From the vantage of 2020, there are many ways to describe “Supermarket Sweep.” It’s comfort food. Unadulterated nostalgia. An oddity defined by earnestness and colorful sweatshirts. An ode to brick-and-mortar consumerism. A goofy glorification of capitalism.
Now we can add an unexpected addition to that list: Netflix sensation.
Earlier this month, a handful of old “Supermarket Sweep” episodes appeared on the streaming service, igniting waves of enthusiasm across social media. “Sweep” had been available via Amazon Prime Video and the digital game-show platform Buzzr, but its arrival on Netflix created a right-time, right-place situation. With many people still upholding the COVID-19 pandemic’s social distancing guidelines, the opportunity to revisit a vintage favorite became a salve. The contestants’ zeal runs sky-high, and watching them recall brand after brand offers a curious snapshot of America’s fixation on merchandising. What’s surprising is how thrilling the episodes can be, particularly the players’ mad dash through the store to collect the most expensive grocery items they can find. (Sample narration, courtesy of announcer Johnny Gilbert: “She’s doing hams at high speed” and “Ellen’s tossing big pieces of meat.”)
Created by former advertising guru Al Howard, “Supermarket Sweep” first premiered on ABC in 1965. It ran for two years as a black-and-white morning program filmed at Food Fair markets on the East Coast. When Lifetime was rebranding as a network for women in the late ’80s, executives decided to revive “Sweep,” eventually pairing it with a new game show called “Shop ’til You Drop.” The Lifetime incarnation lasted until 1995, and in 2000, the young network PAX — now known as Ion — brought the series back for an additional three seasons. Thirteen international versions have aired in places like Brazil and Turkey, and ABC will reboot “Sweep” again this fall with “Saturday Night Live” alum Leslie Jones hosting.
In honor of this resurgence, I asked a few folks who worked on the Lifetime and PAX editions to talk about how “Supermarket Sweep” was made and why it remains a treat to watch. Based on their accounts, those who worked on the show had as much fun making it as the rest of us are having devouring it — even, or maybe especially, the stoned camera operators.
‘It Seemed Very Fresh To Do’
Launched in 1984, Lifetime was a struggling network targeted at adults. As the decade came to an end, executives found a niche through female-centric programming, specifically the talk show “Attitudes,” the sitcom “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and syndicated hits like “Moonlighting.”
Jerrilyn Farmer, “Supermarket Sweep” head writer: Al [Howard, the show creator] was an advertising exec during the “Mad Men” years [in the 1950s]. Al simply loved products and brands. He was 100% in. It was not ironic for him; it was the deal. He came up with this show because he was just trying to glory in branding and an everyday person’s fun in the market.
Mark Maxwell-Smith, “Supermarket Sweep” producer: In many ways, it was kind of a mom-and-pop operation in the sense that Al wasn’t Mr. Big-Time Showbiz. He wasn’t Mr. Big-Time Deal-Maker. This was his baby. He loved it. This was a show that he had nurtured for decades.
Melinda Fishman, former Lifetime vice president of development and production: I was charged with finding a show that would work in prime time and that would appeal to families. I was talking to a friend and she said, “Remember that game show from the ’60s, ‘Supermarket Sweep?’” Which, honestly, I watched all the time. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s a perfect show for us.”
Patricia Fili-Krushel, former Lifetime head of programming: We all had fond memories of “go for the ham!”
Farmer: The network asked Al to pair up with myself and another producer named Joel Stein and have us modernize it, if you will.
Fishman: It was a bit controversial in the community. I had some very successful game show producers call me and say, “You’re going to set back women 50 years.” I was like, “Why would you think I would do that? I work for a network for women.” We said to Al Howard that it really needed to be completely updated. It needed to have more gaming elements, and it needed to be funnier. We needed to enhance it. We needed to address the appeal to women. We needed to address the appeal to kids because it was during prime access and people would be watching it during dinner.
Farmer: In the original games, the host would show [contestants] items, and they would have to guess the prices of them. It was really very close, in some ways, to “The Price Is Right.” For the revamp, they were looking for a very ’90s take. Shows like “Double Dare” were on, and they were being very physical. It seemed very fresh to do. You know how now you might say, “In 2020, we don’t do things this way”? That’s how we felt: “In 1990, we don’t just sit behind a podium.” And the cameras had evolved to the point where [camera operators] could run around with a camera on their shoulder.
