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Sam Reich, host of Game Changer, celebrates effusively in front of the show’s iconic podiums. Three contestants — Brennan Lee Mulligan, Lou Wilson, and Siobhan Thompson — stand behind the podiums, radiating frustrated tolerance. Image: CH Media

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Puzzle, performance, or prank? TV’s best game show isn’t a game show at all

How Game Changer flirts with the boundary of good comedy and never falls over

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Here at Polygon, you could say that we have a soft spot for the intersection between games and entertainment. And if that soft spot has a sweet spot, Game Changer is there. Nominally a game show hosted by CollegeHumor CEO Sam Reich on the Dropout streaming service, the series combines improv comedy, puzzle solving, fierce competition, and a prankster ethos.

But check your preconceptions at the door: Game Changer, the only game show where the game changes every show, is one of the funniest, nicest, cleverest pieces of TV you can put your eyeballs on right now.

One eternal question spans all of pop culture: "Who would win?" This week we have answers. Prepare yourself for Polygon's Who Would Win Week.

You could say it’s like Whose Line Is It Anyway? if the points weren’t made up and they definitely did matter. Or you could say it’s like Saw, but instead of people captured by a serial killer, it’s improv comics captured by video producers within the trap of their own performing instincts.

In (most) episodes, contestants must decipher the game as they play, the play usually involves performance, and once they figure out the rules, the real fun begins. Game Changer’s recently concluded fifth season included scenarios like: a comedy writer inventing the dirtiest pickup lines he can while his mother stands right next to him; a performer known for his competitive streak asked to keep his heart rate low while he plays a game he knows is rigged against him; and the playground pastime of Simon Says heightened to continent-spanning stakes.

And since we happen to be thinking about competition this week anyway, we reached out to Game Changer’s host and creator, Sam Reich, to pick his brain about comedy, competition, and pushing boundaries as far as they’ll go while making sure that everyone involved — contestants and audience — is having a good-ass time.

Katie Marovitch, blindfolded, is up against a board while a professional knife thrower holds a knife 10 feet away. Sam Reich stands next to Katie, holding the board, while Brennan Lee Mulligan and Carolyn Page watch on from their podiums in Game Changer. Image: Dropout

Polygon: You’ve said before that Game Changer comes from a love of game shows you’ve had for much of your life. But how did it go from affection to reality?

Sam Reich: Game Changer came out of a time in Dropout history where there was pressure for us to develop more cheaper, unscripted programming. The team of writers wasn’t particularly eager to do that, as any team of writers wouldn’t be, and so I felt like by developing Game Changer, I was sort of falling on that sword for them.

I had half a pitch hanging out in old documents somewhere. The original title for the show was What the What, based loosely on the parlor game Scissors. Some of our early concern about it was if the players spend the whole game solving a puzzle, then isn’t it boring for the length of the show? And then doesn’t it end promptly once they figure it out?

As we’ve developed Game Changer, it’s turned into more like a series of moments. And then once [contestants] figure out the game, the game heightens in some way.

The most electrifying moment in the show is always in the first five or so minutes, when the contestants are trying to figure out what the boundaries are.

It’s juicy, for sure. If I had to pick one clip to show to people to describe the show, it would be the three Noise Boys and the vases in season 1. It’s one of my favorite illustrative moments to come out of the show.

I don’t think you can do that all the time. The truth is, I think puzzles can be limited in terms of their entertainment value. We’ve done other punchline-based episodes, like “Tell Us About Yourself” in the virtual season, where we have a celebrity guest in disguise, and the players have to learn by asking who it is, which does suffer from a bit of, All right, now hurry up and solve it already.

Our challenge with the show is to present you with a puzzle, and then like a video game, hopefully you develop mastery over it. And then we switch it up on you in some way. It’s kind of like the game of The Witness: Here’s a bunch of bubbles, and you’re dragging a little snake in between them, and now we’re going to make it exponentially more complicated and then exponentially more complicated again.

I admit I’ve had difficulty communicating the appeal of Game Changer to people who are immediately skeptical of anything involving the words “improv comedy” and “game show.” How do you explain it?

