Tuesday, February 05, 2013

I want to be a panelist

I want to be a panelist on a TV show.

This has always seemed like the greatest job ever.

And by “always” I mean, since I was a kid.

Back in the Stone Age there were live game shows in prime time. Relics like WHAT’S MY LINE?, I’VE GOT A SECRET, and TO TELL THE TRUTH. Take any one of them – let’s say I’VE GOT A SECRET...

For years this show ran on Monday nights at 8:00 from New York on CBS.

So this was the gig. You swing by the studio at about 7:15 and get a little make up.  There’s nothing to prepare. It’s a quiz show. You’ll be asking questions and guessing.

At a few minutes till 8:00 you’re introduced to the studio audience, you accept their applause even though you haven't done anything and won't.  Then you take your place at the panelists’ desk.

The show begins at 8:00. You’re on national TV. You're a beloved celebrity although, again, you have no extraordinary talent.   You ask a few questions, try to guess the contestant’s secret – and if you can’t so what?  Primarily you’re there to toss in a few wise-cracks. Piece of cake!

At 8:30 the show is over. There are no pick-ups. You’re done. You wipe off the make up, jump into a cab, and at 8:45 you’re in Sardi's.

As one of the panelists of that show, Bill Cullen said on it’s final episode: “I’ve been on fifteen years, and haven’t done one moment’s work. I admit that, and I apologize for stealing the money.” Sweet!

Even as an impressionable young lad I was attracted to making a good living by doing nothing.

So I set out to learn the parameters of this highly specialized and desirable profession. Who are these lucky people who get these jobs and what are their qualifications? As for the first question: they all seem to be personalities – maybe the most general term in show business. They’ve all achieved some level of notoriety. In the case of SECRET – (Bill Cullen, Betsy Palmer, Henry Morgan, Bess Myerson) a game show host, a B actress, radio crank, and former Miss America. So you don’t have to be super famous going in. Did anyone in the U.S. know who Simon Cowell was before AMERICAN IDOL? I write a blog, and from time to time announce baseball. I could easily be Betsy Palmer!

Requirements: Seems to me if you were once the class clown and could stay awake for thirty minutes you’d be qualified. I’m golden in those departments. And judging by SECRET, only the radio crank was expected to be funny. The job is even easier than I thought.

So if you don’t even have to be amusing you should at least be attractive. In some cases that was true. Betsy and Bess were yummy. But on WHAT’S MY LINE? they had Dorothy Kilgallen who had no chin. And Fred Allen whose face resembled an accordion. You could be bald, overweight, wear crew cuts, it didn’t matter. I have a chin.

The other traits a panelist must have are punctuality (they frown on you showing up late for a live show) and you should be opinionated. Has that ever been a problem for me, dear readers?

The position pretty much dried up in the 80s and 90s. The game shows went away or into syndication where Brett Sommers and Tom Poston hogged most of the panels.

But then reality television came along! Panelists are back! In some cases you need to be an expert in a certain field. But even then – Ellen DeGeneres a judge on AMERICAN IDOL? Piers Morgan judging talent? That’s like me judging the Westminster Dog Show.

In some cases the panelists on these shows can’t even string a sentence together. Or they just fall back on inane catch phrases and cliches. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that the only AMERICAN IDOL judge to survive all the changes is Randy Jackson?

So I’m officially proclaiming to producers – I’m available to be a panelist. Quiz shows, talent shows, style shows, snarkoramas, political forums, sports roundtables, you name it. If there’s a desk I want to be behind it. I will even bring my own Coke cup. I’m ready. I’m highly motivated. And I am even willing to work five hours a week.


JJ said...

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on NPR -- You get to be funny; it's not live, so they can edit flubs; they tape Thursdays, so free weekends; and it's radio, so no makeup!

Johnny Walker said...

You'd be a great panellist! According to Wikipedia you're a "TV Personality", not a mere writer, so you're halfway there!

Seriously, you'd be fantastic, I'm sure. Somebody give Ken a shot!

SusannahfromHungary said...

BBCs "qi" would be a lot of fun :-)

Michael said...

