Supermarket Sweep host Leslie Jones knows grocery stores and 'what the hell is expensive'
There was a time in 2020 when grocery stores temporarily closed, and when they reopened, masked customers waited in long lines — separated by six feet — some waiting hours to finally get in. Once inside, many shelves were (and still are in some places) bare, especially those aisles with paper towels, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies.
So a game show set in a grocery store — a fully stocked one at that — to actually be debuting on TV seems like a miracle of sorts. But that's what ABC and production company Fremantle (American Idol, The Price Is Right, Match Game) have done with the new Supermarket Sweep, a reboot of the popular series of the 1980s and '90s hosted by David Ruprecht. Filmed over the summer, after Hollywood productions were allowed to resume work under new pandemic-related health and safety protocols, the game show now has a superfan as host in the form of Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones.
"The nurses that [oversaw compliance and testing]... yo, they were not f—ing around," Jones says of the production, which filmed at Barker Hangar (often used for award shows and other productions) at the Santa Monica Airport in Santa Monica, Calif. "We were getting tested three times a week. No one could come near me without a mask and a shield on their face. I had to wash my hands every time I touched anything. They were sanitizing me."
As the one asking the questions and sending contestants into the aisles on a mad dash to fill their carts, Jones brings her trademark exuberance to the proceedings, where one of the three competing teams of two could go home with as much as $100,000 — a hefty improvement over the old show's $5,000 grand prize. Jones tells EW why she's so excited about that change to the show, how her love of game shows runs deep, why she couldn't be a contestant on Supermarket Sweep nowadays, what gets her emotional as host of the show, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After months of rehearsals via Zoom while production was on hold due to the pandemic, what was your first day of shooting like?
LESLIE JONES: Everybody was positive the first day of shooting… we were really trying to be a well-oiled ship. I was really excited about having interaction with the contestants — seeing some wins, seeing some losses. That part was really fun.
How does being a game show host compare to doing stand-up or being on Saturday Night Live? How did you put those skills to use here?
It’s a lot of crowd work. But it’s a lot of reading. [When I was on SNL,] people would always be like, “Leslie, why is you messin’ up?” [Laughs] I was like, “I gotta read out loud and I can’t see the [cue cards]!” Here, I gotta have a [rapport] with the contestants and I still got to read all this text. So, yeah, it was difficult. But because of stand-up, I was able to make it… through Leslie Jones’ eyes.
You’ve said you always wanted to be a contestant on the old version of this show. And you’ve been a celebrity player on shows including The $100,000 Pyramid and Match Game — so you understand what’s at stake.
There were a lot of game shows I wanted to be on. I wrote Wheel of Fortune so much that they sent me a letter saying, “Hey, we know. We got it.” [Laughs] I’m a game show head! Supermarket Sweep was one of those game shows where it was like, you don’t even have to really be smart. I know grocery stores, and I know what the hell is expensive and what’s not. It’s just a show for regular people. [It’s not like] Jeopardy! — you don’t have to know 17 states and s---; you just have to know where the steaks are.
So did you grab a cart and run through the grocery store to see how much money you could rack up on a shopping spree?
Nah, 'cause I got a bad knee, man. They should've got me when I was in my 30s. [Laughs] If I was to be on Supermarket Sweep now, I would get a partner that could run it. I don't know if I would run it, especially the way it is now. It is so physical. I was like, whoever is doing this, I just hope they get a good person to run the store. I forgot about the bonuses and all of that. To watch it, I was like, no, I'm too old for this! I might get hurt. [Laughs]
These contestants could win a lot of money — up to $100,000. In a preview, you said to some contestants, “Do not make me cry!” It sounds like the emotional stakes are as high as the financial?
When I was trying to get on Supermarket Sweep, [the prize] was, like, $5,000 — after taxes, it was still gonna be more than I had. These contestants are real people: some who want to put people through college; there's people who want to pay bills; there's people who have children they need to take care of. Especially during COVID, for us to be able to give this type of money away is life-changing and wonderful. Think about when you watch a game show and it's a regular person — like a mailman or garbage man, which are the most important people in our lives, by the way — and these people get to win $100,000. It's very emotional. I’m proud of my game show. I’m proud of us coming up with this in this time. I'm proud of us being able to help people. You could say “God bless you” to somebody, but if you give somebody $200, that’s a real God bless you right there. [Laughs] These people are winning real money and it's just absolutely wonderful. It’s heartwarming and exhilarating and fulfilling.
Add to that, the show donated all of the grocery items to local, Southern California charities and food banks. Tell me about that decision. Were there any difficulties involved given how we're supposed to wipe off our groceries?
I've always had a thing about homelessness and stuff like that, and I just really believe that we can fix this problem if we start thinking about what we can do for each other. And it could start by just being able to give food that we would normally have to throw away to people who can actually use it. We can't be irresponsible and not say, "Hey, we're gonna help everybody with all of this stuff that we're doing." This is a thing that I want everybody to be able to see, so if you show them how to do it and people can see it, then we're gonna get grocery stores to donate whatever it is that they don't need to use food banks. Or restaurants — you wouldn't realize how much restaurants actually have to throw away when they can probably give it to people who need food. We just need to see that it can be done. We need to see that we can actually fix stuff. And I think that's what the problem is right now with society — I think we just feel so overwhelmed that we don't think we can fix anything, but we can fix it. We can make it right.
The previous run of this show from the '80s and '90s was filmed in a grocery store, but the set for this show is a re-creation of one. I can't even imagine the work that went into that.
Man, oh, man, it's just craziness. COVID changed a lot of stuff. We were on a set and then we had to shut that down, so the best possible [option] was to build a big grocery store. We went to the Santa Monica Airport and got a hangar there. We got a [production designer] to come on — he's one of the best — and he built this whole grocery store inside and it really helped with the COVID situation because we could separate everyone. We could have more room to work, to keep people separated from each other six feet, and keep regulations going because we have enough room to do it. It was crazy and, yes, very stressful. The people worked to get that to happen.. .wow. I'm always very astounded at how people can make things happen like that. These people really wanted this show to happen — they got in there, made it happen, and it was beautiful.
The new Supermarket Sweep debuts Sunday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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