In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Initially conceived as a daytime program that aired on ABC during the ’60s, Supermarket Sweep’s second and third iterations ran in syndication off and on from
1990 to 2004, offering its three pairs of contestants a chance to win $5,000 and unlimited grocery store glory—minus taxes, of course. Packed with brand logos, mottos, and iconography, the show was an ode to consumerism—the more contestants “spent,” the more they won. (That “buy, buy, buy!” mantra was especially prevalent when Sweep was paired with Shop ’Til You Drop, its de facto spending-friendly partner.) Mike Futia was on the show in 2001 with his then-girlfriend and now wife, Amanda. The pair made it to the final round but failed to bring home the $5,000, thwarted by some tricky clues and a giant inflatable bottle of Snapple. The A.V. Club talked to him about the experience, the fake meats, and his 22 minutes of basic cable fame.
The A.V. Club: When were you on the show and how did you get on?
Mike Futia: We were on in March of 2001. At the time, we were living in Los Angeles, and the Internet boom had just busted. We had lost our jobs, and were just kind of looking around. My girlfriend at the time, Amanda—who is now my wife—was dying to be on a game show, so she used to look at the back page of the newspapers, and there’d be auditions for all sorts of shows, and I would drive her to them. And she put in for Supermarket Sweep, but you had to have a partner. I’m actually happy that it happened the way that it did, but the first time the phone call came, I had no interest in doing it at all, so I actually took out the message and I deleted it because I wanted nothing to do with a game show. But of course, they were persistent and they called back and my girlfriend— my wife now—got the message.
AVC: They called twice? They really wanted to give you their money.
MF: They really did.
AVC: Do you have a sense of why you guys got picked for the show?
MF: I do. We were out there to perform, so I wasn’t a deer in headlights in front of cameras or in front of people or anything like that. So when we went there, we definitely could answer questions and talk, and [Amanda is] pretty animated. When we were going through the process, they put you in a room with a few other people and ask you sample questions. And you could sense it was because they wanted to see if you were slouching and things like that. As we were leaving, Amanda was like, “How do you think we did?” And I was like, “I think we’re going to get it.” I felt pretty confident that we’d get the callback to have a taping.
It was definitely low-key the way they set it up. It was a syndicated show, so they taped all the episodes, and you didn’t even know if you were going to get the money if you won unless it aired, which could be six months later, because they then had to sell it.
AVC: They had to sell each episode? They didn’t have a contract?
MF: Nope, not at all. When it aired, it was on PAX, which isn’t even a channel anymore. I don’t even know if that was a national channel.
AVC: It was a Christian channel, right?
MF: It was. I was just about to say it was a religious channel.
AVC: Well, Supermarket Sweep was ostensibly a family-friendly game show that was also basically about how great consumerism is. And about how well you know tuna slogans.
MF: It was.
You know, probably everybody on that show was in California at the time. I don’t think anybody was traveling to be on Supermarket Sweep like they do for The Price Is Right. But it was tough because the prices in California are so much more expensive than they are in other places. I just remember growing up and watching game shows, thinking something was way cheaper and then seeing the price come up. When our show was on, I was watching with my family, and it was kind of comical because I knew what happened. In one of the games, you had to literally decide which one of the products was more than $3.50, I think. And there were cheeses and all this stuff and one was Ocean Spray cranberry juice or something, and I think that’s the one I said, and everybody in my family, as it’s happening on the television, is like “No! Why did you say that?” And I was right and I’m just laughing in the background because they were thinking these local New York prices, not the ridiculous California prices, where cranberry juice was $4.50. So it was weird in that sense.
AVC: Do you have a sense of how they calculated the prices? Were they just going to a local Safeway near the studio?
MF: I don’t really know, but I know they were high.
AVC: What was the actual taping like?
