Monday, October 25, 2021

When game shows were naturally funny

 Since we seem to be on a nostalgia kick following this weekend's post...

The remake of classic game shows is a current network trend.  And they try desperately to be funny.  As a result they are so forced and for my money, mostly unwatchable.  When ABC has to rely on Anthony Anderson's mother for laughs you know we've reached rock bottom. 

Some of the original game shows elicited laughs, but usually they came out of the double meanings of certain questions and answers.  They weren't desperate quips by celebrity guest stars.  And unlike today, these shows were done live.  Bloopers and unexpected moments were part of the fun.  I'm sure the current prime-time game shows are edited to death in order to eke out a semblance of actual entertainment.  

Here is an example of a classic game from the 1950's.  It's called WHAT'S MY LINE?  Four panelists have to guess the occupation of the guest.  So the occupations tend to be somewhat unusual to better stump the panel.  Part of the charm (and bonus humor) of the show is John Daly, the moderator.  His attempts to clarify points are so long-winded and precise that he forever confuses everybody.  

Enjoy a segment from WHAT'S MY LINE?   Remember, this was 1958.  I don't want any "This is inappropriate and offensive" comments.  No one was offended then.



61 comments :

Dave Dahl said...

Loved What's My Line and I've Got a Secret when GSN had "Black and White Sunday Night."

Jeff said...

This is inappropriate and offensive! Just kidding.

Unknown said...

Intelligence, wit and manners in panelists make a huge difference, Ken. And the WHAT’S MY LINE panel had that.

Seems to me the new shows want the level of hilarity of the 70s MATCH GAME. The difference, of course, is that those moments just happened, and were helped by taping three of the week’s shows after a liquid lunch.

Mike Barer said...

I remember watching the syndicated version of What's My Line in the 70s. They had Wally Bruner, and later, Larry Blyden as hosts. Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf were always on the panel.

Ted O'Hara said...

I'd love to see What's My Line revived. The interesting thing about it is that of the regular panelists, only only two were entertainers. Dorothy Kilgallen was a reporter, and Bennett Cerf was a publisher. Less well known was that in the early days, while the producers would not tell the panel the contestant's lines, they would suggest funny avenues of questioning to the comedian panelists. (They called this a "gambit", and stopped after the game show scandals).

I think you, Ken, would make a good panelist yourself in a revival. If they ever did revive it, I hope they would maintain the air of formality and respect for intelligence that the original network version had. As you pointed out, half the fun of these original shows was watching John Charles Daly attempt to "clarify" a point via a trip through the thesaurus.

If we agree Ken would make a good panelist, who else would we cast on it?

Brian Stanley said...

Ken,
Assuming it’s not just my browser issue, there’s no link here.

Lemuel said...

I miss Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson.

VincentS said...

Great clip, Ken.

Chuck said...

As a kid, I loved "Matchgame". The stars were all so funny. Often though, I would be stupified as to why my Mom (and the studio audience) was laughing hysterically when, as far as I could tell, nothing funny had been said. Watching those old episodes now, as an adult, I get it. It's called innuendo. Something the current stars/makers of Alec Baldwin's "Matchgame" have no concept of. They go straight to the dirty joke / the dirty comment. The laughtrack (that's got to be a laughtrack) finds those jokes an absolute laugh riot. There's no way I would allow a kid to watch this - very unfunny - filth. I've attempted to watch some of the other remake game shows. To me, they are unwatchable. I do enjoy those old game show reruns on Buzzer. And yes, I have watched "What's My Line". So simple, so engaging and yes, so funny.

Fred said...


Many of the extant pre-1970s panel shows — besides providing spontaneous good humor — have — with the seeming loss (or unavailability) of surviving talk/news shows and newsreels — gifted us with the sole audio-visual records of entertainers and other notables — with the participants often appearing as close approximations of their real-life selves.

An especially deep historical debt is owed to the archivists at Goodson-Todman for the many surviving Truth Secret and Line kinescopes.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/What%27s_My_Line%3F (700+ kinescopes) was the crown jewel of the GT panel shows — witty competitive panelists, a cosmopolitan NYC audience, and guests and panelists who’d’ve never ventured to California TV studios.
https://markgoodson.fandom.com/wiki/What%27s_My_Line%3F/Episode_Guide
Guest-wise, the radio quiz show Information Please was in certain respects a What’s My Line precursor

GT sample installments


What’s My Line
~ 11:30 A mystery guest signs in
~15:00 Ernie Kovacs questions him
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3oOjFbWHPk


I’ve Got A Secret
Samuel Seymour, last eye witness to Lincoln assassination
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UtF4sYya-0c

Guffman said...

