By Stacey Harrison
Developing an identity — and a loyal fan base — is difficult for any game show. But it sure helps when the games you feature have been staples of the culture for decades. When Family Game Night returns for its second season on Friday at 7pm, it will bring with it all the classic Hasbro games that made it one of The Hub’s biggest successes, along with a few new additions.
Simon Flash and Ratuki are among the new challenges, and Operation Relay Race has become Operation Slam Dunk. Host Todd Newton shared with us what it’s like putting the show together, and how some advice Merv Griffin gave him continues to serve him well:
You’ve been involved with several game shows at this point. What’s special about Family Game Night?
Todd Newton: Game shows are in my blood and they have been since I entered the genre back in 1999. My first game show was a show called Hollywood Showdown, and I instantly fell in love with it. By that point in my career, I had had the good fortune of doing just about every type of television there was, every type of hosting, and I felt like I found my new home with game shows. That’s pretty much been the story of my life and the story of my career. Everything has happened just when I was ready for it to happen. When Family Game Night came along, not only was I in the midst of this love affair with game shows, but I was also a parent. I’ve got two kids, one 10 and one 6. We’ve obviously grown up on all the games that we play on the TV show, and now our children are growing up on them. I look in my hall closet here at home and I’ve got Operation, Monopoly, Scrabble, Yahtzee, Sorry!, Trouble and Twister of course, and it’s just funny all the games that I’ve been playing with my kids since they were born I’m now getting paid to play with great families from across the country. It really is a dream job for a father of two who loves hosting game shows.
It’s got to be unique, since I imagine with your standard hosting gig, you have to learn the rules of a new game. But with these you can just go right in as an expert.
That’s right. It’s one of the things that Merv Griffin told me many years ago. If you want to be a really, really good game show host, just invest the time to get to know the game better than the people who are actually playing it. Because then you can determine outcomes and predict the direction of the play, and with this one I hardly had any homework to do at all, you know? I’ve been studying these games since I was 7. It was just like walking into a big playground.
Are you involved much with the design of the games and translating them to the game-show format?
It’s really cool, because as you can imagine the creative team behind a show like this is a bunch of energetic, very fun, happy people. So when we sit around the table and we’re throwing ideas out there about how to make these games super exciting — even in the commercials for this season, we always say “bigger, better, more exciting” — we think about, “OK, how can we make this game super fun for the families?” and then when we come up with a great idea and everybody’s all jazzed, we say, “OK, now how can we make it even more exciting?” So you got the concept of Connect Four, but you’re throwing in the excitement and energy of tossing these balls almost like a basketball free throw. The distance is perfect because it’s not super easy for the parents yet it’s not impossible for the youngest child. Everybody can kind of line up and aim and it’s more than just dropping checkers. I mean, dropping checkers is a fun game and obviously a highly successful game for Connect Four, but now we’re throwing in [that] you’ve got to get the ball in there, and you’ve got the audience screaming and chanting for either the yellow team or the read team, so you’re just adding level upon level of excitement to each game. Same with Twister. Twister in and of itself is an amazing game. But we thought, “How we can make it more exciting? Well, how about we start to make the dots disappear?” If your foot’s on a dot that disappears, you’re out of the game. Then with Trouble, how can we make Trouble more exciting? First of all, let’s make the Trouble Bubble super big, and secondly let’s dress Mom and Dad up as big Trouble pawns and make them jump. That’ll be funny to watch, because how often do you get to see that? We take the successful concepts of the game and just make them bigger and more exciting. It’s a fun brainstorming session to be able to do that.
Tell me a little about the new games you have this season.
We’ve got Simon Flash, which is super cool. We’ve got Trouble Pop Quiz, which is a lot of fun. We’ve got a bunch of new Cranium Brain Breaks. We start every show with a Cranium Brain Break Challenge and we’ve just added so many. The families and the audience just loved it during taping, so I really hope everybody at home digs it, too. We’ve tweaked a little bit. We’ve made Operation Relay Race into Operation Slam Dunk. … It really gets people jazzed up. You know you’re part of a fun show when the camera guys and the entire crew can’t wait to get out and test the games during the commercial breaks. That’s when you know you’re onto something special.
Something that’s a little different about Family Game Night compared with other game shows that cater to kids and families is that the contestants don’t really get all that messy. Was that a conscious choice?