MF: They taped it in segments. We literally got in a room when we got called back for the actual taping, and they said, “Be prepared to be here. It could be a 12 to 14 hour day because there are three pairs of people on each show.” That day, I want to say they were taping something like eight shows. So you had 48 people just in a room, and the first thing they tape is your introduction where you run down to the camera and everybody gets introduced to [host] David Ruprecht. He is asking you questions and all that, and then you leave. And then the other seven groups did that, and then they call you back and you tape the first segment.
AVC: So all eight sets of three tape their first segments, and then you all tape the second segments?
MF: Exactly. We got lucky because we were the first group to tape, so we were the first ones out of there. I think we got to go at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but I think there were seven other people who were going to have to run around with their turquoise sweaters and their—what are those things called that you wear around your neck? It looks like you’re wearing a turtleneck, but you’re not.
AVC: A dickey?
MF: Yes. You’re wearing a dickey, exactly.
AVC: Those are dickeys? Not turtlenecks?
MF: Yes, they are. And then you wear this sweatshirt, and the best and worst part was we actually won. So by winning, we didn’t get to keep the sweaters because we got paid. But if you lost, your consolation prize was that you got to keep the sweater, but you didn’t get to keep the dickey.
AVC: That was all you got?
MF: That was all you got. There’s no Supermarket Sweep home edition or anything like that. You just got your sweatshirt.
AVC: That’s crazy.
MF: I know. We were kind of disappointed that we didn’t get our sweatshirts. I think they were turquoise. We didn’t get those but we did get paid, so that was something.
AVC: How much did you win? Did you get the whole $5,000?
MF: I actually got the check out because I figured that was going to be a question. We won $1,511. We went into the last round with $1,111, and then you had to guess three clues and then find the money in the store when you’re running around, and for every one of those you found there was $250. And then if you found the third one, you got the $5,000. We solved the first two clues, but we didn’t find the third one, so we only got $500 additional dollars.
AVC: Did you train when you knew you were going to be on the show? Did you practice running around your local store?
MF: We did watch the show. We didn’t train because we realized, well, we don’t know where the things were going to be and we thought it’d be better to watch the show and say, “Okay, what are the people doing who are winning?” So we watched shows to be like, “Okay, they’re always getting meats. They’re always getting pans. Diapers, the baby stuff.”
When you’re taping the show before the—I don’t even know what they call that round, but I think it’s the “Supermarket Sweep” round—you get about 10 minutes or so to walk around the supermarket so you can see the prices. Everything has a price on it, so you can see where everything is and then you kind of map out what you’re going to do. And it’s the weirdest things that were expensive, like hoses. And you can only get five of one thing. But hoses were $20. So it was like, “we’ve got to grab hoses,” and brooms were some ridiculous amount of money. That’s where we think the pricing was a little bit odd, because it was like they made cumbersome things expensive because of the comedy of you trying to hold brooms in your cart with hoses and having your cart stacked with diapers and all this with really expensive stuff.
AVC: That makes sense. It’s funny to see the juxtaposition of all that stuff together.
MF: That’s what it is. And everybody had a cameraman and there’s no sound when you’re running around. You’re not miked when you’re running around, so the cameraman was actually—I don’t know if he helped the other people out but he was helping me out because I was just grabbing the meats and throwing them in. He was like, “you know you can look at the prices because some are more expensive than others.” It’s just like a supermarket. If one could be a pound less, it’ll be $2 or $3 less than the one you had, even though they’re fake. It’s funny. I guess in the first ages of the show, they were real meats.
AVC: The meats were fake? You’re blowing my mind.
MF: Yeah, they’re fake because what happened was, you don’t think about it, but the meats were thawing so people were getting the juice on their shirts. They didn’t think it through. So in the beginning everything was working and it was a real freezer and real refrigerated foods and all of that, but when we were on, none of the perishable stuff was real. Everything that was meat, cheese—all that was fake because they’d get the meat juices on their sweaters. And that’s not telegenic, so they wanted to get rid of that.
AVC: This is a weird question, but if you were picking up a ham, did it have the heft of a ham or was it like picking up a Styrofoam ham?