You Tube has hundreds of episodes of "What's My Line" available, and the pool of well-known witty celebrities appearing as guests and panelists was staggering. Were there just more talented people back then? It sure seems so.

Don G said...

Mr. John Daly was a classic television host. Remarkable how easily he kept things moving, with wit and wisdom.

kent said...

Scroll to the bottom and click on "view web version"

Jeff Boice said...

That was a long time ago. Besides hosting "What's My Line?" on CBS, John Daly anchored ABC's evening newscast in the 50's.

Darwin's Ghost said...

It's not a browser issue. If you're viewing on a phone, you need to click view web version.

Al in PDX said...

I enjoy watching some of the old "What's My Line" episodes on YouTube, especially with humorous mystery guests. Groucho signing in as "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith is a classic. Or Bob Hope's reaction when one of the panelists guesses his identity as Bing Crosby.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I have an aversion to television people straddling news and showbiz, a la Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric. But in the early years of the medium, it was permissible.

During some of the time John Daly was moderating "What's My Line?" on CBS, he also served as head of ABC News and broadcast that network's evening newscast.

Simularly, Hugh Downs was a morning fixture on NBC in the 1960s, preciding over both the "Today" program and the game show "Concentration."

But Daly and Downs were so erudite and low-key, and their shows were so relatively cerebral, they could somehow get by with their dual roles.

Today, though, such a thing should be discouraged. The late, great Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour and a one-time newspaperman, practically made it a commandment:

"You are not in the entertainment business," he told journalism graduates at Harvard in 2006.

D. McEwan said...

Seeing Dorothy Kilgallon on this page made me mildly sick. She was a vile, far-right-wing, red-baiting, would-be-demagogue, who used her column to RUIN the careers and lives of people she disagreed with politically. Horrible, horrible woman. She makes me wish I was not an atheist, so I could believe she is roasting in Hell where the bitch belongs.

Yes, what ABC has done to To Tell the Truth is dreadful and unwatachable, ruining a game which worked perfectly well for decades, and that brief Gong Show revival with Mike Myers was an abomination. But I enjoy the Match Game revival. Let's face it, Brett Sommers seemed a lot funnier 40 years ago than she would now. (Another celeb famous for being famous.) Look at the old Match Game reruns. (There must be a hundred re-run episodes of Match Game aired daily on GSN and BUZZR.) She turns out to be tiresome, and her "Banter" with Charles Nelson Reilly threadbare.

In any event, anyone who wants to see the old game shows has hundreds available to them daily on those two channels. Wondering who will win a lovely whatnot from "The Spiegle Catalog" (Whatever the Hell that was) in a 1972 game show is one enjoyable way to hide from the disgust of watching the Republicans daily trying to dismantle American democracy.

Linda said...

Ken you naughty boy. Out of all the amazing clips from What’s My Line? (my personal favorite: the appearance of Eleanor Roosevelt) you pick the one with the guy who operates the skirt blowing machine and then instruct us not to call it inappropriate.

This brings back fond memories of watching WML on Sunday nights. Dad always made popcorn and spread newspaper on the table to catch errant butter drips. This show was so elegant, the women in evening dress, everyone so articulate. A far cry indeed from today’s game shows.

Don Kemp said...

Gee, Mr. McEwan, where were you on November 8, 1965?

Breadbaker said...

Coincidentally, I've been watching a lot of old What's My Line? episodes on YouTube. While I agree with Ken's take, my strongest impression is that I'm watching the last days of a world where five New Yorkers considered they knew everything going on in the world that mattered and the world catered to their mores. You see the two women panelists always sit when shaking contestants' hands, while the men rise. A film is only real if it is "currently playing on Broadway". And they are often stumped by ordinary people they've met quite recently, like the barber who just cut the hair of one of them or the person who just applied their makeup. I don't mean this as a criticism but as a indication of what an historical artifact this is. As the original series heads into the social upheaval of the later sixties, it becomes even more anachronistic. The audience wolf whistles at any attractive female contestant even more so.

TimWarp said...

It was a rare Sunday night when my parents would let me stay up to watch "What's My Line?" (it came on half an hour after my bedtime) but I loved it. It was so glamorous!

mike schlesinger said...

As long as we're sharing clips, here's my all-time favorite:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1fScPVKndI&t=207s

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Ernie Kovacs hosted a parody of quiz shows like WML called Take a Good Look. I think most of the episodes are available free on PlutoTV and Tubi (I download the apps and watch ony phone). It's very creative and funny and Kovacs sometimes wings it when things don't run perfectly.

