Michael Torpey makes it rain on student debt with ‘Paid Off’

When Michael Torpey’s not busy creeping everyone out on “Orange is the New Black” (no way we’re providing links to that; you’re on your own.), he’s been appearing on “VEEP,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Sneaky Pete.”

But with his latest project, Paid Off with Michael Torpey,” premiering Tuesday, July 10, at 10 p.m. ET on truTV, Michael not only showcases his immense talent, but he’s also helped wipe out nearly half a million dollars in student debt. That’s serious good karma right there. We sat down for a nice chat with Michael about the new show, how it feels to help people out, and what it was like to star in an underwear commercial with Michael Jordan.

TURNER (T): Thanks for speaking with us, Michael. For the few who don’t know, tell us what “Paid Off” is all about.
MICHAEL TORPEY (MT): It’s a comedic trivia show that’s an absurd answer to an absurd problem. There are 45 million Americans out there struggling with 1.5 trillion dollars in student debt. This is the best idea I could come up with to do something about it.

T: How did this concept come about? It’s pretty unique to say the least.
MT: Well, I was very fortunate. I was able to go to college and not have any debt. My parents told me, go get into the best school you can get into, and we will figure out how to pay for it. So, that's what I did. I was ignorant to the world of student debt until I met my wife. She owed a little over $40,000 and was doing all sorts of odd jobs to make ends meet while also working toward her license as a mental health counselor.

I booked my first large commercial campaign, and that was the first time that I ever really had any substantial income. We decided to wipe out her debt knowing that it was going tap our savings, but we wanted a clean start. We wrote the check, put it in the envelope, and my wife just started crying.

I didn't appreciate what it was to have this burden impact you all day, every day, keeping you from picturing your life moving forward – the ability to have kids, a home, go on vacations, down to the small stuff of having a second cup of coffee. It affects every aspect of your life, and I was embarrassed that I didn't fully grasp that until that moment, until I saw what it meant for her to be unburdened.

“There are 45 million Americans out there struggling with 1.5 trillion dollars in student debt. This is the best idea I could come up with to do something about it.”

T: As funny as “Paid Off” can be, there’s a serious side as the contestants are real people opening up about their financial struggles. What’s it like being in a position to help them get that burden off their shoulders?
MT: I feel very lucky to be able to help these folks, but I also feel a great responsibility. I'm asking these contestants to share their stories, personal lives and finances with everyone in hopes that the more people talk about their debt, the less stigmatized it will be. They shouldn’t feel shame about the fact that they borrowed money to get an education.

T: Are there any favorite show moments or contestants that stand out to you?
MT: We did an episode called “Too Broke to Heal,” about contestants who had debt that was preventing them from doing further medical training. They either couldn't afford to go to med school because of their undergrad debt, or they couldn't afford to get the next level of licensing because of it. We had three women on who worked in the medical field, and it was a special episode for me personally because my mom was a nurse, so I connected with these women immediately. They were kind and supportive of each other even though they were competing with each other. It was by far the most fun episode we did.

T: You’ve gone from playing, as you’ve stated, “one of the most hated monsters on TV” on “Orange Is the New Black” to your role now helping people get out of debt. Quite a 180, no?
MT: Exactly, there's not a strong connection between those two. But the real connection there is “Orange Is the New Black” made me realize how it felt to have a show that is satisfying creatively as an artist and also satisfying morally, and to have a show you feel has a social cause. I felt so lucky to be a part of that ensemble and feel the good work that show did that it made me hungry to do that with other projects. That was part of what inspired this idea – to find something fun and entertaining and also do some good.

T: Michael, you’ve lived most people’s dream: being in a commercial with Michael Jordan. And to make it even better, in that Hanes commercial you didn’t even have to be filmed in your underwear. That’s some good luck right there!
MT: I'm incredibly lucky, and, truth be told, there is a version of me in boxer shorts next to Michael Jordan. You'd have to get pretty deep into the dark web to find that thing, but somewhere there is a clip of me in a pair of Hanes boxer shorts climbing all over an airplane while Michael Jordan sleeps below me.

You know we had to include this, right?

T: Our sources tell us you have a dog named George – we’ve heard he’s a very good boy. Can you confirm?
MT: He is probably 90% a very good boy, but I cannot say he's 100% a very good boy. So, your sources are mostly true. Last night we had a thunderstorm so he spent from midnight to 5:00 a.m. crawling in and out from under our bed in absolute panic. There was no sleep to be had last night because our boy was a nervous wreck.

T: Let's say you could magically host any game show in history besides “Paid Off.” Which one would it be?
MT: Interesting question... I think “Press Your Luck”, that show was such a blast, those whammies were great. I would really love to play it, too. Man, you can't go wrong with those whammies.

Learn more about “Paid Off with Michael Torpey,” and don’t forget to watch the premiere Tuesday, July 10, at 10 p.m. ET on truTV.