I'm going to say a nice word for the old panel shows. The panelists were--as you are, Ken--INTELLIGENT. A host like Garry Moore and the panelists did a lot of live broadcasting, meaning they had to know how to fill air time with conversation. There also were limits as to what they could or could not say (Morgan famously said that cigarettes would kill him, and I've Got A Secret's sponsor was Winston-Salem, which ordered him off the show; chain smoker Moore went to the corporate headquarters himself to save Morgan's job.). But there would be guest panelists who were film or Broadway or TV stars; What's My Line is where Steve Allen got his first major national exposure, for example. What's My Line panelists included Woody Allen and Dick Cavett (One week, one of the contestants was identified as Barry Goldwater's pilot. When they figured out she worked for Goldwater, they thought, oh, housekeeper or something. The round got to Woody, who leaned forward and asked, "Are you Senator Goldwater's psychiatrist?" The place went nuts.).

I watch those old shows when they are on (GSN aired them but prefers to air more stupid stuff), and I think, name people today who could do that kind of show. Ken could, but Anthony Perkins appeared as a panelist not long after Psycho. Ken, imagine Tom Cruise doing a panel show.

John said...

The panelists did have to do a little more huffing and puffing for the daytime shows, once the miracle of videotape arrived, since they would shoot five in a day -- two on one side of a lunch break and three on the other. The "What's My Line" panel never had to do the 'daily' grind until the show went off network and into syndication, where 'erudite, charming and witty' just didn't play as well at 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday as it did at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Sundays.

Weekday afternoon shows still weren't the hardest job in show business, but you did have to be a little interesting a little longer, and at least pretend to be working on Thanksgiving once in a while. And sometimes move from being a panelist to a hidden contestant.

Rob said...

I agree with JJ, you'd be great on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Call your agent!

Scott said...

There are several panel shows in England these days (QI, Mock The Week, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Would I Lie To You?, etc.), featuring mostly comedians but a few actors and celebrities thrown in. They're just excuses for people to be funny on current topics or trends. Heck, David Hasselhoff was on one and he's not even remotely funny (must have been a stunt). And I agree you'd be great on Wait, Wait!

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Give me Bennett Cerf for wit and Paul Lynde for silly.

Anonymous said...

I think this is one of those jobs I'd totally want, except for the lack of living wage thing.

I want a "personality" career, darn it!

tb said...

I was always pestering my mom about those panelists. "Who the Hell is Arlene Francis, mom?"
"Oh she used to be somebody dear.."

Breadbaker said...

Of course, there was the one, the only Groucho, who hosted his quiz show without benefit of a panel (as though there were someone around who'd want to be upstaged by him).

Chris said...

You totally could be Betsy Palmer. I saw her do "South Pacific" in summer stock and I bet your version of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" would be every bit as good as hers. And you kind of have the same haircut.

Pat said...

One insomniac night I caught "What's My Line? on GSN, and the hidden guest ("enter and sign in, please) was Cassius Clay. Fun!

Agreed about Wait, Wait.... It's a groundswell.

thedavidcmurphy said...

Staying awake for 30 minutes?

Hmm... that's me out!

Phillip B said...

America continues to search for "the next Bill Cullen"...

basura said...

I recently found out Arlene Francis was an actress in some movies.

I once noticed Phyllis Newman walking in Manhattan.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Arlene Francis was in the Mercury Theater with Orson Welles, along with her husband, Martin Gable.

Peggy Cass was a Tony winner for "Auntie Mame" but became known as a game show panelist.

The downside of doing too many of the shows back in the day, especially for stage actors, is that they could become identified solely as panelists when they had accomplished far more.

Apparently Charles Nelson Reilly was very conflicted since Match Game was easy to do, paid well and brought fame, but also allowed some to take him less seriously since he also directed plays and opera.

Jerry Seinfeld tried to revive the panel show, in a way, with the short-lived "Marriage Ref," a series in which he often appeared with other comics and personalities, offering advice for lighthearted conflicts between couples, but it didn't last.

Who knows? Someone will find a way to revive the genre and it will be hailed as a new innovation by those who don't know the early versions.

Oliver said...

TBS recently shot a pilot of a US version of the UK show "Have I Got News For You", a panel show about topical events. In the UK, it regularly gets politicians, comedians, journalists and broadcasters as guests.

Sounds like your sort of gig.

Joey H said...

and then there's Orson Bean.

Michael said...

