‘Supermarket Sweep’ went off air but never left our hearts

Why does the appeal of a game show defined by hyper-consumerism endure today? It’s not just the sweaters. | Supermarket Sweep Fans/YouTube

“The next time you’re at a checkout counter and you hear that beep…”

Beep beep!

If you were a kid living in America during the ‘90s, it was almost impossible to avoid the above words, the iconic line that signaled closing time for each episode of Supermarket Sweep, the popular game show that premiered on Lifetime 29 years ago this Tuesday.

The show’s premise was simple: Every episode featured three pairs of shoppers (often couples, but sometimes siblings or friends) who answered questions about common grocery items to earn more time to compete in each episode’s “big sweep.” That sweep entailed their running through a mock grocery store to try and run up as high a grocery bill as possible for a chance to win a $5,000 cash prize in the final bonus game.

The straightforward concept was really brought to life with host David Ruprecht’s elaborate sweaters, the contestants’ matching sweep sweatshirts, narrator Johnny Gilbert’s old-timey phrasing and the general corniness of it all. It was a giant wholesome meme before wholesome memes were a thing, and perhaps that’s why it’s still relevant all these decades later.

While the ‘90s version of the show is its best-known and longest-running iteration, the original Sweep actually premiered on ABC in 1965, running for two seasons. The ‘90s edition of the show was so popular it sparked about a dozen international offshoots, including Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, which ran for seven seasons between 1993 and 2001 before being briefly rebooted in 2007. A Ukrainian version of the show called Шоу Шара appears to still be on the air today.

The show has seen a surge of interest in recent years. In 2015, Ruprecht was interviewed in a Great Big Story feature where he disclosed that “all the meat was fake and all the other food had gone bad.” The next year, Melissa McCarthy starred in a cut-for-time Saturday Night Live sketch that riffed on the show and drummed up over 5 million views on YouTube.

Next, a collection of episodes from the Christian channel Pax TV (now Ion TV) version of the show (which aired from 2000-2003) hit Amazon Prime Video. And, in 2017, news broke that the show is heading for yet another reboot, though no further information about a host or premiere date have followed since then.

In the meantime, the show has built a cult audience of thousands of fans of the show watching illegally-uploaded clips of full episodes on YouTube. One channel boasts over 8,000 subscribers and hundreds of episodes uploaded at a rate of about a dozen per month.  

I am one of those subscribers. At the end of a long day, I often find myself devouring one, two or three of the old clips at a time, entranced by the massive meats and the awkward introductions from contestants like or Bea and Stan, who adorably couldn’t locate Nair in the bonus game (“C’mon, Stan, where’s the Nair?”).

Watching the clips brings back vivid, happy memories from my childhood. From a very young age, I’d often accompany my dad on his trips to the grocery store. Sometimes, I’d help him locate and check off items from the regimented shopping list carefully organized by aisle.

Other times, to the dad’s horror, I’d wander off on my own, building “cabins” out of toilet paper rolls, climbing mountains made of soda packs. And almost every time, we’d “sample” bites of candy and nuts from the bulk section when we thought no one was looking. The grocery store felt like a playground to me, and it was one of my favorite places to spend time with my dad.

After watching the show for the first time as a kid, I was instantly hooked. I’d record episodes onto VHS tapes so I could re-watch them at my leisure. I’d even cut out pictures of grocery items from the Sunday circulars, placing them into a “store” of my own outlined with masking tape on carpet in the middle of the living room and forcing my parents to play my own version of the “sweep” with me.

At that time, grocery stores felt like playgrounds to me and grocery shopping was an activity of pleasure. Today, I’ve come to hate grocery shopping — though I love cooking.

As an adult, the grocery store has become a place of stress. As my cart fills up, my anxiety grows over how high the total will be. I begin to feel guilty that the produce I buy will spoil before I go to the effort of preparing it. I feel guilty for buying more convenient foods that are more expensive than the regular stuff. And as an overweight person, it’s hard to ignore the feelings of judgment from conveyor belt jurists over the nutrition level of the items you’re purchasing.

