During the summer of 2006, many game show fans on the internet have had very animated discussions about the shows that appeared on GSN’s “50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time” list. Which shows should have been ranked higher, lower, were neglected, or didn’t deserve to make the list at all?
Well, here’s MY take on the subject. After a lengthy process of categorizing over 70 deserving shows, ranking the shows within each category, then pitting the categories against each other in an all-out buzzer battle, the following 50 shows made my cut as the greatest shows ever. I tried to judge all of these shows as objectively as possible. No favorites played, no punches pulled. And for those of you that know me, you might be surprised by my choices, even finding a few shows that I’ve never even seen before!
And now, let’s meet our champions!
#50 – STREET SMARTS
Ah, I’m so thankful for having Dish Network when I first got married, otherwise I would not have been able to find this show on WGN and appreciate it for what it was: a simple comedy game show based on the Tonight Show’s “Jaywalking” segment. It was funny and showed people for what they were without being mean to them. I mean, here was a show where being a comedian actually worked, as Frank Nicotero proved. It biggest drawback was having late-night time slots in many areas, but for 5 years, we always found it.
#49 – WIN, LOSE OR DRAW
The motif was set around Burt Reynolds’ living room. The concept came from Burt’s parties, where a shy Fred Astaire refused to do charades, but would draw instead. Overall, a very durable show that is readily available so long as you have a pencil and paper handy. And you don’t even have to be a good artist to play.
#48 – YOU BET YOUR LIFE
This is a strange one, because I always look at this for having too much comedy and conversation rather than an actual game. But since it’s Groucho, you can’t go wrong. Who cares if the jokes were scripted? Also, they always made sure you left with something. What was the color of Napoleon’s white horse, anyway?
#47 – VIDEO VILLAGE
In most board games, we all know the feeling of getting shafted because we rolled the wrong number. “Video Village” offered the chance to experience that same fate on television. A living board game, the show was innovative in its games and spaces, and the set was an incredible display.
#46 – $ALE OF THE CENTURY
Dubbed “America’s Biggest Bargain Sale”, this solid quiz show gave its contestants the chance to buy fabulous prizes for very inexpensive costs. A $1,700 trip to Las Vegas for $15? Or a $20,000 sailboat for only $326? Where do I sign up? Already a modest success back in the 60′s, and a smash in Australia for years, “$ale” reached its greatest fame in the 80′s with Jim Perry. But that same version also suffered severe backlash when NBC forced them to change their Showroom bonus game in favor of other formats which took away from the essence of what the show was about. Regardless, the show presented a challenging quiz while trying to retain its identity in one form or another.
#45 – TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
You have to admit, this show was purposely lopsided. What started as an innocent quiz became a embarrassing stunt show once the wrong answers were expectedly given. But the stunts were still very fun without degrading the contestants, who were all laughing anyway. And imagine what the game show landspace would have been like today if Ralph Edwards didn’t fight tooth and nail to bring Bob Barker into our living rooms.
#44 – SURVIVOR
The reality game show craze began here. Over the years, it has had as many detractors blaming it for the bane of civilization as it has had fans who throw themed parties season after season. Developed from the Swedish show “Expedition Robinson”, Mark Burnett began his “social experiment” in 2000, where the scheming Richard Hatch used his alliances and backstabbing to set the tone for every series that followed. But say what you will, the show requires a tremendous amount of strength and stamina to win. And I challenge you to withstand the same environmental punishment in all of those dangerous locales for 39 days, with or without rewards thrown in.
#43 – HIGH ROLLERS
Answer a question. Roll the dice. Eliminate the numbers 1 through 9 to win thousands in cash and prizes. It was a furiously fast and fun concept, and it even saw a couple of evolutions to the game in its lifespan. Both Alex Trebek and Wink Martindale kept the Vegas feel alive for their contestants. But don’t let Alex’s attitude fool you on the 2nd finale in 1980. He wasn’t drunk, he just knew the show was going off, and played his more fun, humorous 70′s personality to the hilt.
#42 – LINGO
How many 5-letter words do you know? That’s all the knowledge you needed to play this word game, along with a little luck in playing bingo. Originally hosted by presidential son Michael Reagan in 1987, it has now acheived its greatest fame as Game Show Network’s longest running original show. Watch one night of its fast, simple style, and you’ll be playing along in no time, too.
#41 – THE $64,000 QUESTION
One of the two shows most associated with the quiz scandals of the 1950′s. In spite of this, it has its great points. It effectively knew how to build tension and drama week after week with the help of Hal March, the dangerous winnings format, and its presentation with those famous isolation booths. Plus, your only opponent was your depth of knowledge in your subject. And let’s not forget, some of the big winners DID win legitimately, even though I’ll never understand how Dr. Joyce Brothers knew so much about boxing of all things.
