Decades ago, my parents (and likely yours) watched Supermarket Sweep. In the 1990s, so did comedian Leslie Jones, who is now hosting the newest iteration of the game show. Infamous for the memory of contestants speeding through a supermarket to fill their carts with the most expensive items possible, the show returns to ABC with some differences, given the 2020 of it all: The prices are higher, some of the brand names have changed, and, well, every once in a while the cameras will catch a glimpse of a crew member wearing a mask.
I spoke with producers Alycia Rossiter and Wes Kauble about bringing back Supermarket Sweep as one of the first productions to get started post-pandemic (they began shooting new episodes at the end of July), the social issues the premise brings up, and how Jones was the force behind the revival. At one point, Kauble makes a great Arrested Development reference, and some serious strategy gets discussed. (Saffron, y’all!)
So when I initially saw the trailer, my instinct was, “Oh. Well, they shot it before the pandemic happened, and they just been waiting to roll it out.” Because the way that the trailer is shot, you can’t really tell. What’s important to you about having shot the show without masks, without the clear indications of where we are in 2020?
WES KAUBLE: The first thing is safety is important. So the key for us is messaging to people that the only people who ever had their masks off were anyone who actually appeared on camera, and they only took them off when the cameras were rolling. Everyone else had to have masks, PPE, et cetera, everything you can imagine.
We made the conscious decision to shoot it that way, because we wanted people to be able to have a departure and a vacation from what’s been going on. Seeing people running around a supermarket in masks felt a little too real. So we were able to work with our health people to find a way to pull it off, so when you see this on Sunday, it’s actually something you can relax and just enjoy.
ALYCIA ROSSITER: When you watch it Sunday, you’ll see that cameramen often make it into a shot in Supermarket Sweep, both back in the day and now, because it’s live action, and no one knows whether that contestant’s going to turn into the turkey aisle, or turn into the frying pan housewares aisle. So those camera people are running in the moment after their contestants. They are in masks and shields.
So the participants are looking like old-school television participants, and the crew behind the scenes reminds you that it was shot during a certain time in our history. I will say we had long conversations about whether it would be okay to show the cameramen in masks, because like Wes said, we didn’t want to make anyone sad, but obviously health is the most important thing, and so we had as few people as possible without a mask on.
When the original Supermarket Sweep launched, it was in 1965 and the unemployment rate was around four percent. Now, of course, it’s significantly bigger. I’m curious about the wish fulfillment aspect of the show — What is it about the idea of just being let loose inside a supermarket that fascinates you?
ROSSITER: I think there are two wishes that are being fulfilled in the moment. One is that a supermarket is a place that we’ve all been to. I love that, especially in 2020. We all eat. People go to supermarkets. There’s an enormous familiarity with the environment of the grocery store.
But what we’re not familiar with is the idea of a grocery store with no rules, a grocery store that your mom will let you, with reckless abandon, fly through and push that cart on wheels as fast as you can. Or a grocery store where it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your account to spend on groceries. You can pull anything off any shelf, and stack it into your cart, and it will be yours.
I think no matter whether you win on Supermarket Sweep or you just participate, that wish is fulfilled, the reckless abandon, the notion of piling as much as you want into your cart. In a pandemic, it was even more. “Forget for 20 minutes about the fact that all of that is happening outside of our walls. Just have some fun.”
Then the second wish is obviously everybody wants to win money. You can’t really find somebody that would say, “No. I don’t want to win money.” So we give people that chance to fulfill a wish, to end the day with a heck of a lot more money than they started the day with.
KAUBLE: Yeah. Our top prize on this show, it was $5,000 back in the ’90s, but the top prize now is $100,000. Anyone winning $100,000 in any environment, it doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic or not, would be excited. But I think it meant a little bit more this time around, when you saw someone make smart decisions, know their supermarket products, and thus win a big jackpot.
How often do people ask about what is the most lucrative thing to pull off the shelves? My mother is convinced that it’s the turkeys.