There's quite a bit of Kovacs's early work available for streaming, including shows from The Ernie Kovacs Collection. Crackle offers his movie costarring Doris Day and Jack Lemmon, It Happened to Jane.

A few years ago TCM had a Kovacs mini-fest and I caught some of his films. My favorite was Five Golden Hours (directed by Mario Zampi, who was Italian but directed some of the best British comedies of the 50s like Laughter in Paradise). Also enjoyed Operation Mad Ball, also with Lemmon.

My mom used to do songs and bits from the Kovacs shows when she was cleaning, cooking, etc. They stayed in my head and I didn't realize the source till I started watching some of the Kovacs episodes. She probably had a crush on him which I get now.

Curt Alliaume said...

The 1970s Match Game was freewheeling and occasionally risque (partially because of the wine served at dinner breaks between the first three tapings and the last two), but it also had charming, spontaneous moments. Here's one of my favorite moments.

https://youtu.be/94qbnTMrc5w

Rick Whelan said...

Fred Allen was an early panelist on What's My Line. When he died, the remaining panelists expressed their grief. Actual tears were shed. I must have been seven or eight and it was the first time I felt death's sting. As far as today's game-show revivals, those old game shows depended on sincere and unsophisticated contestants. Today, every civilian is a "gifted comic" and they act like they are all finalists on Last Comic Standing. I miss all those Elmer Ledbetters from Bumcrack, Iowa!

Call Me Mike said...

To steal a line from Dr. Jones, What's My Line "belongs in a museum!"

I mean it really is a treasure trove of folks with odd professions, many of which probably no longer exist, and celebrities doing goofy voices to disguise themselves. Who knew Elizabeth Taylor could sound like that...?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gR-vU44gd4

YEKIMI said...

I get a kick out of watching the 70s version of The Match Game online. However, it also depresses me when I realize how many of those celebrities that made me laugh my ass off are no longer with us. And some of them I am like "Who the hell is that and what did they ever star in?"

Michael said...

Oh, I MISS Sunday Night in Black and White on GSN, whose programming has gone way downhill. Buzzr has the Goodson-Todman shows, but not enough of the black and white, either.

I'll also say that anyone who doesn't love Arlene Francis needs a checkup from the neck up.

One thing about the panel shows of that era: The panelists were bright people. They were clearly up on the news and well-read. I wonder today if it would be possible to find four celebrities willing to do one of those panels. There was an attempt to bring back WML with Harry Anderson, who would have been fun, but it didn't work out.

Daly had been with CBS News before going to ABC, and was steadfast about not doing any kinds of demonstration of the sort that the next big G-T hit, "I've Got a Secret," did. The host there was Garry Moore, who didn't come from a journalism background and ranks close to Vin Scully in my pantheon of great communicators.

D. McEwan, Ms. Kilgallen was quite a case, and the rumors persist that she was murdered because she had gotten an interview or information with Jack Ruby. Frank Sinatra despised her and would never do the show until after she died.

Spike, Kovacs was a WML panelist for a while and his classic was one night when a mystery guest was Edsel Ford, and when they figured out a car was named for the guy, he said, "Are you Abraham Lincoln?" Before him, Fred Allen had that chair and before him Steve Allen. They were funny and they were smart. And we miss them.

And, yes, Ken for a panelist!

Pete Grossman said...

We do enjoy binge-watching Steve Harvey hosting Family Feud on The Game Show Network, often seeing it before we go to sleep. The show is a wonderful elixir from all the horrible news that's happening around us. The questions are often playfully naughty. Harvey is hilarious - he's totally immersed in the game - just his moves and looks elicit laughs. He's an excellent host/showman.

KLA 83 said...

By far the worst of the reboots is YOU BET YOUR LIFE. I mean, I don't dislike Jay Leno but this painful to watch. Shticks from his old TONIGHT show days. Kevin Eubanks's role as awkward sideman there for no discernable reason. The only show with a dumber host/sideman relationship was the recent COLLEGE BOWL with Peyton Manning and his brother Cooper. Cooper is actually quite charming, but the format and his role are so stupid...

Joe said...

D. McEwan, can you name one life or one career that was ruined?

Drew K. said...

I found that clip to be tedious, rather than humorous. And skirt-blowing sounds #$@* idiotic. Tee-hee.

Ted. said...

