and in June, rival Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, released his own plan for total student-loan forgiveness funded by a new tax on securities trades.
The Sunday before the Week 2 lightning round, billionaire Robert Smith announced during a commencement speech at historically black Morehouse College that he was zeroing out the debt of the entire graduating class. But the initial positive response quickly yielded to criticism that his gift was a distraction from the underlying issue. “It’s a phenomenal gesture, and a great way to challenge other alumni and focus attention on this problem, but it’s also not a solution,” says Torpey. “We can’t count on billionaire philanthropists to fix this, any more than we can count on a game show.”
Two months before Season 2 began airing, Torpey and Melamedoff were in an edit bay in the Lower East Side, Manhattan, offices of Cowboy Bear Ninja with the show’s head writer, Ethan Berlin, and a few others. The second season’s 16 episodes had been shot in Atlanta in December. “We need to lose 15 seconds,” said Torpey, looking at his intro to the third episode, which ended with him shouting “Woo” a few times. “Maybe we could cut one ‘woo’ ”?
The taping featured a charismatic 31-year-old contestant named Sean Collins-Smith, who had $77,509 in debt. A double major in journalism and cinema at Virginia Commonwealth University, he went on to earn a master’s in multimedia journalism there and taught journalism at the school for six years. At one point, he was working a full-time job and three part-time jobs while living with his mother and still couldn’t make the recommended $1,100 monthly debt payment. At the time the episode was filmed, he had recently married and moved from Richmond, Va., to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a screenwriter. When Torpey asked what he’d do without debt, Collins-Smith said he’d like to follow up his budget-conscious courthouse wedding with his wife’s dream ceremony.
“These are good performances by these contestants,” Torpey said after watching Collins-Smith improvise a snooty voice in response to a question about French literature. “They’re having fun, and his French accent is hilarious.” With no shortage of potential contestants—nearly 6,000 applied this season for 48 slots—the producers tend to pick people who are funny, articulate, and have real jobs. “We really don’t want it to be just all aspiring actors and actresses and stand-ups,” Torpey said. It’s a tricky process, and occasionally a wrenching one. “Some of the people that need the show the most probably don’t have access to it or can’t take the time off and come to Atlanta.”
Collins-Smith had seen an ad for Paid Off while watching another TruTV show and applied online using the show’s casting form, which asks basic questions about college major, amount of debt, current job, and whether you’ve been on TV before. After a vetting process that included trivia tests, Skype sessions, and verification of his debt, he got the news that he’d been chosen to appear on the show. He wound up reaching the final round, during which he took advantage of his college degree by choosing movie-themed questions and won the full amount of his debt by supplying information about the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.
Winners do have to pay taxes on their payouts. But being mostly debt-free, Collins-Smith says, means being able to focus on big things, like his screenwriting career or saving for a house, not to mention smaller things like being able to afford to get his car fixed if it breaks down—basically, “all the things people want to do in their life that are stymied because of student loan debt.” He says the experience was a good one, overall. “Most of the responses I’ve gotten are either congratulations or ‘How the hell do I get on that show?’ ” he says.
But there’s been criticism, as well. Similar to Torpey, he’s careful to acknowledge—on social media and in interviews—the “survivor’s guilt” he has, knowing how many people are still struggling with debt. “To me the idea that this game show even exists in the wealthiest and greatest country in the world, it’s like 1984 meets Catch-22, a completely absurdist comedy,” Collins-Smith says. “One guy responded to my thread on Twitter and said watching this show is like watching three indentured servants try to win their freedom. But what’s the alternative?”
The question of whether this looming national tragedy is an appropriate target for comedy has been a staple of criticism of the show, as have accusations that it’s exploiting suffering for laughs and enriching a corporate entertainment behemoth along the way. “The Student Loan Game Show Paid Off is a Cruel Joke” read the headline of one takedown, in which the writer argues that “truTV re-victimizes the victims of a monstrous debt crisis for laughs and ad dollars.” There’s real desperation in the Twitter pleas of those asking to be cast on the show. The whole idea brings to mind another TV show: Netflix’s Black Mirror, with its vision of a tech-enabled, near-future dystopia.
Torpey welcomes the criticism. “It’s dangerous to go look for the trolls, but I believe in the show so much that I’m not scared about it,” he told me the night of the lightning round. “I understand if someone feels like there’s no room for comedy about this, because it’s such a serious topic. I respect that opinion. But we can at least agree that this is a problem that needs addressing, and I’m using the tools that I have.”
The discomfiting mix of emotions the show stirs up is sort of the point: You’ve been laughing and playing along; you’re happy for the winner and sad for the losers—and, hopefully, upset that there are millions more people out there struggling with this ludicrous, painful problem.
“Four minutes to live!”
The phone lines were open as the crew made final preparations. Pamela was on her way to paying off not quite all of her debt—she missed the last question but still wiped out more than three-quarters of her loans—and they had started queuing callers, entering first names and locations in a spreadsheet projected off-camera to Torpey’s right. “I love seeing people call in from all over,” Torpey said before he was patched through to greet the first couple of callers. “Little over a minute out,” said the director. “Everybody have a great show!”
The first caller—Crystal, from Powder Springs, Ga.—answered a question correctly, whiffed on the second, and got the third. The second caller—Alicia, from Fort Wayne, Ind.—did the same, which earned each $2,000. The production assistants sat by with the droopy pizzas and bags of confetti at their feet, waiting for a moment that seemed destined not to arrive. Then came Jacob from Louisiana (he didn’t say where), who breezed through the first two questions. This seemed like the moment. The PA’s raised their pizzas as Torpey read the third question: “Liz Lemon was the name of Tina Fey’s character on what NBC sitcom?”
Five seconds of dead air. Then Jacob, apparently not a 30 Rock fan, said, “I don’t know.”
The pizzas went back down, Jacob hung up, having won $2,000, and the big red timers next to the camera showed less than a minute left in the episode. They took one more caller, Katherine from Junction City, Ohio, and only got through one question, which she answered incorrectly, before Torpey had to close out the episode. He asked her to hang on so he could finish her round of questions off the air. “Folks, that’s our show, and if you didn’t get through this week, keep trying, I’ll be here every Tuesday,” he said. Then, once the cameras were off: “Katherine, you still there?”
Off the air, without the pressure to keep getting to more people and give away more money, Torpey was able to take his time with the last two questions, both of which she got right, earning herself $2,000. Then he started to really engage with her—about where in Ohio Junction City is, what she studied in school, and whether she uses her psychology degree in her career. “Yes, I’m a treatment coordinator at a halfway house,” she said.
“Oh my goodness, that’s such good work,” Torpey said. “I mean, these are the jobs that we need people to do, and they’re not paid what it takes to pay off these massive loans.”
As it neared 11 p.m., the crew packed up to leave the studio. Everyone seemed tired, but also satisfied that all had gone well. “One of the hardest things about making film and TV is that you rarely know whether it’s impacting anyone’s life,” Melamedoff says later. “I’ve never had a feeling anywhere else in my career where I leave the studio at night knowing we’ve made a concrete impact.”
Torpey was on his laptop responding to Twitter comments. He reiterated a sentiment I’d heard from him often: that his greatest hope is for the show to be rendered obsolete and forced off the air. Then someone came in to ask him what to do with the unused pizzas—in addition to his other duties, Torpey seemed to have been designated the final arbiter of pizza longevity. It was pointed out that the pizza had only to remain punchable, not edible.
“They should keep, right?” he said. “Less money on pizza means more money to give away.”
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