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.
What about the tone? It reminded me a little bit of Remote Control, the late 80s MTV game show.
Remote Control was a big touchstone for me. When I was first meeting with people, I would ask them if they were familiar with that show because it managed to create this kind of chaotic comedy where it felt like, “I know this is a real trivia show, but it also feels like it could go off the rails at any moment.” I wanted to capture that because I’m asking people to come on this show and share their stories and I feel like I owe them a great deal for that. People can be embarrassed about their debt. It’s not something that everyone talks about freely, and when someone says that they are willing to come on and share their stories with us, I really want to make it worthwhile for them. One way was to give them the opportunity to win money.
I wanted the show to be a fun experience for the people that were coming on and for the people tuning in. If I’m going to tackle this thing, the great approach is to laugh at it first. When you have a problem that is so huge, let’s start by admitting that this is absurd. The fact that this is what happens to people that want to go to college is insane. If we can all just sit here for a second and laugh at the absurdity of this, then we can move forward as a group.
You also seem really anxious to give everybody money.
It felt at times like “I can’t believe I got this show made. Let me give away as much money as possible before something happens before it disappears.” The game is designed for people to win money. Obviously, it’s a trivia contest, and some people are going to be better than others. But the people who have come on, they’ve shared a story with me and for that I want them to win.
Do you ever find yourself rooting for one person over the other people?
No. I mean I’ve been rooting for all them really. You can get caught up in moments where somebody is making a comeback. I would find myself getting excited if somebody was coming far from behind. But our casting just went out and found such a phenomenal group of people that I wish everybody could have won.
I totally understand. I was so excited to see the people who weren’t the grand prize winners didn’t walk away empty-handed because, by the time they are leaving, you really like them.
It’s so easy for people to focus on “I didn’t have it easy. I paid off my loans. Why is this person on a show? Why are they getting their loans paid off?” It’s popular right now to have a knee-jerk reaction to other people struggling and just be like “Well, it’s not easy for me either right now.” And though there is truth to that, you’re leapfrogging over having empathy for each other. We want people to connect with our contestants. Whether college should be tuition free or not, whether you think the college system is fine, let’s just look at someone whose coming on the stage and saying “I’m in a tough spot. These are the things that my debt is preventing me from doing.” Let’s connect with that and say “Alright, I see that you’re struggling; I hope you can figure this out.”
You’re doing a great job of doing that and boosting the signal of the discussions. What do you think is going to happen with student loan debt? Do you have any predictions about the future?
I have optimistic hopes, and then, there are predictions. You know, I hope that my show doesn’t exist for that long. I really hope that we can come up with something, and the show can go away. I think that debt-free college is a real plan. I don’t think it needs to be free for everybody, but I do think that finances should be taken into account. It should be affordable for everyone, so you can come out without any debt. Things move very slowly right now. There are politicians out there right now who are campaigning for things like debt-free college, tuition-free public college. They certainly have my support, but I don’t know. Even if we make a change moving forward, that doesn’t take care of the outstanding debt that is there right now.
So my prediction … I don’t have a prediction. I have a hope that we can at least accept that this is a real problem and start connecting with people who are struggling and help them.
Do you know what happens after contestants leave?
I haven’t been in touch with anybody that was on the show yet. I’m going to be trying to get in touch with them as their episodes are airing to find out how things are going. I want to know they are happy with how the episodes came out because I want to be very respectful of their stories. I hope that the experience was good for them.
You must be so curious.
You know, it was weird. I had to be so hands-off throughout the casting process because I’m the one asking questions. You were asking about bias or rooting for anyone. When you make an actual game show, they bring in all these compliance people to make sure that everything is very official; that was eye-opening for me. I thought I was going to make this comedy game show and it would be all loosey goosey. Then, the lawyers come in and they’re like “No, you’re giving away money; there’s a very specific set of rules you need to follow.”
I had almost no interaction with the contestants until right before each segment because I couldn’t meet them. It would be like a risk of me mentioning something that was going to be on that day’s show or something, so I didn’t get to know them until right before. Backstage I could shake their hands and we could talk for a few minutes, but I didn’t get to really meet them until I was out there connecting during the taping.
I should have assumed that but honestly, watching the show you have such an easy rapport with everyone.
They were all so open and it’s not the quickest thing. I would have about 15 minutes backstage, and I had their bios. Going in, I would be like, “Oh, you know I heard you went to this school.” We can talk a little bit about where they were in their lives, but it’s also a credit to the contestants. They wanted to come on and connect and be open and share their stories. That’s what makes the show, I think, so intriguing. To put human faces to the debt crisis.
Have you gotten feedback from people yet?
When the first announcement came out, there were some positive responses, and there were some people who I think were taken aback that the show existed. I completely understand that response. We’re playing in a dark comedy world. This is not an ideal scenario, and this is definitely not the ideal solution. It’s hopefully a successful way to raise the profile of the crisis and help some people. It’s a drop in the bucket for the 45 million people out there. We do 16 episodes every year; that’s a very small percentage of people that we’re directly financially helping, but the real goal is to raise more awareness for this and raise empathy for these sort of situations so that we can push more change.
I understand what you’re talking about with the dark humor because there is something dystopian about paying off your student loans through a game show.
Absolutely. The fact that this is the best option for people is terrible. If somebody were to ask, “If it weren’t for this show, how would you picture yourself paying off your debt?” there aren’t a lot of good answers. A lot of the answers are like the death of a loved one. Like “Oh, maybe if my grandparent passes away and I didn’t know they had a ton of money, maybe that’s how I’ll pay off this debt. On the current course, I’m just working as hard as I possibly can. I don’t see it happening.”
It’s pretty bleak. I have a fair amount myself, so I totally understand. In fact, my coworkers and I were talking about how we felt we would do on the show.
Hopefully, we’re going to pick up a few more episodes, throw your name in the ring.
Yeah, that’d be a story.