I think the funniest game show today is "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me" on NPR (also available as a podcast). It's a quiz about the week's news, with a panel of contestants (usually a mix of comedians, comedy writers and book authors), and listeners who call in. There's also a segment in which a celebrity guest answers questions, usually based on a pun about their name or profession. Since they canceled "Live From Here" (the musical successor to "A Prairie Home Companion"), it's one of the only remaining shows on public radio that doesn't cause drowsiness.

Mitch said...

one game show I enjoyed in the 70's was Make Me Laugh. I still remember Bruce Baum trying to get a nurse to laugh, who was trying to control herself with breathing exercises from a Lamaze class.
I would think they would try to make it today, but I doubt they could afford the comedians.

Bill O said...

Jack Lemmon got Kovacs into movies. Major fan. Narrated an Ernie doc. And was rumored to once been part of The Nairobi Trio.

gottacook said...

Michael: I don't see how Edsel Ford could have been a guest on What's My Line, seeing as how he died in 1943 and the show began in 1950.

(There's an Edsel Ford II, his grandson, but he wasn't born until 1948. Imagine what his life must have been like as a 10-year-old when his name was on a car the whole country was laughing about.)

Sparks said...

Maybe you would consider writing about the fact that before game shows there were quiz shows, and how one breed disappeared and another flourished.

MikeN said...

Pete Magistro, it says on my phone that you operate a skirt blowing machine at Coney Island. Am I correct?

MikeN said...

Hey wait a minute, this panel has seen the same occupation before:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-27grhoCGg

Mark--> said...

Here's one of John Daly's finest performances as WML host: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqPW591Xfaw

DwWashburn said...

Game shows are probably my favorite television shows. The reboots by ABC have, for the most part, been entertaining. My favorite reboot has been To Tell the Truth. If would be even better if they tanked the mom. The best, however, has been a new game hosted by Craig Ferguson called The Hustler. It's kind of a To Tell the Truth on steriods. And it has Ferguson who is always entertaining.

But, yes, there are several reboots I can't stand. Supermarket Sweep, Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune.

BillS said...

I was surprised to see Eamonn Andrews on the US version of the show. He was a big name on British TV and radio for many years. He was the host of the British version in the 1950s. He was a boxing commentator on BBC radio and presented a radio sports news show on Saturday afternoons. On TV he hosted a long running children’s show and “This is your life” and later a talk show.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

"Break Your Brains" is a hilarious sketch from the Sid Caesar Show that parodies quiz shows. I love where he has to guess the titles of some paintings and one of them is "Soup 'n Greens." The sheer amount of dialogue in this and many other sketches is a testament to Sid's brilliance and agility...there weren't any cue cards on his shows.

Legendary Hawaiian comedian Rap Reiplinger spoke of how much he was influenced by Ernie Kovacs. One of his greatest sketches, "Aunty Marialani's Cooking Show" (Rap is Aunty), seems like a very close parody/tribute to Kovacs's Chef Miklos Molnar sketches, with a funny chicken and getting drunker as he cooks.

Rap died at age 33 in the 80s but he's still popular and part of today's Hawaiian culture. You might hear someone sip a glass of wine and say, "Not too sweet, not too rancid, but just right!" Rap's widow published a book about him a few years ago that got very good reviews, haven't read it yet. She suggests that the fall from a cliff that killed him might have been a homicide and has tried to reopen the cold case.

https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/top-5-comedy-routines-from-the-1982-tv-special-raps-hawaii/

Tom said...

The guy's occupation could have been worse. Riverview Park in Chicago (among others) had an attraction called the African Dip. Feel free to google it, but it doesn't take much imagination to guess what it was.

I'm Outraged! said...

from the youtube comments
Scott Lomagistro
This is my Grandfather, Master Sgt Peter Lomagistro. He was an amazing man, who lived a long life, yet towards the end was only able to remember the horrific aspects of war, when he was able to remember anything at all. I love to watch this video, and remember the happy, funny man, he once was able to be. Toughest man I have ever met...ever.... my grandfather fought the Germans and Italians in Africa, and Europe.

Mark Murphy said...

Regarding Ernie Kovacs' Abraham Lincoln joke:

The guest was not a Ford but industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who founded a car company that bore his name.

Peter Aparicio said...

For my money, the Gene Rayburn hosted day time "Match Game __"(fill in the year) was lightening in a bottle. We'll NEVER have that again.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Lemmon reportedly identified the remains after Kovacs was killed in a car crash in Los Angeles in 1962.

D. McEwan said...

"Don Kemp said...
Gee, Mr. McEwan, where were you on November 8, 1965?"


