My EXCLUSIVE interview with game show producer Steve Marshall – Part 4

Welcome back.

For those of you who don’t know, here in Australia, we have three big commercial TV networks – the Nine Network (which was home to Sale of the Century), the Ten Network (where Steve started his TV career), and the Seven Network (which was once home to The Price Is Right).

In our discussion up to this point, the Seven Network seemed to me to be the one big commercial network where Steve hadn’t yet made his mark…

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SH: So after you left Sale, you did a morning show on another network for a while until you came back to Grundy’s again, this time as producer of The Price is Right!

SM: Yeah, they were bringing it back, and they’d hired a producer who apparently was struggling with the workload of the whole thing. When my boss from Grundy’s said, “Can you come back and be the producer of The Price is Right?” my first reaction was “That is the daggiest show ever made. I don’t know if I want to do The Price is Right.” And he said, “Look, it might be the daggiest show ever made, but it’s also one of the biggest shows you can make. Because you got to remember, you’re getting dozens of contestants out of the audience, you’ve got a five-episode record day, you’ve got well over 100 different prizes in the show. And all the prices have to be right – technically, it’s a very difficult show to make. And if you do it and do a good job, anybody in TV will recognize that you’ve had your hands around a very difficult show to put together.” And I thought, ‘in that case, that’s pretty good advice.’ So, I went back there. And it was hard work, purely for that reason – it was just the hundreds of prizes and stuff.

SH: How old were you at this stage?

SM: 29, 30…

SH: Wow, you were a Whiz Kid! That’s good for someone so young to be given that much responsibility.

SM: Yeah, I mean, you had an Executive Producer who’d oversee things. But it’s one of those shows where the producer actually does drive a lot of it because you’ve got to program all the games – there’d be three different games in a show. You have a short one, a medium one and a long game, just for timing, and then the showcase at the end. So, you program – and this happened on a big wall in a big office – where you’d pin different cards to the wall for all the different games, and then all the prizes. Of course, you couldn’t have a prize that clashed with a competitor in the same game; you couldn’t have a TV from Samsung going up against a stereo from Sony. There were all these fiddly little things that you had to pick up. As I said, hard work. But also good fun and (the host) Larry Emdur was – and still is – just one of the masters of the game show. And he’s great.

SH: He’s born for that.

SM: Yeah, he is. It’s something a lot of TV performers and presenters can’t do. The ones who can do game shows, that’s a whole different skill set. And you’re right, you’re born with it. You’ve either got it or you haven’t, and Larry’s got it in spades, and he’s still doing it – I think he’s just bought his 15th house. The price has been right for Larry for many years.

SH: Absolutely! And he’s recently taken over hosting duties on The Chase Australia.

SM: He has, and he’s doing a good job and that’s why Channel 7 gave him the gig – they knew he’d do a good job on it.

SH: So how long did you serve on The Price Is Right, before leading up to the main event in your career, which is of course… Keynotes!

SM: Well, actually, I think Keynotes might have come before The Price is Right. But Keynotes was the first time I got the title ‘Producer’. And Keynotes, for those who don’t remember (which is pretty much everyone) was 13 weeks filming at Channel 9 over the summer, while Sale of the Century was off. Keynotes was a musical game show whose format was devised by the great Reg Grundy himself. And so, for that reason, you couldn’t tweak the format too much (even though it was a bit repetitive and boring)… but because it was a music show on Channel 9, the word came down from (Nine network boss) Kerry Packer that (music and entertainment reporter) Richard Wilkins would host it. In the American version of the show, most of the music you had to guess was very old – 40s and 50s, maybe some early 60s stuff. But our plan was to make this a lot more Australian. So, I ended up in the office picking out snippets from Cold Chisel songs and AC/DC, Midnight Oil, and all that stuff. It was a great fun show to work on, and we knew it was only going to run for 13 weeks. Richard Wilkins is a terrific bloke and he loved doing it. But it didn’t work; nobody watched it. It got axed after 10 weeks, which means there’s three weeks of Keynotes that have never been seen! Not exactly the holy grail of Australian television… but I’m sure they are on VHS tapes somewhere up the back of Richard Wilkins’ garage.

SH: Does that mean there’s three weeks’ worth of contestants who won prizes that they never got?

SM: No, they did actually get them… purely because the prizes weren’t worth a hell of a lot. The winning teams, I think, got $300 and the losing teams got a four-pack of CDs. So, it wasn’t like an episode of Sale of the Century where there was a massive cash jackpot and a couple of cars and a trip to Paris that went begging. But it was a fun show, and to this day, if I ever run into Richard, we still laugh about it.

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Well in that case, it’s understandable that the producers chose to waive the if-your-episode/s-don’t-air,-you-don’t-get-your-winnings rule this time. Quite a different story from Kristi Milley’s tale… but I guess the stakes were a lot higher in her case!

See you next week!

My EXCLUSIVE interview with game show producer Steve Marshall – Part 3

Hello!

When we left off last week, we were talking about Steve’s position as Associate Producer on Sale Of The Century…

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SH: And at that stage, were you responsible for choosing contestants?

SM: I was at the auditions and interviews quite often. There’d be a written test. And then the ones who’d passed the test had to get up and stand in front of everybody and have a chat about themselves. We used to go for people who we thought would probably be good on camera, as opposed to people who might freeze on camera. And because the questions in the audition test were generally harder than the questions on the show, we thought if anyone passed the audition test, they’d know the answers to most of the questions on the show.

But… I do remember one guy who stood up after passing the test. He was an English guy, and he had the gift of the gab and he was chatty and he was funny and I just thought he was sensational. I remember saying to the Executive Producer “This English guy will be fantastic!” And the EP said “Really? Doesn’t look like it on paper…” I said “Trust me, this bloke will be sensational.” We put him on, and he didn’t say ‘boo’ the entire show. I think he might’ve answered one question. I said “Oh god, that’s me. I’ll never recommend anyone ever again!”

