By Lynette Rice
April 02, 2020 at 03:07 PM EDT
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Game shows need people like John Ricci. He's the off-camera judge who singlehandedly decides whether contestants on shows like The $100,000 Pyramid and America Says are following the rules or unfairly bending them. But he — like thousands of other below-the-line workers in the TV industry — is now out of work because of government orders to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. In this second installment of EW's occasional series Hidden Hollywood, Ricci talks about how the outbreak has impacted his career as a freelance judge.

"When I tell people I'm the judge on a game show, they look at me like I'm an alien because they just think the contestant says the answer and things happen. There's actually someone pushing the buttons, making the calls. Our job never pokes up unless we we make mistakes. My main job is on The $100,000 Pyramid that's on ABC with Michael Strahan. This would've been our fifth season. Matter of act, I would have been in New York right now taping season 5. I was literally supposed to go right to Pyramid for four weeks, come back on a Saturday, on Monday start 25 Words or Less. And then right after that, I was going to overlap into America Says.

"Naturally, I know the rules and what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. And during the show, you sit next to the game computer in a judging box. It's different on different shows. You're listening for everything. With Pyramid, there's a right, a wrong, and a pass, and you just follow along. Did the right answer come before the illegal clue? Did they happen to collide together? I'm the only judge. Naturally, we have the executive producer and whatnot, so if there's a problem with a clue or something, we'll all discuss. But for the most part, it's me doing it.

Courtesy of John Ricci

"On America Says, there are typically two judges. I'm judging material, but there's another judge who looks to see if the contestants are talking out of turn because that's also part of the game. Someone else has to watch that. But for Pyramid it's mostly listening for those illegal clues. There are things you can say and things you can't say. I always equate it to playing jazz: You kind of have to go with the flow because you just never know what they're going to say. In that split-second moment you have to decide, is that okay or not? They're playing for big money on Pyramid. The last thing you want to do is throw them off. If they've got a two-word answer, like 'George Washington,' you got to make sure you hear all of it. You'll never believe how many times the contestant will swallow the answer or stop midway. You never want to assume. So it's a stressful job. But it's really a lot of fun. It's the most exciting thing you could do, in my opinion, in television.

"I've been working on game shows now for a good 15-20 years. I also create games, produce games, and pitch new shows. The first show I ever did was called Scrabble Showdown, on the Hub. It was just a matter of having this unique ability because I'm also a programmer. I also knew game shows. So I was a nice bridge between the producers and the computer guys. Pyramid was my favorite game show ever growing up. Just to work on it was just amazing. I did a show on GSN called Chain Reaction. I worked on one for NBC called Million Second Quiz. I did the first season of Joker's Wild for TBS. That was the other thing, this resurgence of reboots. To get to work on shows I literally grew up watching? It just blows your mind. It's like a dream come true.

"There's a handful of us who can do this, but it's not a job that you just go out and say, 'All right, I want to be a judge for a game show.' It's one of those skills [you develop by] being a part of the game itself. Judging on Jeopardy is a whole other level. That is more research judging than what happens on Pyramid. With Pyramid I can tell you that you can't say, 'starts with,' or you can't say, 'rhymes with.' Those are the basic rules. But with something like Jeopardy, all that material is vetted. There's a table of people for every Jeopardy, and for the most part they've been doing it for so long they come in with guns blazing, they know exactly what could be said. In the moment they are also making calls.

"As a freelancer on established shows, you go in and they say, 'Okay, I need you from date so-and-so to date such-and-such.' You do the job and then you look for the next gig. But that's not happening now. No one is really putting a lot of stuff in development. They're trying to figure out what they can do with what they have rather than worry about what's coming later. I'm very happy for people who can work from home and whatnot, but there are a lot of us who have no jobs because there is no audience. We can't work from home. There's nothing to do. So we're all just sitting around just wondering what's going to happen."

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