#40 – GREED
FOX called for “Greed” in response to the success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 1999. They also just as quickly fell out of favor with game shows and pulled it prematurely 8 months later. But from the start, when Daniel Avila, Curtis Warren and Melissa Skirboll broke the $1,000,000 barrier, you knew the show wasn’t going away. The team format and multi-layered question formats proved intriguing, and the danger of knowing your money was never secure kept suspense up. And to think, the first $2,000,000 payout was stopped by a tuna…
#39 – PANTOMINE QUIZ
Before “Pictionary” and “Win, Lose or Draw” made drawing the popular parlor game, charades ruled the roost. For summer after summer in the 1950′s, Mike Stokey brought the greatest comedians and celebrities together to test their communication mettle. And while it was clearly star-driven, home viewers were the winners via submission of the phrases used on the show, and great play-along to a game everyone knew how to play.
#38 – BEAT THE CLOCK
Tick, tock, tick, tock… one of the first stunt shows in the business, “Beat the Clock” was a timeless classic that provided great fun and great prizes. The show’s status was cemented in the 50′s with Bud Collyer, but in its multiple incarnations, couples by the hundreds were always given stunts with plenty of challenge, intensity… and whipped cream. And that famous giant clock was always in the wings ticking away their fate.
#37 – AMERICAN GLADIATORS
Before extreme sports were all the rage, “American Gladiators” set a standard for sports competition like no other. Contestants put their bodies and pride on the line in such grueling physical events as Powerball, the Joust, Breakthrough & Conquer, and the Eliminator obstacle course. The gladiators themselves quickly became pop culture icons, and I even enjoyed this show so much that I used to transform the basement in my childhood home into the Assualt weapons course!
#36 – THE AMAZING RACE
There is a lot to say about this show. It got off to a very shaky start, premiering the week before 9/11 in 2001. But ever since, the show has had it all: Exotic world locales with wonderful picturesque video, incredible challenges and insights into foreign culture, and teams who are less focused on backstabbing and more intent on living the adventure of a lifetime. Wrapped altogether by a worldly host in Phil Keoghan – who was originally tapped to host “Survivor,” and vice versa for Jeff Probst – and it’s no wonder why this show is now a 4-time Emmy award winner (8-time as of 2011).
#35 – YOU DON’T SAY!
Here’s an interesting twist. In this show, you had a communication game that was like “Password”, but the clues you gave were in sentence form like “Pyramid”. Furthermore, the answers to the clues were part of a famous name, which almost seems like a “Pyramid”/”Password Plus” mix in its own right. Clever, and it had perhaps more laughs than either of the other shows put together. A shame, however, that once “Pyramid” took off in the 70′s, this 60′s phenom couldn’t win
anymore with audiences.
#34 – THE BIG SHOWDOWN
Here is another show that never got the credit it really deserved. It may have looked just like any other quiz show, but it carried with it a unique scoring format which brought strategy into the mix. And to complete the package, a chance for winners to get a taste of Vegas by winning up to $10,000 on a roll of the dice. And of course, who can forget Jim Peck’s classic “falldown” entrance?
#33 – BODY LANGUAGE
Game shows were often at their most creative when they took classic games and added another dimension to them. “Body Language” did just that, pairing charades with a clever puzzle format, and host Tom Kennedy was always having fun, often cracking up at the wild gestures celebrities and contestants alike were making.
#32 – CARD SHARKS
Probably my 2nd all-time favorite show, trading off with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” on occasion. It was a simple game of Acey-Ducey that anyone with a deck of cards could emulate and have a good time with. But the thing that really cemented this show was its intriguing survey questions, often asking things that make you wonder if the same response would be given today. And what a eye-popper it was to look at those giant decks of cards. Admit it, you want them, too.
#31 – SCRABBLE
It’s the most successful game show based on a board game in history, and host Chuck Woolery believes the reason is because it hardly resembled the board game at all. To an extent, he’s right, but the crossword/hangman mix still hit home with viewers for six years in the 80′s, and the writers always had hilarious clues waiting in the wings. And, remember, the word is spelled “mosquitos”.
#30 – WHO DO YOU TRUST?
The first rendition, “Do You Trust Your Wife?”, had a great format that offered big money potential for its time (without the fix), and the second helped the future King and Prince of Late Night become household names. But both had the same winning formula of strong quizzing and relaxing, comedic banter between the host and the married couples. There was no way to choose between Edgar Bergen and Johnny Carson back then, and there never will be now.
#29 – DOUBLE DARE
There had been plenty of game shows centered around kids over the years, but Nickelodeon knew what they really wanted: To be kids, make a mess and have a good time. Marc Summers, Paul Harvey and Jason Harris did just that through all of DD’s incarnations. The trivia/stunt mix was top notch, and hey, when you can invite the whole family to make a mess, that’s family bonding at its best.
#28 – SPLIT SECOND
What’s the most frustrating thing about a quiz show? You know the answer, but you lose because you didn’t buzz in fast enough. “Split Second” changed that with its unique system of having three questions in the same subject at once and having contestants answer the one they wanted. The rewards were then split based on how many got their answers right. Of course, if you rang in first, you got first choice, so it was still to your advantage to be quick. Overall, a solid format that stayed throughout the run of the show, and that’s always a good thing.
#27 – DEBT
The title made so much sense, because very often, what do people go on game shows for? The logic of the show worked, too, because the contestant’s scores were based on working their way out of their negative money situations. Best of all, you had Wink Martindale, who proved his skill in hosting many a quiz show over the years. With that and such creativity going for you, you can’t go wrong.