SH: During those auditions, were there any big no-no’s? Any cautionary tales? What not to do?

SM: Most of the people wanting to get on Sale were generally pretty smart people. And they went on there and they wanted to win. And so they worked fairly seriously. There weren’t too many people who were time wasters, shall we say. And if they were… they either wouldn’t pass the test, or they’d be stamped ‘probably not really good to use’.

SH: Were there any perks associated with the insider information you had there?

SM: Well….. Grundy’s in those days was in North Richmond near a pub called ‘The Cherry Tree’ which was owned by Scotty Palmer, a well-known sports journo. We’d often see him there on a Friday night. What we didn’t realize at the time, was that one of his most well-known customers was a bloke by the name of Dennis Allen, who lived nearby and owned about 10 houses, all paid for by the drugs that he sold at his front door. He was known to the cops as ‘Dr Death’, which I think explains his M.O. as far as selling the drugs.

SH: Ah, a medical man! I see, yes…

SM: So Dr. Death would be sitting at one end of the bar, and you never messed with him. But I remember ordering a couple of beers there one night, and the TV was on behind the bar and Sale of the Century was on. And this fairly shifty-looking bloke standing next to me points up at the screen. It was about halfway through the show, and you could see the contestant’s scores. And I think they were 20, 50 and 15 (meaning that the carry-over champ was on 15). And this guy said to me, “Carry-over champ’s in trouble. I bet ya $50 the bloke in the middle wins”.

And I just looked at the screen I said, “I’ll take that bet. I reckon the carry-over champ might get up here…” (knowing full well that we’d recorded this episode two weeks earlier, and that the carry-over champ came back in the final 60 seconds to win by one question!)

SH: Oh.

SM: Shifty-looking bloke pulls out the $50 and goes to hand it to me and he says, “Well called, mate.” I said, “Sorry. I can’t take your money. I work on the show. I know this bloke got up and won by one question. I can’t take your money. That’s just that.” And I’m thinking ‘there’s Dr. Death over in the corner….’

SH: (GULP) Yes, we’re all friends here! Heh heh. Did he take that all right?

SM: He was fine. But then two weeks later, I’m back in there. And he sidles up to me again, looks at the screen and goes “So who wins this one?”

And I give him a theatrical sort of look and go “chick on the left…”

So, he turns to another guy and goes, “Hey! I’ll bet you $100 bucks that chick on the left wins!”

I said, “$100? Your price has gone up.”

He goes, “Yeah. $50 for me and 50 for you…”

I said, “Okay I’ve got to cut this right here. I work on the show. We cannot be doing this. It’s illegal. You could get into big trouble. I’ll lose my job. So just let’s just stop betting on the winners, okay? I’m not telling you another thing.”

SH: You stayed on the right side of things there…

SM: I remember my boss telling me, “The smartest thing to do, don’t tell people you work on the show.”

SH: Lesson learned.

SM: “Drink your beer and go home like the rest of us.”

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Yes, quite. I suspect that might be good advice for all of us, no matter where we are or what we’re doing.

See you next week.

(and Cheers).

My EXCLUSIVE interview with game show producer Steve Marshall – Part 2

Welcome back! When we left off last week, we were discussing the early days of Steve’s TV career, and the show he was working on, where he happened to meet the young woman who would later become his wife…

========================== SH: And was that your first game show-related job, Sale of the Century? You were an associate producer?

SM: Well, yeah, although I started off as a copywriter. I dropped out of university and I wanted to get into advertising somehow. And I got a job at Channel 10 in the publicity department, just before they were about to televise the Olympics. And the publicity department had four women and the boss said to me,

“None of us know anything about sport. Do you know about sport? Because we’ve got the Olympics…”

And I said “yeah.”

“You’re hired, young fella!”

And I was quickly found to be the worst publicist in the history of publicity. And after a couple of years there, I thought I cannot in good conscience ring the editor of TV Week once more, suggesting another Young Talent Time story, without bursting into laughter. But what I did see working in publicity at Channel 10 was all the shows being made; Prisoner, Carson’s Law, Young Talent Time… you saw the newsroom and all that stuff. And I thought making shows would be a lot more fun than trying to promote them through the newspapers, which I was no good at. I thought ‘maybe I’ll try and get into production’. And a bit later I saw an ad in The Age saying “Grundy Entertainment – copywriter”. I thought, ‘That’s it. That sounds like me’, but I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. But I got the job (as copywriter on Sale of the Century)! I thought I’d be writing all the questions and some quips for (host) Tony Barber. But it’s nothing to do with that, of course; it’s writing all the prize reads for the ‘Gift Shop’ prizes, and the big major prizes. And it was an absolutely perfect introduction to it all because, first week, you’re in the studio and you’re watching them do it. We all grew up watching Sale of the Century and Tony Barber… and suddenly there I am, in the thick of it! So, I stayed there for a couple years, moved up to Associate Producer, but decided to move on.

SH: How did you go from writing the prize reads to becoming an Associate Producer?

SM: They had a pretty open sort of ladder at (production company) Grundy’s. If you stayed there long enough, and they thought you were pretty good at the job, they’d give you that title with a bit more money and a few more responsibilities. And the Associate Producer on a show like that doesn’t make too many big decisions. But you’re dealing with the prize department and programming prizes and stuff like that. But I wanted to get into the question side, so I was going through all the questions with question writers. I asked my boss at the time “What makes a good producer?” And he said, “Common sense. We sometimes see people get a bit excited about it, and they get caught up in the title and think they’re the Big Decision Maker. But it’s mainly just steering the thing and putting a good solid hand on the wheel, and having good people underneath you”.

SH: And so how long were you in the role of Associate Producer?

SM: 18 months.

SH: Right.

SM: And then, as you know, I got bored and decided to fly to LA and indulge my youthful fantasy of driving an American car from LA to New York, which I did.

SH: By yourself?

SM: Yeah. Yeah, it was fun.

