New Faces in Syndie: Q&A: Part of ‘Feud’s’ Family

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Gabrielle Johnston has been executive producer of “Family Feud” since 2002. After working as a student intern for Goodson-Todman, creator of “Family Feud,” she officially joined the show as a contestant coordinator in 1980, after graduation. She became an associate producer of the hit game show in 1988.

Ms. Johnston recently talked about the show with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TelevisionWeek: Tell us a little about the job.

Gabrielle Johnston: I’m doing what every other executive producer for the show has done: everything. I work with the writers for material. You work with the host on learning the game, running him through it. You work with contestants, the contestant department, on picking the families. You work with directors on shots, the set, pretty much everything. You do everything.

TVWeek: What’s your schedule?

Ms. Johnston: We film six episodes a day, and how we decided to do it-so that we always could have a continuing champ-we have two different kinds of runs. Because you tape 165 shows in a season, then when those shows get into a cool period, we flip them and they’re fresh. So I have two different continuing champions.

TVWeek: What’s going to be new on this edition of “Family Feud”?

Ms. Johnston: We’re doing a lot that’s new. It’s our 30th year with the show, so we thought, “Well, why don’t we do a little changing?” and that starts with John O’Hurley. We’re very excited to have him as our host. We’re also going to go with a new set, different graphics. We’re going to give the old girl a primping, a shot in the arm. We’re talking now about other things, too, but the show’s format is so strong that you don’t really want to fuss with it.

TVWeek: Do you think game shows are making a comeback?

Ms. Johnston: I think so. I saw it starting about three years ago. The networks just can’t afford to keep doing productions. … Look, I love sitcoms. I’m a sitcom fan. But I think that they have to be practical. Game shows are fascinating when they’re really well done and they’re a lot of fun. And they’re affordable. Networks can’t afford to keep doing expensive shows, and then they fail and then they start new shows. There’s less risk when they do game shows. They’re cheaper to produce in general.

TVWeek: What are your earliest memories of watching “Family Feud”?

Ms. Johnston: I remember that when I was in college a family that I knew appeared on the show. Then, later on, I actually got a job at Goodson-Todman and had a chance to work on it. I remember when it first started out, everybody was talking about it.

TVWeek: What was Mark Goodson like? (Mark Goodson, who died in 1992, was the creator of “Family Feud” along with Bill Todman.)

Ms. Johnston: He was intense, but he was fun. We were lucky, actually, to be working at Goodson-Todman, because he was very loyal and you could work on a lot of shows. If there was a pilot, everybody worked on it. There was a real team feel to working there. The man was extremely bright and he surrounded himself with other bright people. A lot of New Yorkers. … Many of the directors came from Broadway theater, so there was a whole sophisticated world that many of us kids in California knew nothing about. That experience was invaluable to me.

TVWeek: What do you think of GSN?

Ms. Johnston: It’s great. They’re just trying to make a go of it. A couple of years ago we were working with Harvey Weinstein about maybe doing a new “What’s My Line?,” so we watched these old tapes and we looked at the people that were on this show. And the talent! They were so much smarter and more sophisticated than today’s guests.

TVWeek: Like Bennett Cerf and Dorothy Kilgallen?

Ms. Johnston: Exactly. Try and find people like that on game shows today. So we watched these shows with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and all these classy people. I think Truman Capote did the show. We realized, “How do you duplicate this?” You can’t. You can’t do it now.

TVWeek: What is it about “Family Feud” that works with viewers?

Ms. Johnston: A big part is the people. I love people. When I get to meet the families when they’re playing, they’re always different. Every show is different. Every family is different, so the shows are always unique, believe it or not. It’s always fresh. And we ask surveys of 100 people, average Americans, and I try to put in material that’s a mix, mostly to do with people’s everyday lives. Marriage things, husband things, kids things, all kinds of things that viewers can play along with. I tell them all the time, “Look, this isn’t ‘Jeopardy!’ It’s ‘Family Feud.’ You know the answers to these questions because we polled 100 average Americans and these are their responses.” We don’t change their responses. So when they give us these wacky responses, they are basically answering for America. That’s the most interesting, fascinating element in this game, and that’s what keeps it fresh.

TVWeek: How much does audience participation figure into your show’s success?

Ms. Johnston: Quite a bit. See, anybody can play “Family Feud.” You can watch the show and wind up talking to the TV set, playing along. Everybody thinks they know the right answers. Another thing is that we’re very diverse in this game. It’s all types of families, all kinds of people. And we don’t hold back. If someone has a personality and he’s fun, we go with it. We have a lot of diversity in our families.

TVWeek: How did you come to choose John O’Hurley as the new host?

Ms. Johnston: We decided that we might want to make a change, and names kept coming up. I had seen “Dancing With the Stars” and said to myself that I was going to remember John. I mean, I knew John already, but he was all of a sudden elevated to a different arena-for John. Women, especially, thought about him in a new way, like, “Wow, he’s cute. He’s sexy. He’s kind of funny.” And he is. He’s very, very funny. So I said to Cecile [Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America] that I would like to put John O’Hurley’s name into the mix. There were other people [in the mix], but almost from the get-go, he was the one everybody kind of agreed on.

TVWeek: Does Richard Dawson’s shadow hover over the show?

Ms. Johnston: In a word, yes. You have to remember that Richard was originally a panelist on “Match Game.” He’d also done “Hogan’s Heroes,” so he had a pretty strong base, and the accent didn’t hurt. You know, I tell everybody, if you have an accent, all of a sudden you buy whatever the person says. It’s kind of a joke, but his accent certainly helped. Bottom line, though, Richard was very funny. He was a comedian and he had that background behind him. Also, when you look back at it, Richard was really on the side of the families. He had this point of view that was simply, this is a game and one of these families is going to win. He was very sympathetic, but very funny. … I think all those elements came together. America had seen him on “Hogan’s Heroes” and that show was such a huge hit, and then he was a big hit on “Match Game.”

TVWeek: How were Louie Anderson and Richard Karn as hosts?

Ms. Johnston: I can’t tell you what nice people both Louie and Richard are. They’re both really good people. Honestly, when Louie was on the show he was extremely funny. I would sit in the booth and watch every single game, and I have to tell you, he had me in tears.

TVWeek: What did they bring to the game?

Ms. Johnston: Well, because the format is so strong, all [the host] needs to be is a filler. The game is what it is. It’s the questions; it’s the families; it’s the host. Those are the three elements. With Richard Karn, there was a whole different rhythm. He was more like a football coach. He kept the pace much
faster than Louie did. It was just the different ways they worked. Both of them, I believe, did a really good job.

TVWeek: What are some of the funniest moments on the show?

Ms. Johnston: It’s all in the questions-what the families’ responses are to those questions. Sometimes people are shocked by what they say, and they want me to take it out, but I tell them, “I can’t. It’s on tape.” The really incredible moments, the ones that I call “asthma moments” because they take your breath away, they wind up on the clip shows, “Funniest Most Outrageous Moments.” It’s all in the questions and their responses, and how the host handles that.

TVWeek: Does John O’Hurley know how to handle those kinds of wild reactions?

Ms. Johnston: Yes, because the truth is you don’t have to respond to every single word. I learned a lot from Mark Goodson, and he always said that sometimes the look is all you need. One time we had a question, “Name something you borrowed from your spouse,” and a woman answered her underwear. She was serious and her husband is standing right next to her. And Richard [Karn] didn’t say anything in response; he couldn’t. He just looked in the camera. You can’t top that.