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#tbt: Randy Economy

#tbt: Randy Economy
Christian Carrion

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, Christian Carrion talks with a fascinating journalist, talk radio host, three-time contestant, and key figure in the launch of Game Show Network.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have been given a copy of an unsold game show pilot from 1986 called Oddball, a word game in the style of Match Game meets Password hosted by Jamie Farr for NBC. I was immediately impressed with the personality of Randy Economy, the winning contestant on that pilot who, back then, was working as a political consultant in his native California. Interested to see what he was up to these days, I searched his name and discovered he’s made a name for himself as an award-winning journalist and talk radio host. I shot Randy an email about possibly featuring him on BuzzerBlog, and he very graciously agreed to chat with me about his time in the world of game shows and life after Oddball. Here are some excerpts from my interview with Randy.

So how creeped out were you when you got my email about me having a copy of the Oddball tape?

I wasn’t creeped out at all! I immediately saw your compassion and your commitment and your wonderment, and I absolutely embraced it. It was great. We get hundreds of emails every day, and yours kinda caught my eye, so I read it and it all came back to me.

Thank you for taking my call. I really appreciate it.

Well, I was completely surprised when I found out you were writing a story on that pilot I did. That’s hilarious.

I’m a huge game show nut outside of writing about them, so working for this website, I get to see a few things a lot of people don’t get to see, and this Oddball pilot was one of those. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the term ‘China girl’ as it relates to photography.

Uh…no, I’m not.

A China girl. When a studio or filmmaker wanted to shoot some footage years ago, they would usually have a woman who worked for the studio…it wasn’t always a woman, but it usually was. They’d dress her up in a colorful outfit and have her hold a board with color bars or white balance stuff on it, to calibrate the camera. You’d only see her for a few frames at the leader of the film, and I was always fascinated by the anonymity of that role. So this sort of fits along that line for me. Not a lot of people saw Oddball, did they? I mean, it never aired.

Yeah, it never aired. We did two pilots, and I was on both of them. The second one is hilarious. I kicked ass on the second one, it was funny as hell. Get your hands on that one.

Do you get copies of your appearances on shows like this?

You know…back when I was doing shows, I don’t think VCRs were readily available yet.

So you said you were “doing shows”. (Oddball) wasn’t the first one?

No. I…let’s see, I was probably twenty…two? I decided to go down and try out for Super Password.

Which was taping around the time you did Oddball, mid-1986.

Correct, mid 80s. It was a Mark Goodson production. I went down there, and one of the legends of game shows was Joyce Stevens. She was a contestant coordinator, and she had been there for years; she was like the grand dame of contestant coordinators. And so, I went in there and auditioned, got called back, and then I got picked for the show, wich was great. I was on…three episodes. I think I was on for four straight days. I was very good, very enthusiastic on the air. Then she invited me back to do another show. I think it was about a year later, after my eligibility was up. You had to have space between the times you could go on and appear on another show. So I waited for the allotted time, and she put me on another show called Blockbusters with Bill Rafferty.

Oh, that’s one of my favorites. I love Blockbusters.

Randy on Blockbusters in 1987

So I went on that one, kicked ass, had a blast. Then afterwards, (Joyce) says “Would you like to do some pilot work for us, since you’re such a great, fun, animated contestant?” I said “Sure, what would you like?” I went and did a run-through (of Oddball) in a conference room in front of Mark Goodson. It was nothing to the extent of what you would see on TV, but they brought in a few celebrities and had me play the game with them. Then she invited me to do the pilot, and I said I’d love to. We did a day of shooting for the pilot. We did one, and then followed it up about an hour later with another one. The same celebrities were there for both shows.

So let’s see. On your team, you had Anson Williams…

Yeah, and he was the biggest thing on TV at that time because of Happy Days.

Right, that was still a huge show. Then you had Tom Poston, Dick Martin…

Dick Martin, yes. A legend in comedy from Laugh-In and all of that. And then I think there was someone from, like, Falcon Crest? Some young hunk.

Yeah, Daniel Greene. He was definitely the baby on the panel. Had that sort of ‘himbo’ thing going on.

I wonder if he’s still alive.

I’m going to make that part of my post-interview research. ‘Make sure Daniel Greene is still alive’.

Yeah, I’m gonna find out and see if he’s still around. I’d like to catch up with him.

Oddball was for NBC, so was this taped in Burbank?

Yeah, in the Burbank studios. We were actually the next studio over from the Tonight Show.