SH: That’s very cool. So, if you were over there doing that, what made you come back to Australia?

SM: Just ran out of money, basically! I think I went back to Grundy’s and then resumed as an Associate Producer.

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When I heard Steve say that, I found it heartening that the Grundy Organisation welcomed one of its former employees back with such open arms. The way he told it, it almost sounded to me like they were welcoming him back into the family. I’m not sure that the big TV production companies would be quite so accommodating with their people these days. At the risk of sounding like a sappy old geezer, it feels like it was a simpler, kinder, more decent time back then… 

And we’ll be exploring it further, right here next Tuesday! 

My EXCLUSIVE interview with game show producer Steve Marshall – Part 1

This is a picture of Steve. But when you meet him in real life, he’s in colour.

Hello and welcome to my first really big interview for 2022. I’m really excited about this one. Steve Marshall is a veteran game show producers who’s racked up thousands of hours of game show TV across some of the biggest and most recognizable shows in the industry. Steve’s a lovely bloke, and we first met way back in – But no, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll just leave you with the interview and all will be revealed. And now dear reader, read on…

================================SH: Steve Marshall, hello, thank you so much for speaking to me today.

SM: Stephen Hall it’s a pleasure, absolute pleasure. As always.

SH: I’m trying to think of the last time you and I actually spoke. I do remember that after my time on Temptation, in 2005, you had a radio show… And did you put me in touch with Nathan Foley?

SM: I’m grateful you brought that up. I was trying to remember who it was. Because I’d been speaking to Jon Olb, the TV director. And he told me you’d won Temptation. I said, “Did he win The Lot? That’s fantastic.” I said to our producer. “We’ve got to get him on the radio show soon,” because I think that episode had just gone to air. We watched it and found out you’d had a bit of luck in your final episode, in that you had a pick of the board and you picked Nathan Foley. He was one of the kids in Hi-5? Is that correct?

SH: That’s right.

SM: And he spun around and gave you the $25, which helped you get over the line. (You can see this moment here, around the 13:30 mark) So when we got you on the radio show, our producer cleverly got Nathan Foley on the line as well. So you got the opportunity to thank him… despite the fact that he had nothing whatsoever to do with it!

SH: That’s right.

SM: But you know, although I say you were lucky to pull that $25…. In all my years of experience, nobody ever won Sale of the Century / Temptation, ever, by being lucky. I mean, if you win seven nights in a row, there’s a lot more to it than luck. Hang on, let’s turn the interview around a bit; did it change your life?

SH: Yes, sir, absolutely! It massively changed my life! And to think, I frittered it all away on a house. (LAUGHS) But the ongoing effects of that event still keep echoing through, right up to this day. Absolutely. It changed everything. I was going out with my wife, but shortly after that, I proposed and she said yes. And then we had our daughter. And so, it was just a great – and very action-packed and joyous – year that year.

SM: I can imagine – what a start to everything!

SH: Yes, it was fantastic. But it was some six years before that – in 1999 – that you and I first met.

SM: That’s right.

SH: We were both working on a show for Fox8 (on cable TV here in Australia) called Sunday Roast, which has since disappeared without a trace.

SM: It’s funny you say that, because I’ve done the sad thing, I’ve tried to hunt it down. I thought for sure there’d be some snippets on YouTube or something, but I think they probably just now live on a digi betacam tape on somebody’s bookshelf somewhere. Just to explain, that was in the early days of Foxtel here in Australia and Jason Stephens – who was in the original D-Generation’s Late Show – started this little production company. And with another guy who was a very good lawyer and negotiator, not necessarily a great producer, he put together a comedy panel show which they sold to Foxtel called Sunday Roast… and you and I crossed paths on that. And it was a fun show to do. There were two teams competing, and we had Pete Rowsthorn as the host and Steve Bedwell and Shane Bourne were the team captains. So, as I always say (and people sometimes forget this) if you want to make a funny show, it helps to have funny people involved. And that was a real good show. I really enjoyed Sunday Roast.

SH: In some ways, it was ahead of its time. It’s a format that’s become so familiar to us now with Spicks and Specks, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks and all those sorts of shows. There are a million English ones and they’re doing really well. I think that was pretty early days for that type of comedy.

SM: Yeah. I remember at the time being a big fan of the English comedian Jeff Green. I’d seen him on a couple of those English panel shows; They Think It’s All Over, and so on. He was coming out for the Melbourne Comedy Festival and I thought, “Gee wouldn’t be great to get Jeff Green on the show?” We managed to track him down. And he did the show! He was – and he still is – one of the great comedians of the world, Jeff.

SH: For sure. Now, I remember that your wife Tania also worked on Sunday Roast, and am I right in thinking that you two originally met at work? Was it on Sale of the Century?

SM: Yep. Tania was the contestant coordinator. It was her job to find contestants, and run auditions all around the country and pick out the best ones, and throw suggestions of people to be contestants on the show each week. And our paths crossed and you know, we weren’t the first – and certainly won’t be the last – to have an office romance. And unsurprisingly…

SH: Eh, it’ll never last! (LAUGHS) 

SM: It lasted! (LAUGHS)

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And we’ll leave it there for this week, on that cheerful note (and hello Tania, if you’re reading this)! See you back here next week, when Steve discusses the world of commercial TV publicity in the mid-80s, and driving across America from L.A to New York…

Until then, then!

A game show winner’s cautionary tale – Part 2

Kristi, on ‘the MASTER’ in 2006.

Last week, game show winner Kristi Milley was telling us about her rollercoaster ride on 2006’s the MASTER. She’d won $41,100 on the show in August, only to see it get cancelled after its first episode! She wasn’t in the episode that did go to air, so she’d resigned herself to not receiving her winnings. BUT THEN the network played all the remaining, unaired episodes of the show in December 2006…

All the unaired episodes, that is, EXCEPT for Kristi’s one. Once again, any hopes she had of receiving her winnings were dashed.

