Interview: Michael Agbabian and Dwight D. Smith
The executive producers of Hollywood Game Night talk about game preparation, celebrities, and drinks.
I talked to Michael Agbabian and Dwight D. Smith, executive producers of NBC’s Hollywood Game Night. The duo also worked on Face Off, Late Night Liars, and Weakest Link, just to name a few. In this interview, they talk about the success of Hollywood Game Night and what goes into producing the show, as it’s currently airing in its third season.
Michael and Dwight, thank you for doing this interview with us.
Michael: Of course. We’re happy to do it, and we’re big fans of BuzzerBlog.
Excellent! Thank you so much. We’ve been having a good time this summer season with all these shows, and we’re glad that Hollywood Game Night can be on the list. I’m going to geek out for a little. I’m speaking to two men named Michael and Dwight on an NBC show, and I was a huge fan of The Office. I don’t know how many times you get that. I think it’s pretty cool.
Dwight: We have heard it before. We’d like to think that we were Michael and Dwight before they were. Michael would always like to remind me that Michael was the boss.
We are big fans of the show. I think it’s safe to say to tell folks that if you’re having a bad day, and you want a good laugh, I say definitely tune into HGN. It’s full of fun, positive energy, and you’re seeing someone win some money in real life, and not just for themselves, but also helping out some charities. The show has also won some awards. In 2014, Jane Lynch won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality-Competition Program. This year, the writers won the Writers Guild of America award in the Quiz and Audience Participation category. That is fantastic, so congratulations all around. I think the first question I have here is, can you tell us what the writing process is like for the show? Is the material for the current season an ongoing project or something you focus on for just a few weeks and gather as much as you can within that time?
Michael: First of all, thank you for all of the accolades. Hollywood Game Night has been very fortunate. So far, our track record has been that in any category or award we’ve been nominated for, we’ve won, which is pretty amazing and we’re very grateful for that distinction. We’re very happy for our writers who are amazing: Alex Chauvin, Grant Taylor and Ann Slichter. Basically the process of the show really starts with the game and then the scripts are written around the games themselves. Speaking specifically about the scripts, they are actually written much closer to the time we tape, because then we have an idea of who our celebrity guests are, what games are staying in the show, and what content is in those games.
Grant, Ann and Alex exponentially churn out scripts in a week before shooting. It’s pretty close to when we start shooting. And then, the process is that they basically write the general shell of the scripts which of course has a lot of important language for the games. We have slots for what celebrities are going to be on that particular show, and then what they do is they learn more about our celebrities as we get much closer to tape time. Then they sit with Jane right before the show; we’re talking a couple of hours before the show. They go over the script with her, they go over the celebrities and the civilians in that particular episode, and then really pitch jokes and bits and things to Jane to see what she responds to and what they work on together as a team. Those bits and little jokes are then inserted into a final script which is literally hours before we start shooting. Then, the show goes on. Jane is such a great talent. It’s amazing that she can do a lot of stuff and just improvise on her own and follow the flow of the show. A perfect example is when we had Martin Short on the show, and we had him on twice. When Martin plays, all bets are off. You can’t plan around Martin Short. Jane just wings it when Martin is on. The show becomes controlled chaos and that is really because Jane is doing what she does, because there is no way for us to predict how Martin will act on stage.
Dwight: I also think that Jane is at her best when the wheels are about to come off and there is this sort of crazy chaos unfolding. She’s just brilliant in those moments.
Michael: Jane is really an amazing presence for us, and great for the show in so many ways. She has great energy and she’s willing to do all sorts of stuff. She is a lot of fun and celebrities really like her. What you see on the show is really what it’s like on set. Our show is a very fun show to see a taping of because a lot of our celebrities have a history with Jane. So there is a true commodity that is on our set and she has a good time. We shoot the show in about two hours and it feels like a party.
I love how the set has a bar inside of it. To me, that’s a real party. You can go up and get any drink you want and play some games. I know the show was inspired by Sean Hayes, but was the set replicated after his house also?
Dwight: It is not. It is an original design. I wish I had a more interesting answer for you on that one. [laughs]
Michael: It’s slightly similar to the house we did the presentation in, back in the day. Right before the show was bought, we did a live presentation for NBC, and it was at a house in the Hollywood Hills. It had an amazing view of L.A. It had two couches that faced each other, and it does mirror a little bit of that house.
We talked about the writing, and you also mentioned the games. I love how you keep introducing new games to the show, especially the one where popcorn is shot in your face with an incorrect answer. What is the process like in making new games for the show?
Michael: We have a lot of preparation for this show because we have games that involve music clearance and image clearance, so we have a lot of lead time for these games. Our staff immediately starts launching into brainstorming new game ideas. New game ideas can come from anybody. We welcome all suggestions. What happens is that the team brainstorms a concept of a game, and a very rough prototype is presented to Dwight and myself. We determine whether we like it, whether it needs tweaking and goes back to “The Lab,” or if it just doesn’t work.