Bulk stores are even worse. Setting foot in a Costco makes me feel dizzy within minutes. Who can eat this much macaroni and cheese?!

I’m sure these feelings of anxiety and dread are even worse for the 40 million Americans who live in food-insecure households or are relying on SNAP benefits that the current administration is regularly threatening to curtail. I also recognize that my memories of grocery shopping as a child owe a lot to my privilege as an individual raised in a middle-class household in a quiet, boring small town in southeast Wisconsin.

I’d still venture a hypothesis that fond memories of Supermarket Sweep bely class. The idea of running through a grocery aisle and packing your cart with as much as you can fit in it is a pure fantasy. It flashes back to a simpler, joy-filled time when the hope of a $5,000 cash prize was still something worth jumping and screaming about, when today we’d already be mentally calculating how much of that is lost to taxes. A simpler time before you knew how to count calories or clip coupons.

Above all, Supermarket Sweep appeals to the part of ourselves that never really grows up — the part of our brain that never stops daydreaming of soda-can mountains and toilet-paper cabins.

It’s hard to say whether a reboot of the classic show will succeed. Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, which has somehow been running for over five years now, comes close but doesn’t quite scratch the same itch.

There is also something to the rampant ‘90s-style hyper-consumerism of the Sweep that feels dated and even a little off-putting in today’s world of tidying up and “sparking joy.” It’s the same reason it’s almost impossible to imagine a reboot of the Sweep’s sister game show: Shop ’Til You Drop at a time when most shopping malls are shuttering or converting into gyms and apartment buildings at a record pace.

Still, even if a Sweep reboot fails or never materializes altogether, we’ll forever have the memories of those hideous sweaters and mega turkeys.


What really happened when Erykah Badu ‘put up a prayer’ to R. Kelly

Erykah Badu played Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on Saturday. | Wikimedia Commons

The Grammy-winning neo soul icon could have played the role of “healer” at her Chicago show, instead she opened a wound with her remarks on R. Kelly.

When Erykah Badu took to the stage at Chicago’s historic Aragon Ballroom on Saturday night, the mood of the sold-out crowd gathered in defiance of the blizzard-like conditions outside was euphoric.

After Badu’s band had spent some 20 minutes warming up the audience, everyone was primed for the R&B star to deliver. The first several songs — beginning with “Hello” before segueing into “Out My Mind, Just In Time” and then “On & On” off her 22-year-old debut album Baduizm — were sublime and hypnotizing. The mood was set and that mood was euphoric.

Shortly after that, the mood shifted when Badu brought up Chicago native R. Kelly, who just got dropped from his label in response to the myriad sexual misconduct allegations resurfaced in Lifetime’s new docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, to a loud chorus of boos.

In her remarks, which hit Twitter Saturday night before a video surfaced on TMZ sometime on Sunday, Badu commented that she was “putting up a prayer” to her friend and former collaborator and that she “hopes he sees the light of day” if the allegations he is facing are true. She went on to ask whether R. Kelly’s survivors should be similarly “crucified” if they, too, become perpetrators of misconduct.

The reaction to the comments, as is evident from the video footage, was swift. Boos, whistles and shouts of “No!” followed. A small number of ticketholders appeared to have wandered toward the exits.

I was one of the fans who left the show early. While I stuck around for about another hour of Badu’s impressively lengthy two-and-a-half-hour set, it felt to me that the positive energy from the start of the concert never returned.

It was hard, too — as a survivor of sexual violence myself —  not to feel dismissed by the singer-songwriter’s remarks on Kelly, making Badu’s once-empowering anthems like “Appletree” and “Otherside of the Game” feel like a kiss-off to those audience members who’d been booing her just minutes before.

Many fans’ enjoyment of the night was not derailed by the R. Kelly remarks — a couple standing next to me slow danced joyously through much of the night and there are just as many, if not more, positive comments about the concert from those who were there in person on Twitter as there are negative ones. Still, the show felt like a missed opportunity to bring healing to a Chicago crowd very much in need of it.