I was on the campus of Westminster High School, in Orange County, CA, attending classes for my sophomore year. After school I was in the school drama room, rehearsing our fall play, Our Town, in which I had the leading role. The evening I spent at home doing homework and watching TV.

Where were you?

Kendall Rivers said...

@D. McEwan. I really hope you're playing the rambling nut case role because if it's not an act I'm deeply concerned for your stability. Yikes.

D. McEwan said...

"Michael said...
I'll also say that anyone who doesn't love Arlene Francis needs a checkup from the neck up.

D. McEwan, Ms. Kilgallen was quite a case, and the rumors persist that she was murdered because she had gotten an interview or information with Jack Ruby."


Arlene was wonderful and charming. Her husband, Martin Gabel, was far less so, and he was quite insufferably rude to me when I had the misfortune to meet him when I was 15. But I've never held him against her.

The FBI investigated Kilgallen's death quite thoroughly, and finally ruled that she was not murdered, so rumors are all they are. The suspect list must have been ENORMOUS! I bet they did investigate Sinatra in that investigation because, yes, he hated her even more than I did. For a wonderfully awkward moment, check the episode where Nancy Sinatra has to shake Kilgallen's talon after being the Mystery Guest. No words were exchanged.

So no, she wasn't murdered. She OD'd while drunk.

Darwin's Ghost said...

I'd never heard of Dorothy Kilgallen before today. I looked her up on Wikipedia and read about her JFK assassination investigation and the theories around her death.

I obviously don't know if she was murdered, but I wouldn't rely upon the conclusions of the FBI, given it was the same FBI who decided Oswald acted alone.

Darwin's Ghost said...

P.S. I don't know anything about Kilgallen's politics. I despise Republicans, as my previous comments have shown. That notwithstanding, making an enemy of Sinatra isn't by itself indicative of an unpleasant person, as Sinatra was a piece of shit rapist and a buddy of mobsters who used his connections to get what he wanted.

Jeff Boice said...

I have some sympathy for Miss Kilgallen. Arlene and Bennett were witty and charming, but poor Dorothy was the party pooper who wrote a gossip column for Hearst. There's some Bennett Cerf interviews where he notes they couldn't socialize with her on the set out of fear that something they'd say would end up in her column. And she took the game seriously to the point she'd get upset if she went a few weeks without guessing an occupation. She definitely was the uncool one. Which lumps her in with me and 98 percent of the population.

ScarletNumber said...

Here is a link of WML from December 30, 1962. Not only does it feature Ray Nitschke, who was named MVP of the NFL Championship game held earlier that afternoon in Yankee Stadium, but the mystery guest was Vaughn Meader, who made his living as a JFK impersonator. Meader and Kilgallen had a heartfelt moment, and both of their careers would be permanently altered by the events of November 22, 1963.

Curt Alliaume said...

One more clip that might not have happened in today's shows because they're so heavily edited. In Super Password, starting at 3:12, Edie McClurg is giving clues and accidentally says the password... whereupon Bert Convy tries to lighten the mood by joking around and accidentally makes things worse.

https://youtu.be/3Nv8UMIWmPE?t=192

Anne said...

This post was amazing and not just because Ernie Kovacs showed up in the comments. I had just been reading about Dorothy Kilgallen in connection with the JFK records. Turns out the serious JFK researchers do think Kilgallen had gotten important information when she went to New Orleans, including the Ruby/Oswald connection. Her files were never found, and the manuscript, her notes and interviews never surfaced.

I hadn't known she was a high profile crime reporter: apparently she took it seriously and had a good reputation for accuracy. (That's not to disrespect other views of her.)

Kilgallen had a personal connection to JFK, publicly announced she was going to crack the case, and called the Warren Commission 'laughable.' That may have been awkward at WML because John Daly, VP of ABC News, was married to the daughter of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

There's lots more of course--it's interesting how much was going on behind the witty banter of this popular game show. Fascinating stuff.

Brandi said...

When I struggle to sleep I often pull up What’s My Line episodes on YouTube and always marvel at how smart, polite and funny they are. I love how they were able to entertain, how they truly make me laugh without being crude or cruel to others. Dorothy Kilgallen was especially witty. It would be nice to bring back that kind of smart humor. Thanks for the story today!

Katie G said...

I'm 32, but as a kid I LOVED watching old games shows. My favorite was when Lucy and Desi would appear as secret guests on these types of shows.

Jack West said...

Talk about dressed up dapper and wit, next, "Stump the Stars" with Hans Conried, Sebastian Cabot and Ross Martin, please, please, please.