#26 – HOLLYWOOD SHOWDOWN
Probably Andrea’s favorite show on this whole list. Just thought I’d get that out first. Love you, Cutie!
OK, being serious now, you had a really strong quizzer about entertainment and pop culture, a strength for almost anyone even watching television. The payouts were VERY nice, especially since Game Show Network was still working its way in the market. But the best part of the show was Todd Newton himself. In only his first game show, he showed the right combination of poise, energy, and humorous spontaneity to prove that he was made for this business.
#25 – THE JOKER’S WILD
It had probably the most perfect tagline in all of game shows: “The game where knowledge is king and lady luck is queen.” Jack Barry created this show as his launching pad for his return to television following the quiz show scandals of the 50′s, and proved that he had lost none of his skills. The questions came fast, and the spin of the giant slot machine mesmerized audiences and players alike as the wheels came to a stop in time with Jack’s classic call of “Joker… Joker… JOKER!” The fact that it could come down to either your smarts or your luck always made the game interesting and heartpounding every step of the way.
Another thing that made “Joker’s Wild” interesting was the Tournament of Champions that was held every year when the show was revived in syndication in 1977. Normally, the stakes of the show were pretty tame, but by no means chinsy, but with each passing year, the stakes of the tournament grew & grew, ultimately leading to the first $1,000,000 tournament in game show history, with $500,000 being split between the winner and his favorite charity. I don’t know how to describe what it took to win all that money without recalling the show’s tagline again. But if you had it all, not even the devil could stop you.
#24 – TIC TAC DOUGH
While “Joker’s Wild” help revive the Barry & Enright empire, it was “Tic Tac Dough” that cemented them as a big-time player. Originally another one of the scandal-ridden 50′s shows, the format remained solid throughout its lifetime, taking the simple game of tic-tac-toe and assigning categories to the boxes. And of course, that unlimited winnings potential made this the show a “Millionaire” of its time.
In its prime in the 70′s and 80′s, the game was raised further with shuffling categories and clever special categories which often saw both players in action. But the big winnings remained, and no one proved that more than Thom McKee when he won 43 games in 1980, earning $312,700 in cash and prizes. These were records that remained in syndication and all of game shows for many years, and are almost all owned now by Ken Jennings. But Thom, like Ken, became an icon for the show and pop culture. In the summer of 1980, the two big questions on TV were “Who Shot J.R.?” and “How much more will Thom McKee win?” Quite impressive.
#23 – BLOCKBUSTERS
Here’s another quiz show with a twist. Two of them, as a matter of fact. First, “Blockbusters” took standard questions and fashioned them around an initialized, hexagonal puzzle board. In the midst of the cleverness and strategy, you had the added intrigue of having two related people compete against one, although the player going it alone had a handicap to even the playing field. And while it was never clearly established if two heads were better than one, it was a blast to watch them try to settle that dispute.
To this day, many still cannot understand why it took so long for Bill Cullen to be honored in the world of game shows before “Blockbusters” came along. But he truly was deserving of his Emmy nomination for his work here, even if he didn’t win. Perhaps one day, he will get the recognition he truly deserves.
#22 – NAME THAT TUNE
It may not be on television now, but this show has been a pop culture icon ever since it began in the 50′s, and is probably stilled played in some form or another at parties, on car trips, or whereever. But the object was never simpler.
The show really came into its prime in the 1970′s when Ralph Edwards and Tom Kennedy took the reins. The innovative games like “Melody Roulette” and “Bid-A-Note” became synonymous with the show and pop culture. Even in the 80′s version with Jim Lange, the “Tune Topics” round was clever, as I’m sure that putting together lists of tunes with a common theme wasn’t always easy. And then, let’s not forget that the 70′s version introduced the world to Kathie Lee Gifford (then Johnson), who showed that she is perhaps more talented than she is given credit for. But I’m staying out of that argument. You be the judge.
#21 – WIN BEN STEIN’S MONEY
Some game shows like to mix things up a bit when they pit celebrities against one another. Even more interesting is when these shows feature game show hosts playing the games, especially if it’s their own show (like when Pat Sajak played “Wheel of Fortune” in 1997). But how many shows can you think of where the host not only played his own game, but put his own money up as the prize?
Ben Stein, the former Nixon speechwriter and occasional bit comedy actor brought his intelligence, monotone voice and paycheck to the table day in and day out for 5 1/2 years. In so doing, he faced the never-ending humor of crazily written categories and the sharp wit of co-hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Nancy Pimental and Sal Iacono. The result was a challenging quizzer – dubbed by some as “the hardest $5,000 to win on television” – which took itself seriously without actually being serious. Think you have what it takes?
Anyone…? Anyone…? Bueller…?
#20 – TO TELL THE TRUTH
It’s something that we should all remember to do in life. But on this show, lies and deception were served up regularly. Three people, all claiming to be the same person, face a panel of celebrities – often led by the timeless Kitty Carlisle – who then try to determine the real McCoy.