In the next stage, much more material for the game is created, and it goes through a tougher prototype. The art department gets involved and they start building potential prototype props or imagery. It would be broadcast ready, but it’s good for a conference room run-through. Then, the staff presents those prototypes to Dwight, myself, Sean Hayes, Todd Milliner, and sometimes Universal Television. We then make tweaks and changes, or approve them to go through the final round of prototyping, which is in front of NBC. NBC usually sits through two prototyping sessions. In each session, we usually present ten new games. Of those twenty games that are presented, depending on our success rate, many of them will end up in the show for that season. We were particularly successful for this season with our game development, and believe we had a record of 15 or 16 new games in the season.
Michael: Yeah, we had a very fruitful brainstorming season. Part of it was because there was a pretty big break between seasons, so that allowed our team to start thinking about different games.
Do you have any favorite games that you can talk about that didn’t make the cut?
Michael: Dwight is thinking of some. “Popped Quiz,” which is the popcorn game you just mention, was actually a game that we came up with in the first season, but we couldn’t come up with how it really worked. It was a game where you have these ridiculous either/or questions and it was a very short game where people were asked, “Which one is older? Larry King or Burger King.” That player had to make a decision and move on. It was a rapid fire game. We really couldn’t figure out the shell or the structure around it. It was this season that the team melded a game we wanted to do for two seasons, with the idea of this popcorn popper gone crazy to create “Popped Quiz.” I say it was worth the wait. It’s definitely one of our more signature games that we really enjoyed. It was two years in the making.
Dwight: “Casting Couch” is another one that is in the new season, which is a game that we had in development for a while. That’s the one with the celebrity’s faces on the pillows and it’s a little like musical chairs. I feel like there are a lot of games that have become passion projects for us, and if doesn’t make it in one season, we’ll hang on to it and keep tweaking it. We’ve been pretty successful at getting some of our favorites into the show. I don’t know if there are any right now that we didn’t get in.
Michael: Most have made it into the show. There’s always about five or six games in The Lab they may never go on. Dwight is right. Our success rate is pretty high, from prototype to getting it on the air. “Scary Poppins” was almost like a fun accident that worked, which is another sought of kaboom game where you don’t know when something will pop in your face until it does. “Where ya goin’?” is a new route for us, and involves video tape and a little bit of roleplaying. So we’re trying different things, and every season we try to explore different avenues that we haven’t explored before and see how many games we can come up with.
This season, for the bonus round of “Celebrity Name Game,” you started having two celebrities as clue givers. Walk me through what it’s like having two celebrities now in the final round, and why you decided to go that route.
Dwight: I think it was a desire to add a fun new dynamic and mix it up a little bit. We’ve prototyped it with multiple people, and it was a lot of fun at various times. It gives it more energy, a little bit more personality, and it was just a way to give it a fresh spin to it in our third season.
Michael: Yes, it was to give it a fresh spin. Honestly, it was also to try to help people win more money. We don’t really give away a lot of money on Hollywood Game Night. I know it’s not really about the money in a lot of ways to be honest. We consider ourselves to be pretty experienced game show producers, and it has been challenging to give away $25,000 on this show. We felt two celebrities would help the process. I’m not going to reveal a lot about if it did or not this season, but it definitely is a nice dynamic and it doesn’t hurt. It’s surprising that by the time you get to “Celebrity Name Game,” it’s amazing how such a simple game like that is still challenging. It’s definitely difficult for our civilian contestant to get all ten in the time we ask.
It gets very exciting when you have to get one more in five seconds, and you have two people screaming clues at you. I like seeing two celebrities because not only are you helping out the contestant’s chances in winning, but you are helping out another charity.
Dwight: That was a really nice development in adding the other celebrity, in that another celebrity’s charity is going to earn money. That’s great for everybody. Everybody wins in that case, which is terrific.
Michael: It also takes pressure off of that one celebrity. One thing I think is interesting to note, is that our show is literally all fun and games, and then you get to that final round. For all of our celebrities so far, the reality that a civilian contestant can actually win $25,000 sets in, and genuinely speaking, they get a little nervous because before they were playing a team format and the idea of winning money was a little distant. Now, all of a sudden, you’re seeing a school teacher, or nurse, or whoever it might be, that could really use that money, and it’s up to celebrity to help them win it. It’s almost a little sobering that they have to make this happen. We felt by having two celebrities do it, it took the pressure off a little bit, and it allowed them to be a little more free with clues and allowing themselves to give the civilian a better chance of winning. In the seasons we’ve had in the past, some celebrities froze up and it got challenging. It’s unfortunate, but I think we’ve hopefully resolved that this season.
We’re familiar with the contestant audition process and what people have to go through to appear on game shows in general. Is there a type of screening process for celebrities to determine if they’re going to be a good player or not?
