How To Get On A Game Show
Even if you’re watchable but you’re terrible at the game, it’s almost offensive to see people not play the game well.
When he’s not talking to experts around the country about antiques while hosting the hit PBS show Antiques Roadshow, Mark L. Walberg’s the host of the nationally-syndicated show The Game Plane, as well as one of the hosts of the traveling Price is Right Live circuit. He’s also been the host of several different game shows, including Russian Roulette and On the Cover. We talk about what makes a good contestant, from the eyes of a host.
“That’s a tough one. Most of the answers I’d give you would be just the clichés: high energy, positive attitude, pay attention. I think what happens is, a lot of times, you gotta remember that contestants are that gray area between actor and real person, in most game shows. Most contestants have asked to be on a show, they’re auditioning for the process. But, they’re not quite actors, but they’re a little bit more than just regular ol’ folks on the couch. I like to say: high energy, positive attitude. And listen! Listen to the host, listen to the game, and pay attention. One, you look better and two, you have a better chance of being successful.”
Positive attitude is more than just what you say—it’s how you carry yourself on camera. “Sometimes, you’ll see on Jeopardy!, the people who are clicking really hard on their buzzers and they’re sure they’re not ringing in because they’re sure the thing’s broken? That negativity? That’s never good for a contestant.”
If you win, fantastic! If you don’t, oh well; it was still a blast. That attitude of, ‘highly competitive but it’s not the end of the world’ really sells the home audience.
I talked to Mark for this piece because of his unique viewpoint: he’s been on both sides of the podium, having competed on three game shows himself: The Weakest Link, Street Smarts and Lingo. “And I won all three of them, I just wanna let you know. I may be better as a contestant than as a host,” he tells me with a laugh. And being a model contestant necessitates knowing the game you’re applying to back-to-front.
“That’s the most underrated part,” he says. “It is so important. Knowing how to play the game is so important! That’s really the hardest part for casting. You need people who have this great energy that are watchable, but even if you’re watchable but you’re terrible at the game, for game show people like you and I who really like game shows, it’s almost offensive to see people not play the game well.”
As a future game show contestant, you probably have many reasons you want to get on a game show. To be on TV. To win lots of money. To change your life. To get famous. Any of those reasons are valid, for you. But if you want to maximize your chances of getting on a game show, you’re going to have to balance these reasonings with the show’s objective of making entertaining television. Mark explains:
“The balance for a contestant is to be likable and energetic and fun, but play the game expertly. The line is, and this is the part that’s difficult for most people, because there’s so much money on the line: the attitude of, ‘It’s still a game,’ is really healthy. We want you to compete as hard as you can. We want you to take advantage of every rule there is and be an expert so we at home can feel like you’re a proxy for us—that you’ve figured out what we’ve figured out. We’ve figured out every angle. At the same time, I’d like for it to still be a game. If you win, fantastic! If you don’t, oh well; it was still a blast. That attitude of, ‘highly competitive but it’s not the end of the world’ really sells the home audience.”
And listen! Listen to the host, listen to the game, and pay attention. One, you look better and two, you have a better chance of being successful.
Of course, once you’re on stage, there are still ways you can maximize your appearance on the show. Mark’s one tip for being a good contestant is to understand your role in this production. “We want contestants to be energetic, we want them to be fun, we want them to share anecdotes that are funny. Trying to one-up the host? Trying to be comedic and trying to out-do that part of it? That’s not the contestant’s role. Sometimes, that ends up looking smug on the contestant. The whole thing about game shows is we want contestants to play the game expertly who have great energy that we want to root for. As soon as you start to be, ‘let me get one over on the host’—unless you get one over on Alex Trebek, it kind of works because Alex has this erudite, above-us attitude about him. Don’t try to out-funny the host. Help by playing along. Give them something to work with. It’s never a good idea to try to out-cool them. It usually doesn’t bode well on the contestant.”
“Russian Roulette was always a fun show to banter with contestants. That show had a bit of a comedic edge, so sometimes you’d find contestants that would come at me with a little joke. My name’s Mark Walberg so every now and then somebody would try to throw a jive at me, and I had the freedom on that show—it was actually a mandate from the network to have the show be dark—to be edgy. A few times, the contestants would make a mistake of trying to make a Marky Mark joke or something like that at my expense, and I would take them down. “I do this for a living. Be careful.” I always tried to do it in a lovingly playful way. I’m not really a mean dude. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m the star of the show.’ That’s not the point of all. In fact, it’s the opposite: a good host is supposed to make the contestant the star of the show. But trying to out-joke the joke makes you look attention hungry.”
A good host is supposed to make the contestant the star of the show. But trying to out-joke the joke makes you look attention hungry.