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SH: And you thought that was that the end of your the MASTER story? Seeing the network broadcast every episode of the show except yours?

KM: That’s exactly it. Occasionally I would see the show repeated on TV, but I just filed it away as a fun experience.

Bye bye.

SH: But then….?

KM: But then by chance, in early 2020, my great aunt (who’s 88) just happened to be watching daytime TV… and there I was, answering questions! She called my nan who phoned me, the whole family chain, to ask why I didn’t let her know I was going to be on TV. I cried and phoned everyone I knew, to work out what my next steps were… to get the $$$.

SH: Back in 2006, did you sign a standard agreement before the show? And did you get a copy of the agreement? Was one offered to you at the time?

KM: I feel like I signed something, but if I ever had a copy of the agreement, it has long since been turfed. I remember clearly being told that if the show didn’t air, we would get the money. I tried very hard to contact Channel 7 myself but got fobbed off, so I had to get a lawyer to act on my behalf.

SH: Was the network reluctant to pay you? 

KM: The network ignored me. It took a bit of work for the lawyer to get Seven to even acknowledge that I needed to be paid. So, I lost a chunk of my winnings as legal fees, which would have been nice to avoid. I have a suspicion that all the episodes only ever aired on 7Two (in 2020, where Kristi’s great aunt saw it) for the first time, and they didn’t know that mine hadn’t aired before. In the end, they paid, but I don’t think they even checked the episode… as I only got paid $41,000 instead of (the amount I won) $41,100.

SH: So what did you do with your winnings, when you finally, FINALLY got your hands on them?

KM: In the end, waiting 15 years for my prize winnings was a blessing. If I’d been paid as a 21-year-old, it would’ve all gone on a holiday. Being paid in my mid-30s gave me the deposit for my first home. A decade as a student completing my PhD had not given me any savings! So, during Melbourne’s second lockdown in late 2020, I purchased my first home. It’s made an amazing difference to my life.

KM: That’s fantastic, Kristi – congratulations! Were there any lessons you learned from your experience you could pass on to any aspiring quiz show contestants?

KM: I think I’ve learnt more on reflection, watching my episode back, than on the day itself. I think I was lucky I had a background in theatre; it helped me feel more comfortable in a new, stressful environment. Watching myself, I just saw I was someone that gave every question a shot. A lot of the time, the answer is sitting somewhere in your brain; it’s just trusting enough to say it out loud. I also didn’t have a fast reaction time and I think that is something I could have worked on before the recording. Lastly, chance played a big part in my win. Understanding that and just going for it was important.

SH: Your appearance on the MASTER was 15 years ago now. Did you go on any other quiz shows or game shows after that? Do you still have the quizzing bug?

KM: I did also appear on Deal or No Deal. I haven’t really applied for any shows since. I’m just biding my time until they bring back Wheel of Fortune and Sale of the Century!

SH: Kristi, thanks so much again for talking to me today – I’ve really enjoyed hearing your story, and I know that a lot of our visitors will too!

KM: Thanks for the invite. It was nice to reflect on my experience.

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So there you have it – very much a case of “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait”.* I’d like to thank Kristi so much again for sharing her story, with all its ups and downs. And I’m so glad it had such a happy ending for her… even if it did take a decade and a half to arrive!

 

 

 

* … and also To Those Who Get A Good Lawyer And Don’t Take ‘No’ For An Answer.

A game show winner’s cautionary tale – Part 1

Hello! As I’ve frequently pointed out here, it’s a game show truism that “If your episode doesn’t air, you don’t get your winnings”. This is standard game show practice, and it’s usually written into contestant agreements, to officially remind people not to count their chickens before they’ve hatched.

Today’s interview really brings this home. I’m very pleased to be speaking today to Kristi Milley – a winning contestant on 2006’s the MASTER, who knows about this particular aspect of game shows only too well…

SH: Kristi! Thank you so much for talking to me today for HowToWinGameShows.com. By way of background, what was your life like before going you appeared on the show? Had you been interested in quizzing and game shows for a long time? And what, in particular, inspired you to try out for the MASTER?

KM: I was in my second year of Uni and loved my weekly pub trivia with friends. I was the quintessential poor student and I think trying out for the MASTER was part of a get- rich-quick scheme! I also went on Deal or No Deal the same year. I got to hold a briefcase but didn’t win anything.

SH: Can you talk us through the audition / interview process for the show?

KM: It’s such a long time ago now, all the details are fuzzy. I remember having to fill out a long personal bio, maybe have my photo taken and complete a paper-based general knowledge questionnaire. Then a few weeks later, I was contacted to say I had made it to the next round.

SH: Your special subject was The Human Body (which makes sense, since you were a medical science student at the time); did you do any specific training for going on the show?

KM: I winged everything! I didn’t even think to prep for the show. How silly is that?

SH: Can you talk a bit about the studio experience itself? What did you notice about other contestants and the way they handled it?

KM: I had a really great experience on the day itself. I was only 21 at the time and remember feeling very young compared to the other contestants. I’d never had my make-up done professionally before, and I had to bring a couple of outfit options, which was all very exciting.

All the other contestants were very friendly, and I didn’t get the sense that any of them regularly tried out for game shows. We were all like deer in the headlights when we started to record. The host Mark Beretta really made us feel comfortable and kept up the small talk between takes to help relax the contestants. A few of the other contestants had a friend or family member in the audience, which made them feel more at ease. As it was a brand new format, we were all on a level playing field. My episode was also the very first to be recorded in the series. So, I don’t think contestants really had the opportunity to have a strategy. This had an impact in the Special Subject round, where you lost points for incorrect answers… but we didn’t really get a chance to think how big an impact that would have. I essentially won the show because one of the contestants performed very poorly with his Special Subject and lost all the points he’d built up before that.

SH: Were there any elements of the show itself – the studio audience, the MASTER himself (Martin Flood), the speed of proceedings, the physicality of the set, the brightness of the lights, or even the loudness of the music – that surprised you?