Out of all the Goodson-Todman panel shows, this one had the greatest playalong format. The stories were always interesting, you never knew who the actual person was until that famous question, “Will the real John Doe please stand up?”, was asked. On top of that, the show’s pop culture status was cemented even more with the appearance of Frank Abignale, the world’s greatest criminal imposter. Not only did he stump the panel, his story was translated into the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can”, which featured a clip from the memorable episode. The entire combination proves why “Truth” was worthy of its multiple runs from the 50′s through this decade.
#19 – WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO?
“Do it, Rockapella!”
Many times in popular culture, a popular movie, TV show, or video game has been translated into another form of the medium. Often, the results have left something to be desired, and the examples are too numerous to mention here. But this syndicated PBS show took the classic Broderbund computer game and got it nearly all right. The clues were informational, and their presentation was incredibly creative, from the celebrity cameos (of which there were many who took the time to offer them up) to the vocal stylings of Rockapella, who perhaps created one of the best themes in all of the genre.
But geography was the name of the game, and in true style, they had you bounding from country to country based on your knowledge of the world. This all led to thrilling endgame, where the race to put the last marker on the proper country of the giant map came often down to the wire. And I should note, woe to any contestant who unluckily drew Africa or post-Soviet Asia. I feel for you all.
It was a shame when the format was completely redone after 6 years to reflect on the “Where In Time…?” series of games, this time with history as the focus. But even that game was pretty solid, notably the chronological face-off round. And both shows got to present kids at their finest and brightest, proving that your education CAN get you places, if you’ll pardon the pun.
#18 – DEAL OR NO DEAL
26 cases, 26 denominations of money, from one penny to $1,000,000. Choose a case, then open the others. The banker calls and offers you a buyout based on what cases are left. Do you take the sure thing? Do you open more cases in the hopes of improving the offer? Does your case have that life-changing sum of money?
It’s hard to explain the game in any other way. It’s pure luck in every sense of the word, and it’s become addictive all over the world. But the drama and the strategy come out all along the way, and you start to feel for every person who stands at the table making their decisions. I can only begin to tell you how much I have debated logic with my family about when contestants should have taken the deal and when they should have played on. It’s madness, and I’m sure a lot of you have the same arguments.
The most surprising and welcome part of the show’s success, however, has to be Howie Mandel. In the past, many comedians who have hosted game shows failed because they either didn’t understand the game well enough to make it flow, or worse, didn’t know how to reign in their comedy act so that the game and the contestants could shine. But Howie got it right from day one, and often, he doesn’t need to be funny, because the contestants do it for him. He ends up playing straight man as often as he is the one laying down the jokes. A perfect harmony for such a great game.
And of course, I must acknowledge the lovely ladies. How can you not? After all, every guy has their dream girl. For me, it’s Leyla Milani, lucky number 13. Who’s yours?
#17 – I’VE GOT A SECRET
The phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous” would probably be best to describe this show. After all, the show brought people from all walks of life who had amazing stories to tell, whether as unlikely as twins who are married to twins, or as comical and unusual as riding the world’s tallest unicycle. This by no means makes “Secret” a circus sideshow, but if you wanted a show that would make you go “Wow!”, “Oh my God!”, or “Cool!” very often, then this was the place to be.
Several versions have existed over the decades, led by the ultra-talented Garry Moore in the 50′s and 60′s with that incredible panel of Bill Cullen, Bess Meyerson, Henry Morgan, and Betsy Palmer. And the panel remained just as top notch after Steve Allen took over as host. Sadly, future versions of the show have never lasted very long, including the most recent version on GSN (which, by the way, the gay panel idea never bothered me). But it has continued to pop up, fresh with new stories and amazing feats that define its generation. And I have no doubt it will continue to do so.
#16 – THE NEWLYWED GAME
Here’s a show with a wild history, to say the least. First of all, it was created by Chuck Barris, who practically wrote the book on what evolved into today’s reality genre. Second, it premiered on the same day that a Washington D.C. press conference pre-empted “Password”, resulting in an instant ratings smash. And third, it made a true urban legend out of finding out just where was the strangest place someone ever “made whoopee”.
Say what you will about it, but “The Newlywed Game” really spoke volumes for the couples who competed on just how well they really did know each other. Some would argue that they should have known before they even decided to get married, while in other cases it sounded more like they didn’t know anything at all, (Who would have guessed a pool table is a condiment?) But it was all an innocent game (hopefully), and Bob Eubanks’ skill at getting exactly what he needed out of contestants – even if it was that innocent confession that would turn the whole place upside down – was flawless. It’s a game that I grew to appreciate more once I got married myself. You should, too.
#15 – HOLLYWOOD SQUARES
Tic-tac-toe. A very simple, fun game, but not much more than a good slice of bread. Add questions like “Tic Tac Dough” first did in the 50′s, and now it’s a game show meal. But when Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley threw celebrities into the mix, they brought the dessert to the table… a nice cream pie in your face. And for 40 years and counting, we’ve taken it with the laugh it was meant to be.
