Game Show Network's "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time"--airing Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 10 pm EST/9 pm CST still this week and next week--came to the cusp of the Top Ten last week. All of the entries leading up to the Top Ten seem to be good solid picks that are placed well. "Password" is at #15, "What's My Line?" is at #14, "Press Your Luck" at #13, "The Gong Show" at #12, and "Hollywood Squares" is at #11.
"Password" is the classic game show (airing 1961-67, and again 1971-75) that featured partners one of which gave clues and the other of which had to guess what word (or "password") the clues described. Allen Ludden's entire game moderating career (more or less) consisted of hosting versions of this game. The game play is really as simple as the description I have just given. Ludden stood at a podium in the middle, with the two pairs of contestants (one in each pair a celebrity, one a noncelebrity) flanking him on either side. Ludden handed cards containing the password to the contestants giving the clues as the word was superimposed on the screen (and softly intoned by the announcer) for the benefit of the viewing audience. That's it; hardly any money, no flashing lights, no elaborate game board, no shapely models caressing wares. "Password" was a refreshingly simple game that in some form lasted until the mid-1980s, but the likes of which I doubt we'll ever see again.
"What's My Line?" is equally simple and equally (if not more so) refreshing. One of the most perennial games, it was a Sunday evening institution on CBS from 1950-67 before going on to eight more years in syndication. The network version featured John Charles Daly (initially also ABC's news anchor) as moderator and actress Arlene Francis, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and publisher Bennett Cerf as more or less permanent members of the panel, with a weekly guest panelist filling out the quartet. The syndicated version retained Francis while adding Soupy Sales as a permanent panelist and utilizing two guest panelists (one of which was often Cerf until his death). Wally Bruner, then Larry Blyden, hosted the syndicated "WML?"
The "What's My Line?" game play was panel-based, a common form in games originating in the pre-big money 1950s. The four panelists had to guess the occupation of contestants through "yes" or "no" questions, with the contestant winning a nominal cash amount for each "no" answer. Two variations were often used: if the name of the person would give away their occupation, then they were presented as Mr. or Mrs. X. Each episode also featured a celebrity "mystery guest." Since the panelists would know this person on sight, they had to wear blindfolds for the mystery guest while the guest disguised his or her voice, usually humorously. Otherwise, the questioning for X or mystery guests proceeded according to pretty much the same format (with obvious modifications). The 1973 episode featured in the countdown had as a "Mr. X" guest Jimmy Carter, who at that time was Governor of Georgia but unknown to national audiences just a few years before becoming president.
Producer Gil Fates, who was with "What's My Line?" from the first show in 1950 until the last syndicated episode in 1975 wrote a fascinating book (called simply "What's My Line?") in the late-1970s detailing the show's history. Although now out of print, the book is a wealth of information on the game and a must-read for any fan of "What's My Line?"
The number 13 game show, "Press Your Luck," was perhaps the antithesis of simple games like "What's My Line?" and "Password." It featured one of the ultimate fancy game boards, the quickly changing, brightly lit, pulsating ring of prize panels that a contestant stopped by pressing their plunger, and thus pressing their luck. Because, they could win a prize or they could land on a "whammy," that red Tasmanian Devil-like creature that in addition to eliminating any accumulated cash and prizes the contestant may have had, also subjected them to some kind of humiliation (e.g. something dumped on their head) and a short animation.
Host Peter Tomarken asked three contestants multiple choice questions in a first phase in which they earned spins for correct answers. Then they moved on to a round in which they used those spins, winning prizes such as jewelry or trips or cash amounts, and in some cases extra spins. They could at any time pass unused spins on to an opponent, with the hopes that he or she would land on a whammy. The episodes featured in the countdown were atypical in that contestant Michael Larson spun for something like thirty or forty consecutive spins (winning additional spins along the way) without landing on a whammy, in the process winning $110,000, the most ever on "PYL." As it turns out, he had memorized the patterns in which the prizes and whammies appeared on the game board and used that knowledge to manipulate the game. "PYL" producers changed the patterns afterwards, and had to split the game into the show's only two-part episode, both of which were shown on the GSN countdown.
Several other Chuck Barris-produced shows appeared lower on the countdown; at #12 is his best known game (which he also hosted), "The Gong Show." The game play on "The Gong Show" was simple, or, some might say, simply stupid. A panel of three celebrity judges were (as was the audience) subjected to a "talent" contest of unimaginably bad performances. Many performances never made it to their finish, as the "gong" in "The Gong Show" consisted of the possibility that one of the judges would bang a large gong which symbolized that they thought the performance was so bad that it did not deserve to be completed. A significant proportion of the contestants were subjected to the gong. The episode in the countdown featured an early-career Steve Martin as a judge and a woman in a gorilla mask who sang, a Clark Gable as Rhett Butler impersonator who sang, a surprisingly good fiddle player, and a black soul group (among others) as contestants. The soul group won.
In addition to serving as a satire on talent shows, "The Gong Show" was a self-conscious send up of game shows in general. Barris himself served as a parody (perhaps unwittingly, but likely not) of the game show host. He always wore a tux, but sometimes with tie untied and shirt open to the chest, sometimes with a top hat pulled over his eyes. He often spoke with bad diction and maintained poor eye contact with the camera. In addition, he conducted the proceedings with a distinct air of condescension and most likely laughed all the way to the bank. "The Gong Show" was not much as a game, but it was a gem for those into camp.
"Hollywood Squares" was the number eleven game show of all time. Nine celebrities--in the countdown episode Doc Sevrinson, Sandra Dee, Harvey Korman, Amanda Blake, Karen Valentine, Wally Cox, Joey Bishop, Hugh O'Brian, and, of course, Paul Lynde in the center square--sat in a huge tic-tac-toe "game board" with each representing one of the nine squares. Two noncelebrity contestants were presented by host Peter Marshall with questions to which answers, sometime bogus, sometimes genuine, were given by the celebrity whose square they had chosen. The bogus, comical answers given by the celebs were the point of the show just as much as the game play (not unlike in Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life"). The contestant had to decide whether or not the answer given was real or fake, and if correct their symbol (either "X" or "O") was lit up in front of that square. Three X's or three O's won the game, just as in tic-tac-doe.
The Top Ten greatest game shows of all time remain, airing this week and next. The MediaLog will return with comments on all of them, right up to the Number One Greatest Game Show.