The Secret(s) to Being a Successful Game Show Host

Alex Trebek, Chris Hardwick, Jane Lynch and more insiders open up about the "Four Ts" required to win with viewers.
Alex Trebek

When it comes to difficult yet thankless jobs in television, a few immediately spring to mind. CNN White House reporter, for instance. Or the stunt tester on Survivor. Or anyone older than 40 on a CW series. Still, at least on the face of it, you’d never think that Game Show Host would be on that list.

It’s long been a popular gig to get. The game show genre continues to be as steady a television presence as, say, CSI reruns or Donald Trump jokes. The shows run the gamut, from ABC’s rebooting of classics like Match Game and To Tell the Truth to veterans like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, to hybrid reality/game shows like Survivor and The Wall (which has its season finale at 8 p.m. Tuesday on NBC).

For anyone who grew up on game shows, the hosts often came across as overly cheery, slick used-car salesmen, only with bigger hair and a sharper wardrobe. In the earlier days, anyway, they were middle-aged men “with a great voice and great hair…basically a radio guy who had a face for TV,” explains Mike Richards, executive producer for The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal, as well as host for the Game Show Network’s Divided.

That perception changed around the time Richard Dawson gave his first sloppy drunk kiss to a contestant. From that point on, a host’s attitude seems to have become as important to a show’s success as the game itself. Rules must be explained. Viewers must be entertained. Contestants can’t keep their emotions contained.

And through it all, there’s the host, who must be part traffic cop, part stand-up comedian and part kindly uncle. Explains The [email protected] host Chris Hardwick, “There’s so many moving parts, between the game and the contestants and the audience, there are an infinite number of possibilities about how things can play out.”

In order to keep it all moving successfully and, more important, drawing in viewers, it’s a good idea to stick to the Four Ts for Being the Perfect Game Show Host. Which are:

Tenderness

Particularly on a show like The Wall or even The Amazing Race, the real star isn’t the host or even the contestants. Rather, it’s the competitors’ personal stories that quickly latch on to viewers’ heartstrings. And it’s up to the host to make sure those tales get told in the most sympathetic way.

“With The Wall, I like to be the ambassador for the contestant,” explains Hardwick, who launched his career in the '90s with MTV game shows like Trashed and Singled Out. “I want to let them know that I’m on their side, that I’m their cheerleader. These are sweet, lovely people so I want to get the audience to connect with them on a personal level.”

Adds Jane Lynch, host of NBC’s Hollywood Game Night, “It’s about having empathy for the civilians on the show. Although I was probably almost too empathetic with our contestants at first. I’d feel like asking them, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ I am probably a little more instinctual about it now. I treat it the same way I would act at a party in my own house. Don’t worry, just have a good time.”

This makes Alex Trebek one of the world’s most empathetic men, considering he’s logged 33 years and more than 7,300 episodes on Jeopardy. He admits that there have been times, mostly with kid contestants, when he’s identified so closely with the competitors that “it’s broken my heart when they lose.” At the same time, though, he has discovered too much empathy could be as bad as too little.

“Empathy is great but there’s also the danger of showing it for one player might be seen as a negative to the others,” explains Trebek. “I have to be very careful figuring out when to push one player who’s falling behind a little but not seem to be favoring that person. You don’t want to do something where half the audience says, ‘What a nice guy!’ and the other half says, ‘Wait a minute! The other two knew the answer but he gave it to the other guy.’”

Therapist

While the goal of every contestant is simply to win, there’s also a chance to go home with a heaping helping of life counseling. Says Trebek, “A good host has to be a good therapist, sympathizing with contestants to make them feel losing is not the end of the world. I’ve spent a lot of time telling people, ‘You made it here and that’s quite an accomplishment. Think of how few people even make it on the show and you did well. You just made one mistake.’”

Many times, it’s not even about helping someone cope with winning or losing. Just like in therapy, he or she might blurt out something personally awkward that needs to be put into perspective. This is especially true in most non-celeb game shows, where the people playing have probably never been on TV before.

When that happens, according to Richards, a good host “has to be able to listen and communicate. It’s all about listening and reading a particular situation.” He sees that happen every week on The Price Is Right with Drew Carey and Let’s Make a Deal with Wayne Brady.