The original set the staple for 14 1/2 years. The master, Peter Marshall, and his crop of quick-witted comic A-listers – Paul Lynde, Charlie Weaver, Rose Marie, Wally Cox, and George Gobel, to name a few – knew how to play a solid game and bring the house down. The formats and comedy changed with the times in future versions, but the game always succeeded in defining the stars of its era, for better or for worse. Tom Bergeron’s most recent edition even helped him find his own Secret Square prize: a cemented status as a great comedic and personable emcee that ABC is willing to ride with for a long time. I can’t find any way to argue with that.
#14 – PRESS YOUR LUCK
For years, I have called Press Your Luck “the ultimate game of chance,” and for good reason. A simple trivia contest paves the way to a flashy, colorful board that can rival any slot machine (and even had its own once). The package was made complete by overly-excited contestants, the hysterical Whammies waiting to strike on every spin, fast-paced gameplay, and the witty humor of the late Peter Tomarken and Rod Roddy. It was a feel-good time to be had by all every day. And of course, a special nod has to be given to Michael Larson for his great win, as that added to the show’s legacy even more. I still amaze my students every year when I show them how he did it.
Even when the show was revived by GSN as “Whammy!: The All-New Press Your Luck”, the magic was still there. The Whammies were all perfectly updated for the times, and while we didn’t get Peter back, Todd Newton carried the torch excellently with that same humourous style of interaction with the contestants. “Whammy!” might have had a couple questionable changes, like the Double Whammies, a heavier emphasis on prizes, and no returning champs, but the essence of the game remained. For that, the PYL faithful are thankful.
To this day, when I tell people this is my all-time favorite show, it still brings back memories for them. “Oh, is that the one where they were like, ‘No Whammies, no Whammies, STOP!’?” Puts a smile on my face every time.
#13 – MATCH GAME
Up to this point, I’ve used a lot of puns and taglines for the shows on this list. But if you want a show that thrived on that kind of humor, look no further.
It began as a simple success in the 60′s with teams led by celebrity captains. But once the revival started in 1973, the impact was immediate. The explosion of celebrities, laughs over the double entendre puzzles, and the party atmosphere as created by Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers and Richard Dawson led to a panel that was unmatched by any other game show. And at the helm, Gene Rayburn brought an incredible combination of Broadway class, boyish humor and wit that proved that he was born for this game.
“Match Game ’73″ quickly became the number one show in all of daytime television for almost 3 years, proving this format as the finest. Other versions of the show have come and gone very quickly over the decades, and many attribute that to the show not having the same chemistry and humor of the 70′s. But that’s as much a blessing as it is a curse, because it shows that the show was that iconic for its time that no one can ever see it done in a way other that what we saw before. God bless you, Gene, for giving us that memory.
#12 – LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Speaking of iconic status, here’s another show that fits that mold. The game is a simple one of chance. Contestants chosen by Monty Hall are offered a choice of prizes: one a sure thing, the other an unknown, perhaps even a risk. The games the choices were built around varied, but the object was still the same: Choose the best option and try to work your way up the money ladder in order to have a chance at the Big Deal of the Day. Choose the worst option? Well, you have somewhere to put 1,000 heads of lettuce?
Monty Hall was a double master at this game. First, he knew how to keep the game moving and offer multiple chances at big bucks and zonks to his contestants. Second, he had the gift of ad-libbing, which he had to do hundreds of times based on the actions and wild costumes of his contestants (which were themselves a result of just simply trying to get Monty’s attention). With Jay Stewart and Carol Merrill helping him deal from all sides of the floor, the action was at its suspenseful best for over 15 years. But no one performs the art of the deal better than Monty, as it is impossible to mention this show without his name, and vice versa.
#11 – WHEEL OF FORTUNE
Give Merv Griffin a lot of credit. A show that has been the number one program in all of syndicated television for over 20 years has had an evolution like no other. First, it began with the children’s game Hangman. Next, it took winning contestants on a shopping spree of prizes. Eventually, the shopping was scrapped altogether for cash and occasional trips. All the while, puzzles changed for the times, hosts changed, the hostess changed, the puzzle board itself changed. And tying all of it together was what never changed: that giant wheel of cash, prizes and surprises.
For over 30 years running, “Wheel” has delivered some of the best appointment television in history. It was launched to success for 7 years with Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford in 1975 when it replaced “Jeopardy!” on the NBC daytime lineup. Now, matched with “Jeopardy!” today, it’s become must-see television at the dinner table. Its success now can be tagged to so many things, not the least of which being the straight-laced humor of Pat Sajak, and the beautiful presence – and wardrobe – of Vanna White as she continues to clap contestants to victory (and herself into the world record books, no joke).
The show continues to remain fresh with new twists each year. And it has no signs of slowing down. Pretty soon, one would think that we’ll eventually all have bought enough vowels to pay off the national deficit.
#10 – WHAT’S MY LINE?
“Are you a good judge of character?” That was the question asked in the introduction of the first episode of “What’s My Line?” on February 2, 1950 – the oldest episode of any show in the Game Show Network archives. Well, for 25 years, contestants signed in and tried to stump the panel about their occupations, which may or may not have involved something bigger than a breadbox.
