Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Survey says: Game Shows!

Dumb Dora is so dumb..

How dumb is she?

She's so dumb that she watched three specials on the Game Show Network about [BLANK]

You don't need to be Charles Nelson Reilly to guess that a three-part special on GSN about the most memorable game shows of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s would be right up my alley! Hollywood square Caroline Rhea hosted three hour-long specials that originally aired in 2008 but are frequently dusted off to complement their Wayback Playback retro block.

Game Shows: The 1970s

The gang's all here!

Polyester. Afros. Wide lapels. Wider sideburns. People talking about makin' whoopie. And that's just a sample of what you'd expect to see on game shows in the 1970s! Play it Back: 70s Game Shows highlighted the most wild and crazy the decade had to offer. The 1970s is still considered the height of game show mania, and 1975 goes down in history as the year with the greatest number of game shows on air (26!). Star-studded who's who panel shows of the 1950s and '60s (I've Got A Secret, What's My Line?) peaked in the 1970s with a revamped version of The Match Game which boasted the wild guesses of Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Richard Dawson. The appeal of The Match Game wasn't merely the off-the-wall celebrity panel and the equally nutty host, Gene Rayburn. Rayburn and the panelists seemed to be having a hoot, sometimes appearing completely oblivious to the rolling cameras. As Somers and Reilly tried to one-up each other with their zingers and their gigantic eyewear, the suave Richard Dawson was always left to hold the show together as best he could. Otherwise, it would all fall apart in hysterical pandemonium, not that anyone would have minded. (Richard Dawson proved so popular on the Match Game that he was soon offered a job hosting his own game show. Survey says: 'Family Feud'!)

Sample of many Match Game clips on YouTube
The Match Game at TV Party
Sporcle quiz - Can you name the Match Game 70s panelists?

The 1970s also popularized dating/romance game shows. The Dating Game had many armchair matchmakers yelling at their tv sets while a trio of eligible bachelor(ette)s were grilled by their unseen date. A roster of celebrities appeared on the show before they became A-list names, including the oddball comic Andy Kaufman. Here's a clip from his 1978 appearance. For the couples who were a little more advanced in their relationships and willing to humiliate themselves further, there was the Newlywed Game hosted by Bob Eubanks. Classic Eubanks clips inevitably crop up on every 'wackiest tv moments' show that has ever aired, though they hardly seem salacious now.

While the Match Game was clearly the pinnacle of the genre, the 1970s wasn't considered the decade of the game show for nothing. Only in the 'anything goes' 70s could you tune in to the see the likes of Chuck Barris' anarchic Gong Show and, of course, Mr. Center Square, Paul Lynde! Play it Back: 70s Game Shows also showed clips from Name That Tune, The $20,000 Pyramid (namely Billy Crystal's record-breaking 1977 climb to the top of the pyramid in 26 seconds!), and 3's A Crowd (pitting the missus against the secretary).

Game Shows: The 1980s

Game shows remained a popular commodity in the 1980s. While the new decade couldn't top the popularity of the 1970s, it could promise bigger and better thrills. Play it Back: 80s Game Shows centered on the biggest S-T-A-R of them all, Vanna White. In 1980, Wheel Of Fortune debuted with host Pat Sajak, but the show didn't become a daytime favorite until 1982 when an unknown bombshell named Vanna White was introduced as his resident 'letter turner'. Vanna had caught game show mogul Merv Griffin's eye when she was a contestant on another daytime hit, The Price Is Right.

No really, it's true!

The 1980s saw the emergence of a slew of revamped and updated game shows with bigger prizes, younger hosts, and new twists. Pyramid got a huge bonus with the introduction of Dick Clark's $100,000 Pyramid, and the perennially popular Password returned with Super Password and Password+ Plus. Rip Taylor literally flipped his wig on Super Password. Password Plus is the game show known for having the longest blooper in television history (on YouTube: parts 1, 2, 3, 4). Betty White and Dick Martin were the celebrities giving the clues. Who would have thought the words 'French' and 'pate' could disrupt the momentum of a show so well?

Jeopardy! also returned to the airwaves in 1984 when Alex Trebek took over for Art Fleming. Trebek was no stranger to game shows as he was most notably host of High Rollers. It was, however, Wink Martindale who held the record for hosting the greatest number of game shows (a total of six!).

In addition to these classics, Play it Back: 80s Game Shows also showed clips from Card Sharks, Hollywood Squares, Tic-Tac-Dough, and Love Connection with Chuck Woolery. Unfortunately, they didn't show one of my favorites, Win Lose Or Draw! Wheel of Fortune kissed the 1980s goodbye with the end of daytime Wheel Of Fortune, though its prime-time counterpart is still going strong. By the close of the decade, America was ready for a new crop of game shows with a new set of gimmicks to draw in the audience.

Game Shows: The 1990s

Play it Back: 90s Game Shows entered the internet age in style with digital sets and even bigger payloads than the previous decade! Graphics were computerized and producers amped up the drama (and ratings!) with heart-pounding soundtracks. Wheel Of Fortune saw the most dramatic makeover. Vanna White was promoted from 'letter turner' to 'letter toucher'. She certainly does her letter touching and/or turning with aplomb, but that's just about the cushiest sounding job I've ever heard of! Interestingly, before the 1990s digitization of the puzzle board, the letters for each puzzle had to be manually loaded in slots behind the set during filming (much like the wooden printing blocks at a newspaper). Vanna would walk across the set to actually turn the letters. Now, puzzles are computerized and appear instantly without interrupting the shows' taping. The new squares are heat-activated touchpads that Vanna has to tap to reveal the letters. Comparatively, Jeopardy!'s 1996 update was less impressive. The new set was sleeker, but it was Alex Trebek's new face that was most remarkable.

Game shows became must see events again with the debut of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Millionaire defined edge-of-your-seat entertainment and became an American obsession as viewers continued to tune in for that first million dollar winner. Finally, John Carpenter broke the bank in 1999. Audiences thrilled as he played along with Millionaire's patented psychological mindgames by calling his father at the last question just to tell him he was about to win top prize (YouTube playlist). I would bet that many pop culture fans knew the million dollar answer! Millionaire ushered in the big money trivia show, but Jeopardy! topped it with Ken Jennings' [2] amazing winning streak in 2004 (winning a total $3,172,700 with a record 74 wins).

Less dramatically, Hollywood Squares returned to the air with a new host, Tom Bergeron. Whoopi Goldberg was the center of the new celebrity board, which also included Caroline Rhea, a bevy of Baldwins, and Gilbert Gotfried. Other popular 1990s game shows featured on Play it Back: 90s Game Shows included Win Ben Stein's Money, Studs (the dating game's tackier cousin with all those hokey hearts), and Rock & Roll Jeopardy! (hosted by a pre-Survivor Jeff Probst). Well, the 1990s may not have been more fun than the '70s, but at least they made the game show genre its own with typical '90s garishness!

New game shows are still being churned out by the channelful, but they've mostly lost their innocent charm. There was a time when we would thrill to see Gene Rayburn hopping around barefoot on rust colored shaggy carpet and ponder the identity of the Gong Show's Unknown Comic (Murray Langston). Now we're taken in by shows that offer multi-million dollar prizes (Greed's $2.2 million) in exchange for bigger humiliations. It's all about the money. Game show contestants don't even look like they're having fun anymore! At least home viewers can still have fun watching the Game Show Network and their vintage Wayback Playback blocks every weekday morning and late night! [Check your local listings for daily 1970s-80s programming, the Play it Back specials, and, less frequently, 1950s-60s shows]

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