The show came just one day after former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to just over six years in prison for fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014 — a sentence described as a “slap in the face” my community organizers here.

“What about the shutdown?!” one fan behind me screamed repeatedly during Badu’s R. Kelly aside. Indeed, the federal shutdown is hurdling toward the one-month mark forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers — about 40,000 of them based in the Chicago area — to go without paychecks while the Trump administration presses Congress to fund a border wall.

It perhaps wasn’t surprising that Badu brought up her friend on Saturday night. Badu was identified earlier this month by the Lifetime docuseries’ creator, dream hampton, as one of the many industry artists — along with JAY-Z,  Mary J, Blige and Dave Chappelle — who refused to participate in the project, though some — like Gaga, Chance the Rapper and Celine Dion — have taken steps to publicly distance themselves from Kelly since then.

Badu had also just posted an Instagram caption — suggesting that she can “C on both sides” in the “court of public opinion” — that fans believed was addressing the R. Kelly controversy the day before the Chicago show. Given the headlines questioning that post’s intended meaning, she may have planned to clarify her remarks while in Kelly’s hometown.

Some fans on Twitter have also argued that Badu’s remarks in Chicago are being taken out of context to begin with, suggesting that they don’t equate to a defense of the embattled R&B star at all.

Still others are pointing out on social media that Badu has a growing history of problematic statements, including a Vulture interview last January where she saw “something good” in the “wonderful painter” Adolf Hitler. In the same piece, she also defended comedy legend Bill Cosby, who’s since been convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison time. Badu has also said in the past that girls should wear longer skirts in school so that they are less of a distraction to their male teachers.

In a Sunday evening tweet, Badu appeared to be attempting to clarify her remarks, writing that she “want(s) healing for you and anyone you have hurt as a result of you being hurt. … That’s all I’ve ever said. Anything else has been fabricated or taken out of context.” On Sunday, she also retweeted a tweet urging fans to “stop cancelling people because the angry mob on twitter says to do so” and another stating that Badu wasn’t “taking his [Kelly’s] side” or “condoning his behavior.”

Regardless of what Badu intended, the message of “unconditional love” was lost on many fans and survivors in attendance in Chicago on Saturday night, as the spirit of the remarks seemed to downplay the trauma of the many women of color who have bravely come forward to tell their stories in Surviving R. Kelly. It was a stormy night indeed.

When artists cry out for help, how do we justify our silence?

I recently watched the Oscar-nominated Amy Winehouse documentary. Having gone through college at the height of both Winehouse’s popularity and notoriety, the film was uncomfortable to watch.

Of course, in retrospect, the late-night monologues that mocked the incredible singer’s substance abuse issues and eating disorders feel incredibly tone-deaf and abusive in their own right. Shouldn’t we have known better? Well, we didn’t. But at that time, Winehouse was everyone’s favorite go-to punchline and mockery — track marks were just as important as the cat eye for any complete Amy Winehouse Halloween costume.

Even after Winehouse died in 2011, we didn’t take responsibility for how we — as a culture happily gobbling up every piece of gossipy tabloid trash tossed into our mouths — all but certainly contributed to this young woman’s demise at the age of just 27. And, in the curious case of Kanye West, we arguably are doing it again.

Look, I’m not going to defend Kanye West’s misogyny. Nor his defense of a certain high-profile alleged rapist. But West’s outbursts have become so extreme and so commonplace so as to clearly suggest there’s more to the story than just some publicity-seeking rich rapper. But instead, we happily share the latest hot take on the latest Kanye incident and shake our heads: “Can you believe this guy? Who the f*** does he think he is?!”

We’re not asking the questions we should be of one of the music industry’s most innovating rappers of all time. Questions like, “Is he OK? Is he getting the help he might need? Is he surrounded by people who will see to it he gets that help, should he need it, before it’s too late?”

As Amy made painfully clear, money doesn’t buy happiness. And it doesn’t buy health. And just because an artist seems to have every tool in their box to overcome whatever challenge they are facing, not everyone is so lucky.

