By Jon Roig
Arizona Daily Wildcat November 7, 1996
"Is this Jon?"
"Yup, it sure is ..."
"Jon, I'm going to call you right back... I've got to do a quick ID for a station in St. Louis and I'll get right back to you."
That voice. I half expected him to say, "Jon, you've just won a brand neeeeeew car."
Wink Martindale has long been a giant planet in the game show solar system. His magnetic personality, starry white teeth, and that damned voice have kept him employed in the enterainment industry for close to 40 years. That's a long fucking time to be a g ame show host, but he's managed to survive it and, dare I say it, even flourish. He's got his own production company, a radio show, and now he's in "Debt."
So to speak. "Debt" is a new game show for a new generation of game show viewers. In America today, people don't need to win prizes, because they've already bought them for themselves on credit. The RE AL prize is in having those debts paid off.
So you go on "Debt," answer all the pop-culture trivia questions schlockmeister Wink throws at you, and gain money to pay off your financial liabilities. The real winners leave with nothing.
Let's face it - Wink, man, he's the coolest. Cooler than Tony Bennet, hipper than the Velvet Frog. I spoke to him election day morning via telephone. (He voted for Dole.)
Wildcat: You've been doing this a long time...
Wink Martindale: Yeah. I started when I was 17, right out of high school, in Jackson, Tennessee. And I've been in radio and television ever since. That was 1951. "Debt" is my 19th game show and I've done game shows for 31 years, starting in 1965.
WC: Do you feel like you have a hard time relating to us slacker Gen-X'ers?
WM: No ... not really. I have some kids of my own who are in that age category. So I have a pretty good idea about the way they think and what's going on in the world. I'm well-read, so I keep up with everything.
WC: How much input do you have into the show?
WM: I don't have any input into the actual material. We have a group of young writers, and they have to be young to do this kind of material. I'd say the writers are 19-21; that's how they can write this kind of pop-culture material so well. I wou ldn't want to have that kind of input. I produce my own shows, and when you do that you have input into all areas.
WC: Where would you start if you wanted to break into the game show arena these days?
WM: There really is no start. Game shows are not like acting. Game shows have been on the out for about 5 or 6 years, with the exception of "Wheel," "Jeopardy," and "Price is Right." Talk shows have almost taken over, but we are a cyclical business - so what goes around, comes around.
Unlike movies, there's no real place to start. There's no broadcasting school that teaches you how to do game shows. College teaches you English and subjects that you need to know that would help you in doing a game show, but there is no school or school of thought to learn the nuances. I've always thought that some of the best game show hosts came from the radio days. In radio, you learned how to ad-lib. That's still pretty much the case today, if you're a D.J. When I grew up, it was mostly playing rec ords, doing play by play sports, and that sort of thing. And I think that gave me my background and my real ability, if that's what you want to call it, to handle myself on a game show.
WC: Do you ever feel trapped in your game show host role? I mean, you can't go out there and find that action movie job you've always wanted ...
WM: No, I didn't start out to be an actor. I sort of took everything as it came to me. Radio was all I really wanted to do... and that was before radio announcers became D.J.'s and radio turned into mostly top-40. So I never really set out to be a game show host. Radio led me into television, and I never really set any goals for myself. I've always made a great living and I've always worked. I've never been out of a job, so I've never felt trapped because I've never really known anything else in th e business. I've done commercials, took bit acting roles here and there over a period of years, but I've always been doing something that I enjoy doing. When you enjoy your job, you don't feel like you're trapped in it.
WC: What are the elements that make up a successful game show?
WM: One of the reasons that "Wheel of Fortune" has been so successful is that you solve the puzzle at home before the people on the show do. People feel, "Hey ... I'm smart ... I can play this game," and I think that's what turned out to be true wi th "Debt."
Basically though, it has to have three elements to be successful. There has to be a moment where a player can win everything or lose it all, and a moment where he has to make a big financial decision. There has to be a play-along factor, so people at hom e can watch it and get involved in it. And it needs the classic elimination games; each round is different than the one before.
WC: Do you watch any of the dating game shows?
WM: I don't watch a lot of game shows ... in fact, I don't watch a lot of television. I just don't have a lot of time.
I think "Singled Out" is a lot like "Debt," it's a show for the '90s. They have fun, it's very campy - all of those things that make for a successful game show are included.
WC: How are you celebrating the Year of the Rat?
WM: This is the first I've heard of it, so obviously I'm not celebrating it.
Wink's thoughts on some of his 19 past shows
This is my favorite show. First of all, I loved the game - I love the question/answer type of game show. It takes a little thought ... you can't be a dumb-bunny to win on a show like that. It gave me my longest term of employment ... maybe that's why I li ked it so much. I did it for almost eight years.
"Gambit" was, again, one of my favorites. I did it for five years, from '72 to '76, on CBS and I love blackjack. When I go to Vegas I love to play blackjack. So a game built around that cardgame was just terriffic. It was really the first successful game show I did.
"High Rollers" was a show where you roll big, oversized dice and it was a question/answer game. Alex Trebec originally did it, and I did an incarnation of it a little later.
That was a show that my partner and I produced for the Family Channel, based on the fabulously successful box game of the same name. We did it for a year and it was an interactive game. People at home would use their touchtone phones and could play in rea l-time during the commercial breaks. It's hard to explain ... but the problem was, viewers had to pay five dollars to join in.