“These contestants are people who aren’t prepared to be on TV but they’ve just been picked anyway,” he explains. “Now, they’ve just met their first celebrity, so the adrenaline is pumping. Wayne and Drew are great at understanding the person in front of them probably isn’t listening so they have to slow things down.”

Tasking (as in “Multi”)

Hosting a game show can be a little like dating Taylor Swift. You’re enjoying what you’re doing but at the same time, you know that the world is watching and it’s all going to change and become something else momentarily. Not only does the perfect host have to provide a shoulder to cry on or leap on. He or she must also be capable of knowing the game rules, being able to explain them quickly, keep the contestants and the viewers interested and manage the game. Oh, and toss out a witty rejoinder or two.

“In the beginning, it was hard to manage time during the game while still keeping everything going on around me organic,” Lynch says. “Now I know how to just let the show unfold but if you go back and listen, I’m sure my voice was higher-pitched throughout every show because I couldn’t relax.”

“The job requires somebody who is quick on his or her feet,” adds Amy Introcaso-Davis, exec vp programming at GSN. One of her many jobs is determining whether or not a potential host can handle the many tasks he or she is responsible for during the game. “You want a unique spin, a different take, but also a believer in the concept and format. That’s why a comedy background can be very, very helpful. Stand-ups are literally hosts of their own shows and have to know how to play off what their audience has just said but also understand the craft of being on stage.”

That would explain why Hardwick, Carey, Brady, Steve Harvey, Howie Mandel and many other comics have succeeded on game shows. However, Richards didn’t have a stand-up past when he first got involved in game shows while serving as vp development at Dick Clark Productions. He attributes a lot of his success as a host to his ability to multitask while on camera.

“That’s the most underappreciated part of the job,” he believes. “You have to be able to manage the clock, manage the game, manage the tension. I’m not sure people fully grasp how Wayne has more than 200 deals to keep track of while taping Let’s Make a Deal and Drew has 77 different games he’s got to be aware of during The Price Is Right. A good host has to be a really good producer out there, so maybe that’s why it’s been relatively easy for me to make that transition.”

Temperament

It may sound counterintuitive but if you are going to host a game show, you need to check your ego at the door, Carol (just not the one Carol Merrill is standing in front of). You are the center of the show, but you’re not supposed to seem like you’re the center of the show. That principle holds particularly true when you’re part of a game with celebrities.

“Celeb-based shows are a little tougher to cast,” admits Introcaso-Davis. “You want the host to be funny but you also don’t want someone who is competing to be funny. It’s very tricky to find the right person who is affable as a host but you could also have on as one of the celebrities.”

Hardwick is one of the few who is equally adept at both. He’s the only known quantity on The Wall, which has consistently ranked No. 1 or 2 in its time slot through its first season. Meanwhile, when he does Comedy Central's @midnight, he’s just one of the many familiar face in front of the camera. The fact that he’s as comfortable doing both is a far cry from his days on Singled Out and Trashed, “just shouting all the time. I wasn’t sure how to ease into [hosting]. Then I learned that the most important thing I could do was just be myself without getting in the way of the game.”

Now, he’s learned how to apply those different aspects of himself to whatever he’s working on. When he hosts AMC's Walking Dead companion show Talking Dead, he gets to gush like a fanboy. With The Wall, he’s showing what he considers “my empathetic human side, while on @midnight, I get to show my comedian side. And it’s great to explore different sides of my personality.”

No matter what part of himself he’s showing to viewers, he realizes he’s no more important than the competitors or the people at home rooting them on. It’s the same formula Trebek has used throughout his long career.

“The key is putting your ego aside and realizing that the most important elements of your job are the game and the contestants,” he explains. “If you try to hog the spotlight, people will resent it. There have been some game show hosts who were remarkably successful at being the star, like Richard Dawson on Family Feud and Dick Clark on Password and Pyramid. Generally speaking, though, the most important quality is a willingness to stand aside and let contestants be the star. You’re going to be on five days a week so you don’t need to shine every day. If you’re there and people are enjoying the show, they will say you’re a great host.”

comments powered by Disqus