STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
The game show "Card Sharks" has lived many lives. It's been on NBC, on CBS, in syndication. And now it's on ABC in primetime, hosted by Joel McHale. The game seems simple. You're guessing whether a card will be higher or lower than the one before it, but it's also complicated. We'll get to that. And now in the latest iteration of "Card Sharks," there is big money involved. I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about "Card Sharks" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in Brooklyn is Travis Larchuk. Travis is a producer for NPR's comedy quiz show Ask Me Another. Welcome, Travis.
TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen.
THOMPSON: Hey, Travis. So let's run through some of those surprisingly complicated "Card Sharks" rules. There are two contestants facing two giant rows of cards. They're asked a question from a poll. We asked a hundred dog owners if they talk to their dogs - that sort of thing.
THOMPSON: And then they have to guess how many out of a hundred answered yes. Then the other person guesses higher or lower. And whoever's right works their way across the row of cards. It's 10 cards in the new version. At this point, it's basically the game Acey Deucey, but they can freeze in place if they get to a bad card. Sevens, eights, nines - those are bad. You don't want those - and go on to the next question. If they're wrong, they lose their cards, and the other person gets to go. There are a few other twists along the way. But at the end - and this has varied from season to season - the winner gets seven cards and places a series of increasingly high-stakes wagers that can wind up winning you hundreds of thousands of dollars. Travis, you and I have surprisingly much to unpack about "Card Sharks." Give me your thoughts.
LARCHUK: I do. First of all, you said it's basically Acey Deucey, like everybody knows what Acey Deucey is.
THOMPSON: (Laughter). I'm an elderly man.
LARCHUK: I had no idea what Acey Deucey was until I read the Wikipedia about "Card Sharks."
LARCHUK: Anyway, the whole point of "Card Sharks" is it's based around the idea of we show you a card - you guess of the next card is going to be higher or lower than the card you just saw, right? The entire game is based around this. So in terms of complexity in game shows, in terms of, like, if you were to judge game shows on a scale of, do you need to have a human brain to play this game...
LARCHUK: ...Or could you be a random number generator? This is more on the side of, you could be a random number generator and still get your way through this game.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, the previous iteration of this game - now, like I said in the intro, there have been several versions with a bunch of different hosts. There was a syndicated version of this show hosted by Pat Bullard...
LARCHUK: Oh, don't.
THOMPSON: ...Where they leave out the part where you are answering the poll question. And so it's like two randos, and then they're just, like, flipping cards right away. And the whole show just devolves into hot garbage...
THOMPSON: ...Without that crucial element of, like, we asked a hundred single women, what do you think of blah, blah, blah? And then, like, you have these people, and they're trying to suss out human nature. And that introduces a level of insight into a card-flipping game that is so incredibly crucial to whether this game is good or not. This version with Joel McHale, very importantly, brings that back.
LARCHUK: Yeah, I would venture to say that that version of "Card Sharks" that you just referenced is noncanonical.
LARCHUK: I would not include it in the history of "Card Sharks." I think everyone involved knows that that was a mistake.
LARCHUK: But yeah. So there are these toss up questions we asked a hundred blah, blah, blah, do you believe in Bigfoot? How many said yes?
LARCHUK: I say 43. Stephen, you say something along the lines of, you know, I was hiking in the woods once, and I thought I saw Bigfoot.
LARCHUK: So I think a lot of people probably think they saw Bigfoot. But, you know, maybe not that many people would want to admit that they saw Bigfoot. So I'm going to say it's higher but just a little bit higher. So you hear this monologue. And then whoever gets it right gets to play the game where they call higher or lower. And if they get to the end of the row, they win the game, and they can go to the bonus round. And yeah, the version with Joel McHale brings that back. An element of it, as well, that they tried to do ever since the original version of "Card Sharks" is to make the questions somewhat scandalous, somewhat controversial a little bit. There will be a lot of questions along the lines of, we asked 100 fathers, if you could get pregnant, would you have a baby? And if you go back and watch the older versions, you will see a lot of problematic discussion that would not hold up today.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah, very often, the questions really are holding up a mirror to their time in society.
LARCHUK: There's a lot of not good looks.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And you find out pretty quickly, I think, in the earlier versions which contestant you are more likely to root against.