MF: It’s like a heavy plastic ham. It’s not super light, and my guess is they do that because everybody would look like Superman trying to lop the thing out of the bin, so they had to give it a little bit of heft to it. But yeah, it’s not heavy at all.
They also give you side items that you can get for extra money. Ours was bagels. You had to get two chocolate bagels and then some water bagels, which I had never heard of before. If you grab that and put it in a bag, you get an extra $250 bonus. So that’s why everybody went right to that bread section first, so they didn’t forget.
But you forget everything is fake. Even the bagels are fake. I picked them up out of my cart and I put something down like I didn’t want to get them smashed. So everybody was laughing at me for that. The fake rubber bagels are not going to get hurt.
AVC: So if you went to buy a box of cereal, they had taken the cereal out and replaced it with Styrofoam or something?
MF: Exactly. I think the canned stuff was real. The candy was real. Things that wouldn’t melt too bad. It was all very cold and super air conditioned, but yeah, the meats, the cheeses, the milks—the baby formula, because that was another thing that everybody was grabbing because that was really expensive. I think those were fake as well. But they may not have been. They were pretty heavy.
AVC: Talk about the final round when you were trying to win $5,000.
MF: Before the sweep, before you run around with the teams, they tell you, “Okay, you guys have to decide if you want to go for A or B,” because apparently there’s two sequences of riddles you can get. So the three teams voted and everybody said “A.”
And then after you run around in teams, you get back to the cash register and then you leave. We just went back in the hallway and sat on this couch and closed the door, and Amanda was yelling at me because I didn’t get a bonus thing that I ran right by that she saw. We were all stressed out because it hits you that you just ran around a supermarket for a show that’s going to be televised and you might not have even won. You think, “This is going to be horrible.” But while you’re doing that, these people are literally checking you out and adding up all the scores and you don’t actually find out how much you got until they’re taping. You don’t know who wins. They call you back in and then they’re taping as he’s giving you the answers to get that real feeling, like, “Oh my God, we just won.” We beat another team by $5. They had $1,106, and we had $1,111.
And then it’s like, “Oh my God. We’re going to be going for this challenge.” And then they go right to it. There’s no cut from there. The other teams leave, and we picked an envelope and listened to the puzzle. And that’s what got us because it didn’t make any sense to me. It said, and I’ll never forget and I can’t believe I’m going to bore you with it, but it said, “You wake up and in your favorite voice you ask for a cup of…” and it just bothered me. Like, “What do you mean your favorite voice for Taster’s Choice?” My mind would not let me say Taster’s Choice because it’s coffee, and obviously you’re getting a cup of coffee when you wake up in the morning because I didn’t understand what a voice would have to do with a cup of coffee. So it took us like 20 seconds of the 60 just to get that, and then we didn’t know where the coffee was. So that killed us. Because once we got that, the clue was about Dr. Ruth Westheimer and what an infant is called, so it was a Baby Ruth candy bar, and we had to run and get that. And then the last one was something about a snowman and tickling piano keys or something related to Ivory Snow, which I had never even heard of. I didn’t even know that was a laundry detergent. So we actually felt good that we didn’t have any time to get that one because we literally just solved the clue, and ran out of time. But we both kind of looked at each other and were like, “I don’t even know what Ivory Snow is. Is it a soap?”
I’m glad we didn’t just stand there because if we had gotten the first one quickly, at the end, we never would have gotten that one anyway. And then of course at the end of the time [David Ruprecht] walks you around and that’s all in the moment too. There’s no stopping there. He’s like, “Oh, you found two,” and then he knows where it is and he’s walking with you around the store to go to where it is and he’s like, “It’s right here,” and we were like, “Oh, okay.” And then that’s when all the credits are starting to go, when you’re in the back.
We actually surprised [Ruprecht] because, like I said, we did our due diligence and watched all these shows. And at the end, when he did his little thing at the end, the contestants used to say, “Supermarket Sweep!” So they didn’t tell us to do that, but we just knew it. So when he did it, we both loudly said “Supermarket Sweep!” And he kind of looked at us startled, but they kept it. We thought we messed up, like, “Oh no, are we not supposed to do that?” But everybody else did it, so that was kind of interesting, that after all the stopping and starting from the moment you start running, you just wait in the hallway and then from there’s it’s all fluid. There’s no cutting, there’s no stopping. It’s just like, “Go, get this done.”
