Dropout’s ‘Game Changer’ Wins by Playing with the Format of Game Shows Themselves

Dropout’s ‘Game Changer’ Wins by Playing with the Format of Game Shows Themselves

What might make a game of bingo more interesting than your standard gymnasium raffle affair? Well, comedians answering humorous prompts to get bingo balls would spice it up. So would a secret set of players hidden in a green room looking to achieve bingo — not by checking off numbers on a board, but by tracking the quirks and behavior of their friends playing the first game. So would an even more secret set of players trying to get bingo based on the green room players’ interactions with each other and the film crew. That’s the idea behind “Bingo,” the fifth episode in Season 6 of the relentlessly inventive show “Game Changer.”

The Dropout series is described by host Sam Reich at the top of each episode as “the only game show where the game changes every show.” Six seasons of new games — and new twists on “game samers” — lock the “Game Changer” team into an ever-escalating loop (or perhaps loop-de-loop) of needing to be more original than what’s come before. They’ve not only responded with “Bingoception: The BingoVerse,” as executive producer Paul Robalino affectionately dubbed the episode, but a whole season that expanded the universe of the series and points the way for how to listen to what a show wants to be and adapt to it rather than cheating the margins of a rigid format.

More from IndieWire

The first episode of Season 6, for instance, awards points to whoever did second best at an improv challenge; “Beat the Buzzer” opens up the entire Dropout studio to players looking for buzzers hidden throughout, with increasingly byzantine tasks attached in order to activate them; “Deja Vu” features a series of trivia, tasks, and “surprise” interactions repeated in an endless loop every time a (fake) camera is damaged (it is also edited together as an ever-degrading VHS tape, spliced with home movie footage).

“The hardest part of coming up with a good ‘Game Changer’ idea is not ‘How is it fun in minute one?’ It’s ‘How is it fun in minute 30?’” Reich told IndieWire on an episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “Rate of change is something we talk about a lot: How quickly is the episode changing in order to keep your attention? Are there new elements being introduced, new guest appearances? What’s the rate of change as it relates to camera, even? Are we changing shots quickly enough?”

This season of “Game Changer” has made even more clear that the jokes require a rigorous and precise editing process that leaves no air for the audience to get bored. Reich likens it to the notes process of photographer Richard Avedon.

“If you Google ‘Richard Avedon process,’ it’s just, like, black and white portrait images that Richard Avedon would create, but he would note [them] to death. He would circle every square centimeter of that image and say, ‘A little lighter, a little darker.’ And I think what we’re often doing in post is playing with timing,” Reich said. “Timing is everything.”

The team’s grasp of the show’s timing is helped by the fact that its main editor is also its director. Sam Geer started working with Reich on the editing side when Dropout was still CollegeHumor but now gets to see everything that happens on set and has the context for all of the editing choices that need to be made. He and fellow editor Eve Hinz then craft rough cuts of each episode, which Geer, Reich, and Robalino review.

“So, for this season, our rough cuts have been mostly an hour. Then Paul and I average like 50 to 100 notes per cut, and there are between three to five cuts per episode. So we’re talking about the most talented editor I have ever worked with in my career and, on average, probably, there’s about 300 notes per episode,” Reich said.

Sam Reich on the set of 'Game Changer' looking off camera with a monitor behind him that says "Do The Wenis!"
‘Game Changer’Dropout

At the start of Season 6, Robalino tweeted that the team had been struggling to keep episodes under an hour and then got a wave of responses asking for the full, uncut “Game Changer” experience. “But that would be a worse product,” Robalino told IndieWire. “You don’t want to see the uncut version because what you would be getting is a lot of pauses and stumbles and corrections. Comedy is in editing, and sometimes the tighter the better.”

The precision is matched by the chaotic chemistry of the rotating cast members who play each game. Reich has said that while Dropout series “Make Some Noise” is more of an open world for anyone who happens to be excellent at short-form improv, “Game Changer” is a lot more personalized to its core group of comedians. Although Reich and Robalino both concede that the Dropout universe is expanding.

“It’s finally gotten to the point where there’s so many people that we know and love and want involved in Dropout in various ways, shapes, and forms that we built a database and are now in the process of busily tagging people in order so that we can better remember who to put in what,” Reich said.

Becca Scott, Rekha Shankar, and Erika Ishii all huddled around a buzzer on the set of 'Game Changer.'
‘Game Changer’Dropout

Whether or not they’re part of the database tags, the “Game Changer” team has a couple of interesting challenges in deciding who plays in each episode. They want to match players to games they’ll enjoy and that mesh well with their energy. “Does this call for somebody who’s very analytical? Does this call for somebody who’s impish? Does this call for someone who’s a little bold and daring and will go balls to the wall and is willing to do anything? So, [casting] is a big conversation about that,” Robalino said.

But also each episode’s premise is a surprise to its contestants — the only way to learn is by playing. So the “Game Changer” team has also had to get very good at asking for cast buy-in without fully revealing what they’re signing up for. Reich sends a survey before each season to the Dropout cast with vague hints at premises rated by chili peppers for their level of spiciness/risk. According to Reich, the highest-rated three chili pepper idea for Season 6 — which wasn’t actually turned into an episode — was, “Are you willing to do a ‘Game Changer’ game that you do not know, at the time, is a ‘Game Changer’ game?”

“Of course, that put our entire cast on its back feet, and they entered into every single Dropout shoot going, ‘Is this the “Game Changer” game?’” Reich said. “I won’t hint at it because we will probably do it next season.”

The chili pepper surveys have, however, helped make “Game Changer” even more of a mutual back and forth between cast and crew. “Sam straight up asks the cast, ‘What’s something fun or wild that you would be willing to do on camera?’ And some people have said, ‘Jump out of a plane,’ and we’re like, ‘OK, so now we know that that’s an option for some point in the future,’” Robalino said.

Vic Michaelis, Jacob Wysocki, and Lou Wilson in an eclectic collection of costumes on the set of 'Game Changer'
‘Game Changer’Dropout

“Izzy Roland told me that she would be willing to give birth on camera,” Reich said. “Which — there is no way on Earth [we would do that]. I think three people have told me at this point they would get entirely nude; five people have told me they would get a tattoo; things that I will absolutely not ask my cast to do. But, you know, we’ve got hardcore comedy folks doing the show.”

Watching comedians at the top of their game is a large part of the appeal but so is its particular tonal alchemy. “Game Changer” has the chipper brightness and detached, formal perspective of a ‘70 game show as well as the personalization of a surprise gift curated for a set of friends who happen to be on stage. Season 6 has broken the form in even more ways, expanding past the podiums and folding in crew members as accomplices in fooling the contestants. That, of course, feels even more personal — and also even more fun for the audience.

Sam Reich on the 'Game Changer' stage holding a bingo ball in front of a ball hopper and wearing a red visor.
‘Game Changer’Dropout

“Particularly if you’re creating an episode that feels in any way, shape, or form like a prank, you have to look at the seams of the set or the production crew on set because the behind-the-scenes is the experience of the cast on the show,” Reich said.

“I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons throughout the course of ‘Game Changer’ from Season 1 to now,” Robalino said. “We were really excited by making it visually very appealing… Looking back, those episodes didn’t really require as much creative interpretation of challenges or prompts, which is now the primary thing that we look for when we’re writing an episode. How do we give the performers an opportunity to interpret something in a way that’s unique to them?”

Game Changer” is available to stream on Dropout.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.