Arlene Francis also starred on Broadway and played James Cagney's wife in one of the great movies, Billy Wilder's "One Two Three." And the prime-time shows did all right in syndication--What's My Line lasted seven years and To Tell the Truth nine years. One important thing both shows did was to have more interaction with the contestants--they made it more relaxed and informal.

D T Nelson said...

Kliph Nesteroff on his "Classic Television Showbiz" site has a lengthy interview with Betsy Palmer in which she talks about, among other things, her days as a game show panelist. It is definitely worth reading if you are interested in game show history. http://classicshowbiz.blogspot.com/2011/08/interview-with-betsy-palmer.html

Craig Edwards said...

Mr. Levine - you can be Betsy Palmer only after you slaughter a summer camp full of teens in the wilds of New Jersey. And if you have nice legs.

Jay S. said...

Gotta stick up for Dorothy Kilgallen. Who cares about her chin or lack thereof (although there was nothing wrong with her looks), she was brilliant on WML. It was fascinating to follow her relentless questioning as she zeroed in on the contestant's profession.

WML was never the same after her death, which proves that not just anybody can just show up and be a successful panelist.

LouOCNY said...

I actually burned a few dozen Whats My Line? episodes, and will pull one of them out occasionally. I think it beats IGAS in all ways - nothing against Cullen, Myerson, Palmer and Morgan, but I just think the WML panel was more how does one say it -classy? erudite? Perhaps, in an odd way...NAIVE. Yes, naive. As said before, Arlene was an urbane, sophisticated Broadway actress, Kilgallen a seasoned veteran of the show business gossip wars. Bennett Cerf was not only the founder and president of Random House, but also a noted lecturer and an author of endless books filled with jokes of all kinds. So why naive?? Because one of the joys of WML was when they had say, a guy from Kansas who sexes baby chicks, you just know that these witty, urbane city folk will have a terrible time trying to figure out what the supposed hick from Kansas does.

I also think that WML had a superior format. Remember that WML ran in perpetuity Sunday night at 10:30, following for many years, Candid Camera. So WML had ot be a bit cooler than IGAS, which I always find has way too much schtick. I mean for many, many, MANY years, the American ritual was this - Disney at 7 on NBC for the kids, get up and change to CBS for Ed Sullivan - for the whole family. Then at 9, when most kids are getting ready for bed, the adults who were up anyways changed to NBC for BONANZA. Since NBC never ran ANYthing good at 10 on Sunday, people would make the last effort to get to change the channel to CBS again for Allen Funt; and by 10:30 they would leave the set on CBS for WML - something JUST relaxed enough for just before bedtime. So WML's calm, rather sedate and urbane rituals was a perfect relaxer. Not unlike Carson's TONIGHT SHOW. Not to mention that there wasn't an A List celebrity of those days who didn't want to be a Mystery Guest..except for a few that might have hated Kilgallen...right,Frank?

One of the places I always fantasize about having a tapes off of an electronic bug planted in, besides both Round Tables (Algonquin and Hillcrest), would be the backstage dressing room when Bennett Cerf would be waiting for the show with whomever the other male panel member of the week was - Fred Allen...Woody...Cavett...Johnny...and especially the two weeks Groucho was on the panel The mere thought of Bennett Cerf and Groucho Marx cooped up in the same room together with nothing to do for an hour or so sends douche chills up and down the spine

LouOCNY said...

Jay - Dorothy took WML VERY seriously - there are many accounts of her being truly upset that she hadn't figured out a contestant for a couple of shows.

And yes, the show started to go down after she passed...BUT it also was 15 years old at the time, and I think it was just starting a relative natural decline. I mean, when it started, Truman was President, and John Lennon was 8 years old!

And what happened with the syndicated show, was that the sort of amalgamated IGAS, with its stunts and whatnot, into WML, it became 'What's My Secret Line'

Michael said...

Lou, in a funny sort of way, Dorothy's job was to be the "heavy," and there were stories of how she would draw out her questions to stay on camera.

On the prime-time version, the producers wanted to do more of the kinds of things they later did on the daytime show and were doing on I've Got A Secret, but John Daly refused to tolerate it and they didn't want to mess with him.

Mike said...

According to my very limited knowledge of panel shows, it's faked, like wrestling. The panelists are told the answer before filming, then construct their acts accordingly.

Mike Doran said...

