Lessons From 10,000 Hours of the Game Show Network

If I’ve learned anything from watching the Game Show Network, it’s that America loves shrimp. My boyfriend and I recently discovered that our cable package includes the channel, a stroke of luck during these very indoor times, and now every night goes like this: He gets off work and asks me, “What do you want to do tonight?” and I reply, “Do I even have to say it?” Then we drag the mattress from the bedroom into the living room, cuddle up, and watch the Game Show Network for five hours.

This entails a lot of shouting at the TV, and lately, we can’t stop yelling about shrimp. America Says—a GSN original series hosted by John Michael Higgins, which is basically a G-rated version of Family Feud—asks two teams to guess the top seven answers to fill-in-the-blank surveys. What foods did Americans say they can never eat just one of? Among other things, shrimp. What was one of the seven top foods people in the United States eat in just one bite? If you guessed shrimp, you are correct. What are US citizens’ favorite appetizers to share? Mozzarella sticks, calamari, onion rings, and of course, shrimp cocktails. If America Says has a food-related question, you bet your ass one of the answers is shrimp.

“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” pseudoscientist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his bestselling book, Outliers. "You need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good." Having watched at least that many hours of GSN, I am now a board-certified expert in game shows. And after conducting such laborious research, I have finally figured out the formula for the perfect game show.

Last day at work... Flight attendant did this! | Family Feud - YouTube

First, we need a host. The lifeblood of the show, the perfect game show has to employ someone with effortless charm and humor as its maestro. Take Family Feud, which has been greatly enhanced by Steve Harvey, who took over as the host in 2010. Harvey is a preternaturally funny performer. His effortless banter with the contestants—the way he turns any off-base or overly sexual answer into a good bit—makes even the episodes with two white families a total delight to watch. 

Now, a good host does not have to be nice. (Hear that, Jimmy Fallon?) Alex Trebek’s flippant responses to the contestants’ personal anecdotes and look of judgment when all three competitors buzz in the wrong answer is part of what makes Jeopardy! perhaps the best game show of all time. Ellen’s Game of Games, the comedian’s highly underrated game show, involves Degeneres asking contestants basic questions and lightly torturing them if they answer wrong. She might dump them into a vat of guacamole or send them down a thirty-foot chute, and she always takes visible pleasure in punishing the contestants, who deserve their fate because they are adults who don’t know 6th grade-level trivia. 

Second, the ideal game show has got to make sense. It might seem obvious, but I didn’t realize just how important this is until I watched Catch 21, a cleverly titled show that is anything but clever. Hosted by Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Catch 21 mixes blackjack with trivia, two games that work on their own, but become incoherent when combined. Contestants vie to receive the privilege of being dealt a card and earn meaningless points by answering puzzlers like, “The name of what e-commerce company is a combination of the words ‘group’ and ‘coupon’?” But answering the most trivia questions correctly doesn’t mean you win, and unlike the game of blackjack that you and I are familiar with, getting any number below 21 means you lose. This means much of the show’s runtime is filled with Carlton patiently explaining the game’s arcane rules, like a rabbi interpreting the Talmud.

The third and perhaps most important component of the perfect game show is that it allows the audience to live vicariously through it. All the best game shows create a dynamic with their viewers by giving them the opportunity to play along. Watching Jeopardy! is inherently interactive. Alex isn’t just quizzing the contestants on various facts, he’s also inviting you to respond. Watching the show can sometimes make you feel inadequate because it’s so hard; but like any good product, it reels you in, since the more Jeopardy! that you watch, the better you become at playing along.

Even lesser game shows, like the GSN original Common Knowledge, ultimately work because of this. Hosted by NSYNC’s Joey Fatone—incidentally, the Game Show Network doubles as a sort of hospice for former C-list celebrities, a place for them to live out the latter part of their careers with dignity—asks contestants to draw on their titular common knowledge to answer elementary questions about everyday activities. The former boy-bander is a surprisingly competent host, but the number of times contestants demonstrate their egregious lack of common knowledge is what makes the show appealing.

On a recent episode of America Says, a team of professional DJs were asked about what people have impressive collections of. If they correctly identified the top four answers, they would win $15,000. They were unable to think of the final answer, which was records. Watching them fail was exasperating, and inspired a warm feeling of schadenfreude. I got to feel smug, like a real smartypants, for I was able to outwit not just one DJ, but four of them. When host John Michael Higgins told them the answer they missed, their pained expressions were priceless, distinctly human.

The perfect game show allows you to judge other people, to feel smarter and otherwise superior to them in a way that is implicitly condoned by the structure of the show: “It’s not me that thinks you’re a loser, those are just the rules!” Even if you’re watching a particularly hard episode of Jeopardy!, you at least get to acquire new knowledge. Incidentally, a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with “low levels of physical activity and high levels of television viewing during young to mid-adulthood were associated with worse cognitive performance in midlife.” I guess they weren’t watching game shows.

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The doorway that connects the living room to the kitchen is hotly contested territory in my household. I’m there all the time, darting between my work table on one side and the oven and Kitchenaid mixer on the other. Meanwhile, it is also home to a pull-up bar and Hudson, who has become obsessed with getting swole, is always trying to sneak over to get in a quick work-out, especially since he injured his knee and his usual stationary bike routine is no longer on the table.

This territory has only become more hotly contested since we turned our living room to a makeshift bedroom, and now spend all our time in there. When Hudson first suggested we bring the mattress from the guest room into the living room, I was dubious. After all, if we wanted to spend time in bed, we could do it in our room, and carrying a mattress from one room to another seemed unnecessarily laborious. A bed in the living room felt too indulgent even for me. Was this part of his grand plan to totally corrupt me? Would we completely give ourselves over to the life of an animal? Walking on all fours, eating dinner off the floor with our arms behind our backs, furiously barking every time the doorbell rang?

It turned out bringing the mattress into the living room was just the change of pace we needed—it changed how we inhabit our apartment, which is nice since we’re stuck inside here all the time. But it also meant that the doorway was more accessible and tempting than ever, now within both of our sightlines day and night……………..

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