Fishman: It was not a home run out of the gate, but it was absolutely delivering the numbers and the demos that the ad-sales department promised it would.
Farmer: The first season, we didn’t know if we were coming back for a second season and our art department bought real food for our market. That meant all of our meat products were under the hot lights for four months of shooting. They had to continually wrap on top of the old wrapping more cellophane so that nobody was contaminated by the meat. It was gross. When we were picked up for the second season, it was put into the budget that we buy art sculptures [of meat and cheese], and they cost a fortune. It was a 14-pound turkey even though it was a fake turkey.
Maxwell-Smith: The contestants were often quite disappointed when they found out the cheese and the meat were all props.
‘I’m Just Hosting A Party’
Once Lifetime had secured the rights to the show in 1989, the producers set out to find a host. The network would have been happy to hire a known celebrity, but the right one didn’t come along. Instead, they got David Ruprecht, a charming actor who had appeared on “Three’s Company,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Punky Brewster.”
Farmer: Our hope was to cast someone who looked like your friendly, upstanding supermarket manager. It was down to two potential hosts. I was a huge fan of David’s and I was the only woman on the staff, and they decided to listen to me.
Fishman: We looked at women, we looked at men, we looked at some celebrities. I don’t even remember who they were, though. I think if we had come across the right celebrity, we would have hired a celebrity. Al really felt that the host needed to be an everyman kind of guy, and Dave fulfilled that.
Maxwell-Smith: David came at it from the standpoint of being an actor. I think, at first, he played the part of a host. But he quickly got into really being a host, and being affable and charming. I know that he had one of the qualities that I always admire in a good host, which is that he legitimately cared about the people with whom he was interacting.
Ruprecht: I had been approached to do game shows before because I had done a [reality] TV show called “Real People” back in the ’80s, but I was very snooty about being an “actor.” When this came up, my wife and I of 30 years were just getting engaged. I told her that my agent didn’t like it, my manager didn’t like it, nobody liked the deal. Plus, I don’t want to get pigeonholed as a game show host. She’s in the business as well — she’s a director and choreographer — and she said, “Listen. We’re getting married, and should we get pregnant, somebody better have a steady gig.” I thank her and bless her heart every day.
Farmer: At the time, “The Cosby Show” had been on the air for a while. If you know anything about that show, [Bill Cosby] famously wore very artistic sweaters. It was our idea that we didn’t want David to look like he was wearing a suit in the supermarket when we have our contestants wear athleisure.
Fishman: That was controversial. We wanted him to look a little hipper.
Ruprecht: Joel Stein sat me down the first week, I think, and he said, “Dave, listen, you’ve never done this. You have to understand that you are not the star of this show. The contestants are the stars. Your job as a host is to draw the best out of them. In the interview, you want to find out something fun and interesting about them so the audience at home will care about them.” And from the get-go, I really got that: I’m not the star, I’m just hosting a party. I just happened to have a produce section in my living room.
Maxwell-Smith: I don’t think that was real produce.
Farmer: We did our pilot for that show in a real market. We closed down a market in Los Angeles, and in order to buy the market out, our production had to pay whatever their average sales total was because they were losing that. They were also losing the shelf life of certain products because you can imagine running the market is very different than running a game show. In the pilot, we were closer to what they did in the original show in New York. We were very much constricted by the ceiling height and the lighting. It was not ideal. You have obviously a lot more control when you can shoot it on a soundstage. So we built our market on a soundstage, and that was a really fun thing to do.
‘What A Fantasy’
The joy of “Supermarket Sweep” comes from the contestants’ eagerness, which adds to the ostensible purity of the show — a much-needed respite from the bleakness of 2020.
Maxwell-Smith: I think the draw for most people who wanted to be on the show was this fantasy fulfillment, which was the running up and down the aisles.
Ruprecht: Every season, which served as a good warmup for me every year, I’d come in for a number of weeks and play the games in the office with prospective contestants to see how they reacted, what their energy level was and if they could answer questions somewhat correctly.
