Guy Branum: At the Nexus of Gabbing and Gaming

Guy Branum’s  Talk Show the Game Show series premiere is this Wednesday, April 5 at 10pm exclusively on truTV. Based on his popular live comedy show, the 16-episode, half-hour series pits celebrity against celebrity to vie for the title of “Best Guest of the Night.” Some of the major upcoming battles include Wanda Sykes vs. Scott Adsit vs. Pandora Boxx, Maria Bamford vs. Ben Roy vs. James Adomian, Diablo Cody vs. Moby vs. Arden Myrin and Bridget Everett vs. Kelis vs. Josh McDermitt. America loved Guy Branum in the recent Comedy Central Roast Battle and now you’re about to get a lot more of him. Our own Amma Marfo caught up with Branum to talk about the new show.

Aside from the occasional zoologist’s animal relieving itself on a shocked guest or host, there are few genuine surprises in late-night television talk shows. Guy Branum’s Talk Show The Game Show is about to change that. Debuting April 5th on truTV with a slate of guests that ranges from 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit and The Goldbergs’ Wendi McLendon-Covey, to writer/director Diablo Cody, Moby, and drag queen Pandora Boxx, Branum’s hybrid concept is both familiar and novel- a show he created from the familiar trappings of late night interview television, but is “spiritually inspired by Match Game.” We chatted ahead of the premiere about balancing structure and unpredictability, the fun side he believes the show brings out in his guests, and even a few thoughts about things happening elsewhere in comedy.

Talk Show The Game Show was born in 2011, during a crossroads of sorts for Branum. Between projects, he decided to draw up the rules for a new game show inspired by common talk show cliches: bringing a pet with you on stage, or a gift for the host, laughing at one’s own jokes, or earning an applause break from the live audience. The show did end up running live in LA for five years before truTV approached him about translating it into a TV show.

Branum is so grateful for the preserved frenetic energy of the original: “truTV from the beginning was like, “The live show works, we want to keep it to its current format. We want the chaos, the rough and tumble.” That rough and tumble did survive the move to TV, and it feels authentic and genuine as you watch.

And yet, as with so many other shows in both the talk and game show formats, it does have rules and is structured. It may seem contrary to describe a show as both frenetic and planned out, but Branum insists that the process employs a great deal of each. “We had structures in place, and the wonderful thing is being able to write, produce, and understand this enough that the middle can be filled with legitimate improvisation and not have to worry about it.” Hosted by Branum and judged by fellow comics Karen Kilgariff and Casey Schreiner, guests are interviewed for three minutes (while scores are tallied based on their expressed talk show cliches) before participating in a customized bonus game that can earn them additional points.

What sorts of customized games are we talking? Wanda Sykes, a mother to twins, was made to pair celebrity twins in a lightning round format, while Tiffany Haddish, a self-proclaimed jerky enthusiast, participated in a blind-tasting test of varied jerky “flavors.” And, on the rare occasion that a game didn’t “work” as the writing and production team hoped, it was saved by its challenger – James Adomian – with an improvised (but very real!) arm wrestling match. Light spoiler alert: James and Guy do open-mouth kiss at the end of the game. Branum laughs recounting it, ending with “and that’s why I’m so happy to have had him on the show.”

This approach endears the viewer to these personalities that they’re familiar with, but don’t really know, which has always been Branum’s aim. “That’s always the goal: to make it a great experience where you get a little insight into the people you’re dealing with, and see funny and talented people be themselves. So many times we’d come up with the games, and didn’t think they’d do them, and people said ‘Fuck yes, I’m on board.’”

The list of players you’ll get to meet is incredibly varied, many of whom got to play the game in its live format prior to TV, but Branum absolutely has a list of dream guests. “On TV, it is my sincere hope, when cool celebrities see the show, they want to do the show.” The show isn’t always easy to explain, but “when people see it, they get it.”

Who does Branum badly want to subject to this literal mixture of fun and games? Tom Hanks, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has also requested to make a public challenge: he believes that Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) is too chicken to play, and he will not be rescinding that accusation until he agrees to play in a (hopeful) season two.

In a crowded landscape of both talk shows and game shows, two genres that have seemed to boom in the past few years, Branum feels confident that there’s a market and a want for this take on each form. “We have so many talk shows now, and so many of them are so boring. I realize the goal is for them to quietly put you to sleep, but there should be something that gives you a little adventure before bed.”

Asked to speculate on why these two booms have hit around the same time, he points out the nature of TV in an era of its “peak.” “TV is doing a great job with scripted drama right now, but comedy is a space that we haven’t figured out yet for the streaming age”:

Game shows and talk shows are both ways of structuring reality, but they’ve become too structured. “If you look at Fallon, when they play Charades, everyone has two wrong guesses and a right guess, because everyone’s been told [the right answers] ahead of time so no one looks stupid. But [on] this show, you’re on a tightrope without a net. We support you, we help you, but it’s a real game. You’re playing by your wits. A-listers aren’t going to be knocking down my door, but we’re at peak television.”

He ends his thoughts on the matter with a call to action that fits all celebrity appearances, but feels especially apt for his show: “[P]ress is also entertainment. You’re asking us to watch you for seven minutes- be funny, be cool. Tell a good story.” And there are a lot of good stories to look forward to when Talk Show The Game Show hits the airwaves this April.

Check out this wildly funny and unique entry to the late night talk show AND the celebrity game show genres when Talk Show The Game Show debuts on truTV April 5th at 10pm ET/9pm CT.

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.