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There was a time when the talk show held an honored place in show business. Before celebrities had their innermost secrets and most intimate nude photos posted online daily, this was their only chance to connect with their fans through candid, witty conversation with the revered kings of late night like Johnny or Dave or even Dick Cavett.
Now, the talk show has morphed into a bizarre circus sideshow, where leading men have eggs cracked on their heads and aging divas are crammed uncomfortably into Chrysler Suburbans while being assaulted with Katy Perry songs. It’s in this environment that comedian Guy Branum—a former writer and panelist on Chelsea Lately, as well as a writer for The Mindy Project—has come to both embrace the talk show’s current party game existence while also reminding us of a time when wit, insight, and sparkling conversation ruled the land.
Branum, who was known among friends for hosting Passover seders at his home that required guests to engage in harshly judged “small talk competitions,” came up with the concept for Talk Show The Game Show where most great ideas are hatched: In the back of a van.
“It all started in the back of a 15-passenger van on the way to a Quizbowl tournament, in like 1999 or 2000,” Branum tells Fast Company. “We were talking about television and I came down on the hard stance that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be on a talk show. So I came up with the idea of a talk show that was also a game show that proved you were good at talk shows.” The concept kicked around for a few years—little more than “vague and unstructured ideas and inside jokes” as he puts it—before Branum finally got the chance to field test the idea in L.A. comedy clubs where he had performed as a stand-up.
“I was in a bit of a career funk when I left Chelsea Lately and I didn’t really know where I was going,” he says. “So one night I got drunk and wrote up the rules and how this would work, and it was mostly just to amuse myself. But when I was done with it I thought, ‘Hey, I could just ask the Improv to let me do this and see how it goes,’ and we went and did it and it worked. And we just kept doing it for four years!” After unsuccessfully pitching the idea of a TV show version to Chelsea Handler’s production company early on, Branum finally gained traction on the idea when comedian Wanda Sykes attended one of the live stage shows and immediately embraced the concept.
As most of Hollywood can attest, this is usually the point where a production company swoops in and immediately changes everything about the idea they professed to love so much. In particular, Branum braced for interference when it came to his choice of judges. Rather than mine the green room at the Improv for other comics, he had less obvious choices in mind: Karen Kilgariff, former head writer for the Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Rosie Show, and The Pete Holmes Show (she’s also co-host of the popular My Favorite Murder podcast, for you murderinos out there) and Casey Schreiner, author and founder of Modern Hiker. Schreiner, a friend of Branum’s since the two of them were writers and performers at the now-defunct G4 Network (full disclosure: this writer was also a colleague of theirs at that time)—had been a part of the concept since day one.
As Branum puts it: “Casey was, of course, the only person who could look at my rules and immediately understand what I was talking about.” Much to Branum’s surprise, the fight never materialized. “I thought they would be like, ‘Oh, let’s get some buzzy comedian or somebody like that,’ but they were just uniformly like, ‘Oh no, he’s amazing. He’s the best part of the show.’”
Although the show’s origins pre-date the Jimmy Fallon-ization of the late night talk show, it’s hard not to see Talk Show The Game Show as a bit of shade thrown in the direction of a format that has abandoned banter for desperate attempts at viral video hits. “Look, Carpool Karaoke is one of the best things on television, but it’s not what talk shows used to be,” says Branum. “This show is a celebration and an indictment of all that talk shows have become. So much is rooted in the fact that no one has a real conversation on a talk show anymore.”
With Talk Show The Game Show premiering tonight on TruTV, Branum hopes to achieve two things: Bringing the lost sense of danger and unpredictability to late night talk shows (“Remember Bobcat Goldthwait setting fire to Jay Leno’s couch or Isabella Rossellini showing up on Letterman and there being what felt like legitimate chemistry between the two?”) and, of course, world domination.
“That’s the real dream, you know,” says Branum. “The real dream is to have a Talk Show The Game Show on in 90 different languages across the planet.”