Michael Torpey has been a regular on your television (or, more likely, the streaming site of your choice) since 2008. You may have enjoyed him on 30 Rock, Veep, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If, however, you remained unaware of his work until his 2016 turn as abusive sociopath CO Humphrey on Orange Is the New Black, getting comfortable with his jovial turn as the creator and host of new game show Paid Off may take you a hot minute.
The adjustment is definitely worth it. Starting yesterday — July 10th — truTV began airing Paid Off, the game show that helps people pay off their student loan debt. Yep, we have arrived in a dystopia lite where roughly four-in-ten adults under 30 carry student loan debt and the best hope of paying it off is to go on a televised trivia contest. But unlike a true dystopian game show, like The Running Man or The Hunger Games, this show wants to help the contestants as much as possible. Without killing them.
“We made sure that nobody goes home empty handed on this show, but beyond that, I wanted it to be a pleasurable experience for them,” Torpey explains. “I wanted them to know that I was on their side and that we were there together to raise awareness for a situation that is horribly unfair.”
Uproxx chatted with Torpey about his upcoming show and its inspirations, as well as his love of Remote Control, his relationship with the contestants, and his hopes for the future of student loan debt. It’s a great read while those of us with existing loans keep an eye out for contestant calls.
Let’s start with the origins. You’re the creator, how did you come up with this?
I did not have any debt coming out of college. I was very lucky. My parents took out a second line of equity on their house and told me, “Go get into the best school you can get into and we will figure out a way to pay for it.” And that’s what I tried to do. I went to Colgate University and my folks said that they would take care of the finances and it freed me up to study whatever I wanted and not worry about whether I would be able to tackle a mountain of debt as soon as I finished studying. What that led me to was being a theater major, which is financially a terrible decision. I would not have probably done that if I knew that I was staring at a mountain of debt afterward. I would have felt more pressure to go into something that more directly leads to a career.
It was great; it was an amazing gift that my folks gave me So when I came out of college, I just had to survive for myself. I didn’t have any extra expenses going on. I could do the traditional waiting tables and work at an agency for free, so I could get my foot in the door somewhere. And all I had to worry about was paying my rent and managing to eat food. But that’s not the situation for a lot of people, and I had my eyes opened up to that when I met my wife. She had about 40,000 dollars of student debt outstanding when we met. She was making it work. She was hustling. She had gained her license to become a mental health therapist, and she was making her payments and babysitting on the weekends and doing the things you have to do when you’ve got these extra expenses every month.
Now, around the time that we got engaged, I booked the first big job of my career. I did a commercial campaign for Hanes, selling their very comfortable underpants and t-shirts alongside Michael Jordan. It was a great job, and it was the first time in my life where I actually had some savings at the end of the year. So we looked at the debt that she had left. We decided the interest rates on these loans are absolutely insane; it just makes sound financial sense to write a check, get these things out of here, and then we can get married and we’ll have a clean slate and we’ll just move forward.
We wrote the check and put it in the envelope, and then, immediately my wife began crying. I felt embarrassed that I really didn’t understand what it meant to carry this weight around every single day. To have 40,000 dollars sitting on your shoulders and impacting your every decision, every time you decide what you’re going to do for lunch, every time you decide maybe you want a second cup of coffee. It factors into everything. Debt is this gigantic invisible burden and I was ashamed that I didn’t appreciate what she’d been dealing with. It woke me up to the situation 45 million Americans are dealing with every day.
So that was how I first gained real knowledge of the crisis that was going on. If we fast forward a little bit, I started working on the Netflix show Orange is the New Black and that was a great experience for me creatively to see this beautiful marriage of a show that is incredibly entertaining and artistically satisfying for everyone involved in it. But it also has this beautiful social impact and has a message that needs to be shared and that people were really benefiting from seeing. I had the fantastic experience of being approached by women who were in prison and hearing how much that show meant to them and how it helped to remind that they were human and that they weren’t just this one-dimensional criminal. That lit the other fire of “How can I find more jobs that do that?” Ones that satisfy creative or comedic inclinations that I’ve had throughout my career and also make a difference.
With those two things kind of bubbling inside, this idea for a game show that tackles student debt just kind of came out.