I pitch the show to people as something in between a game show and a puzzle and a prank. It’s probably actually game show, puzzle, prank, and Sam’s nouveau art project. Some of my favorite episodes are ones where I’ve clearly gone overboard. “Escape the Greenroom” is a perfect example of that where, given the opportunity to create an escape room, I didn’t just create an escape room, I created lore and went much too far. [laughs] There’s also an episode in the virtual season called “Jeopardy!,” where I turned a Jeopardy! board into a TTRPG game, which is another example of going way too far.

Somewhere between game show and puzzle and prank — I think there are people who are big fans of puzzles who aren’t fans of pranks or people who are big fans of pranks who aren’t fans of puzzles. So you could sort of accidentally turn people on or off either way. But really it’s a show for comedy snobs, first and foremost. When you’ve consumed a lot of comedy — and I think at this point, we all have — it’s like you only get off on the hard drugs anymore. Game Changer is trying to give you something that feels wholly original, with varying degrees of success. [laughs]

You have done a lot of stuff over the seasons of the show, supportive and competitive, but I really want to talk about games where competition and surprise and boundaries are key. This is a very basic question, but who else to ask but a game show host: What is the joy of this competition? What is the impulse that derives joy from watching someone be punished, or rewarded?

With the show, we’re flirting with a boundary between points mattering and them not mattering. I think Dropout, in general, is right at this intersection between traditional television and webseries. I find a lot of joy in the gray areas, where I feel like a lot of people feel kind of lost in them. If we didn’t do it well, then you might say that the stakes both aren’t high enough and are too high at the same time. Like, the stakes aren’t enough for this to feel casual in the style of most British panel shows, and the stakes are too high as to no longer be relaxed and funny. So that’s a tricky balance. And the importance of stakes are to give a show any kind of oomph or structure.

When the points fully don’t matter, you can still have a good show. Our other spinoff of Game Changer, Make Some Noise, is a show where the points really don’t matter, and it’s a more casual vibe. But the loose structure of the game show still gives it some format, so that you as the audience don’t feel lost within it. I’m not very competitive person. My brother was super competitive, really into sports, I think he kind of wrung the competitiveness out of me, where growing up, if we were going to compete, he was going to win at anything.

So, for me, the competition is there really just to increase that sense of fun and playfulness. I never want anyone to actually care too much. Part of what’s funny about Brennan [Lee Mulligan] in the show is he’s so determined. And then I get to insert little moral messages in the show about how winning isn’t actually all that important. Or, sorry, according to Brennan, it’s not that he needs to win, it’s that he needs not to lose.

Game Changer isn’t a show without edits — you’ve been candid about how things are cut for time or vibes or just for getting a little too close to a line. How do you know when a competition has stopped being fun?

I think being game show host is a lot like hosting a dinner party. Vibe is my job. If it begins to go off the rails, or if the vibe turns sour, or if I get the sense of, Oh, by lingering here, staying here, we’re going to have a problem, it’s my job to move things right along, to keep it fun. And then in post, we do a bit of the same.

So if I feel like there was a moment that wasn’t altogether fun, or the vibes felt a little off, or I’m just worried, even if the vibes were fine, about how the audience would react to it. Because I know these people well, and [viewers] don’t, and sometimes a joke will make perfect sense in the moment, and then we’ll look at it after and be like, Well, if you weren’t giving these people the benefit of the doubt... blah, blah, blah. That’s what editing is for. We also edit to make things feel a little faster and cleverer than they even were in reality, which means that we’re often shooting for more than an hour, and we’re getting a half-hour show. So that leaves a lot on the floor.

Understanding of the audience perspective seems key. So much of reality television is pitched toward welcoming the audience to observe transgressions or to transgress by observing. But Game Changer has moments where you check in with contestants who’ve agreed to do a thing — you include the audience in that. Was that always in the plan for the show or did it come out in the doing?

No, not at all, not in the least bit. We had a season 1 which wasn’t particularly spicy. I mean, when we invited Jess [Ross] and Brennan and Tao [Yang]’s significant others to set on day one, that’s an episode I’ll never beat. Because you can’t do a sequel to that. You could never catch people off guard in that same way again. But I didn’t ask — I mean, there was no consent involved in that episode. [laughs] We just did it.

