Host Michael Torpey really wants to give free money to the contestants on his new game show, “Paid Off.”
“If you come on this show and share your story, I’m really rooting for you to win,” says Torpey, of “Orange Is the New Black.”
Unlike “Jeopardy” or “The Wall,” there are no loopholes or highly advanced questions to answer to score cash on TruTV’s new competition series. That’s because Torpey, 38, isn’t trying to prove the contestants are intelligent — he already knows it.
Each episode of “Paid Off” gives three college graduates the chance to completely wipe out thousands of dollars of student debt by participating in a relatively easy game of trivia. “Family Feud”-inspired questions range from the opinionated (What’s the last thing a student would want their parents to find in their dorm?) to factual (Who created the Pulitzer Prize?) and artistic (What artist is a child channeling in their finger paint artwork?).
The Queens-based host, who created the game show when his stint on “OITNB” ended last year, says the questions stay light to balance out the heavy purpose of the series.
“We have an ambitious goal. We’re trying to really enact change and raise awareness about college debut and we’re doing that in the world of a game show,” he says. “We can’t help [everyone]. I as a human being am not going to live long enough to host that many episodes … it’s only successful if it raises an awareness.”
The actor’s own experience paying off a sizable loan inspired him to create the comical platform to discuss the issue.
“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because, true story, I booked an underpants commercial. But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans?” Torpey says in the pilot, met with laughter from the studio audience. But that career-launching commercial was no joke.
In 2010, Torpey booked a Hanes men’s undershirt ad that had him sharing screen time with Brooklyn-born NBA star Michael Jordan.
“That was my first time booking a national campaign,” he recalls. “That was the first year I finished a year with any kind of actual money in my savings account.”
Though Torpey’s parents gave him the “unbelievable gift” of paying off his own college loans, his soon-to-be wife was climbing out of a hole still $40,000 deep by the time he cashed in his Hanes earnings.
“Her debt was a burden slowing her down from the whole reason she went out to get the college education to begin with,” he says. “We looked at her debt amount and said, ‘Let’s just do this. Let’s write a check and wipe this thing out to give ourselves a clean slate.’
“That experience woke me up to what student debt is doing to our students, to people who were doing everything right.”
Torpey says he’s in awe of the contestants who appear in the 16-episode season; some fresh out of school with $50,000 worth of loans tacked to their names and others whose kegger days are long behind them.
“Someone who didn’t win the grand prize, he looked at the amount of money he won and he said, ‘Well, maybe now I can stop working weekends and be with my daughter more.’ Those are the sacrifices people are making later in their lives,” he says.
“Paid Off” premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on TruTV.