So, for those of our readers who have never seen the game, and I imagine most of the people reading this have never seen it before…it was this sort of half-Match Game, half-Password. You had two panels of four celebrities, men against the women. They got a subject, and you were hidden behind what they call on the show a ‘soundproof door’.

Once the door closed, these two guys ran in and put headphones on you with music blasting so you couldn’t hear anything. It was so funny…these other two guys were the ones to pull the doors open and shut. I think if you were to freeze-frame one of the pilots, I’m sure you could probably see the shadows of the people back there opening and closing the doors and stuff.

I’m sure you could, that was pretty common back then. So the celebrities would get a subject, and they’d each have to write a one-word clue…

Right.

…that would enable you to guess the subject. The twist, though, was that in writing your clues, you had to be an Oddball.

Yes.

You had to think outside the box and come up with a unique clue that nobody else would come up with, because in this game, which very much resembled Match Game, matching is bad. If you matched someone else’s clue, both clues were knocked out of the game, and then you, the contestant, had less information to go on when you came out on stage and tried to identify the subject.

Correct. And sometimes, when you had more clues…like at the end, I think I couldn’t figure out the word “dribble”?

Yeah, that was the bonus round for the first show.

Yeah, you could have given me 50 different clues for “dribble” and I wouldn’t have gotten it. I just blanked.

Now, I know that for some pilots, they give the contestants the answers since the show is for sales purposes and they want to make their game look viable and fun. Did they give you answers for these particular shows?

No. None whatsoever. And they were very adamant about that. They had Compliance and Practices right there on set, and even though it was a pilot, they really…I mean, they had the lawyers there. Nobody got anything. You know, it’s supposed to be spontaneous. And you can’t script spontaneity.

Oh, of course not. And I know Mark Goodson was a stickler for that kind of stuff.

Oh, he was a tyrant. (laughs) You know, he was there, and we were doing the show for him, basically. I mean, the studio execs and advertisers were right there, and they had a studio audience too. But he was in charge, no two ways about it.

What else do you remember about Mark? I know he was apparently a very dynamic character.

He was very eccentric. I got to know him more when I went to work for Game Show Network, which was weird because I’ve always been a game show fan. And then to be “in his presence”, so to speak, on a day to day basis, was kinda surreal for me. But then I just realized he was just a regular guy with these amazing ideas and a creative mind, and he was able to make those ideas reality.

Now, I realize we’re working off of 30-year-plus memories here, but I’m interested to know if you remember anything in particular about working with all these celebrities on Oddball. I mean, Jamie Farr was a huge star because of MAS*H, and you shared the stage with him. He was the host, after all.

He was the host, but it’s really funny. They didn’t want us to interact with the celebrities, even though as contestants, we really were the stars of the show. They kept us pretty isolated from them. Um, which is probably a good thing now that I think about it, because they didn’t want us to get chummy with them. But during the commercial breaks and after the show, they were hilarious. We’d crack each other up.

Yeah. I think, also, that in the development of a celebrity-driven game like Oddball, you definitely don’t want the contestants to, like you said, be chummy with the celebrities. It would alter the vibe a bit. On a show like this or Match Game, part of the fun is being starstruck by playing with all these celebrities, and in that nervousness you might give a bad or funny answer. I think shows like that depend on that happening sometimes.

Yeah, I mean, your mind goes blank. But after a while, you get used to it. Like anything, practice makes perfect, man.

The grand prize on this show was $20,000. Did they pay out?

No. For the day, I think I got, like, $50?

OH. (laughs) Gotcha. Okay.

Yeah. I didn’t get any of the lovely parting gifts, I just got paid for being a contestant.

So I imagine there was some coaching involved, in terms of acting like you won big.

Yeah, that was part of the deal. In the second pilot, I actually ‘won’ the twenty thousand. And back in 1986, I definitely could have used $20,000. So anyway, I did that, and eventually I left politics because I was a campaign consultant at the time. Then I got into the cable television industry, and I actually helped start Game Show Network. I was their first Director of Affiliate Marketing and Sales, and I was, like, the seventh employee hired by GSN on the Sony studio lot. I worked there for about five years, got the network up and on the air, traveled the country with Pat Sajak, Vanna White, Alex Trebek. Nobody ever thought the idea of a 24-hour network devoted to game shows would ever work, but it did.

See, now I’m in a position to personally thank you. I remember when GSN first became a thing. That was, like, December of ’94.

