On one of the first episodes of gay comedian Guy Branum's new TruTV series, Talk Show the Game Show, actor-comedian Scott Adsit emerges cautiously from behind a curtain to sit next to the host on what looks like a traditional late-night talk show set. Branum, presiding from a desk festooned with kitschy mid-century props, frowns at him.
“Do you feel like you understand what's going on here?” is Branum's opening question.
“Nope,” Scott says, eyes wide and limbs tangled in what a therapist might call a “closed-off posture.”
“That's reasonable,” Branum informs him. “I want you to live in that uncertainty.” And then the games begin.
Talk Show the Game Show is a hybrid of what Branum calls "America's two least respected TV formats," and the entire affair is an unmitigated delight that is queer in every sense of the word.
Each episode opens with Branum barking trivia questions at celebrity guests as they spin on a platform menaced by a drumroll; from there, they move into competitive interviews in which bells chime to reward them with points every time they say something interesting. (Drag queen Pandora Boxx receives 5 points for singing; Wanda Sykes' score jumps when she presents a gift to the host; Dan Bucatinsky is interrupted mid-interview and sent to a time-out booth when his name-dropping becomes excessive.) There are physical challenges peppered throughout, and whichever guest has proven themselves to be objectively the most sparkling by the end of the night is declared the winner.
The format is ingenious, but it's in the execution that true magic lies. Talk Show the Game Show is, at last, the show that has been struggling to break free since the 1970s when television had to neuter its Paul Lyndes and Charles Nelson Reillys with winky innuendo.
The show is very, very gay, from the host to the judges to many of the guests. Bracketed by Sykes on one side and Pandora Box on the other, Adsit comes off as an affable but helpless straight sidekick. By centering queer voices and merely accommodating the occasional heterosexual, Branum achieves a delicious reversal of the usual sassy gay friend trope, which allows him to muse "why did waitresses seem so glamorous to us as gay 7-year-olds?" without meeting a bank of confused straight faces.
Game shows and talk shows are formats that run on the strength of personality, and they have always been dominated by queer raconteurs. There's Reilly and Lynde careening through Match Game and Hollywood Squares to run circles around their stolid colleagues, as well as Wayland Flowers and his puppet Madame. Vincent Price and Jim J. Bullock were game show mainstays, and in the U.K., there was never a personality as magical as Kenneth Williams—and more recently, Stephen Fry, now replaced on QI by Sandi Toksvig. When he appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway, Richard Simmons deployed a nuclear bomb of innuendo that utterly destroyed his fellow contestants. And over the development of much of this form of programming, entertainment mogul Merv Griffin presided.
Yet when I watch these vintage appearances, it’s difficult not to feel an undercurrent of sadness for the obvious gaiety that had to be tamped down. There’s an episode of Match Game on which Fannie Flagg sarcastically swoons for a hunky contestant, while host Gene Rayburn lewdy drapes his arm around the man until he’s told to stop. “I think he’s a little too butch, honey,” Brett Somers rolls her eyes.
In previous eras, queer personalities could mince up to a certain line, but that’s as far as they could go. It was an absurd handicapping of their talents, given that so many LGBTQ people are particularly passionate about personality-driven TV. It’s no mystery as to why queers dominate the format: As ostracized outcasts, it’s only natural that they obsess over the rules of social success and at proving their mastery of the crowd-pleasing quip.
This decades-long blockade of gay wit where it could shine the brightest has been crumbling for years, aided in no small part by Louis Virtel’s finger-snap on Jeopardy. (After that appearance, Louis wrote that his one regret was that he didn’t talk about being gay on the show.) It’s for this reason that Talk Show the Game Show feels so fantastically liberating, from exclusively gay moments that are actually gay—like a guest mentioning his husband—to more ineffable queerness like Liza references and an emphasis on scarves. To be sure, Guy’s not the only queer host in town; Andy Cohen’s been a pioneer in the field as well as Bryan Safi alongside Erin Gibson on TV Land’s recent Throwing Shade.
But Talk Show the Game Show feels like an evolutionary leap. By identifying the components of a successful appearance and distilling them down to a system of incentives and rewards, Branum’s show feels like a rollicking thesis about what it is to be entertaining. It’s at once the kind of successful cocktail party that everyone aspires to be able to throw and a master class in how to be fascinating. LGBTQ people come into adulthood knowing that they’ll need to cultivate an intense study of these techniques if they are to enjoy themselves, and Branum’s show is a practical application of decades of wisdom explored—but never fully exploited—by the personalities who came before.
And delightfully, the show accomplishes all this without being too heady, or academic, or navel-gazing. When Judge Karen Kilgariff (former head writer for Ellen and Pete Holmes) begins reading into the sexual politics of a guest’s appearance, Branum masterfully deploys a lighthearted course correction: “Karen,” he calls, head bobbing, “are you writing something for Slate?”