“We plunged into the cornucopia, quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” — A Christmas Story
As he wrote that particularly florid sentence, author Jean Shepherd was describing the nostalgic, unfettered joy of two children diving into a pile of Christmas gifts, hoping to find that sought-after Red Ryder BB gun. Had he written it in the mid-1990s, however, I would have assumed it was a pitch for a more writerly description of one of the decade’s most quintessentially ‘90s TV game shows: Supermarket Sweep. Truer words describing the series have never been written, a fact that is now being discovered by countless viewers thanks to a collection of 15 vintage Supermarket Sweep episodes that appeared on Netflix at the beginning of July … something we can assume is in no way coincidental, as a revival of the series hosted by SNL’s Leslie Jones is meant to debut on ABC this fall.
But those words of Shepherd’s ring with deep truth, applied toward the random assortment of episodes Netflix has gathered, which represent a perfect time capsule of runaway, Clinton-era American consumerism. “Quivering with desire?” That is spot on—I have seen contestants physically quivering in anticipation during these episodes. “Unbridled avarice?” I’ve seen them make hilariously stupid decisions in their greed as well. Of course, the corporate greed in particular extends far beyond the hopelessly earnest contestants, though, to the very DNA of a game show that existed solely as an excuse for product placement. Never does Supermarket Sweep miss a single opportunity to plug random products. Even when calling the players down to the podium, immortal (he’s 96) game show announcer Johnny Gilbert is rattling off absurdisms like “Who has the Pace Picante Sauce? Alright, you’re on Supermarket Sweep!”
It’s a series that viewers of a certain age are all likely to remember watching at some point, whether we’d now like to admit it, first in its run on Lifetime from 1990-1995 (and then in endless re-runs), and then in a shorter revival on PAX TV from 2000-2003. Both of those versions were hosted by the magnetic and beaming David Ruprecht (who was once nailed in the crotch by a runaway shopping cart in the clip below), although it’s less well known is that the series originally began as a 1965-1967 ABC game show hosted by Bill Malone, and has also had several U.K. spin-offs. Lost in the nostalgic remembrance of “that game show with people running through the aisles of a supermarket,” however, is the memory of just how bizarre an assembly of elements Supermarket Sweep really was, particularly in its first revival in the early 1990s. Put simply, this show was far stranger than you remember, and now is clearly the time to unearth its weirdness.
That uncanny valley feeling begins with the Supermarket Sweep set, which did look for all intents and purposes like a functioning grocery store, save for the absence of checkout aisles and the presence of a hooting and hollering studio audience. It was, of course, a soundstage built to look like a supermarket rather than an operating store, as was used in the original 1960s version. Veteran production designer Scott Storey worked on the series, and would later go on to apply that knowledge toward the similarly themed Guy’s Grocery Games with Guy Fieri. At the start, though, Supermarket Sweep’s design came with some serious growing pains, often in the form of literally rotting meat and food. These elements were slowly factored out in later seasons, but just look at how Story describes the scene in an interview from last year:
“Buying fake food is really expensive. Buying fake meat was too expensive. So the production company [on Supermarket Sweep] would just buy real meat. It would sit there, unrefrigerated, for a week, and then after taping they would just throw it all away. It was the most rank, disgusting—the contestants would always grab it, because it’s a roast, it’s $24! And it was like rotting flesh. Everything was just rotten, because there’s no refrigeration. It’s just scenery.”
This was clearly both disgusting and a heinous waste of food, so it’s unsurprising that the practice of having actual meat on set was eventually phased out. Later contestants, such as Mike Futia, a former Supermarket Sweep contestant interviewed by AV Club a few years ago, describe a sea of fake products and placeholders, with only the labels and brand names (of course) intact. Host Ruprecht likewise described the market as eventually containing endless rows of mostly fake meat, cheese and vegetables—not that anyone ever visited the produce department a single time during an episode of Supermarket Sweep. Still, there were some real products, which leads to this humorous recollection from Ruprecht:
“We shot for about five months, six months every year. They used the same food, over and over again. By about the third month, the hot dogs had sort of started to ferment in the package, and the package swelled up. A lot of the food that had been thrown in and out of carts for three or four months had gotten pretty beaten up.”
But the early days of Supermarket Sweep were even stranger than all that. In fact, even those who regularly watched the series, myself included, may not remember that the first season featured costumed actors referred to as “market monsters,” who roamed the aisles in monster costumes and generally tried to distract the shoppers and impede their progress. Regularly occurring “market monsters” included a Frankenstein’s monster-type creature, a pop-eyed fellow called “Mr. Yuk,” and a turkey in a Roman centurion costume named “Big Dave.” Why was he called this? Your guess is as good as mine, but the market monsters gimmick was quickly retired, possibly due to the fact that it was profoundly bizarre and made no goddamn sense on a show about SUPERMARKET GOODS.
An actual, unaltered screenshot of “Mr. Yuk” in Supermarket Sweep. There are no words.
I want you to really picture the absurdity of that particular scene for a moment. Let’s say you’re a permed housewife in 1990 who is over the moon about her opportunity to possibly win $5,000 on a new game show called Supermarket Sweep. You’ve spent days memorizing the prices of Comet Bleach, Kix Cereal and various brands of fabric softener in preparation for your big day, and you’ve trained your body to hurl some rotten hams and overcome the debilitating chafing of your neon yellow Supermarket Sweep turtleneck sweater. Now, you’re careening down the aisles, trying to stuff your cart with diapers and baby formula … only to be confronted by a giant turkey dressed as a Roman legionary, preventing you from exiting the aisle and collecting your Jolly Green Giant super bonus! It’s a wonder these sweepers didn’t just plow straight through the aspiring mascot playing “Big Dave,” slamming him into a towering display of Dunkaroos and Koala Yummies.
This is the real joy of watching these random slices of Supermarket Sweep on Netflix in 2020—the opportunity to savor the earnest stupidity of it all. There are no market monsters in these episodes, I’m afraid, but they’re by no means hurting for absurdity. In just a few episodes, I marveled at the following:
— A trivia question about the favorite snacks of a list of “Hollywood hunks” that included Scott Baio as prime “hunk” material.
— A team that was denied a $100 bonus to their sweep total after obtaining the requested bag of mixed jelly beans, but failing to tie the bag closed.
— A team that was penalized 30 seconds immediately before the Big Sweep after judges found that one member had used the word “toast” as a clue for “toaster pastries.”
— A team of two black women who answered a trivia question correctly, but were not awarded the 10 seconds they were owed, leading to my incensed outrage … only for the error to be noticed and corrected immediately before the Big Sweep. They fittingly went on to win the episode.
It all can’t help but make one wonder, how can a show like this possibly function in a 2020 revival? We live now in an era of tailored, targeted advertisement, and paid advertisement disguised as genuine content. The way we consume advertisements and product placement, as a result, is entirely different from the utterly guileless manner in which it was thrown at the screen in a random episode of Supermarket Sweep in 1992. Can this level of shameless promotion even exist in the Twitter era? Is it possible to conduct Supermarket Sweep in a more subtle way, or is the concept itself so blatantly ludicrous that it’s best to simply lean into the stupidity of it?
And most importantly: Will anyone ever break this guy’s incredibly embarrassing record of only $7 in the big sweep? God willing, someone will find a way.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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