July 29, 2014

The Junk Drawer: Game shows and quiz shows — the original reality TV

Select a category, give an answer. Spin a wheel, guess a letter or buy a vowel. Call a friend who just happens to know Gerald Ford’s middle name, win some money. Game shows are truly in a class of their own. They are the original reality shows.

Anybody, whether a science teacher from a small town in Massachusetts, a factory worker from Detroit or a college student from New York, can be thrown onto an equal playing field that is game shows. The unpredictability of the wheel on “Wheel of Fortune,” a complaint of, “Why not just take the money?” from audiences watching “Let’s Make a Deal,” and the, “How did he know that?” reaction on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” make game shows interactive.

Game shows have been part of American culture even before television. Quiz shows were on the radio in the 1930s, the first ones being “Professor Quiz” and “Uncle Jim’s Question Bee” according to Telewatcher.com. “Truth or Consequences” was the first game show to be broadcast on commercially-licensed television, ushering in the TV game show in 1941.

When money is involved, however, there will be those who cheat the system. One of the most infamous swindlers of the game show was Michael Larson. Larson was a contestant on “Press Your Luck” in 1984. The concept of the show was to press a button and stop the “randomly” moving cursor rotating around a board with changing prizes, ranging from $500 to the dreaded Whammy space, which is the equivalent of the Bankrupt slice in “Wheel of Fortune.”

On his first turn, Larson whammied, but then the streak began. He somehow kept hitting the “$1,000 and a free spin” space over and over again. Larson, through taping and studying hours of “Press Your Luck,” figured out the pattern of the cursor, and the result was $110,237. Larson later lost all of his money when it was stolen while he and his girlfriend attended a Christmas party. Though Larson didn’t “technically” cheat, the new version of the show, “Whammy,” made sure the pattern could not be discovered so easily.

Keeping in line with the theme of those who hate fun and love rigging the system, “Twenty-One” was a quiz show in the 1950s that started the quiz show scandals. On “Twenty-One,” a challenger and a champion would sit in separate isolation booths as the host asked questions ranging in point values based on difficulty. The winner was the first to score 21 points.

The pilot show had horrible ratings, as the two contestants knew nothing, and the almighty sponsor Geritol was pissed. They wanted better ratings or they would pull their sponsorship. The show eventually became fixed, with one of its more famous moments being the duel between Herbert Stempel and Charles Van Doren in 1956. Stempel knew the answer to the question of what film was the 1955 Oscar winner for best picture, but was instructed to answer incorrectly to the more popular Van Doren. After the revelation, ratings tanked, and the American game show was in turmoil.

Then there are the good guys. Those whose knowledge (I’ve heard some call trivial knowledge “useless,” but when it makes you cash money, they change their minds) makes other contestants and those watching at home drop their jaws. I’m talking about two people in particular: John Carpenter and Ken Jennings.

On Nov. 19, 1999, Carpenter, then a revenue officer for the IRS, sat in the hot seat on the wildly popular “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I recall watching this show as a 9-year-old (yes, I watched “Jeopardy!” and “Millionaire” as a child) while sitting on the floor playing my GameBoy. My living room fell silent as Carpenter made it to the million-dollar question. He still had all his lifelines as the question “Which of these U.S. presidents appeared on the television series ‘Laugh-In’?” appeared on the screen. He used his Phone-A-Friend lifeline. I remember my dad yelling something along the lines of “Oh, come on! I know this one!” Carpenter called his father simply to say, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to win the million dollars.” He gave the answer of Richard Nixon, and the crowd erupted in cheers. History was made.

Ken Jennings, the software engineer from Washington state, began his stay on “Jeopardy!” in June 2004. He fired off the answers in question forms, and eventually found his way to 75 consecutive episodes, a streak that would make Joe DiMaggio blush. He was taken down on his 75th game when he incorrectly guessed on Final Jeopardy. His streak saw him take home $2,520,700 during the 75 games. Now that’s a brainiac.

Shows that originally debuted decades ago such as “Jeopardy!,” “The Price is Right,” and “Let’s Make a Deal” are now institutions in game show lore. These daytime game shows stand the test of time and give us an opportunity to stretch our brains each day. I could go on and on about my love for game shows and my desire to one day be on “Jeopardy,” but I have limited space. Maybe you’ll see me on there some day in the future.

By the way, Gerald Ford’s middle name is Rudolph, and he played football for the University of Michigan.

“The Junk Drawer” is a weekly column by Journal Opinions Editor Tim Doty.

Photo illustration by Victoria Courtney and David Nash

 

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