Cashing In

January 31, 2011

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New York City taxis can empty your pockets, but on Discovery Channel’s hit game show Cash Cab, you get paid. Greg Volk (’03) has used what he learned as an NC State student to test contestants’ knowledge of history and current events as a question writer for the popular show. And he’s won a few Emmys for his efforts.

For the lucky passengers who take a ride on Cash Cab, the meter is running in reverse. The concept is simple – to win money on the Discovery Channel’s taxi-based game show, all they have to do is answer a series of questions written by two-time Emmy Award winner Greg Volk (’03).

Education of a Question Writer

Volk originally came to NC State from Gastonia, N.C., to become an engineer. But the more Volk dabbled in communication classes, and the more he wrote for Technician, the stronger his passion for writing and media became.

The Caldwell Fellows alum eventually melded his interests in mass communication, journalism, and art media into a major in Multidisciplinary Studies (now Interdisciplinary Studies). When he was on the Technician staff, Volk wrote an editorial about the value of an education steeped in the liberal arts.

“There’s a very real value to getting a humanities education alongside so many technical and engineering students,” he said. “Engineering students and the like benefit from being exposed to the perspectives of CHASS students, and vice versa.

“”They need each other to make a complete education possible and to make NC State work.“

A Bite of the Big Apple

Two semesters before Volk graduated, he moved to New York City for a semester-long internship with The Late Show with David Letterman, an experience that opened Volk’s eyes to the possibilities of television writing.

So, when he graduated from NC State in 2003, Volk made the permanent move to the city that never sleeps, and began writing monologue jokes for Letterman on a freelance basis.

He spent four years writing jokes from a cramped apartment before landing a job with VH1, where he wrote for several shows, including Best Week Ever. One of his co-writers, who had worked for Cash Cab, encouraged Volk to give it a try.

“Going from writing jokes about celebrities to writing trivia questions is not necessarily a linear path, but it was a great switch for me,” Volk said.

Stump the Contestant

On Cash Cab, New York City taxi riders answer questions to earn money during their journey.

For the past four seasons of Cash Cab, Volk has drawn on much of the information he learned at NC State to formulate questions and stump game show participants.

“CHASS gave me the knowledge base to build on, and it created in me a curiosity to learn,” Volk said. “It’s important for my job that I remain curious.”

Cash Cab trivia questions mesh humor with fact to create a fun, unique game show viewers will stick with. Writer’s block is not an option, either, since Volk is responsible for creating 20 questions per day that will test contestants’ knowledge and sometimes even make them chuckle.

“There are only so many ways to write about Howard Taft being fat,” he said. “You have to dig and dig and dig, and that’s what makes it difficult.

“It’s both the most rewarding and most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

And although his questions often stump contestants, Volk enjoys watching players get it right and win.

As for earning Emmy awards in 2009 and 2010 for his writing, Volk was caught completely unprepared.

“It was really surreal,” he said. “I never imagined myself winning an Emmy.

“It was a dream I never realized I had, until it came true.”

In addition to writing for Cash Cab, Volk is exploring his newfound interest in history as a factoid writer for cable’s top-rated unscripted show, History Channel’s Pawn Stars.

Like many reality shows, Pawn Stars features unique characters and eyebrow-raising antics, but Volk brings the show full circle with information pop-ups that describe the pawned items’ rich and complex history.

Advice for Aspiring TV Writers

For students looking to move to New York or Los Angeles to write television dramas or movie scripts, Volk has this advice: write every chance you get.

“Start doing what you want to get paid for now, and write like you’re going to get paid for it,” he said. “You’re going to be judged on your work, and it’s going to be critiqued.

“Sometimes you will fail and get rejected, but you have to put yourself out there and continuously improve yourself.”

So, if your travels take you to New York, brush up on your homework. You never know if the next taxi you get in will be the Cash Cab, fueled by an NC State alum’s questions.

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 23 at 4 p.m., NCSU Libraries’ Amazing Alumni series will kick off with a visit from Greg Volk. This Amazing Alumni program was planned to coincide with Communications Week (February 21-25), a week-long series of events coordinated by the Department of Communications, and will be held in D.H. Hill’s West Wing auditorium.