A few years back I read an interview with Orson Bean, inwhich he said that panelists weren't simply hired, but cast for their personalities.
As examples, he used his own panel mates on To Tell The Truth:
Kitty Carlisle was a Margaret Dumont type, who would dependably react to Bean's wisecracks. Peggy Cass was more down-to-earth, and Tom Poston served as straightman.
Later, Bill Cullen amped up the wiseacre qoutient: Garry Moore, who'd taken over for Bud Collyer by that time, became the patient schoolmaster, keeping the rowdy kids in line while Miss Carlisle looked on askance.
Orson Bean's point is well taken.
All the sucessful panel games were pretty much "cast" in this same way, sometimes by trial and error.
One point Bean made was that the celeb had to respect the game - he couldn't just be a funny showoff.
This is why latter-day attempts to revive such shows run aground.
The most recent attempt to revive To Tell The Truth was sunk by Paula Poundstone's belief that she was the star of the show, rather than the game itself.

Personal opinion:
The best of all these shows was because that was the one where they didn't tell the audience the answer - we had to play along.
Truth awaits a proper revival, with a panel that understands they are as much the audience as the people in the seats and the folks at home.
Now where are you gonna find modern-day celebs like that?

Mike Doran said...

Goofed on the next-to-last graf: To Tell The Truth is the show I'm referring to.

By the way ...

Am I the only one who's noticed (or is old enough to remember) that since Drew Carey took off all that weight, he's come to closely resemble Bill Cullen?
( ... who, as it happens, was the original 1950s host of The Price Is Right?

RCP said...

I'll watch you wherever you land, Ken.

I always got a kick out of Kitty Carlisle Hart, who seemed more suited to hosting dinner parties on Park Avenue than being a panelist on game shows. She had a pretty impressive background in the theater, appeared in A Night at the Opera with the Marx Brothers, sang publicly up until around 95, and could work an eye mask like nobody's business.

LouOCNY said...

Mike - you couldn't be more wrong about the panel shows being 'fixed'! First of all, a guy like John Charles Daly, who was as straight arrow as a Boy Scout, who never tolerate it.

Second, remember that these shows were done for the most part LIVE, and experienced all of the problems and fun that a situation like that could occur.

Prime exhibit 1: Louis Armstrong was a MG when HELLO DOLLY was a smash on Broadway, and with his rather distinctive voice, was guessed in nanoseconds. With time to kill, Arlene Francis started begging him to sing a little of the title song. Which he proceeded to do. Much to the agony of his agent in the control booth, as he had made an exclusive deal for Louis to sing that - on another show. oops!

The guy who produced all 20+ years of WML, Gil Fates, wrote a very readable book about the show. The machinations they through to keep the panelists from figuring out a show's Mystery Guest are quite interesting, as they knew that most of the panelists, ESPECIALLY Kilgallen, knew who was in town, what shows/movies were opening, etc, etc. If it was someone the panelists knew very well, they would actually have the MG bum a ride to the airport with one of them, and sometimes even fly them out and back in!

LouOCNY said...

This discussion would be not complete without this little gem from the folks at SCTV Catherine O'Hara's 'Dorothy' is spooky!

normadesmond said...

thanks lou, i don't recall ever seeing that SCTV. loved it. i taped every single solitary WML, TTTT, IGAS and all the other stuff GSN showed. i'll be SOL when VCRs vanish.

Michael said...

Mike Doran, you're right, and the perfect example is that when Garry Moore would miss To Tell the Truth, Bill Cullen would fill in. But when Moore was out for months with throat cancer, the producers found that they lost something without Cullen on the panel and made Joe Garagiola the guest host. The show wasn't the same--Garagiola wasn't in Moore's league in this kind of show, although he was a much better catcher than Garry--but the interplay among the panelists was crucial. Much the same with What's My Line. Arlene Francis was wonderful in so many ways, but it helped that Dorothy Kilgallen was at heart an investigator and interrogator while Francis was a puzzle solver. A big difference that made for a better show.

Paul Duca said...

Michael...the story is that Henry Morgan was nearly let go from I'VE GOT A SECRET was that he was accused of having "subversive" tendencies, in the era of Joe McCarthy and blacklisting.
Garry Moore went to CBS and told them "If Henry goes, I go"--from SECRET and his popular daytime variety program.