KM: The brightness of the lights was quite intense – I was sweating up a storm! Note to budding game show contestants: don’t wear a woollen cardigan! And having Martin watching the game and commenting added an extra layer of intensity to the experience.

SH: In the heat of battle, during the actual playing of your game, what moments – either good or bad – stick in your mind?

KM: 15 years later, I still remember the questions I answered incorrectly that I should have known. The other thing that’s never left me is my terrible banter with Martin between questions in the final segment.

SH: Oh, I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself there. After all, you did win your episode, and a cool $41,100!

SH: … But then, in August 2006, a few weeks after your record, the MASTER premiered on the Seven Network, only to be axed after just one episode! (And unfortunately, that episode was not the one you were in). How did you feel when you heard the show had been cancelled?

KM: Gutted – what 21-year-old doesn’t have plans for their winnings? I was heading to the UK not long after filming, for a placement with my undergraduate studies, and the winnings were going to help pay for my flights and accommodation.

SH: BUT then four months later (during the non-ratings period), the network decided to air the six remaining episodes of the show…. or did they? I’m guessing you tuned in to watch the remaining episodes in December 2006?

KM: The way I remember it was they did air the one episode (in August) and then the rest all aired during the non-ratings period, yes. They had said they’d contact us to let us know when our episode would air, but I was never contacted. And (in December) they aired every episode… bar mine! So, I figured that was it – my pilot episode didn’t make the cut. 

SH: And you thought that was that the end of your the MASTER story? Seeing the network broadcast every episode except yours?

KM: That’s exactly it. Occasionally I would see the show repeated on TV, but I just filed it away as a fun experience.

SH: But then….?

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But then… Kristi’s story continues! It’s far from over, and there are more twists and turns ahead. So join us back here next Tuesday, when all will be revealed…..

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 18: The Conclusion!

David Poltorak, present day. (Well, a few weeks ago, actually.)

It’s been quite the ride chatting to David over these past 17 weeks, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it! We’ve discussed his early love of quiz shows, his screenwriting career, his World-Record-setting quiz show win in 1986, his many years as a question writer and adjudicator, and his return to the studio floor as a contestant in Beat The Chasers in 2020

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SH: Now that brings us up to the present day, and you’ve recently returned to standup comedy… all these years after your baptism of fire on Star Search. Why is that? And how’s it going?

DP: I started doing it again in 2015 because at that stage, I was still working on Millionaire Hot Seat, but that was a part-time job and I wasn’t enjoying it. So I was glad I got the sack from there, ultimately. And I thought “I need something to do with my time,” and I started coming out with funny lines that started popping into my head. And I remember thinking “Oh, that’d be a good line in stand up”.

SH: Right.

DP: Back shortly after my Star Search experience, I did a couple of open mics at The Comedy Store in Sydney, which were really brutal, brutal experiences. And I put it out of my mind; I thought “I just don’t hate myself enough to do that on a regular basis!” It was just too horrible for words, you know? That’s it, done that. And I didn’t watch comedy or listen to comedy; it just wasn’t an area that interested me. But now, all these years later it’s suddenly just clicked… and also, I’d had years of frustration writing scripts, and nothing had happened. I just thought “This is really stupid. Either I’m just not clever enough or I don’t have the application or my ideas aren’t good enough or I’m not meeting the right people; I’m just banging my head against the wall… But I still like writing.”

And so, I thought I’d give it a go. And so, I did it. And again, it was very nervewracking. I did an open mic, I got some good laughs, but it made me realize it was going to be a lot harder to get better at it than I imagined. I’ve seen it in the years since 2015, I’ve seen time and time again, people who don’t necessarily have good material, but just through dint of perseverance, getting up and being on stage, they’ve got the confidence and they’ve got the charm that you’re no longer nervous in their presence. And so they’re actually quite skillful. And if they have good material, too… boy, watch out! And the ones that do have that sort of performance – that skill and ease – and good material, well, they do best of all.

SH: So are you concentrating more on the stand up now?

DP: Yeah, I’m just happy to do as many gigs as I can. And I’m in a group called 10 Comedians.

SH: In addition to your stand up, you‘ve just finished working on The Weakest Link. Do you see yourself doing more quiz question writing and adjudicating down the track?

DP: Oh, yeah, I’ll happily do it if it comes along. After I got sacked from Millionaire Hot Seat (along with a couple of other people, because we’d all gone to work for Pointless as well), there’d been very little work. I think I was down to 400 bucks a week or something, so getting sacked didn’t really worry me. And also, I didn’t like the hierarchy, the managerial side of their question department; it was really unfriendly to the writers. And so, I’m glad that’s in my past. And so then Pointless came up, then Think Tank. Then Mastermind – we’ve done three series of that – and now, The Weakest Link. There’s talk of another Mastermind series. I‘d be happy with that sort of work coming in now and again – more than happy.

SH: That’s a good way to be.

DP: Yeah. I’m doing an open mic tonight. I did two on Tuesday. I’ve got other gigs now and again… I’m sort of in that semi-pro range, where I’m still doing as much open mic as I can just for experience, and trying out new material. I’m not a headliner. I’m old, you know; I’m typed as ‘The Old Guy’.

SH: Okay.

DP: I’ve got to accept that it’s a young person’s field, so generally people don’t book people of my vintage. I think I work better with an audience aged 30 up rather than 30 down.

SH: Right. Well, on that note David, it just remains for me to say thank you so much for your time today, and for sharing all your stories with us. It’s been really, really interesting. Thank you.

DP: Excellent. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I look forward to reading it – it’s been a lot of fun!

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I really can’t thank David enough for his time, for all those amazing memories, and for his endlessly cheerful candour! I’ve absolutely loved this opportunity to talk to one of the true greats in the history of Australian quiz shows, and I sincerely hope you’ve found it entertaining and illuminating too.

