I have been a game show nut all my life. Some of my earliest memories are of network game shows on morning TV before I went to school (meaning before I was attending kindergarten). I loved the Concentration game board with its motorized “trilons” revealing prizes and puzzle pieces to the contestants. I loved Concentration’s cheesy organ music that opened and closed the show, introduced new contestants from behind the “elevator door” entrance to the studio (“Let’s meet your new opponent”, Hugh Downs would intone at that dramatic moment) and played the background music as a new puzzle-solver would listen to the show’s announcer rattle off the descriptions to the prizes he or she had won in the latest victory. If one of those prizes was a chance to spin the “cash wheel” or to read the contents of “The Envelope”, it was even better. And when “Concentration” advanced to being, at least for a little while, a game show with slightly better prizes you could watch somewhere in the evening’s prime-time viewing schedule, well, that just showed how magical “Concentration” really was. (And I love how, to this day, David Letterman will sometimes throw the phrase “and the board goes back” into his conversation with the rich and famous who sit at his desk to briefly chat.)
I loved “Captain Kangaroo”, but I loved game shows more. I loved the giant real-life game board of “Video Village”, with its “Miracle Mile”, its jail and its bird-cage dice roller; at that point, no one had any idea that the host of Video Village (Monty Hall) would someday turn into the iconic host of “Let’s Make a Deal”. I didn’t quite understand the rules to “Surprise Package” or “Double Exposure”, but I loved the blinking lights and the feel of excitement generated by the shows. I was still too young to be able to spell four-letter words or to be able to put them in a crossword layout, but I still loved Jan Murray’s “Charge Account”.
As I got older, I loved the slot machine graphics and action of “The Joker’s Wild”, still blissfully unaware of Jack Barry’s historical place in game show scandal history. I loved Wink Martindale’s stereotypical game show host’s smile and big chin, and how he genuinely seemed happy when someone on “Gambit” or “Tic-Tac-Dough” won big money and prizes. I loved the psychology at work on the short-lived “Temptation”, wherein contestants would select the prizes they wanted to win, knowing that if they selected the same prize one of the other contestants selected, they’d both lose the prize.
I secretly resented “The Price is Right”‘s success as a game show, figuring that they were just capitalizing on “Let’s Make a Deal’s” earlier grab-a-contestant-from-the-audience format, but still enjoying Bob Barker’s continuing employment on TV’s early morning small screen. I had watched Barker on “Truth or Consequences”, getting a kick out of “Beulah the Buzzer” which would always signify that a contestant had failed to tell the truth and must therefore suffer the consequences, and Bob’s “TPIR” presence was a somewhat comforting reminder that the more TV game shows changed, the more they stayed the same.
I loved Jack Narz of “Seven Keys” (the only game show taping I ever attended in my life was as a youngster at the ABC studios in Los Angeles for “Keys”) and his brother, Tom Kennedy, who gave contestants a daily opportunity to go home with a new car on “Split Second”, who had found earlier success on “You Don’t Say” and who brought down the house on “Split Second” one day when he used the phrase as a topper to a contestant’s rejoinder to one of that day’s game’s questions.
And boy, did I love the home game versions of these shows. God bless toy and game manufacturer Milton Bradley, maker of many a home version of TV game shows, which eventually got swallowed up by Hasbro in 1984. An ominous year, indeed.
I could go on and on. Much as I’d love to do so, the point of all of this is that I want to draw attention to an article I just found at Slate.com, in which Justin Peters recounts his recent experience as a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. It’s a marvelous story he tells, and like all good stories, it contains a rise, a fall and another rising. Did he win the big money? No; as the story makes clear, the show has made it extremely difficult to walk home with a million bucks any more (during the show’s first season, “the insurance company that paid out the big jackpots actually sued the show’s creators because the game was too easy”). But the most important thing he got from it was that sometimes, you just need to take the shot; worrying about winning or losing doesn’t have to be the most important factor. Sure, everyone wants to be a winner, but the game’s structure actually rewards cowardice when you get up to where the big-money questions are: do I really want to risk $250,000 on a guess and the chance to go for a half-a-million bucks, or wouldn’t it really be more prudent to go home with the quarter-mil?
Anyway, here’s the link: I Wanted to Be a Millionaire. If you’re a game show fan, like me (or even somewhat less fanatical about game shows than I am), you should read this.