NEW YORK — Student debt afflicts as many as 44 million Americans, with the average student now carrying $37,000 in loans. The total amount owed in the United States exceeds $1.3 trillion.
Torpey and the cable network TruTV have devised “Paid Off,” a show that offers the elements of a classic trivia game show with a Sallie Mae twist.
“One of the mantras is ‘an absurd show to match an absurd crisis,’ ” Torpey, who hosts the program, said in an interview. “A game show feels really apt because this is the state of things right now.”
The series will kick off the first of 16 episodes Tuesday, hoping to raise consciousness about the many students and graduates saddled with debt and provide a few of them some relief.
“Buy a vowel.” “Phone a friend.” But “Ditch your student loan”?
“Paid Off,” which counts as its showrunner “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” veteran Leigh Hampton, follows the format of a traditional game show. Three contestants square off to answer a range of trivia questions. Categories often come with an education-related twist, such as questions on “-ology” or surveys about the best job you could have in college.
Contestants — most are in their late 20s or early 30s — must be carrying college debt to appear on the show. (Some of their loads run as high as $50,000.) Depending on how many questions the winner answers in a speed round, the show will pay up to 100 percent of those loans, with TruTV footing the bill.
(The money is awarded by checks given directly to contestants; producers sought ways to pay it directly to the debt-holder, but the logistics and tax implications got too complicated.)
Though the meat of the show is still comedic, Torpey makes sure the serious student-debt themes are never far from viewers’ minds. He slips in a “super-depressing fact of the week” in every episode and sometimes offers a bleakly political edge. “If you’re just tuning in, yah, this is real life in America,” he says before the commercial break in one episode.
The host also finds ways of working in the student-debt crisis in player banter. “Anthropology, that’s the study of humans,” he says to one contestant after she names her major. “So why do humans charge so much for college?”
The idea for the show took root when Torpey, a New York-based actor best known for playing the Season 4 antagonist Thomas Humphrey on “Orange Is the New Black,” met the woman who would become his wife and learned that she carried a heavy amount of debt from her time as an undergraduate at Barnard College and a graduate student at New York University. The couple struggled with the debt for years, until Torpey happened to book an underwear ad. They were able to pay down the debt and finally begin planning to buy a house and start a family.
Shortly after, he conceived of a game show that centered on the debt problem, enlisting the help of a nonprofit group called Student Debt Crisis.
“I know what we are doing is a little ridiculous,” Torpey said. “But in a way the show matched my family’s story. The only way we could pay off student loans was because I booked an underpants ad? That’s insane.” He said he sees the high cost of college not as a left-right issue but as just something that needs to be on the political agenda.
TruTV got involved after Torpey and the production company Cowboy Bear Ninja pitched the idea. Though executives acknowledge that the issue of student debt isn’t necessarily must-see TV — in fact the idea of a game-show devoted to the subject comes with an element of the surreal — they hope the combination of trivia fun and social relevance will attract viewers.
“We’re a comedy channel first and foremost,” said Lesley Goldman, senior vice president of development and original programming at TruTV, which often targets viewers under age 35. “But we fell in love with this idea because of the unique hook of a game show taking the bite out of a student debt crisis. It seemed so incredibly innovative, relatable and timely.”
The numbers are stark: The average cost of annual tuition at a private college in the United States — $21,000 — is astronomically higher than in any other country, three times the average in the next-closest country, Chile, where tuition is barely $7,000 a year. That’s in part why the average amount that Americans owe toward their student debts ($37,000) is so high compared with countries such as Britain ($30,000), Canada ($20,000) and Germany ($2,400).
And the problem is worsening: The average outstanding balance for those holding the loans has risen more than 60 percent over the past 10 years.
The issue ebbs and flows among politicians but remains a priority for many millennial voters, with tweets on the subject regularly going viral, including one Thursday in which the poster noted paying off $33,000 but finding their initial debt load dropping only from $50,000 to $48,000 because of interest. As of Friday afternoon, the tweet had more than 200,000 likes, with many in the thread imploring lawmakers to do something about the crisis.
No politicians are scheduled to come on for the game show’s first season. Goldman said that could change in potential future seasons. In the meantime, that hasn’t stopped Torpey from urging his audience to get politically active.
“Call your representatives right now,” he says at the end of each episode, “and tell them you need a better solution than this game show.”