Farmer: The contestants that were selected were a cool cross-section of folks.
Ruprecht: They were salt of the earth, sweet, energetic, fun, and so happy to be there you can’t believe it, especially after the show had been on a couple of years. Once I got in my wardrobe and [the contestants] were there in their sweatshirts, I’d come out and I had maybe five minutes to yada-yada with them a little bit. And I would get little bullet points: where they’re from, their relationship, stuff like that.
Maxwell-Smith: I don’t think that David got as much support as he could’ve gotten in certain areas. When we got down to the final sweep, I would go down and remind him of points that were made during the interview upfront so that when David then turned to the one team that won the sweep, he’d be able to say, “If you win it, I bet you can use some of that money for that college education.”
Farmer: Those who had already watched the shows on the air could see what strategies worked. I could tell that we had craftier and slyer contestants toward the end of our taping cycle who had figured out what was a waste of time. But under the pressure, a lot of your strategy just flies out of your head. You hear the ticking clock. People are screaming. It’s a madhouse, and you’ve got a camera guy running right on your tail.
Maxwell-Smith: We knew who the six people [on any given episode] were going to be, but we maybe had 10 people in the audience who had the products [that could potentially be chosen]. We knew who had which product, obviously. And though we weren’t calling Bob and Betty, we were calling the Lorna Doone cookies because we knew Bob and Betty had the Lorna Doone cookies and those were the two we wanted. But they didn’t know, so there was that little bit of extra excitement. Now, of course, the minute you had something go wrong with the camera, you had to restage it. If that ever happened, unfortunately we had to tell them, “Get as excited this time as you did last time.”
Ruprecht: Especially with the price of food nowadays, to be able to run around and not to have to pinch pennies and pull coupons and worry, “Oh, should I get generic or the brand name”? Just to grab whatever you want and throw it in and you don’t have to pay for it? What a fantasy.
Farmer: There were women who even identified themselves on the show as domestic engineers. In 1990, it was a little bit nonfeminist for a woman to call herself a housewife. To be a stay-at-home mom or a housewife was to be looked down upon by your hardworking career-women sisters.
Ruprecht: As opposed to the ’60s, in the ’90s, everybody — husbands, kids, everybody — was in the supermarket doing the shopping. “Bob, don’t forget to stop at the market and get some eggs and milk on your way home.” You had two-income families, so it was a non-demographic-specific appeal.
Fishman: In the ’60s, the women mostly knew the prices and the men ran around. So it was more physical for the men, and that was eliminated. It became more egalitarian.
Farmer: People who have watched the shows now from this 2020 perspective say to me that they see that the men always run to certain products, whereas the women always run to diapers, and that’s just gender. I disagree. I watch the show very carefully. I’m a feminist, and I was back then. I did not see that. I saw people getting the most expensive, least-heavy items that were closest to them. It was more strategic than gender.
‘A Little Corny, But It Worked’
“Supermarket Sweep” would tape five episodes in a single day. But they didn’t unfold from start to finish like we see on TV, so the contestants had a lot of waiting around to do. During the Lifetime run, the show was filmed on a production lot in Hollywood. When it moved to PAX, the operation shifted to Santa Clarita.
Garth Walker, “Supermarket Sweep” game-board operator: We’d come in at 7:30 or 8 a.m., and we’d be there until 8:30 or 9 p.m. It was long, intense days, but it was a superfun environment. They were filming at a studio out in Santa Clarita, somewhere kind of remote.
Maxwell-Smith: The contestants arrived at 8:30 in the morning. At 9:15 was the producer’s speech [outlining the rules]. I did that, supposedly, for only 15 minutes. And then they’d walk through the entire supermarket for 15 minutes so they would know what’s going on. It was a long day for them, but they were excited because they ran on adrenaline, mostly.
Ruprecht: The “Today” show did a thing on it a couple of weeks back, and they showed a clip of some contestant coming in at 20 miles an hour with a heavy cart and plowing right into my nether regions. I think we had a couple of cameramen get hit with carts, so they ended up making that a penalty. One season when we shot out in Santa Clarita, they could not air-condition the building, and we had a couple of contestants pass out from the heat. That’s as racy and as scandalous as it gets.
