“Paid Off With Michael Torpey” just might be one of the strangest shows on television. It’s a goofy game show focused on a serious subject — the crushing weight of student-loan debt that’s afflicting millions of Americans.
It’s sort of a dream come true for contestants, who are staggering under their loans.
Season 1 of the truTV show doesn't featured any contestants from Utah, but there are certainly plenty of Utahns who would jump at the chance to appear.
“Oh my gosh, that would be so cool!” said Katie Bradshaw. “It would change our lives for sure.”
“I’d have a lot less sleepless nights,” said her husband, Jarrett. “The student loans are sort of like a dagger hanging over my head every day.”
Host/creator/producer Michael Torpey said he’d like to be able to help everyone like the Bradshaws. And he’s well aware of how weird the show is — he designed it that way.
“I mean, we’ve got a very serious topic that is affecting millions of people. It can be very depressing and heavy to get into those details,” he said. “And I don’t think people are going to let me come into their house every week and talk about it if I don’t also find a way to make the show fun and entertaining.”
“Paid Off With Michael Torpey” • New episodes air Tuesdays at 8 p.m.on truTV — Channel 44 on Comcast; Channel 245 on DirecTV; Channel 246 on Dish.
To that end, the trivia questions are often weird. They’re sometimes asked by actors who pop up in wacky costumes.
One episode featuring new parents began with the category Math Fingers — the contestants had to hold up the right number of fingers to questions like, “If you order 20 chicken nuggets, and your friends steals 13 of them, you now have one [fewer] friend and how many nuggets?”
“It’s only going to get stupider from here, guys,” Torpey said.
“Paid Off” is high-energy comedy that is — not coincidentally — reminiscent of the 1987-90 MTV game show “Remote Control,” which Torpey said he “fell in love with” as a teenager. And it was his role as an abusive prison guard in Season 4 of “Orange Is the New Black” that “woke me up to what it feels like to make a product that is entertaining and satisfying as a performer and also satisfying from a social standpoint.”
“Paid Off” can make you laugh even when presenting its Super Depressing Fact of the Week — like a study indicating millennials are delaying buying homes for an average of seven years because of student loan debt.
“We probably would’ve bought a house when Jarrett graduated a year ago,” Katie Bradshaw said. “But we had, at the time, more than $20,000 hanging over us.”
She borrowed $14,000 to attend Southern Utah University a decade ago and still owes $3,600 on the loans. With help from his father, he got his bachelor’s degree without going into debut, but had to borrow $20,000 to get a master’s in accounting.
“I’ve got student loans, but not as much as a lot of my friends,” Jarrett Bradshaw said. “Mine will be paid off in five or six years and, at that point, I’m going to be 35. But I know people who are in their 40s and still paying it off.
“Everyone I know has student loans. My sister went to med school and she won’t even tell me how much she owes for that. And she makes good money as a doctor.”
The subject of student debt is very personal to Torpey. He said he’s “incredibly grateful” to his parents for financing his college education, but his psychotherapist wife brought $40,000 in debt into the marriage — which they paid off because he “lucked into this crazy thing.”
In 2011, Torpey was cast in an underwear commercial with Michael Jordan — a big, national ad that paid enough to pay off the debt.
“I work in an industry where that can happen — where you can walk into a casting office and, on that day, the commercial is a big one,” he said. “That opportunity isn’t there for other people. A teacher doesn’t just walk in at the end of the day and they say, ‘Hey, if you coach this sports team this afternoon, it might be worth 50 grand.’
“The circumstances surrounding us being able to pay off our debt were so lucky, it made me realize that I don't understand how anybody else possibly does it.”
The national statistics are staggering. The current total college debt in the United States is estimated at more than $1.4 trillion; 1 in 4 adults (nearly 45 million) has college debt; the average debt is $37,172; the average monthly debt payment is $393.
Contestants on the show share their debt totals and their stories — good-naturedly.
“It’s essential that we start saying these things out loud,” Torpey said, and Jarrett Bradshaw agreed.
“I wish people would talk about it more,” he said. “Older people don’t seem to get it. It’s like, ‘What do you mean have student loans? Why didn’t you get a better paying job? Why didn’t you choose a career that pays better?’
“But I did. I did everything, and I still have accumulated all this debt.”
There has been some criticism of Torpey and “Paid Off” for making light of a serious issue. He said he understands the criticism, but he “respectfully” disagrees.
“If this topic hits you in a way where you think, ‘You know what? I can’t laugh at it,’ I totally get it,” he said. “There are certain areas where people are so sensitive that they do not find any comedy in them. People are traumatized by their debt. It’s a horrible situation.
“I just think comedy a very successful way of getting people into a conversation about a serious topic. I’m using my platform to raise awareness about the issue the best way I can.”
On the show, Torpey is funny and charming — but the passion peeks through. He ends an episode saying, “Call your representatives. Tell them we need a better solution [to the student debt crisis] than this game show.”
And he tells viewers “Paid Off” is “the game show that helps you pay off your student debt and says, ‘Hey, Congress! Could you get your s--- together?’”
Talking about the show with The Salt Lake Tribune, Torpey was completely passionate.
“I’m asking you to have complex feelings,” he said. “To be able to be entertained, to laugh at jokes, to celebrate somebody’s victory. And at the same time, to be upset that the other people on that stage didn’t win. To be upset that there are over 40 million people at home that will never be on this show. That are struggling anonymously with a huge burden of debt.
“We’re using comedy to make a serious topic palatable every week for what we hope is a large audience.”