If you’re a keen comedy-goer here in Australia, check your local gig guides – there’s a good chance that David will be playing somewhere near you soon. (Pandemic permitting, of course.) 

And so we bid a fond farewell to that most impressive screenwriting, record-setting, question-adjudicating, Chaser-beating, cheerful autodidact, Mr David Poltorak.

Join me back here in a fortnight’s time… 

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 17

As we launch into the penultimate instalment of our epic conversation, I wanted to revisit the subject of David’s Top Tips for aspiring game shows contestants… and hey, if his answer ends up taking us on a fascinating detour through the world of mid-eighties Australian TV talent shows, who am I to argue?

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SH: So you won big on Australian TV shows in 1986 and in 2020. What have you learned over that time as a ‘career contestant’, and what would be the three biggest pieces of advice you can offer aspiring contestants?

DP: Swallow your pride.

SH: Oh, yeah. That’s good.

DP: You’ve got to be prepared to take a fall. And that comes back to me going on Beat The Chaser, too. To do well, you have to risk looking like an idiot.

SH: Right.

DP: Did I tell you about my Star Search appearance?

SH: No, you did not. Please do.

DP: Well, in 1985, I had aspirations to be a stand-up comedian, but I’d never done it. But a friend of mine knew the guy who booked the acts on the Channel 10 show Star Search, hosted by Greg Evans.

SH: Yes.

DP: They had categories of performers. And so each week there would be two performers in each category. And the winner of each category would then go into a semi.

SH: Yes.

DP: And one of the ‘categories’ was spokesmodel!

SH: Really? Truly?

DP: Yeah. Actually, one of the winners of that category, Kerrie Friend, did go on to become a TV hostess.

That’s Kerrie on the right. Greg Evans (coincidentally, the aforementioned host of ‘Star Search’) is on the left, and that’s Dexter the robot in the middle. This photo was taken on the set of the dating show, ‘Perfect Match’. At least, I really, really hope it was…

DP: So anyway, I went on Star Search and that was my very first attempt at standup comedy.

SH: Whoa, that’s very brave.

DP: And I was so nervous. I drank a flask of Southern Comfort and I took a Valium. I needed to.

SH: Before going on?!

DP: Before going on. So I was very mellow.

SH: Jeez!

DP: And I didn’t win my category; my category was won by a double act called Broccoli Productions. They were two guys, one of whom read the news, while the other one acted it out, with silly pratfalls.

SH: Okay.

DP: It was very visual, and the audience loved it. I was too cerebral and inexperienced. The audience was polite, though; I got a few titters. But some people were open-mouthed about how bad I was, while other people were quite supportive. Some people said “Good on you,” and others – my father, for instance – were just shaking their heads in disbelief.

But it was a great lesson for me; it taught me that what you do and people’s reactions to it aren’t necessarily connected. The way people reacted said more about them than it did about me. Some were supportive, and some were critical… but they’d all seen the same thing. And so, ultimately it was all water off a duck’s back; it didn’t worry me.

It’s a cliché – “It doesn’t matter what people think about you,” but it’s true. Because it’s just their opinion. You can let it affect you, but that’s your choice.

And the next year when I auditioned for Sale, a couple of people said, “Why are you doing that to yourself?” They thought I was punishing myself or something. They saw it as some weird, masochistic desire for public humiliation.

SH: But you’d had that Star Search experience… which was an audacious thing to do on your part. And so your skin was thick enough?

DP: Yeah, yeah. I really thought that by going on Sale, I had absolutely nothing to lose; I could only gain from it… I didn’t think I’d get as much as I did! But I didn’t think I’d do badly. And I thought, having been through that Star Search trial-by-fire, this was going to be a cakewalk.

SH: Yeah, cool. During my time on Temptation, I noticed some contestants whose reputation – and even their identity – seemed to be bound up in this! Usually, they were middle-aged or older men, who I guess might have been “Mr. Quiz Expert” in their workplace… And I’d see they were humiliated – or even devastated – when they lost. I could see them thinking “Oh no, there goes my status in my social group”. And I felt for them, because they’d decided that they had a lot riding on this, reputationally.

DP: Yeah.

SH: But I digress. And now…

DP: You asked for three pieces of advice. I think I’ve only answered one. But actually, I feel a bit sad for anybody today who’d like to be a quiz show contestant… because the formats are so unfairly loaded towards the show and not the player. The player doesn’t get a chance really to shine. In Beat the Chasers, for example, you’ve got a minute to answer maybe 10 or 12 questions. And if there’s just a couple that you don’t know, you’re done. The great thing about Sale – or any of those other quiz shows in the past – was that you’ve got a lot of questions. And if you were smart, then it wouldn’t matter that you got a couple wrong, because on balance, you’d do well.

It’s a shame that TV has moved away from displaying and recognizing and exalting knowledge, which quiz shows used to do. But I think if you want to do well, you’ve got to put in the work; it isn’t going to fall in your lap. Prepare! When I was on Sale, the first time I had a couple of very lucky answers that were purely from stuff that I’d read or seen in the week or two prior to being on the show. One of my questions was, “Yugoslavia is made up of how many republics?” And I knew the answer because I’d read an article about it in the Good Weekend a couple of weeks earlier. Maybe the question writers got that question from that article.

SH: Yeah, that’s possible, absolutely.

DP: When you’re studying for a quiz, you just want to bring as much knowledge as you can, as close to the surface of the brain as possible. So it’s easily accessible.

I think you’ve got to be curious. You just have to want to know stuff. Yeah, there’s got to be something in your makeup that frustrates you if you don’t know something.

SH: Yes.

DP: I mean, even if I’m not practising for a quiz show, I just look up stuff all the time. You know, somebody says something, and I’m not sure about it, I want to clarify it in my mind; I go and look it up. I’m not practising for a quiz show. It’s just me enjoying knowing things.