Farmer: We would do all of the [front-of-store quiz] games for all the shows first. The big sweep didn’t happen until later, and when that happened, all of them happened one after another.
Walker: It was kind of a not-so-well-kept secret that all the cameramen would go out and smoke pot on the lunch break and come back and be blazed for the segment where they’re running around the store. It made it that much funnier to watch because you could see it in the cameramen’s eyes, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.” I think they were all old, long-haired hippie guys.
Maxwell-Smith: The poor people who win round No. 1 had to sit around while we did the front games for [episodes] two, three, four and five. So their energy level might’ve waned a little bit, but then we’d go back and then do a cheerleading job on them.
Ruprecht: I never felt it. It was energized from when we came on, and it helped so much that everybody was happy to be there, from crew, makeup, directors, producers and contestants. Everybody was just having a good time, and I think that comes through when you see the show.
Farmer: It’s all got to do with the economy of production because we really have to reset the market completely after every sweep. The market would be torn apart, then our set dressers would go out and beautifully place all of our turkeys again or whatever, and anything that got damaged or bent, and they would put out different bonus items for each sweep.
Maxwell-Smith: When we first went into preproduction, I drafted letters that went to every single conceivable food manufacturer I could think of. We scoured lists and said, “We’re bringing back ‘Supermarket Sweep.’ It’s a wonderful promotion opportunity. Do you have any store displays? Any inflatables? Any cardboard stands? Any whatever?” And those just came in, whoever sent them. So Hawaiian Punch sent us an inflatable bottle that was more than likely one of the things that became a bonus. There was no cash exchange for that whatsoever, to my knowledge.
Farmer: In newspapers, the Sunday edition used to come in with these big ads. They were colorful and I used to use those as my inspiration for the products that I would write questions about. It was a quick way to see which brands were really promoting their products and putting out a lot of commercials, which allowed our contestants to have more access to know these products. I actually wrote [Johnny Gilbert’s] play-by-play, as well. The magical part of writing the play-by-play script was when I could squeeze in a bit of alliteration while someone was shoveling meat products into their cart.
Walker: The director, Chris Darley, was a sort of cynical, sarcastic guy. I was hearing his voice for 12 hours a day because he was giving direction from the booth to both me and the cameramen, basically. The contestants and the host couldn’t hear what he was saying, so he would spend the day basically making fun of the contestants and making fun of the host. I remember there’s a lot of moments where you would see all the cameramen on the set laughing and folks would be looking around like, “What’s going on?” It was because the director was cracking some joke about something.
Fishman: Sometimes, we thought maybe the show was a little corny, but it worked. The spirit of the show was fun, simple and innocent.
Farmer: A year or two into our run, I was out in the world when someone stopped me and said, “Oh my god, my boyfriend and I love that show!” I hadn’t realized that we had such a dedicated and cool gay fanbase when we started, and I was wowed by their support. They loved it for its kitsch, but also because it was just really fun.
Maxwell-Smith: David was such an asset because his demeanor was always so up and bright. Just like any other show, every once in a while there might’ve been a retake. And sometimes you had to do it a third time and a fourth, for whatever reason, and David’s energy was always a constant. I never saw attitude.
Farmer: Have you seen the “SNL” sketch with Melissa McCarthy [from 2016]? Oh my god, I loved it. It was the first time I really realized that anyone in this generation had a clue what “Supermarket Sweep” was. Because when we did these shows, they were absolutely disposable. There was no other market for reruns of game shows.
Ruprecht: I’d love to do the play-by-play for the new version. Wouldn’t that be great? Carry on the legacy of “Supermarket Sweep”? So we’re talking about that. I have heard that Leslie Jones and her friend, back in the ’90s, were about to become contestants. And then on the final callback, her partner either got sick or had to leave town for some reason and couldn’t do it, and it’s always made her unhappy that she couldn’t be on the original “Supermarket Sweep.” So I know she has a feeling for the show, and I’m so tickled she’s now going to get to spend every day on the set.
Fishman: I love Leslie Jones. Leslie Jones is so big, and it’s a different world now than it was. It’s more social media. She’s right for the time.
The above quotes have been edited for clarity.