Industry Pro: Game Show Writer and Producer Ryan Hopak
Here at Your Industry Insider, we love to shed light on professions within the industry which people might be curious about, but for which little information exists. Game show writer/producer Ryan Hopak has worked on some of the top shows in his genre, including “Survivor, ” “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?,” and “Jeopardy!” and he has been nominated three times for writing Emmys. So if you’ve ever been watching a game show and wondered who comes up with the questions, read on…
Current position (or recently-completed project or projects): I write questions for game shows. (And no, I didn’t know it was a job either!) I’m freelance, so I hop from game show to game show wherever I am needed. I am also a consulting producer on many of these shows. I often work on new game shows from the ground up to make sure they’re nice and game showy. I love that new game show smell!
Hometown: Fenton, Michigan. It’s north of Detroit and south of Flint. But not as dangerous as that location may sound! Great place to grow up. Total Midwest, although I never quite figured out why it’s called the Midwest. Michigan is neither mid nor west. I should research that for my next game show question.
College & degree (if any): I went to Central Michigan University because they had a good broadcasting program. Really hands-on. I ran a sketch comedy show on the campus TV station. I used to promote it by saying, “You’ll laugh so hard, milk will shoot out your nose! Even if you’re not drinking milk!” I also had a weekly comedy radio show on campus – mainly because I like to hear myself talk. I was also in theatre. I have bachelor’s degrees in both broadcasting and theatre, although I never quite figured out why they call it a bachelor’s degree. I should research that for my next game show question.
Did you have an internship while you were in school? No.
What made you want to be in entertainment? From a young age, I loved creativity. My mom would tell me a story before bed, and I would stop her and tell her the way the plotline should have gone. I mean, if you tell me Goofy’s on a roller coaster, you’ve got to have him almost fall out – that’s just a good visual. My mom had a lot to learn about staying true to the character. Ha. But I always loved how TV, movies, and music could always be there for you. To me, they’re like another person, a friend, and I wanted to be a part of that. There’s nothing like putting a smile on someone’s face. I love comedy. My heroes have always been comedians. I wanted to be like them: entertaining the world.
What made you want to be a game show writer? Nobody sets out to be a game show writer! But as a kid, I loved game shows. I remember I used to write my own game show questions and had my friends play. I recently found a newspaper article from when I was named the 8th Grade Student of the Month. I was quoted as saying, “I enjoy television, music, and movie trivia!”
Big break: I moved to Los Angeles to be an actor or writer. After a year of catering and going nowhere, I was a contestant on a game show and won $17,000. Crazy, right? Then I realized these game show producers and contestant coordinators were the only people in the entertainment business I’d ever had real contact with. So I asked them if I could write them some sample questions, and maybe they could hire me as a question writer. It worked, and I’ve been in the business ever since.
Over the years, you work with people who might hire you again on other things or recommend you for other shows. You learn, you get better, you build a reputation. It has been a thrill to have worked on so many shows that have touched people’s lives. Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Cash Cab, Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?, Hollywood Squares, Street Smarts, Win Ben Stein’s Money, The American Bible Challenge, and even Survivor!
Best advice you ever got: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
Eureka moment (when you realized you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently, etc.): My mom gave me my eureka moment. When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to be in Hollywood – the place where they beam entertainment to every city! I knew getting a job at a Michigan TV station wouldn’t satisfy me, but L.A. seemed so far away. I suggested to my mom that I would maybe go to Chicago to get my feet wet. She said, “You want to go to California – go to California!” I didn’t know you could do that!
Describe a typical work day in your current position: If you’re building a new game show, you’ve got to figure out the format. What is the show about? How is this show different than other shows? How is it the same? What’s wrong? What’s right? What is the tone? What types of questions work best? Let’s do a run-through with mock contestants. It’s a lot of collaboration.
Writing questions is an interesting process. An idea for a question can come from anywhere: the radio, the internet, a menu, your neighbor, a talk show, a vacation, the news, social media, a magazine, your pet, a commercial, your memories. I get an idea for a question and figure out the best way to present it. Should it be funny? Straightforward? Hip? Is it interesting? I write it up, make sure it’s accurate and send it off for review from producers and researchers. Repeat several times throughout the day.
Worst job (or day) in entertainment industry: Sometimes, it’s stressful getting a new game show off the ground. There’s usually no model for the right way to do it, just weeks of trial and error, and long hours with short deadlines. But it always seems to work out, and when it does, I couldn’t be more proud.
Best job (or day) in entertainment industry: It’s always nice to get accolades. I’ve been surprised with Emmy nominations, but I love hearing from fans. Hearing that something I created has made a difference in their lives. That’s why I’m doing this.
Best thing about your current job: I’m freelance, so I get to work on many different shows in a year. I get to be creative in different ways. And I am constantly meeting the greatest people in the business. But we usually only work a few months together, then we’re off to something else!
Worst thing about your current job: Game shows aren’t as prevalent on TV as they once were. I would love to see more game shows in daytime again.
Brush with greatness (can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do): Henry Winkler was my producer on Hollywood Squares almost ten years ago. He’s a great guy, as is Jeff Foxworthy, who hosted two game shows I’ve worked on. And I’m constantly in awe of my former Hollywood Squares host Tom Bergeron: He’s got true class and a quick wit. Just a pro.
What is it that you think makes you good at what you do? / What advice would you give to someone just starting out? Everyone has that one thing that hits the sweet spot in their brain. Some enjoy cooking, some like cars, some want to teach. TV raised me. I learned from it. It’s what I’ve always known I wanted to get into. I love what I learned do with words. If I went in the witness protection program and couldn’t write or entertain, I’d die. It’s the passion of that one thing in your life you should follow. Accept no substitute. Be a student of what you want to do. Learn how and why it works. Never stop. And if you see a door, try to open it!
Next move (or next five moves): I am in the process of branching out into reality TV. Selling some reality shows I’ve co-created and hopefully producing them. I’m going out in the next few months to shoot some footage of potential reality show subjects. Although I never quite figured out why they call it reality TV, since so much of it isn’t real. I should research that for my next game show question.
In his unquenchable desire to entertain, Ryan Hopak writes comedy songs and releases them on his website RyanHopak.com.
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