Another bit of advice I would add, if you’re a contestant on a show where time is counting down and there’s a clock showing your remaining time, don’t look at it! I did that once on a show, when I was ahead, and the distraction was enough to take me out of the zone. I just lost. Which is why, on Beat the Chasers, I purposely looked down so I couldn’t see how much time I had left.

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Some great tips there! Next week, David and I wrap it all up with a few reflections, a chat about his current return to the world of standup comedy, and a look at what his future holds.

See you then!

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 16

Hello and welcome to the antepenultimate instalment of my epic interview with David Poltorak. When we left off last week, it was mid-2020, and one of the producers of Beat The Chasers was trying to tempt David into signing up for the show…

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DP: I wasn’t sure; I don’t think I said yes straight away. But it wouldn’t have taken me long to say yes. And so, she then sent me links (that everybody would have been given access to) of the UK version of the show. And I just thought, “F*** – this is hard!” But there was one YouTube of one winner on the UK show, who won everything. But she actually got a couple wrong. And I thought, “Well, I knew the ones she got wrong”. I didn’t know all the ones she got right, but on balance, I would have done the same as her. So that instilled me with a certain confidence that it was possible… So I said yes. My fingers were crossed that I would do well, because if I didn’t, it was going to be a really bad look.

SH: Yeah, your reputation!

DP: For what that’s worth. But I convinced myself that if I lost, it wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic, because it was such a hard format. I thought because of my background, I’m going to have to go up against all four Chasers. I don’t have an option really of going below that. But interestingly, when I got to the studio that day of recording, one of the producers said to all of us, “Look, I know most of you are smart, you’ve been on other shows, you’ve done well, you’re here to win money. But everybody has thought like that, and nobody has won the big money. You might want to temper your ambitions and at least go home with something. We’ve had some people who walked away with low-level prizes, but nobody has taken the most, because the really good ones amongst you have gone for the most … and they’ve all bombed out.”

And so all that day, I had producers and PA’s asking me “What do you think you’ll do? What do you think you’ll do?” And after that little producer talk, I remember thinking “Maybe I shouldn’t be so ambitious. Maybe I should just go for a lower amount because I’d like to leave with something…” And I was on the last record day, and I was one of the last to be done. I guess they’d held me strategically in reserve so they could play with me, in terms of how much they offered me.

SH: Right.

DP: So, when the time came for me to go onto the set, they’re probably thinking, “We don’t have a big winner yet. We want one big winner. This is our only chance; we’d better offer him a lot of money. Because he said he’s only gonna go for three Chasers. And we want him to go for four.” And when they flashed up $150,000 on the screen, I couldn’t believe it. The guy before me, his top offer was just $70,000. And I thought, based on the English show, where they offer up to 100,000 (admittedly, pounds), that they wouldn’t offer anything more than $100,000 on the Australian show. And so, when I saw $150,000… I thought “Ah, they want me to win!”

SH: Yeah, yeah. Good!

DP: I mean, they weren’t handing it to me, but they were saying, “We want you to get this.”

SH: Yeah, just quietly…

DP: So, suddenly any cautious thinking went out the window, and I thought, “I have no option. I have to go for four.”

SH: That’s gutsy! How did you train for going on Beat the Chasers?

DP: I’ve got a couple of versions of Trivial Pursuit, so I just read as many boxes of Trivial Pursuit questions as I could, I’d get my wife to ask me 20 questions over dinner. And I learned a lot of popular culture, because I thought that, as I get older, it’s increasingly my weakest area. Ironically, there was a girl on the show just before me, this cute young lawyer, Mara, and she got a question where I knew the answer was Bruno Mars. And she didn’t know it. That was annoying, because I would have liked that question, obviously.

SH: Yes, of course.

DP: I think there might have been one other question I knew the answer to because of my study. But really, I think the study was to give me the confidence and the self-assurance that I’d done as much as I could do in preparation.

SH: Yeah, which is big – confidence is an enormous part of the equation.

DP: Yeah, it really is. And look, the only reason I won was because on the night I pulled it out of somewhere that Nicole Kidman played Chase Meridian in Batman Forever… a movie I never saw!

SH: You’re very good!

DP: But I must have seen it on IMDb; I must have seen a list of the credits. And it just popped into my head. You know, it was just a miracle.

SH: And just like that, you were $150,000 richer! How was the aftermath of that win, compared to the aftermath of your original Sale of the Century win?

DP: Well, I had an expectation that it wouldn’t be as big, because it was only on for one or two nights, but Channel 7 promoted it as a major prime-time event.

SH: It’s very emotive stuff.

DP: And the morning after I’d done the show, I walked out of my place and past a couple, and the guy turned around and said, “Hey, that’s the guy who was on Beat the Chasers!” I thought, “Holy f***! The first person I’ve seen!” But it turned out that he was the only member of the public who’s said that they saw me on the show.

SH: Okay.

DP: I’ve had no recognition from anyone else, apart from people I know.

SH: Yeah. A very different world from 1986.

DP: It is a different world because so many people I know who saw this show, saw it either on catch up or on YouTube. They didn’t watch it when it went to air.

SH: No, not like in 1986, when a million people regularly gathered around to watch TV at seven o’clock each weeknight!

DP: Yeah. The whole context in which people watch shows has lost that intensity. There are advantages in that you don’t have to be at home at the time it’s broadcast; there’s always some way for you to see it.

SH: I’m not sure audiences enjoy watching clever people display their cleverness anymore.

DP: That’s an interesting point. In terms of the way the culture is moving, that idea of admiring people for displaying their talent at knowledge almost seems old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy now. It’s something that’s gradually declined ever since the days of Pick-A-Box. Pick-A-Box clearly celebrated dry, dull people who just happen to know a lot, and if you got someone like Barry Jones, who had a bit of a personality to go along with it, well, that just made it better.

SH: You’re right. There was a time – and I think its heyday was during Sale of the Century – when people would go “Wow, what a brainiac! I admire brainiacs!” And in that movie Quiz Show, which is set back in the ’50s, they admire intellectuals too. It was a different time.