Dwight: Not to the level that we would ever do with contestants. I think there is a certain personality we are looking for. We want people who are going to come on the show and engage, be fun and contribute. At the end of the day, there’s multiple people sitting on those sofas, so if one person doesn’t know the answer, hopefully somebody else will. We never want there to be too much pressure on any of them to feel like they have to deliver. We just want fun personalities with great energy who are going to come on and have a good time. That’s the most important criteria.
Do you ever think about doing an episode or two live?
Dwight: We talked about it. I think there’s certainly some scary considerations with doing it live. Things can go wrong and occasionally they do. Shooting it to tape allows you the chance to clean that stuff up. To be honest, we shoot the show a little bit long, not real long, so that it can be cleaned up a bit in terms of taking the best moments. So, we talked about it but I’m not quite sure that’s some place we’re going to go yet.
Michael: I think it’s too scary right now.
Michael: Between potential game malfunctions and…
Dwight: …and tipsy celebrities…
Michael: …and tipsy celebrities, and judgement calls, there are a lot of dangers there on a live show that I don’t think either of us have the stomach for right now.
Understandable. In the end, I love this style of entertainment because it reminds me of the classics, like Match Game and Hollywood Squares, where there are times in the show where the game almost becomes secondary, and the fun is really on the celebrities and contestants as they feed off each other. Did you face any challenges trying to pitch a format like this with celebrities and contestants?
Michael: The genesis of the show, as you mentioned, was based on Sean Hayes’ game nights that he has in his home. So, NBC executives had experienced that, and they’ve seen these celebrities play these games (not the games on the show but party games.) And I think they were already predisposed to liking the idea after they have witnessed it: celebrities playing party games in a celebrity’s house. So what Dwight and I did was help flesh that into an actual format and develop it into something that, well, is what you see now. I think we were fortunate that when Hollywood Game Night started, I think the appetite for these kind of shows was probably not there yet. I think it would seem like it’s something fresh and new, and a little bit of a throwback. Of course now, between Celebrity Family Feud, Lip Sync Battle, and Celebrity Name Game, all these shows are now coming out that are reliant on celebrities. Clearly that caught on.
Dwight: And the notion of having a civilian mixed in with the celebrities has always been part of the creative DNA of the show from the very beginning. I think everybody got excited about the concept of somebody who hasn’t necessarily been exposed to the Hollywood world to suddenly have this amazing experience where the rope is pulled back and you’re invited in to hang out and spend a night with celebrities playing games. It sounds like a great time to anybody and that has always been a real core part of the concept and the appeal of the show. It’s that amazing once in a life time experience that you can have on the show. So whether you win or not, it almost doesn’t even matter because you had this incredible night that you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.
We’re coming up to the top of the hour, so I have two quick-fire questions. First, if you both had to choose a celebrity to play with on the show, who would it be?
Michael: Just one?
You know what, let’s make a dream team. A team of three.
Dwight: I know at least two.
Michael: Probably the same two.
Dwight: It would be Jason Sudeikis and Yvette Nicole Brown. There’s so many amazing people on the show.
Michael: So many. I mean Rosie O’Donnell is amazing player. Anthony Anderson is also amazing. Paul Scheer, who is on this year, has been amazing. Jeff Probst was great last season. The fantasy team is a tough one. I would agree with Dwight. Jason Sudeikis can single handily do almost any game.
Dwight: He’s been on twice and he was phenomenal.
Oh, he’s fantastic.
Dwight: Yvette Nicole Brown is so competitive it’s hilarious. Just watching her commit is so much fun. We love her. Um, Will Arnett was good.
Michael: That’s a tough one. I don’t think we can give you a full list. Who’s the third one?
Dwight: I don’t know. Anthony Anderson?
Michael: I would probably do Yvette Nicole Brown, Jason Sudeikis and Paul Scheer. Those would be my three.
Dwight: I would be thrilled to have that team.
Michael: That’s a pretty stellar team.
That is a pretty solid team indeed. Finally, we mentioned the live bar on the show, that I love. If you were playing the game, which drink would you order at that bar?
Dwight: A gin and tonic.
Nice, I’m a Jack and Coke guy. How about you Michael?
Michael: I would probably take an Old Fashioned.
This was absolutely a fun interview. Just to add, I was in a store the other day, and I walked passed the game aisle because I’m a board game guy, and I saw a Hollywood Game Night board game. When I see something like that on the shelves, that’s really showing the success of the show because you are bring that experience to someone closer to home. Congratulations on the success and the new season.
Michael: Thank you very much. By the way, on that note, we also just launched the app for Hollywood Game Night for iPhone and Android phones. They just released it last week.
Dwight: They did a really nice job with the app.
Michael: It’s a really good app, and I’m not just saying that because it’s our show. I’ve played it and it’s a lot of fun. It has music from the show, and pretty soon, they’re going to do an update I think that’s going to have Jane’s voice on it, so you can actually have Jane read you the instructions for the game. It’s a different experience from the board game, but it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s only $.99.
What we’ll do is put the links at the end of this post so that people can go download the game right to their phone.
Michael: We’d love that.