AVC: Do you think they do that to keep you off balance?
MF: Probably so. You can’t sit there and figure out, “Okay, because we had that 10 minutes earlier, where is everything?” It’s a lot to remember even though it’s not as big as a regular supermarket, but still where everything is it was hard to remember.
AVC: How big was it?
MF: I don’t know. There were four aisles, I want to say.
AVC: Like a small market?
MF: Oh yeah, very much. A little bit bigger than a bodega in the city or something like that. It’s very tiny. It looks huge, but it’s small. Even in the aisles, you had to be careful if you and your cameraman were running and another group was coming down that aisle. You had to make sure you were all the way to the side or there could have been an accident.
What I always get ridiculed for the most is—I don’t know if you remember the show at all, but when the groups come in, they get introduced. The announcer is like, “Welcome to Supermarket Sweep. Our contestants are…” and then he names them. The cameras are at the end of an aisle and the contestants are coming from the opposite side of the aisle and just running into the frame, and they’re all doing something goofy and energetic. Anyway, they tell you what to do. We always used to make fun of the people when we were watching, but there’s no choice in the matter. We were the last group to go, so they were like, “Okay, Mike and Amanda, you guys are going to look at each other and give each other two thumbs up and then look at the camera.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is why I did not want to do this, Amanda.” And my father still, to this day, if anybody gives thumbs up, he will do that to me because it’s the cheesiest thing you can ever imagine.
We always used to laugh and say, “Why would someone choose to do that?” But they didn’t choose. They told you to do that because they want some variety.
AVC: You have to pretend like you’re totally into it. You want to win that $5,000.
Oh, also, we played this game where I had to give Amanda clues. They kind of stole—not stole, but borrowed from different game shows as part of their games, and I had to give her clues to get her to say words. So I think one of the words was “album” or “record”—one of those. And I had to get her to say that, and the first letter of that word would go on a line and those would spell out a product. So it looks like she’s looking at me, but behind me is a woman with a big piece of cardboard writing out the letters as she gets them. It was literally like a hangman game with the slots empty, and she would just sit there with a magic marker, and if Amanda got it right, the woman behind me was just writing in the letter of the word that she got right. And then she could spell the word out. So it was interesting how they did everything there.
AVC: They kind of want you to win. They don’t want it to be the world’s hardest game.
MF: Exactly. They’re helping you because like you said, it’s geared to families. It’s fun.
When you talk about Supermarket Sweep, everybody’s always like, “Oh my God. I remember that show.” It was one of those things you’d flip through and then stop on because you couldn’t stop laughing. Like, “Oh my God, look at what these people are doing, running around in a supermarket.”
AVC: And you’d get so angry at them.
MF: Oh, absolutely. And that’s why Amanda was mad at me, because there was one of those inflatable Snapple or soda bottles, and if you got one, there was a hidden prize amount when you ripped it off. I apparently ran by two of them, but I had tunnel vision. They said, “Don’t have tunnel vision; look around the aisles,” but I did. I had my game plan and I would just run right for things. I wasn’t looking anywhere else, and I apparently passed two of these huge inflatable sodas.
AVC: How was it decided that you were going to be the one that ran?
MF: Because she refused. As much as I didn’t even want to be on the show because it was a little embarrassing, she was like, “Yeah, I’m not running around that supermarket.” But she had to do it once. One of the mini-games, she had to run and grab a Butterfinger. Or a Nutter Butter? She had to run in the store and get it within 30 seconds and bring it back to David, and if she did it, we got an extra $100 bonus, and she did that. So she did have to run through the store for that.
AVC: Has the experience changed how you grocery shop today?
MF: No, it has not.
Actually, maybe it has? I will look for hoses. I look for things that are not ever there. No one ever sells hoses at a grocery store. Why are they in Supermarket Sweep?