DP: It’s just not mainstream anymore. There is Mastermind, there was The Einstein Factor as well; but their audiences are not the mainstream audience. And let’s face it, free-to-air broadcast TV is hardly even a mainstream audience these days.

SH: Yeah, I think those days are gone. As you say, commercial free-to-air TV is struggling, so they have to appeal to as many people as possible. I guess it’s the equivalent of clickbait, really.

DP: And now they’re always just short-run shows. The latest (Australian) version of The Weakest Link is just 14 episodes, and they’ve programmed it at nine o’clock. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence from the network.

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Next week, in our penultimate instalment, David and I discuss

More TOP contestant tips,

The rigours of becoming a professional TV spokesmodel and of course

The roles of Southern Comfort and valium in pre-performance preparation…

See you next Tuesday!

My EXCLUSIVE interview with big-winning, record-setting game show LEGEND David Poltorak – Part 15

Welcome to Part XV of my exclusive and wide-ranging interview with quiz show legend David Poltorak. And since the name of this blog is HowToWinGameShows.com, I felt it would be extremely remiss of me not to ask David for his tips on…

Well, on how to win game shows.

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DP: In terms of advice I’d give to any contestant… I was always eager to sort the people who were serious from the people who weren’t. You know, people who say “I’m just here because my wife thought I should give it a go”, or “we need new saucepans” or “I’ll be happy to just get a (consolation prize) board game!” You know those folks are just taking up space.

SH: But that’s good to know! That’s a very useful piece of information in itself. 

DP: Yeah. And I’d always be impressed with people who had bothered to learn that year’s Oscar winners or some recent landmark events… at least they were trying. And the other thing – and I guess you can’t really teach this – but that whole thing about anticipating.

SH: When it comes to anticipation, one thing I put into practice while I was on the show, was to always watch the host’s mouth while he’s asking the questions. Really concentrate on his mouth. And then when you buzz in, he’ll say another two or three words of the question. And then you’ve got one second, two seconds, even three seconds… that’s a heap of time. If you’ve been intently watching the host’s mouth, you can get a feel for where the question might be going next. Then you can finish the question in your mind, and then you’ve got those seconds to access the answer.

DP: Yes.

SH: And that constant pep talk to yourself; to always be saying to yourself “I know the next one. I know the next one”… rather than not getting one and going “Oh yeah, of course I should have known that… Now, where were we?” If you do that, you’re gone. You always have to go “Okay, let that one go. I know the next one. I know the next one.” I think it was Matt Parkinson who said to me, “It’s like someone’s throwing lots of tennis balls at you. And some of them you’ll catch, some of them you won’t… but just let those ones go, don’t give them a second thought. Just focus on the next one that’s coming at you.”

DP: Yeah. It’s true; it is a mind game. And Sale was so different to Millionaire; the skills needed to do well on Sale were so different to those needed for Millionaire. For Sale, you needed to be quick, you needed quick recall, you couldn’t allow yourself to get flustered, you had to have a broad general knowledge. Whereas with Millionaire… apart from broad general knowledge, none of that other stuff comes into play. But your luck is a much bigger factor in Millionaire because you’ve only got 12 questions. But so many smart people on Millionaire would just get done in by the question about last year’s winner of The French Open, for example.

SH: Yeah. Well, that’s your ‘Ask The Audience’ question. I’ve interviewed two WWTBAM Millionaire winners here – Martin Flood and Rob “The Coach” Fulton and there are certain strategies around when to use those lifelines…

DP: Ah, Martin Flood. When I went on Beat the Chasers, the contestants would stand up at the back of the bleachers, and when they were announced, they’d run downstairs onto the set and meet (the host) Andrew (O’Keefe). And when I was there waiting to be introduced, Martin Flood came over. He was coaching one of the contestants.

SH: Martin wasn’t on the show?

DP: I expected him to be on the show; he was asked, but he decided not to do it. But he was coaching this particular person. I don’t know how you coach… but I guess you can lend your experience…

SH: Now, speaking of Beat the Chasers… you went on it 34 years after you first won Sale of the Century! They were looking for lots of former quiz winners to go on the show. And one thing that struck me about that is that you’ve got quite a lot to lose; there’s a lot of pride at stake. I shied away from going back on Temptation a second time, and since doing Australia’s Brainiest Quizmaster I’ve shied away from anything like that. And yet you had the cojones to go on Beat The Chasers, and of all the former champions who appeared on it, you did the best. So why did you decide to go on it? And what if it didn’t go that well? Can you just talk us through the process?

DP: Well, I got a call from the producer, Andrea Williams, who I’ve known for years, and she said, “Polty, are your quizzing days over?” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “There’s this new quiz show Beat the Chasers and we’re looking for people who’ve been on other shows… and you’ve jumped to mind.”

And all those things just popped into my head; that chest-tightening feeling. There’s excitement, but at the same time pressure straightaway. But you’ve got to just make it a binary thing; you either say yes or no. If you say no, you may regret it because you see other people get the money, possibly. And part of me thought “Look, I’m nearing the end of my working life…” So there was a greed factor. And I had no confidence I was necessarily going to win, because I know the way these shows are structured these days. At least in Sale‘s day, you could lose but you still left with the board game and a stickpin!

SH: That’s true.

DP: Nowadays on a show, unless you take away the big money, you go home with nothing.

SH: You’re providing really great content for them, and you get nothing in return.

DP: You might get lunch and a bottle of water.

SH: A bottle of water? Yum!

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WILL David accept the challenge of competing on Beat The Chasers?*

WILL he rise to the occasion, and do brilliantly?**

WILL he go home with The Big Money?***

For the answers to all these questions, dear reader, just scroll down to the asterisks below. But for the more detailed answers to all these questions, be sure to join us next Tuesday afternoon, right here at HowToWinGameShows.com!

* Yes.

** Also yes.

*** Again, also yes.