I remember the day it launched! Peter Tomarken, Laura Chambers, Steve Day. The guy who was our president was Michael Fleming, who came from the Playboy Channel. I worked from a card table on the Sony lot with a Rolodex and a rotary phone. We said, “How are we gonna get this thing on the air? Let’s figure it out.” And we did. It was incredibly stressful, really a ton of work. but we didn’t have a playbook as to how to do this thing. We just made it up as we went along. Thank God we had all those, uh…I think we had something like 56,000 episodes of game shows we had accumulated and purchased from Goodson Productions and a few other libraries. We just bought all their inventory. A lot of it was on film, so we had to transfer it to digital format using Sony technology, which was such a big deal at the time. So everything was preserved, and it’s really a part of American history.
I gotta tell you, the one I got to be extremely close with from those days was Peter Tomarken. We worked together every day at GSN, and then one of his makeup artists eventually became his girlfriend, and then they got married. I remember that whole situation, it was a lot of fun.

Peter Tomarken was one of my first…I guess what you would call a ‘TV hero’. I grew up on Press Your Luck.

Oh, he was a lot of fun. We used to hang out together all the time, we’d go do stuff, and we became very close personal friends at Game Show Network. He had a mouth on him. Oh, my God. It was like he had trench mouth or something. Every other word out of his mouth was “fuck this, fuck that, fuck you, you fucking fuckbag, you son of a bitch”. When that camera went on, he was like a Boy Scout. But he was just so handsome, and he’d just light up a room when he walked in.

So when you worked for Game Show Network and you had to get in touch with the Goodson people about those tapes, were they familiar with you? Was it, like, “Hey, it’s Randy, remember me?”

Yeah, and you know, it’s really funny, because I had worked in the cable industry for 4 or 5 years as an operator. I was in government affairs and that kind of stuff, and it was basically in 1986 that I went into cable because it was a burgeoning business. So to be able to go from one side to the other, from operations to programming, and then to help start the Game Show Network…it was an odyssey. It was a great time.

Do you watch many game shows today? There aren’t as many on TV anymore, but most of the ones that still are have been on forever.

I do. I kinda watch Game Show Network late at night sometimes and reminisce, it’s a good time. The other shows they have are okay. I do wish they had a little more depth, were a little more thought-provoking. I wish they’d return to more traditional game shows.

ABC has sort of come out of the woodwork with all these revivals of older shows. $100,000 Pyramid is on in prime time, which is awesome. Match Game, too. I’m not sure if you’ve seen any of those.

I have, and they’ve done some really good things. The thing is, you can’t redo perfection. If a game was great then, it’s great now. That stuff’s timeless. Game shows are timeless. And an incredible education tool.

Do you have any mementos from the shows you were on? A lot of my friends who were on shows keep their name tags, their old paperwork, stuff like that.

I used to have a lot of stuff, actually, but I had a house fire and it all burned up.

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!

Including my tapes of my original shows and things like that. Some people archived some of the shows I did and put them on YouTube, which was kinda fun. So I was able to preserve some of those memories. I do remember getting the parting gifts, though. Sometimes that stuff would add up to, like, $10,000. You’d get, like, a year’s supply of orange juice and, like, an entertainment center. And they’d just mail you all this stuff in huge crates. You never knew what was coming. It was pretty exciting.

It’s a strange world to be in, but it’s fun, isn’t it?

Yeah, man, it’s fun! It’s a positive thing. You know, I’m a political consultant right now, I’ve been an investigative journalist, and I went on to be a radio talk show host, so I’ve had a very blessed public life, I guess you could say. Thank God I had the opportunity to be exposed to a different party of society and the world, which was the real world back then. I still use those tools today.

Yeah, I’m reading your website here. “Recipient of five awards from the Los Angeles Press Club in the categories of Feature News, Investigative Series, Investigate Reporting, and Talk Radio Show Host”. Congratulations on those.

Thank you so much! I was nominated for a Pulitzer too, which was fun. I’m an investigative journalist, and right now I’m running a major congressional campaign against an entrenched 28-year incumbent named Dana Rohrabacher. I have a guy who’s a refugee from Romania who’s a self-made man here, and he’s just delightful. I’m taking on his campaign full-time now, and I’m hoping to help him make history and change politics. I worked for President Trump as his media director here in California, and was the delegate to the convention and special guest at his inauguration. Everything comes full-circle in life.

And there’s nothing like getting paid to have fun, is there?

There really isn’t. That’s why I love everything I do today. Getting to run a congressional campaign and I get paid to do it, are you kidding me? This is fantastic. I’m like a kid in a candy shop.

Visit Randy’s website at TheRandyEconomy.com.