The original version set the staple for panel game shows, lasting 17 1/2 years in primetime, a feat rarely matched before or after. John Daly knew exactly what he was going to get out of his panelists and how to get it out. Dorothy Kilgallen was the serious inquisitive one, vital from her weekly social columns. Steve & Fred Allen both provided a more light-hearted approach, as did the many comedians who occupied their chair. Arlene Francis struck the balance between those two personalities, and never ceased being a lady in the process. And Bennett Cerf maintained his own poise, but when he sensed something was up, his wit made everyone run for cover. It was such a tightly knit group that you felt right at home with them the moment they walked onto the stage every week.
The show’s legs were additionally strengthed by a 7-year follow-up run in syndication, and the numerous celebrity guests who always kept us guessing in stitches as to how they were going to disguise their voices (perhaps none done better than by Daly himself on the original’s final show). It all adds up to the best panel game show ever. I just wish they gave out more than $50.
# 9 – HISTORY IQ
I’ll bet this one is a surprise to a lot of you.
The History Channel had a winner with this one. Through each round of this quiz, they tested your knowledge of specific historical events, famous eras, notable newsmen, and everything in between. Whether presented through pseudo-newspaper articles, newsreel clips and kinescopes, or any other medium, the format kept a fast pace while always keeping you guessing as to how to sum up your rememberance of things past. The final round provided the toughest task: placing 10 historical events in chronological order within the time limit. This job was already challenging for the kids on “Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?” WITHOUT a time limit, so imagine how tough it must have been for the adults WITH one.
The show marked the first reunion of Marc Summers and Paul Harvey since the days of “Double Dare”, and even though there wasn’t time for the banter from back then, you could tell the friendship was still there, solid as ever. And it carried over from Marc to the contestants, making for a smooth and easy atmosphere.
“History IQ” also found an excellent transition when it came into its second season. The advent of the season-long $250,000 tournament managed to alter the game without losing ANY of its format, and allowing winning players to prove their stuff again and again. Many other shows can take note from it.
An outstanding show, yet sadly, the shortest-lived show in my Top 10. It deserves new life somewhere in our future, so let’s hope no one forgets its glorious past.
# 8 – CONCENTRATION
I have to get this out of the way first. To this day, I have never completely understood how the title relates to the game itself. Part of it makes sense: the adaptation of the kids’ game “Memory” requires you to find matching prizes, focusing on where you’ve seen them before as the game progresses. But it’s the twist that deviates for me, where those same prizes uncover pieces to a rebus puzzle that must be solved to win the game.
No matter, this game was the first to incorporate a mutli-level game format, and to perfection. Few shows are able to have people think on two different wavelengths like that, and Norm Blumenthal designed it all fabulously. It also helps that the hosts over each incarnation was an impressive who’s who of game shows in its own right, including Hugh Downs, Art James and Alex Trebek.
Over time, even the rebuses took a life of their own. The computer generation of the 80′s allowed for “Classic Concentration” to polish its look with Steve Ryan’s more detailed pictures and the automated game boards. And for the winner to have a shot at one of EIGHT cars? Sweet!
Overall, the show has put in a collective 21 years on NBC, and remains in the hearts of fans for all these reasons. Now could someone can help me with that title…?
# 7 – FAMILY FEUD
You rarely hear of a game show spinoff. But we have to be honest, that’s what “Family Feud” was. The concept was based off the Audience Match portion of “Match Game”, where people were polled for their response to questions. It was a winning concept from the start, and perhaps why “Feud” has endured in current versions today. You are always able to get the pulse of society as we span the generations based on how people answer the same questions between the eras.
The spin-off concept doesn’t stop there, though. It also translated to the host, Richard Dawson. As the go-to guy on “Match” for the Audience and Head-to-Head Match rounds, he was the obvious choice. And here, he didn’t have to hold his humor back at all to make way for other celebrities. It was his floor alone, and he was all over it every day. Sure, it made for a difficult relationship with the staff, but what we got on camera was solid, and Richard would do everything in his power to help contestants win… and get a kiss from all the ladies in return, of course.
As the years have passed, Ray Combs, Louis Anderson, Richard Karn, and now John O’Hurley, have had their chance to put their mark on the game, all with their own levels of success. But the success is still there, and it’s thanks to the contestants who play the game. With every survey and every ridiculously bad answer we come across, we will be finding out what the survey says for many years to come.
# 6 – G.E. COLLEGE BOWL
Finally, proof that a sport need not be physical in order to be acceptable to our youth. “College Bowl” and its 90′s successor “Campus All-Star Challenge” provided thousands of gifted students from all across the nation with the chance to show off why it was cool to have learned in school. They played not only for themselves, but for the schools they represented, which added to the tension of keeping national reputation and pride alive. Talk about peer pressure.
Several hosts have kept the show fast-paced, lively and fun. But it was Allen Ludden who set the tone for all who followed him, which was only fitting as Allen was a Phi Beta Kappa member from the University of Texas.
What gives this show such staying power is that it has inspired many local and state communities across the country to create their own versions, including “It’s Academic” and “Inquisitive”, which is hosted by all-time game show champion Brad Rutter in his hometown of Lancaster, PA. And even with all the local versions, it still has such a strong format that it can be revived again on a national level at a moment’s notice. Maybe the time will be right again someday soon. I’d love to see it.
