'Gay for Play': Inside RuPaul's quest to take back the game show
The drag icon shares the surprising depth behind his cheeky new trivia show.
You might consider a 22-minute trivia game show to be the ultimate paragon of time-wasting. RuPaul doesn’t. In the television zeitgeist, the game show isn’t commonly regarded as a definitive sample of existential entertainment — but then again, RuPaul never got to host Wheel of Fortune.
This April, the cultural icon and host-slash-namesake of Logo’s long-running RuPaul’s Drag Race headed into fresh territory with his new trivia-based game show, Gay for Play (Mondays at 10 p.m.). It’s RuPaul’s bid to give gravitas to a genre of bright lights and big fonts, and though the pert title might make your DVR blush, it’s actually where Ru’s quest to tickle your brain begins.
“This show reflects my sensibility and my joy of language and twisting a phrase,” RuPaul tells EW in a spare dressing room between taping the 12 episodes of the first season (which launched on April 11). “The title tickles you because you’re like, ‘I see what you just did there!’ and that’s what happened with the game shows I watched growing up. You got to be a voyeur at a cocktail party with these crazy intellectuals who were way smarter than the room.”
Gay for Play follows a traditional panel format: Six celebrity panelists help two celebrity contestants make their way through cheeky pop culture trivia questions. It’s a little Match Game and a little Hollywood Squares, but what makes the show signature to the RuPaul brand — aside from the abdominally-blessed dancing go-go boys who gyrate in and out of commercial breaks — is how Gay for Play borrows deeply from the genre while also standing on the outside, looking in. Ru’s philosophy on drag has been well-chronicled as a survival mechanism for the fringe to cope with the mainstream; now, that mentality is finding its way into Merv Griffin’s joy-buzzer world.
“The show is gay, and I’ll tell you what that means,” he says. “What Drag Race is to reality TV, Gay for Play is to the game show format. Drag Race samples bits and pieces of everything, puts it into our mindset, and it comes out as something else. Gay for Play is very aware of itself. It’s bits of every game show you’ve ever seen, and when you see it, you’ll recognize it.”
EW: Drag Race is essentially a game show, but how did the idea of adding a traditional game show to your repertoire come up?
RUPAUL: Logo knows how much I love games. I have people over for game nights galore, and I’m really good at it. I don’t like games that have numbers or the tasks are too difficult, although difficult is the wrong word. I like charades, I like Lists — which is a ghetto version of Scattergories — and I like Taboo, Password, and Spotlight, which is like 20 Questions. The thing all those games have in common is the fact that they’re psychological. There’s your intellectual DNA, but then there’s your intuitive powers that come into play. That’s why, when I have people over, we play these games because it’s a fast track to finding out who someone is. It’s the best way. Whether they’re shy, whether they get angry, whether they cheat. Rather than sitting around with cocktails going, “So, what do you do?”
So, a game show as character study.
When you’re listening to what your own body frequencies are saying and doing, you’re able to play the game, and it’s very telling about life, too. You have to know how to play your body, your instrument, and all the games that interest me have to do with that. Gay for Play is not that different from that in that it’s trivia. A lot of times the stars who are giving their answers are bluffing. You get a sense of their relationship to pop culture and to the other panelists. That’s where the game is, and that’s very telling about life.
How did you land on the title?
I was presented with several titles and liked this one. Because pop culture, as long as I’ve been alive, has borrowed bits and pieces from gay culture. It used to be where it was ten years behind, where straight people would finally be saying “Girlfriend!” But now with social media, that turnaround time is much faster. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve noticed it. Especially with RuPaul’s Drag Race, we’ve speeded up that process because you can hear Betty and Joe Beercan saying, “Ooh, she throw her shade!” or all this stuff that they wouldn’t have been saying that shouldn’t exist. So with Gay for Play, we get to sort of take some of that back and use it properly — in a way that will blow people’s minds, because we authored that vernacular. Nobody can speak French like the French.
Is that what makes the show fundamentally a “RuPaul” show?