KAUBLE: Well, so that’s the thing. There’s a lot to unpack there. One is the turkeys are a highlight item. I think our turkeys are in between $30 and $50. But one of the things that we did to modernize our supermarket, and make it feel more 2020, is you’ve got things in ours like crockpots. You have gigantic slabs of Tomahawk Wagyu ribs that are $300 a pop. So to reflect what our supermarket looks like in 2020, there are some really crazy big ticket items.
I think the more people watch our show, the more they’ll get an idea of what they would do. What we allow our contestants to do is go on a walk through with their teammate of the store before they shoot the show. And there are prices on every aisle. We have what are called our big-ticket items, that are over $100, have special stickers on them. So they get to walk around for 15, 20 minutes and make their own strategy, and not just be thrown into the supermarket willy nilly.
Most supermarkets have the produce on the edge and things like that, but aisle by aisle, if you can just be a little more accustomed to it, then when you go searching in the mini sweep or the super sweep, or looking for those big ticket items, it makes it easier for you to do well, which is what we want our contestants to do.
ROSSITER: There are some people that take off, and it really feels like they’re going willy nilly. There are some people that feel like they’re making a beeline for an aisle where they saw items that they want to put in their cart because they’re expensive.
And by the way, your mom would do well. The frozen turkeys are a very smart pick.
Well, it’s fascinating, because she told me that her and her sisters would watch the show together growing up. In terms of the generational aspect, what things do you feel like have been communicated forward?
KAUBLE: I think the big thing that’s come through, and as a child who grew up watching it, coming home from school and watching Supermarket Sweep and then Shop ’til You Drop for three hours straight, the big thing that we wanted to bring through is that just zaniness and the fantastical nature of this. What sort of place do you go where you can just run around with a cart, and throw anything in and all that stuff?
We’ve modernized it. When you see the cart totals over the course of the season, they’ve gone way up, because from 2000 to 2020, prices of things have gone up, and our supermarket has changed a lot. The breadth of products that you have in a supermarket now are a little bit different than 20 years ago.
ROSSITER: I like that it’s not elitist. You don’t have to have exceptional trivia talent, or you don’t have to have the best memory. You have to have lived on Earth and have a big heart.
KAUBLE: That’s one of the things that’s really interesting when you go back and watch episodes that are on Netflix now, or whatever it is, those brands are still the brands we’re using in our show. The brands have stayed true.
I think the thing we’ve talked about a lot, Alycia, and that I tell people when I tell them about the show, is if you don’t know the answer to our question, and then we tell you the answer, and you go, “Oh, well, I’ve heard of Glad Cling Wrap,” or “I’ve heard of Bounce.” On other shows, if you don’t know the answer, and then we say, “It’s the Lighthouse at Alexandria,” you’re like, “What?” Every answer we have on our show, everyone’s heard of it at some point. Whether they can get to it or not in time is different. So it makes it really fun for everyone to watch.
Yeah. The elitism question’s really interesting, just because, for some reason, I’m now thinking about that famous political moment where George Bush was at a supermarket during the campaign, and he didn’t know the price of milk. That’s become a huge thing.
KAUBLE: What could a banana possibly cost, Michael? $10? I love Arrested Development. That’s a different interview. Okay, anyway.
ROSSITER: The prices are there too. So even if George Bush was playing Supermarket Sweep, he would be able to see that this milk costs this much, and the buttermilk costs this much, and the yogurt costs this much. And he would get that walk through the store beforehand. So we really did try to make it a playground for everybody.
I want to talk a little bit about Leslie Jones, because she’s such a force. The show’s been in development for quite some time — at what point did she feel like the right person to take on the host role?
ROSSITER: Earlier than you’re going to believe, because Fremantle is the company that owns the intellectual property that is Supermarket Sweep, and they’ve owned it for a while. Leslie Jones auditioned to be on Supermarket Sweep in the 90s — because her partner left the auditions early, through no fault of Leslie’s own, she didn’t make it onto the show. It’s a memory that she will tell you, with full gusto and a lot of emotion, she’s still mad at that partner and that circumstance.