And then season 2, we did “Do I Hear $1?” And in advance of that episode, I talked to Grant [O’Brien] and Ally [Beardsley], who had done Total Forgiveness on the platform, I talked to Raph [Chestang]. I said, “I want to do a spicy episode. There’s gonna be some spicy challenges, are you sure you’re in?” and got enthusiastic responses from all of them and it was only really then that I was comfortable doing that episode. Because I never want to make anyone legitimately uncomfortable.

Again, flirting with that boundary is fine. It’s the flirting that makes things fun and suspenseful, but you never want to topple over. And then in future seasons, what I did was, I reached out to everyone in advance of the season, and I said, “Give me a sense of what your boundaries are, what you would do and not do, and tell me like, what the craziest thing is that you would do on camera.” And that gave me a much better perspective on people’s willingness or not willingness to play overall, and meant that I could start flirting with that boundary a little more.

There are people who told me they would do things that I would never do. There are many people who told me they would get completely nude on camera; there are multiple people who told me they would get a tattoo on camera. And so I started going, Oh, I can, like, push it further than I thought, so long as those episodes star the right people.

It’s almost like you backed yourself into the now-standard TTRPG technique of asking for lines and veils before you start a campaign.

Yeah, for sure. And then we have a safe word and phrase that we use on the show —

I mean, I wasn’t going to bring up kink negotiation...

[laughs quite hard] I mean, completely!

People either say “time out,” or they do this [gestures with the “time out” sign] and so long as they’re holding their fingers like this, I cannot use what they’re saying on the show. That’s the deal. And people have! There have also been a few instances where people have come to me afterwards and said, “I don’t know how I feel about this in retrospect about my behavior. And so can I watch it and make sure I’m comfortable with it before we air it?” which I always honor as well.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to know when it’s not fun. How do you ideate? How do you get the fun in the first place?

Improvisers are always going to enjoy an opportunity to strut their stuff. I think what makes Game Changer particularly fun is that feeling of going on an amusement park ride, where it’s like, I cannot be prepared for this. So much of entertainment, and so much of life in general, is showing up wanting or needing to be prepared. And in Game Changer, you can’t. What I am trying to do is catch you by surprise.

So I think the fun of it for people is that they have to let go. [laughs] What you’re watching oftentimes when episodes first begin is that freefall moment of “I don’t know what this is, but I’m here for it.” I think there’s something to that. If we’re going to add to what Game Changer is, you might say “prank” or you might say “surprise party.”

Well, you have literally flown someone’s mother out from Ohio to surprise them on the show.

Exactly! They don’t know. It could be good or bad, or in between. It could be a challenge. It could be a great prize. They have no idea.

Some of the episodes that I find most delicious are ones where the contestants start to push back on you and start to turn the trap in your direction. I’m curious how you see that fitting into the structure of the show and its appeal — your role as host and antagonist.

I’m setting up a game. In the world of improv we would say a “comedy game”; in Game Changer we would say a “game game.” And my feeling about it is, usually, if you’re abiding by the rules that I’ve set up, unless this goes far outside those rules, then I’m interested in what you’re bringing to the table no matter how disruptive it is.

In the first Noise Boys episode, I say, “Do a North Dakotan,” and Brennan says, “I love it here in North Dakota. Yeah, I just moved here from the East Coast.” And yeah, that tracks, that works. I haven’t called out specifically that it wouldn’t.

If I’m setting up the cage, then my contestants’ job is to be the cats exploring the corners of the cage. And I love it when they do that, because it is a show of discovery and in flirting with those boundaries. There are certainly times where I have to push back entirely because they are going to outright break my game. [laughs] And make it no fun anymore for anybody. And I’m always a little sorry when I have to do that.

I love when they give me shit. They have every right to; they should. What they’re being asked to do is is undignified and I deserve it, and that’s part of it.

My final question for you is: Was “Escape the Greenroom” really the season finale?

Why, do you think I have something up my sleeve?

Game Changer is streaming on the subscription service, and on YouTube, where CollegeHumor maintains a tasting menu of episodes and clips.