The Lower Half of the Top Ten Greatest Game Shows of All Time

Game Show Network's "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time" cracked the Top Ten last week with the #10 through #7 game shows. The remainder of the countdown, including what GSN thinks is the greatest game show of all time, can be seen tonight, tomorrow night, and Thursday night, at 10 pm EST/9 pm CST.

Number ten is the venerable and pathbreaking "The Dating Game." The granddaddy of all dating game shows and blind date shows that have come since (including its companion show "The Newlywed Game," "Blind Date," and MTV's "Singled Out"), "The Dating Game" was arguably the first game show to be directed at the young adult market that became so prominent in the 1960s. Running in its original version from 1965-73 with several revivals stretching almost right up to the present, it was, like several of the games on GSN's countdown, from the twisted mind of producer Chuck Barris.

The "Dating Game" game play, such as it was, was simple: three bachelors sat on the other side of a divider so that a "bachelorette" could not see them and be influenced by their looks. She then asked them questions (of a sometimes racy, sometimes silly nature) in order to ascertain which of the three she'd like to have a date with. She made her selection, and the two were presented with the ubiquitous "parting gifts" and told what form their date would take. Less often, the gender roles were reversed, with a bachelor quizzing and then choosing from three bachelorettes.

The episode featured in the countdown was a legendary 1978 show hosted by Jim Lange, who hosted all versions of the game through the end of the 1970s. It was legendary because one of the bachelors was comic Andy Kaufman, posing as a clueless suitor in the persona of his "foreign man," shortly before it would be mutated into the character Latka Gravas on the sitcom "Taxi" and he would become better known. As a result, the first part of the episode basically became a Kaufman comedy bit, as he spoke in his high-pitched, vaguely-Eastern European accent and pretended to be a little befuddled at the proceedings, all to the great amusement of the audience and the genuine disorientation of Lange. Supposedly Kaufman (going by a bogus name) was dragooned at the last minute as a replacement bachelor by being pulled off the street, propagating his schtick unbeknownst to the producers of the show; this seems highly unlikely, as they would be unlikely to install such an unpredictable loose cannon as a contestant. More likely is the idea that Barris, ever the prankster and eager to mess with the conventions of television and the propriety of viewers, knew of Kaufman's work ("Taxi" would premiere later that same year, and Kaufman would have been featured in "Saturday Night Live" and other TV appearances around or before this episode) and purposely put him on as a plant without anyone else connected to the "Dating Game" even knowing about it. That certainly sounds like somethng Chuck Barris would do.

Number nine is "The Dating Game"'s companion show and fellow Barris creation "The Newlywed Game." The premise to this show, which was hosted by perennial game show host Bob Eubanks and aired from 1966-74 on ABC and in the late-1970s in syndication, was that people who dated eventually (sometimes) got married and that their new status could be the source of ribald laughs. The exact nature of "Newlywed"'s game play set a template for a number of husband-and-wife-centered games that followed, including "Three's a Crowd," "He Said, She Said," and "Tattle Tales." One set of spouses remained on stage while the other was sequestered backstage; Eubanks asked the on-stage spouses questions designed in many cases to elicit sexually-construed replies, then the other set of spouses returned and had to match their mate's answers in order to score points. The episode featured in the countdown was the famous one in which Eubanks asked one wife what unusual place that she and hubby had made whoopee--her answer: "In the [bleeped] ass."

Naturally, I have a couple of grouses about GSN's selection of "Dating Game" and "Newlywed Game." First, although it is hilarious to behold, the Kaufman episode of "Dating Game" is hardly a typical episode of the show, and thus does not give a very good sense of it. GSN has done this sort of thing in a couple of other cases in the countdown, such as with "Press Your Luck" for which they aired the two-part episode in which contestant Michael Larson manipulated the game board to win over $100,000. On one hand, it's great to see these atypical episodes, but on the other hand, they are not representative of the game play and the dynamics of a show that caused it to be ranked among the 50 best of all time. My other grouse with "Dating Game" and "Newlywed Game" is simply their placement. Both are influential shows, but I don't think they deserve to be in the Top Ten. A good ten slots lower would probably be more appropriate.

Coming in at #8 in the countdown are Dick Clark's "Pyramid" shows. This series of games had different prefixes over the years, starting with "$10,000 Pyramid" in 1973, then increasing to "$20,000," "$25,000," "$50,000," and even "$100,000" (in a mid-1980s syndicated version) over the years. The newest version, a syndicated revival hosted by Donny Osmond, entitled simply "Pyramid," was on a few years ago.

The game play centered on the title polyhedron. Two pairs with a celebrity and a noncelebrity each competed in a couple of initial rounds in which they chose topics where one gave a succession of clues and the other had to guess the category that those clues fit into. The winning pair from these rounds went on to a final timed round in which the celebrity gave clues for a procession of six topics arranged in a pyramid shape. Each topic was higher on the pyramid, and if the contestant finished the entire pyramid of topics they won whichever sum was in the show's title at that juncture.

Two episodes were shown in the countdown. The first was a "$20,000 Pyramid" episode with Billy Crystal that included a clip from an earlier, now-lost episode in which Crystal helped a contestant win the big money in record time. The other episode was from the "$100,000 Pyramid" era with LeVar Burton.

The final show featured in last week's portion of the "50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," the #7 show, was "Let's Make a Deal." Monty Hall famously wheeled and dealed in this prize show in which costumed contestants either accepted a prize offered by Hall or traded it for a chance (they hoped) at winning something far greater and more expensive. The appeal of the game was in the uncertainty of whether or not the prize traded for would in fact be better (as often as not, it was not), in addition to the playful way that the entire proceedings were conducted.

"Let's Make a Deal" introduced into the popular vernacular the idea of "seeing what is behind curtain #1" (or 2 or 3), as the biggest prizes (such as cars) were concealed behind drapes on the studio stage. Smaller prizes such as grocery items or small appliances or electronics were brought on trays by announcer and Hall sidekick Jay Stewart right out into the audience, where Stewart described them and Hall appealed simultaneously to a contestant's sense of greed and sense of thrift. Sometimes what was behind those curtains was not a car or similarly large-scale prize but what in the terminology of "Deal" was referred to as a "zonk." These were worthless prizes usually dressed up with humourous props and/or Stewart in a goofy costume.

Goofy costumes were not originally part of the formula of "Let's Make a Deal" when it premiered in 1963. The game was designed to be a simple trading game along the basic parameters that it kept throughout. But about a year into the series contestants (who could be anyone in the studio audience) began to dress in outlandish get-ups (anything from Little Bo Peep costumes to wearing a box made to look like a stoplight) to get Hall's attention and hopefully get chosen to compete. From then on, the outlandish contestant costumes became as much a part of the show's appeal as the deals that were its focus.

Six game shows remain in GSN's countdown. When the ranking reached the mid-teens, I made some predictions about some of the shows that were likely to be remaining. Now that we are down to the final half-dozen, I can do so again, and I think I can identify what all of the final shows will be (if not their exact ranks). I said before and I'll say again that the top three will be "The Price is Right," "Jeopardy," and "Wheel of Fortune," although any of them could end up being the top spot. The other three, I think, will be "Match Game," "Family Feud," and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Starting tonight, we will see whether or not I am right.

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