And not everyone is brave or savvy enough to do what they need to do to face their demons. In a interview taped last year for ABC’s Nightline show, Australian pop music genius Sia sat down to explain why she has taken the unusual approach to not exposing her face in interviews, live performances or videos.

In the interview, she explains that, in 2010, she reached a breaking point where she was struggling with her budding status as a celebrity and touring musician, and how she turned to substance abuse to cope. Not exposing her face has made it possible for her to go about her life in a way that works for her.

I couldn’t help but think back to April of that year, when I was lucky enough to interview Sia over the phone for EDGE Media, an LGBT-focused news website, amid what appears will be her final proper concert tour.

Over the phone from the back of her tour bus, Sia described how she’s “scared of people” and becoming “a bit messy, shaky and anxious.” The response struck me as a bit strange and I delved further, but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel guilty that I didn’t feel more concerned for her wellbeing. I felt detached from it, an observer, even as she articulated her feelings of unhappiness:

“When I’m doing jazz hands for these thousands of people I don’t know but for some reason have become important to me, I don’t have any energy left over for my friends or family. I used to be entertaining in my private life, the class clown and the heart of the party. I was silly and would bring everyone costumes to have fun and play board games. But I have no energy for that anymore. I’m exhausted. And that’s not really OK with me. I’ve decided that I really want to give the people I love and am close to more of my energy while working out what’s best for me in the long term.”

Sia was able to figure out a way to go about her career in a way that was healthy for her.

But people like me didn’t help her do that. People like me probably aren’t concerned for ‘Ye either, just like they weren’t for Amy. Maybe we should be.

Belated thanksgivings

This year, I’m very thankful for health, home, love, friends and family — blood, four-legged and especially chosen, near and far. But I’m especially thankful for free HBO preview weekends, specifically The Leftovers, Justin Theroux and his perfect facial structure, The Comeback and an uncanny look into a time-mirror at future-me (Mickey Deane) and Getting On and Niecy Nash and her perfect everything. So, so much to be thankful for.


Manboobs and me

I was asked to read an essay as part of the Marrow reading series’ event at the Pitchfork Book Fort in Union Park on Sunday, July 20. This is what I read that day.

I remember when I noticed my body was very different from most of the boys I knew. When I first came to understand I’d almost certainly never look like the sexy, long-haired guys playing guitar I ogled subconsciously while watching “Wayne’s World” on repeat with my brother. I definitely had a thing for ripped up jeans.

I was in fifth grade and it happened in the locker room of the tiny gym of my small-town grade school. I’d come to loathe that room and dread walking down the gray concrete stairs to that dark, smelly dungeon of a middle-school gym class locker room.

“What’s up with your boobs, man?” a still-prepubescent classmate asked.

I didn’t know what to say but I remember bringing it up to my mom later that day — how it hurt my feelings and how it made me want to never enter that disgusting dungeon again. How it made me feel, for the first time, that my body was wrong. That it needed fixing.

“It’s just baby fat, hon,” my mom told me, with that 100-percent-guaranteed tone only a mom can have. “You’ll grow out of it.”

The fact that I was a little chubber had really failed to register on my radar before then. I grew up in a happy home in my small family in rural Wisconsin. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I felt like I didn’t need them. I loved to read, think and play — building giant theatre complexes out of Legos before writing surprisingly sophisticated scripts for my tiny plastic people to perform. I was happy.

But as I was entering middle school, it was different. I came to realize that the “husky” tag on my Arizona Jean Co. jeans set me apart from my classmates — and it didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly gifted athletically or interested in any sports besides figure skating, gymnastics or beauty pageants.

Whenever I found myself near a swimming pool, I was that kid wearing a shirt in the water, fooling everyone with my one-man wet t-shirt contest. The thought of being ridiculed was too much and I never learned how to swim. Land would have to do.