I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, and I don’t know what Season 3 will hold, but none of the Hasbro games … really have any of that, so we didn’t incorporate any of that either. None of the games people are used to playing on their family game nights at home get you all messed up. This one is families working together creating those great moments that these families are never going to forget. Obviously if they win the trip to the Caribbean, they’ll never forget that, but they’ll also never forget just spending time together on the set of a TV show. … You know, getting to play a life-size Sorry Sliders game is pretty cool. As parents, we live for that, we live for creating moments for our kids and doing things that they’ll never ever forget. This show is just packed with those. Regardless of who walks away with however much cash or whatever trip or wherever it may be, it’s the moments that matter, we always say, that really do matter. We’ve got a bunch of moms and dads working on the show who are a bunch of kids at heart, and that’s what gives it that special pop. But I think there’s a side of each and every one of us that would love to just get really messy during the show, so hopefully that’s not too far away.
Do you have to do approach this type of hosting differently, since you’re working with families and kids?
No, you don’t, actually. This season was fantastic for us, because in Season 2 of any show all the contestants are people that watched Season 1. Whereas in Season 1 our contestant coordinators have got to work their tails off — ‘Hey, do you and your family want to be on a really cool show? We promise you’ll have a lot of fun.” But this season it’s all people that sent in videos of themselves saying, “Look why we’d be great on the show! We’re fun, we’re exciting!” So these folks come in from all over the place, they’ve watched the show for a year now, they know all the games, and they’re just thrilled to be in Hollywood, they’re thrilled to be on a TV set. When you see their eyes looking at these game pieces, the pieces they’ve seen on television for so many months, but when they see them in person their eyes just get really wide. You can see them looking at each other and grinning, all the hugs and the high-fives and the energy that’s backstage before they even come out onstage is really cool. I always love meeting the families before the show tapes because I like having a little rapport with them before they step out onto the stage, before they play the games. I think it makes them feel a little more comfortable, too. I like to give them every little leg up that I can, and you can sense their energy before they start. Then afterward, when it’s all said and done, the energy is just as high if not even higher regardless of which team came out on top. I think that says a lot about the sportsmanship between the two families. I think it says a lot about the bond that the families have when they come in, and the fact that they just want to do it together. A lot of times Mom and Dad had to take time off work, sometimes they had to fly themselves to the audition. It’s a real commitment to fun, a real commitment to family, and I think that’s beautiful to see.
Is there a particular game you look forward to each time?
Even though this is the second season, and we added some new games, I’m still a big fan of Bop It. I love it. As a matter of fact, I’m looking at my kitchen counter right now and the Bop It is sitting there. My daughter, who’s 6, is just absolutely addicted to it. Her grandparents are visiting us this weekend, so it’s been kind of a Bop It Family Game Night weekend around here. Obviously we’re getting very excited for Friday’s premiere. Bop It’s an exciting game, too, just to play at home. But when you life-size it and when you throw everybody in the Boptagon and you put that drama and that tension when the calls start coming out faster and faster, I love it. I love watching that one. I love standing on the sideline of that one, and there have been so many times where I’ve just wanted to jump in there and be a part of it. I’m always the first one that volunteers during the rehearsals for Bop It.
Is that you doing the voice of the Bop It calls?
It is. It sure is. I’ve been doing radio and voiceovers for about 15 years now, but I’ll tell you my favorite voiceover sessions that I’ve ever been a part of was recording the calls for Bop It. You haven’t lived until you’ve screamed “Whack it!” 14 different times for 14 different presentations.
You’ve got kids. Are they bugging you to go on the show?
My kids were born and spent the first several years of their lives in Los Angeles. I’ve since moved to New England, just for a change of scenery for them and because I travel so much for all my different work projects. As long as I have a major airport I can pretty much live anywhere. They’ve grown up around television, and it’s funny to hear them — my son had a sleepover for his birthday, and one of his buddies said, “Hey, can your dad get us on the show?” and my son was completely explaining the standards and practices procedures as far as friends of employees, almost down to the wording in the book. He totally gets it. When the schedule allows they’re going to come back out to L.A. with me and they definitely want to be a part of the rehearsals and the run-throughs, which to them is just a big a kick as being on the show.
Photo: Courtesy of The Hub