SXSW Comedy: Talk Show the Game Show
Guy Branum’s brainchild yields real laughs and real conflict
By Carina Magyar,
3:00PM, Sun. Mar. 12, 2017
Guy Branum’s new TruTV show, Talk Show the Game Show, previewed with a live version in Esther’s Follies Saturday night. In came 266 drenched audience members and 200+ dripping umbrellas, but the wait in the rain was worth it, as the comics provided more fireworks than even the show’s producers anticipated.
The setup of the show is simple: Being a talk show guest has a very clear formula of anecdote, plug, flatter, and plug again. The show has simply converted that to a literal point system: two points for a name drop, three points for flirting with the host, etc. For this show, Joel Kim Booster (Conan, Comedy Central) was the scorekeeper, Casey Schreiner (Attack of the Show) provided judging on points, and series producer Wanda Sykes (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wanda Sykes Show) provided artistic commentary after each guest’s performance.
After a brief monologue (which was also scored) in which Branum (Chelsea Lately) hit all the usual current events notes, albeit with his typical sassy flair, the guests came to the couch side one-by-one. First up was Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall, The Larry Sanders Show, Hannibal), who dazzled right out of the gate with witty name-dropping anecdotes about meeting a young Justin Trudeau, an old but randy Ian McKellan, and even his famous impression of Queen Elizabeth II. A bonus round, in which he had one minute to explain a series of images about Canada, yielded him even more points, and he set a strong precedent for how the rest of the show would continue.
Or should have. The next guest, Bonnie McFarlane (the comedy documentary Women Aren’t Funny, the My Wife Hates Me podcast) had trouble matching Thompson’s effortless energy, then started sparring with Schreiner, who proved to be a finicky and immovable judge. At one point, Schreiner was bored of her stories and sent her to the penalty box for two minutes, a little chair just off stage left, while they brought on an emergency replacement guest, NPR host Linda Holmes. When the two-minute penalty was up, Holmes had provided a smooth and point-filled segment, and one could guess this possibility of a penalty was all planned for, but McFarlane was clearly genuinely upset about being silenced and continued to spar with Schreiner when she was back onstage, even getting into it with Sykes, whom she had directed in Women Aren’t Funny. A rocky minute or so later, the audience started to turn on Schreiner’s harsh judging and even Janeane Garofalo – who was spying in from backstage – popped her head up to argue that McFarlane was being treated unfairly. Nonetheless, as supreme judge, Schreiner gave McFarlane a red card, ejecting her from the game, and further added that she was banned for life from the show.
The sequence was so rapid and unplanned, it left the rest of the hosts scrambling to recover. Branum admitted from the stage that this was not a planned event, and Holmes was awkwardly escorted back onstage to complete McFarlane’s time, admirably working through a bonus round of “will they last or not” celebrity couples.
Into this tense atmosphere walked Nick Thune (The Tonight Show, Conan). With his calm demeanor and a few stellar anecdotes that felt both organic and polished enough for a stand-up set, he managed to right the show’s energy and score more points than Thompson in the process. Sykes and Booster gave him hell for being a straight white guy floating to the top, to which he replied, “It’s difficult not having a glass ceiling, too. Kinda scary.”
The points were tallied to see which of the two guests would be allowed to square off in the final lightning round. Holmes was saddled with too many penalties sitting in for McFarlane and sent home. It fell to Thompson and Thune to battle it out with buzzers. At this point, Branum took over the show, asking rapid-fire questions and awarding points to nonsensical answers in a way that was more than reminiscent of Billy Eichner’s Billy on the Street show. Thune was faster on the buzzer and got the line of the night by answering “how will Ke$ha celebrate her birthday” with “a black guy.” He took home the coveted first prize of some artwork Branum lifted from a Napa Valley Holiday Inn. Thompson received an entirely welcomed consolation prize of gay porn DVDs.
The television show, which premieres April 5, will be more active and full of high-production sets and games, but this stripped-down live version, which has been going in Los Angeles for years, clearly displayed the capability of the format to provide tension and showcase quick wit. The heart of the show is the willingness of the hosts, judges, and even performers to get testy with each other. It’s a late-night talk show with real stakes and combat involved, and even if it maybe got a tiny bit out of hand on a rainy night at SXSW, the results are thrilling and hilarious.