# 5 – PASSWORD
In today’s society, it has been hard to find someone who is labeled as a great communicator. Someone that can convey exactly what they need to whomever they are speaking to. If you know someone like that, then they can play this game very well.
First debuted as an experiment on “I’ve Got A Secret”, Bob Stewart launched the word association game for Goodson-Todman in 1961. It was an immediate smash, launching a primetime version within a year. Many television and stage stars lined up to play the game, with several becoming masters of the game. Some of the greats include Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Tony Randall, Elizabeth Montgomery, and the queen of “Password”, Betty White.
The game was simple: Use one-word clues without gestures to communicate the answer to your partner before the other team could do the same. The team who scored 25 points first would have a chance to win more money in the Lightning Round, quite possibly the first bonus round in all of game shows.
When the game became “Password Plus” in 1979, now using the passwords as clues to a puzzle, the new dimension improved the already incredible format. The new Alphabetics endgame also provided bigger stakes for its champions. All these remained through the show’s last incarnation as “Super Password” in the 80′s.
And once again, the biggest key to Password’s success was Allen Ludden. Through his intelligence and charm, he made the war of words just as much appointment television as he did for “College Bowl” prior. Allen even found true love again when he was introduced to Betty White after her appearances on the show. They became the first couple of game shows, and Betty – with the assistance of Tom Kennedy and Bert Convy – kept the “Password” flames burning long after Allen left us in 1981.
As of this writing, it has been almost 18 years since we have last seen “Password” in first-run production in any form on any network. Many continue to clamor for a revival. And with the way our society can’t communicate, it might just be time to educate us all again.
# 4 – PYRAMID
Leave it to Bob Stewart to create the best communications games ever. After “Password” was a powerhouse for Goodson-Todman, he forged off on his own in the late 60′s and expanded on his own concept. Now, teams could say or gesture almost anything they had to in order to get their partner to say the answer. To top it off, offer the biggest prize in game shows since the quiz scandals: $10,000.
Well, it took a while to evolve. It started as “The $10,000 Sweep”, which failed in the pilot stage because it had questions whose answers served as the clues to the key words that needed to be communicated. Thankfully, Bob figured out that cutting out the middleman made it more sensible. Plus, adding celebrities like he did on “Password” would make it a game that appeals to all. Even with its great format, it took some time to get adjusted to the even faster-paced style of “Pyramid”. Fortunately, we found just as many masters of this game, too: Billy Crystal, Sal Viscuso, Shelley Smith, LeVar Burton, and Charlie Siebert, just to name a few.
At its prime, “Pyramid” proved that you never needed to change the game to make it stay as a hit… but you might need to raise the stakes with inflation. But when they climbed all the way up to $100,000, the show found the best tournament format of all time to give it away. No eliminations, no waiting for the finals. First to reach the top of the pyramid wins it all. It could happen in one day, or not for over 2 weeks! The tension of knowing it could happen at any moment kept you reeled in every day and beyond. And in the process, you got to see the best players in the game.
The original host proved to be one of the best in the game, too. It didn’t seem like it at first, but when Dick Clark made the transistion from “American Bandstand”, he found this to be the show that would cement him as a player in this business. He was even praised for his work on the final episode of the original version by the teacher himself, Bill Cullen, who guided the syndicated version for 5 years. But Dick was the one who called “Pyramid” his home, and he made the Winner’s Circle the most intense minute in the history of television, as he announced with little pretense, “For $10,000, here is your first subject… GO!”
It’s tough to imagine the Pyramid without Dick, but it has to be acknowledged that Donny Osmond’s most recent version still found its place in the “Pyramid” legacy. The game became more challenging, but it was still the same game, and Donny was as graceful a host as we could have asked for in the modern era.
Yes, that Bob Stewart. He did all right again, and even better than before.
# 3 – JEOPARDY!
I love the story behind this show’s creation. As Merv Griffin tells it, his desire to create a big quiz show was marred by the market still reeling from the scandals of the 50′s. Not knowing how to make it catchy, it was his wife who came up with the idea to perform the game in reverse, giving the answers to which contestants would supply the questions. The rest is game show history.
Very little can be said about this show that hasn’t been already, but that’s only because the game is so simple, yet challenging, that it doesn’t need anything fancy to attract millions to it. Everyone and their mother could prove their intelligence through this game, and even then, find out, as one contestant put it to the classic theme music, “If you think your brain is strong, ‘Jeopardy!’ will prove you wrong.” Heck, even that famous think music that plays during Final Jeopardy! automatically comes to mind anytime you see someone really struggling with their memory.
The best thing about “Jeopardy!” is that, like other shows in this top 10, two hosts have become synonymous with the show’s legacy. Art Fleming was the professor, guiding his everyday class of knowledged players with a stern, yet caring hand. Today, the show is as popular as ever with the guru, Alex Trebek. Alex sees all, knows all – at least, he seems that way – and is not afraid to smoothly admonish his players so as to show his superiority without losing face with them – and he’s still that smart regardless.