When I told my dad about being bullied for what I soon learned were my “manboobs,” my dad’s comfort was simple: “Look at me,” he would say, “I was always the biggest kid in my school so you know what I did to the first twerp that made fun of me for it? I dunked his head right into a toilet. Fluuuuush. No one ever teased me again. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Though I wasn’t about to physically assault someone — I think he was seriously overestimating my upper body strength — I took the rest of his advice and tried my best to ignore the teasing. And as they say, it got better. Sort of. I retreated into a regrettable Korn-with-a-K-listening-to-nu-metal period of what would turn out to be my not-just-a-phase goth phase. I even played tennis for a couple of years. I lost some weight. When my braces came off and I got contacts at the start of high school, I thought my manboob days were behind me.

Of course, they weren’t.

At my first job, running trays of food to servers at a seafood restaurant at the age of 14, the expediter in the kitchen would yell out “Tits! Come and get it, Tits!” when my table’s food was up.

When my chest remained large, I sometimes wondered if there was a woman trapped in my man body. I’d stare at my penis for a half hour at a time and wonder if it was somehow possible that what I was looking at was actually some sort of lady-like part to match what I’d been told was my lady-like chest. (Sex-ed was not my school’s forte, but shoutout to MTV “Undressed” for clearing that all up.)

I’ve struggled with weight issues ever since, see-sawing between periods of disordered eating and obsessive exercising — when I was eating only half a Pop Tart for breakfast and three mozzarella sticks for lunch for almost an entire year of high school, weighing just 150 pounds — and other periods of complete inactivity, eating constantly and ballooning to almost 100 pounds more than that.

At one point, when I was dressed as Little Edie Beale from “Grey Gardens” for Halloween one year, one of my best friends, dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, approached me at a party and grabbed and squeezed my chest flab.

“What are these MADE of?”

“My skin.”

Time can be funny. I remember feeling absolutely monstrous even at my skinniest, unhealthiest point. When I look back at photos from that time, it’s like I can almost see my skeleton showing through my way-too-thin layers of skin. Who knows, I might feel the same way looking at photos of myself today someday.

Speaking of today, I’m better, thankfully. I’m eating better — I’ve even come to like the taste of kale! — and I go to the gym at least three times a week. I don’t instantly associate rejection with my body the way I used to. I’d say, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I’m generally around an 8.

But sometimes the darkness creeps back in, as it tends to. Sometimes I still catch a glimpse of myself in the window of a building as I walk by and cringe at what I see. Some nights I dream of cutting away my extra fleshy parts and bleeding only pure, glittering joy at what was left. I still wake up other days and wish I could pull open my body at the waist to reveal a slightly smaller, otherwise identical version inside, like a matryoshka doll.

Of course, sometimes, the prompts are more external.

Last month, I was watching the Pride Parade as it marched and rolled down Halsted Street. Sandwiched between the entries from local politicians, corporations and bars was a float from a suburban liposuction clinic making their Pride debut. Riding the float were young children hoisting rainbow-hued flags reading “We’ll suck your fat!” And emblazoned on the side of the float was a sign exclaiming: “Say no to manboobs! We can get rid of them!”

I ended up writing a story about the float for my job and spoke with the clinic about their message. The story was later picked up by a number of blogs and news stations. She was shocked that anyone would be upset.

What their spokeswoman told me was that their message was one of love — that they are only trying to help people love themselves and help them look how they would like to look — and she reminded me that many companies would refuse to participate in a Pride Parade. She said she wanted “us” to know that they were “here for you guys.” I wanted to tell her to fuck off.

Of course, I’m not surprised that she was surprised anyone would be upset with their fat-shaming messages interrupting a day that is supposed to be about community and love. Some of the worst body-shaming I’ve ever witnessed has actually happened among members of my own so-called community. But this attack, coming from the outside, stung extra hard.

At one point during our conversation, the spokeswoman asked me what I would have suggested they write on their signs instead. I didn’t answer her question then but, after giving it some thought, I finally have an answer for her today.

What about: “Do what makes you happy!” Or “All bodies are beautiful, dammit!” Or maybe: “Listen to your body, do whatever the hell is right for it!”

I’ve come to understand, manboobs or no manboobs, our bodies are all we have. Let’s treat them like it while we still have them. And fuck anyone who says otherwise.