So as she became somebody with more power and more influence in the world, she looked at the projects that she’d be interested in participating in. One of them was Supermarket Sweep. She had her manager, I think, find out who owned the property, and she approached Fremantle. So Leslie Jones was a prime mover, well before Wes or I were even a twinkle in any of their eyes. She went out with Fremantle to all of the major buyers, and they sold this version of Supermarket Sweep. She was attached as an executive producer from before day one, and then participate in it, and continues to participate on a daily basis now that we’re in post-production.
KAUBLE: I’ve been doing game shows for a long time and usually, one of the hardest things to do is to figure out who that host is going to be. You might even be in pre-production, and be four or five weeks out from shooting, still trying to lock down that host. So to have a host reach out to a production company saying, “I love this show and I want to be attached to it,” you just don’t hear about very often. It speaks a lot to Leslie’s fandom of Supermarket Sweep.
No, absolutely. A random question. Are there items that you feel like, on the shelves, that might’ve been more expensive in the past, and are now less expensive now, or vice versa?
KAUBLE: I think, overall, most things have gone up by, we’ll call it 15, 20%. I can’t think of an item that’s gone down in value since 2000, at least that’s on our shelves. I think any items like that, that would feel extraneous, didn’t make it into our supermarket.
ROSSITER: I feel like there are a few items that, in this new foodie world that we live in, that exist on our shelves that probably didn’t back then. Like we have manuka honey that’s 30 bucks for a little container like this.
KAUBLE: Yeah. There are some real bougie items if you look around, like a little thing of saffron, it’s $25. Those Tomahawk ribs are this big, so it’s pretty obvious they’re expensive. Our meat section has from ground chuck, more basic meats, all the way up to the most expensive stuff you can find. Our smart shoppers knew to go pillage that meat section, right?
We won’t give away all the strategies, but anyone worth their salt in a supermarket would go walking around and go, “I have to go there, I have to go there, and I have to go there.” You can see some very clear indicators of places you would want to shop in our market.
To wrap up, it’s hard to figure out how to process this show in an era where there’s a lot of wealth disparity. There’s a lot of people where just the basic idea of going into a grocery store and getting whatever you need to eat — that’s a huge issue.
ROSSITER: We can connect it to Leslie too, because Wes and I really followed Leslie’s lead. She’s our partner and exec producer on the show. When she auditioned for this show, she was waitressing at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. She wasn’t the person who could spend as much money as she wanted in the grocery store. She loved that she could go to the grocery store after her shifts, which she did do, and study.
There was a low barrier to entry for studying the products in the store. There was a low barrier to entry for answering the questions, and for running around and grabbing things off the shelves.
KAUBLE: When you meet our contestants, the elitism is out the door. Our contestants are supermarket savants. They had to pass tests to get on the show, improve their knowledge before they could even get in front of us to possibly beyond. So when you see them knowing Glad Cling Wrap, and Bounce, and Right Guard, all those products that we all have grown up on and see every day, I think that really equalizes it right away too.
ROSSITER: They’re regular people, not a Jeopardy! person who has spent hundreds of hours studying trivia.
KAUBLE: No offense to Jeopardy! people. We love them too.
ROSSITER: But they’re moms. They’re teachers. They’re nurses. We had an air traffic control guy. I’m trying to remember all of their jobs.
KAUBLE: A fireman.
ROSSITER: Behind the scenes, they would tell us that they use coupons, or that they don’t have unlimited funds to feed themselves, and how excited they are to do this. It’s a fantasy world. It’s television.
It’s fascinating, because you guys are talking about this a fantasy, but also it’s very down to earth. It’s a really interesting combination of elements.
KAUBLE: It’s a down to earth fantasy. You have a lot of other shows that give you the fantasy of, “I could never go on this all expenses paid vacation with all these beautiful women,” whatever it is. You can go to Ralph’s right now and feel like you could be on Supermarket Sweep in an instant.
Supermarket Sweep returns Sunday, Oct. 18 at 8pm. For more, check out the best TV shows to binge watch right now.