Probably more than any other game show in history, “Jeopardy!” holds the distinction of grooming more champions that are household names to any fan of the genre. Naturally, Ken Jennings comes to mind before anyone, but even before the 5-day rule was repealed a few years ago, we saw the same brillance from masters like Burns Cameron, Bob Verini, Chuck Forrest, Leszek Pawlowicz, Robin Carroll, Eddie Timanus, and the current game show king, Brad Rutter. And for long as the show is around, the next legend could be just a question (to an answer) away.
The show in and of itself is a pop culture icon. Speaking on behalf of all teachers, it will continue to be played in so many classrooms until the end of time. This is one that will never go away.
# 2 – WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?
In the history of game shows, there have been shows that have acheived such success in one country – usually the United States – that a couple other countries adopt the format for themselves. It happens to varying degrees of success, but often doesn’t create any kind of major impact upon popular or world culture. After all, it’s just a game show, right?
All of that changed when a show in the United Kingdom broke the mold in 1998.
Imagine explaining the show to someone who’s never seen or heard of it. First, you have to put a list together faster than your opponents. Your friend says, “OK, sort of like being first to the buzzer, nothing special.” The winner has to answer 15 multiple-choice questions. “That’s all? “Jeopardy!” goes through 61 in a day, open-ended, and don’t offer nearly that much money.” You get 3 Lifelines to ask for help in different ways when you’re stuck. “Oh, that’s gotta make it too easy. Why don’t they just rig the show like they did in the 50′s? How can this show possibly be good?”
The moment that same person sits down and watches one show, their mind is changed in an instant. The questions become more challenging than anything any other modern quiz throws at you. The dark lights and tense music seemingly separates you from the rest of the world, a spectacle for all to see. And the choices that contestants are forced to make under all that pressure become more potentially life-changing than anything you may do for the rest of your life. The resulting attraction for the viewer is THAT instant, you can’t possibly turn away… ever!
Leading all the drama, the host has the increased task of being the impartial, but perhaps smarmy observer, eyeing and replying to your every move, almost like a hawk, until the moment you commit to your “final answer”. The original host in England, Chris Tarrant, was the perfect man for the job. When the show came to the States, our more eccentric attitude naturally pointed to Regis Philbin, agreed upon by many as the perfect choice. Even if you didn’t like him, you knew as you watched his place in the game that he just belonged there. Today, the torch is carried strongly by the kind, newsworthy Meredith Vieira, who may not be smarmy like the others, but knows just the same how to bring all the drama out of her contestants. That alone is why she became only the second woman ever to win an Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host (the first being Betty White for “Just Men!” in 1984).
Perhaps the first sign of the phenomic status of the show is how the British first introduced the show: a 2-week special event. They had that much confidence in the game that they trusted time-honored word-of-mouth to bring viewers in. It worked in droves. And when it was all over, it not only left Brits wanting more, but the whole world wanted a piece of the action as well. And many countries still are today.
Now your friend asks, “How can any other game show be better than this?”
# 1 – THE PRICE IS RIGHT
There’s no other way to answer the question of what game show is the best than to look right here. After all, how can you argue with the longest-running game show in television history?
The original pedigree is now 50 years old and counting. Beginning in 1956 with the legend Bill Cullen, the game revolved around shopping, as four contestants guessed the prices of merchandise big and small. To the one who was closest without going over the actual price, they won the prize, and perhaps much more. Fun, fast and eye-opening, the show enjoyed 9 years of success, Bill’s longest tenure as a game show host.
But today, “Price” is known for so much more. When Bob Barker stepped through the doors for the first time on September 4, 1972, no one knew just how special the show would become. The evolution of the pricing games, the fabulous Showcases, the big wheel… all led by the famous call to battle…
“COME ON DOWN!”
The list just goes on forever. And perhaps never before or after has a show been so embraced by its fans and the general public, being passed down and across all generations, a tradition that continues today.
And when you look at Price today, only one name comes to mind: Bob Barker. But fans will never forget he has had plenty of company in the last 35 years. Dennis James, Tom Kennedy and Doug Davidson have left their own marks on the stage, while the incomparable Johnny Olson led the action behind the mic, a tradition since carried on by Rod Roddy, Burton Richardson, and Rich Fields. But Bob is the main attraction, and he has done a legendary job of making the show run like clockwork, knowing the nuances of every game by heart, making every contestant look their best, worst, funniest or all of the above. Bob does it all. He has become a legend for all time, as has his show.
That is why “The Price Is Right” stands tall as the Greatest Game Show of All Time.
As a footnote, at the time I wrote this list in 2006, it was terribly saddening to say goodbye to Bob after the 50 years of fun and laughter he has brought to us. But thankfully, I had faith that the legacy of “Price” will endure, and today, with Drew Carey at the helm, that faith remains. Before Drew was chosen, though, the plan to choose Bob’s successor had been in motion for the last few years prior, as Todd Newton, Marc Summers, Michael Berger and a host of other emcees were, and still are, bringing the joy of the show across the country with the live stage show. And they, along with other game show and CBS personalities, made their intentions known that they wanted to keep the legacy of “The Price Is Right” going forever. So to you, Drew, I wish you all the best, and my hope that you will do Bob proud as he watches from his living room as millions and millions of game show fans have done for generations.
LET THE GAMES LIVE ON!