LARCHUK: That is very true.
THOMPSON: So I think I have more hostility toward the contestants for those reasons in the earlier episodes. And this version is a little more inclusive and cheerful. And the contestants, I think, are screened to be more rootable.
LARCHUK: Yes, I think so. And I think, you know, this is a show that they revived last year. And so they filmed a season in front of, like, a live studio audience. And, you know, they were just feeling it out. They were getting into the swing of it. And then for this new season, they obviously had to change it because you can't have a live studio audience. And what they seem to have fallen back on for this season of "Card Sharks" is the very wacky personalities of the contestants and the people who they brought with them to root them on.
THOMPSON: Yeah, they have a little peanut gallery.
LARCHUK: Yeah. And I have to say I do not envy any game show producers who are trying to figure out what to do with their shows right now. And what "Card Sharks" decided to do was, like, what's going to replace the energy of the audience is the energy of these people, these contestants and their families. And I got to say it's a little tough to watch for me because, you know, I remember watching these "Card Shark" reruns on BUZZR and even remembering from when I was a kid that, like game show contestants used to be normal people.
LARCHUK: Like, they used to be people who would literally say, you know, oh, I was just visiting Los Angeles, and now I'm on "Card Sharks."
LARCHUK: Like, somehow - like, they were just yanking people off the street to be game show contestants back then. And, you know, you would get people who you're like, I can imagine that that's me. Like, that's me playing this game. In this version and many more modern game show casting is like, let's see, I'm an INTP on Briggs-Myers, which is an introvert whatever.
LARCHUK: If you just changed every letter in my personality to the opposite letter, you would get every single game show contestant now (laughter), where they're just like the most high-energy cartoon characters.
LARCHUK: I think it can be a little grating and hard to relate to, honestly.
THOMPSON: It's a lot more like reality show casting.
THOMPSON: I think the casting has gotten much more, like, big personalities. We are looking for certain traits and certain types.
THOMPSON: Let's talk a little bit about Joel McHale.
THOMPSON: And this is probably the part, Travis, where you and I reveal our - who is clearly the greatest "Card Sharks" host of all time.
THOMPSON: But how do you feel about Joel McHale as a "Card Sharks" host?
LARCHUK: Joel McHale is doing fine. Joel McHale is Joel McHaleing. He is 100% being Joel McHale, which is sort of hosting with an ironic detachment from the proceedings, right? It almost feels like he is more commenting on what's happening than actually being a game show host-y game show host. He is not actually touching any of the playing cards, like previous hosts of "Card Sharks" did, which I think is an interesting choice. He's making some jokes that are funny. What faint praise. Oh, my God. He's making some jokes that are funny.
LARCHUK: I'm sorry, Joel McHale. You're doing a great job.
THOMPSON: Well, I mean, to speak to Joel McHale, I think the risk of casting a Joel McHale is that you get the game show host who feels he's above...
THOMPSON: ...The game being played and doesn't have the enthusiasm necessary. Especially without a live studio audience, I think host enthusiasm is pretty key. At the same time, Joel McHale is such a pro, and there's something about his archness that in this show, it doesn't tip over into snideness the way that I think it might have. I think it's a very, very fine line he's walking. I think I probably just have so much goodwill for "Card Sharks" as somebody who really deeply loved Jim Perry...
THOMPSON: ...On "Card Sharks" that he's working for me. I don't think he is up to the great Jim Perry. I do think he is better than Bob Eubanks, who's too smarmy, Bill Rafferty, who didn't work for me, or poor, poor, misbegotten Pat Bullard.
LARCHUK: Noncanonical, noncanonical.
THOMPSON: Noncanonical Pat Bullard.
LARCHUK: And don't forget about the one episode of "Card Sharks" that Ricki Lake hosted as part of Gameshow Marathon.
THOMPSON: (Laughter). I did not think to include her in the rankings on that basis.
LARCHUK: Yeah. So Jim Perry hosted the original "Card Sharks." And that guy - what a pro.
THOMPSON: What a pro.
LARCHUK: What an amazing, like, just old-school game show host, keeping things on the rails...
LARCHUK: ...Being friendly.
THOMPSON: All of the, like, Canadian good-natured...
THOMPSON: A little wry but not too wry.