Well, the questions are cheeky. And this is the thing you find out from everyone who’s ever lived outside of the box: Specifically, in my story, I was a kid who didn’t fit in, and I thought, “Well, I’m smart. I can figure this out. I can figure out how to fit in.” And I looked at it and studied the monster of socialization and went, “Oh, I get it. And, no thank you. I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s rotten and it’s a hoax.” Life, our society, our culture, it’s all a hoax. Like the movie The Matrix. So what happens is, when you’re smart, the only thing that excites you is if you do plays on words, or if you twist a phrase, or continue to make fun of it. The only way to exist in this culture, if you’re smart and you’re on top of it, if you figure things out, is to f—ing make fun of everything.
But with varying levels of vitriol.
Without turning bitter! It’s a very fine line. That reverence is what our show has. We twist a phrase, it’s wink-wink and nudge-nudge, and that’s really the basis of the foundation of the gay sensibility. Certain people, we say things, and it goes over certain people’s heads. They misinterpret it, sometimes intentionally to serve their ulterior motives. And they want to say, ‘Burn the witch!’ because we’ve said what you’re not supposed to say, but the truth is, the only thing that’s worth saying is what you’re not supposed to say.
What was your relationship to game shows as a kid?
I loved Match Game, I loved Hollywood Squares. Not because I could answer all the questions — but I could — but because of the naughtiness and the cheekiness. I remember there was one question to Paul Lynde that was like, “Scientists have found that all men have female hormones. Do women also have male hormones in them?” and Paul Lynde says, “Sometimes.” [laughs] The common people at home hear that and a lot of stuff goes over their head. They know there was something cheeky there, but they weren’t quite sure. But for kids like me who figured it out and got what this all is, then you’re in on the joke. You go, “Oh! There’s my tribe.” With social media and stuff, you just assume everybody’s connected in that way. But somehow they’re still not, and I think this show, as well as Drag Race, connects people in a way on that level that I connected with Charles Nelson Reilly.
What hosting muscles do you flex on this show as opposed to Drag Race?
It felt like I was in my living room. What I do out there is the exact same thing I do in my living room. In fact, my sisters, who are a bunch of cheaters, by the way, they won’t play with me because I’m like, “You cannot do that!” Because if you cheat, we don’t have a game, which actually leads us into what’s happening politically out there in the world. There are certain rules and guidelines and once you break these, it f—s it up for everybody else. You see it in traffic here [in Los Angeles]. Everyone thinks, “I’m on the list. I can do this, you guys can’t.” Everybody thinks, “I can do this.” “Bitch, no you can’t do that!” Because there’s a system. That goes here, this goes there, and if you f— that up, you don’t have a civilization. Anyway, that’s a whole other topic.
So how do you feel when your celebrity panel opts to deceive?
The game is all about camaraderie. Not deception. It’s all about them having fun. Now, we don’t break the rules. There’s a question, they answer the question, and the contestant decides if they want to go with that answer. But in the context of that game, when you break it down and tear everything away, it’s about the panel and their relationship to each other. Brett Somers on Match Game and Charles Nelson Reilly, you know they’re friends. If the camera’s rolling or not, they’re friends. And each person has their role, and it says so much about who they are as a person. Richard Dawson on Match Game, where you just loved him because he’s smart, funny, witty, all that stuff. This show really is about tuning in and finding your tribe. You can follow them on Twitter, but it’s not like spending a night with them on this TV show.
What has surprised you about the way the games have occurred, as opposed to what you might have expected?
What surprised me is that there are different angles of looking at this thing that have emerged. Different voices that have emerged. Like with Drag Race, we’ll have a challenge and on paper, it all looks great, and then we add drag queens and production to it and it takes on whole other angles and depths of importance and of subtext. Even me describing games and how they’re a reflection of life. They’re so telling as to who a person is, how they play the game, how their mind works. I play charades all the time. When you play charades, some people have never heard of Pride and Prejudice, and it just lets you know where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing, and how have you not heard of that? Or they’ll say, “I didn’t know what that was!” and it’s like, “Well, you speak English, don’t you?” I can get you to say Pride and Prejudice whether you’ve heard of it or not.
How important is pop culture literacy to you?
It shows whether you’re paying attention or not. One of the reasons I love Judge Judy and I love Murder She Sat Down and She Wrote, is because they are paying attention to what is going on. Judge Judy will say people can’t talk to each other and they can’t talk over each other. She asks very specific questions so she can gather what is going on, and watching her do it and deduce is brilliant. And that’s what you get watching game shows, too. Watching people play the game is everything you need to know about life on this planet.