AVC: Because they’re weird looking.
MF: Yeah, they had a hardware aisle. I know the Walmarts and the Targets have those, but I’ve never seen that aisle at a supermarket.
AVC: To this day, I still sometimes think about that show when I’m in the meat section, like, “Oh, I’d grab these hams, and then these ribs.”
MF: We were definitely thinking that. We knew you had to get the meat, so we had to get the turkeys, we had to get the hams, and I think those were the only two meats. And then there’s these huge laughable blocks of cheese, like from a cartoon. You had to get those. And then it was interesting. When you went through to be like, “Okay, oddly enough, we’re going to grab pans and hoses and then the diapers and the baby formula,” which was really expensive. One of those cans was like $29. And you could get as many carts as you wanted, but you had a limited amount of time based on how you did in the game. Whoever had the most seconds had an advantage, but as long as you filled your cart, you could come back and get a new cart and go. But I think I only ended up getting two because we had a minute and a half or a minute and 40 seconds to run around.
It was interesting trying to get a plan because we definitely talked about one, but then trying to execute it was hard. Like, “Okay, am I getting everything?” You could sort of sense what everybody else was doing, just in a different order, because everybody is kind of getting the same things. You would see somebody at the bread section and somebody at the meat section.
At the very end, you don’t have to cross a line or anything. When the time’s up, the last thing you put in your cart is it. And I know that the other group and myself were right near each other, so he was at the meat section and everybody was kind of doing the same thing.
AVC: Would you do it again?
MF: Oh yeah, totally.
AVC: So you didn’t want to do it to begin with and now you would do it again?
MF: I had a blast. I think it was in Burbank, I want to say, so it’s a bit of a drive, and with the traffic out there we didn’t want to be late. So we got a hotel room, we made a night of it, and then had to be there early so we went to the studio. Just being in the studio was fun enough. It was the same studio that filmed Family Feud when Louie Anderson was there. So that was kind of interesting that he was filming just down the hallway. We never got into the studios often or anything like that, so it was just kind of neat to be in that kind of scene.
AVC: I was on Jeopardy! a long time ago, and they took us to the studio commissary for lunch. I remember thinking that was neat.
MF: That is cool. See, we had it catered so we had to go to another room and eat off a buffet.
AVC: How long after your show taped did it air? And then how long did it take to get paid?
MF: The show aired six months later in October of 2001, and then the check is dated Jan. 9, 2002. That’s what they said. “Once the show is aired, that’s when we’ll cut the checks and then it takes 60 to 90 days.” And it was about 90.
AVC: The amount you can win is pretty low, if you think about it. Compared to something like Jeopardy! where you can win $20,000 an episode, winning $5,000 for Supermarket Sweep is pretty chintzy.
MF: Oh, absolutely. And I would hope we’re not the only people who didn’t win the big one, and they got away with only paying us $1,500.
AVC: Do you think companies like Butterfinger or Snapple were paying them for product placement?
MF: I’ve always wondered. In the first game, it was literally three products just displayed right there. It was Ocean Spray cranberry juice, some kind of cheese, and I think a deodorant or something. They were right there. There must be something those companies are doing to get picked.
AVC: Or to get their slogans repeated over and over.
MF: One little thing that was kind of comical is that there’s a game where you have to rotate. I answered a question first and then you have to switch, and so Amanda would have to go. And they give you a 15-minute lesson about how basically it’s like a waltz. They teach you how to step to the right and then step forward. It’s like a box step, and they had to teach us that in a room so that it looks good when we’re doing it. So everybody was uniform when they’re stepping to the left and then stepping back so the person behind you can step to the right and then step up and be ready because they wanted it going well. That was always kind of creepy.
AVC: I can’t believe that since you won, you had to give your sweatshirt back. Did they reuse them?
MF: They did. It was a sad rack too. They rolled this wardrobe rack around, but it only had 12 sets in different colored sweaters on it, so it was just kind of comical.