LARCHUK: And a very important skill when you're hosting "Card Sharks" is to be able to stand there while somebody says, you know, it's a 10, but I'm really feeling that the next card is higher and being like, OK, you've got a feeling about it. Let's find out - instead of being like, what the hell are you doing? Don't you know math?
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Which I appreciate. I appreciate a little bit of intuition...
THOMPSON: ...Because the problem with "Card Sharks" at its core is that it is very, very simple math. And so you're just going in. And unless it's a seven or an eight or nine, there is absolutely no question whether you are going to pick higher or lower. So I like when somebody gets a jack and is like, God, I just feel like it's a king and just rolls with it (laughter).
LARCHUK: Yeah. There was a recent episode of this new season where one of the contestants was saying things like, you know, I think the next card is lower, and I think it's going to be a five. And then they would turn it over, and it was a five. And everybody would go, what? And then she'd say, you know what? I think the next card's higher, and it's going to be a jack. And then they turn it over, and it was a jack (laughter).
THOMPSON: And it's a jack (laughter).
LARCHUK: And then just to ruin it, she predicted that she was going to win $360,000 in the final round. And so she got to the last card and bet $160,000 so that if she won...
THOMPSON: Out of a $200,000 pot.
LARCHUK: Yeah, yeah. And she was like, I'm going to make this happen. And up until then, she had predicted everything correctly. And then they turned over that card, and it was lower. And my boyfriend and I just went ha.
LARCHUK: Which is horrible because this real human person just lost $160,000, basically. But it was just like, well, at least we proved that being a psychic isn't real, I guess.
THOMPSON: In that way, "Card Sharks" is a true Rorschach test because I was crushed.
LARCHUK: No, I was so nervous for her. I was just yelling at the TV like, please don't do this. Please, please just pay attention to math. She was like, no. But yeah, I mean, the main thing about "Card Sharks" - it is a show where you are yelling at the TV, pleading people to do things that make sense because the optimal strategy is if you have a two, three or four, you say higher. You keep playing. If you have an ace, king or queen, you say lower. If you have any of the other cards and you have the ability to switch your cards so that - like, if you have an eight and you're like, I don't want to play off of that, you can say switch the card in certain circumstances. And then you might get a better card. You should do that for any other card. There's a website where somebody has gone through all of the game theory. It's called Game Show Theory.
LARCHUK: You can play the interactive "Card Shark" simulator to see what the optimal strategy is, but that is it. Once you know this and you're watching this show and people play off of an eight like a crazy person, it will drive you nuts.
THOMPSON: I think finally, to kind of close out our discussion, the biggest difference between this version and the earlier versions is the stakes.
LARCHUK: Oh, my gosh.
THOMPSON: This is a big-money game. That final round in the Jim Perry era was literally, like, you started with $200. They would flip three cards, and then, like, the next rack of cards or whatever would be, like, $400. So you were talking about a final total that was in, like, three or four figures...
LARCHUK: You could get up to around $30,000, I think, if you played perfectly in that version.
LARCHUK: But it was very rare.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I think it was $32,000 if you played perfectly. If you went all in on every bet, you could get $32,000. And on this, it is hundreds of thousands of dollars that they're throwing around. And so the stakes do feel very different where it's like you're watching somebody who, like, risking $1,100 versus somebody who's risking $160,000. It is a little more intense for prime time in 2020.
LARCHUK: It sure is. And do I think that "Card Sharks" is a game where the top prize should be $640,000? Absolutely not.
LARCHUK: Absolutely not. And I think there is a weird dissonance between the real stakes of the show and the tone of everything else in the show where, like, "Card Sharks" is meant to be, like, a dumb - we're just playing this game sort of thing. And when the stakes are that high, it is a little distressing to see people, like, being like, yeah, we're having so much fun. And I'm like, no, this is, like, your entire future right now.
LARCHUK: Don't bet $160,000 that the card is going to be higher than a six. Like, what is happening? Anyway...
THOMPSON: All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Card Sharks." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Travis, thank you so much for being here.
LARCHUK: Thanks for having me. This was so much fun.
THOMPSON: Oh, my God. My pleasure. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you like game shows, make sure to check out NPR's Ask Me Another. You can find it wherever you subscribe to podcasts. We will see you all right back here tomorrow.
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