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Interview: Mark Richards, game show guru

Mark Richards knows how to get on game shows. Since he was 12 years old in 1954, he has appeared on six of them, including To Tell the Truth, Wheel of Fortune and The Dating Game. And he was the contestant coordinator for the first season of the Alex Trebek version of Jeopardy in 1984-85.

Before the Jeopardy gig, he had even parlayed his vast game show experience into a game show "school" that trained people on how to get on, and win on, game shows. "After I was on Wheel in 1980, I met a bright, bubbly black lady at a function," says Richards. "I told her she'd be great on a game show and she asked me how she could get on."

Richards agreed to "coach" her in exchange for 20 percent of her winnings. She ended up on Press Your Luck and won $30,000 in cash and prizes, $6000 of which went to Richards. Sensing a business opportunity, he hosted a seminar in San Diego for other aspiring game show contestants.

"At first, I wanted to charge $100 for the seminar," he says. "But a lot of people I thought would be good contestants wouldn't pay that, so I'd call them up and offered a deal. If I help them get on, I get 20 percent."

In one instance, he not only coached a family on how to win on Family Feud, he also helped the family pick the five people who would most appeal to that show's contestant coordinator.

Getting hired on by Jeopardy meant closing the school, but when he left Jeopardy to host the first radio game show since the 1940s, he was also able to revive the school, this time in Los Angeles, where most game shows are filmed. In all, he helped people win $600,000 on such shows as Press Your Luck, Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, from which he made $120,000.

And it's all legal.

Not only is it legal, the school clearly charmed the nation's media. Richards was featured on Entertainment Tonight (twice), in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many more. He has been interviewed by both Geraldo Rivera and Larry King.

Advice from the expert on how to get on game shows

So what are the "inside secrets" to getting on a game show? Richards believes that attitude is key. "You have to go in there saying, 'I know this show, I love this show and I'd make a great contestant."

But it is more than simply knowing the mechanics of how the show works (although that's very important). Picking contestants for a game show is a lot like casting a movie. "If you turn on Jeopardy and see three people you don't like, you have nobody to cheer for and you won't watch," says Richards. "Alex may be the host, but the contestants are the stars."

In his days as Jeopardy contestant coordinator, typically 30 or 40 people would write a written test, which uses actual questions from the show. About a dozen would pass, and these people would play a mock game, complete with buzzers. But even if you did well on the mock game, you were not assured of getting on. "We had to like the person."

As such, Richards advises people trying out for game shows to "remember that they're 'on' from the moment they walk in the room." The coordinators are watching everything you do, looking for people who would (or would not) be the kind of contestants an audience at home would want to watch. So relax and have fun. Producers like contestants who are having fun.

All the same, Richards warns against laying it on too thick. "They can spot a phony when they see one. They can see when you're acting."

Inevitably, you will be asked to talk about yourself, so you should have a short 30-second spiel ready. And make it memorable. "If you said, 'My mother is a witch,' I'd remember that."

At the same time, you want to let other people ask the questions, especially the stupid questions. During his time on Jeopardy, Richards often saw people take themselves out of the running by asking about when they'd be on, when they'd get their winnings and what costs the show would pick up.

Why being a man can hurt your chances ... sometimes

There are also demographic factors at work. The rumour circulating is that the potential Jeopardy contestant least likely to make it to air is a white male lawyer or writer from southern California, as the show is already choking with people from those demos. At one point, Regis Philbin went on air begging more women to try to get on.

But Richards notes that women usually prefer the non-quiz game shows, perhaps because there is less chance that they "could look 'stupid' in front of their friends, family and co-workers." (See a scientific study examining this.)

At the Game Show Congress in Las Vegas in 2003, this writer asked two of Millionaire's top female winners about the preponderance of men on quiz shows. Nancy Christy, the first female winner on Millionaire, argued that it is a matter of social conditioning. Men have more of a desire to compete and prove themselves than do women, even in an area as trivial as trivia.

Despite this, even if you are a white male lawyer in Santa Monica, remember that a bright personality and a lot of energy can more than make up for poor demos. But perhaps the most important "trick" to getting on a game show is actually trying out for one.

"I hear people all the time saying, 'I could be on a game show,'" says Christy. "But they never actually do it."

First posted: August 2003

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