Truth be told, most game shows are innocuous distractions that rarely produce classic moments. But on some occasions, either the concept is so wrong that it becomes hypnotic in its horror, or the content is so bizarre and unexpected that it transcends genre to become a warped version of performance art.
To celebrate game shows where the winner is the unsuspecting audience, here are 10 of the weirdest game show experiences in American television history.
A gutter ball for Uncle Miltie: In September 1960, Milton Berlé saw his once-stellar TV career reach a nadir when NBC cast him on “Jackpot Bowling,” a hybrid sports game show that alternated between professional bowlers and B-list celebrities exchanging pleasantries with the former king television comedy. Berle put himself to the test valiantly on the program, but he knew that NBC dumped him in this unlikely job to force him to renegotiate his expensive long-term contract with the network.
A picture is worth a word: In January 1961, Jackie Gleason launched a primetime game show titled “You’re in the Picture” where four celebrity panelists inserted their faces into holes cut out of a life-size illustration and had to guess what kind of picture they were in . Critical and audience reaction to the show was so negative that Gleason dropped the format and returned the following week with a comic apology for “a show that laid the biggest bomb — it would make the H-bomb look like a salute from two inches”.
A visit from a superstar: Many game shows have populated their celebrity guests with B-list and C-list artists, but the long “What’s My Line?” garnered many of the most prominent personalities in the “mystery guest” segment. These included people would never appear in other game shows: Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and, from this March 1967 episode, Judy Garland:
Camp it: When the daytime game show “Hollywood Squares” launched in October 1966, Paul Lynde was not part of the celebrity panel. Instead, the comedic actor made occasional appearances that almost always stole the show. When he was finally inducted into the show’s “middle seat” position, he reigned supreme with a wild series of one-liners pushing envelopes that made NBC’s standards and practices department seem like they weren’t lending ignore his risky jokes. Much to Lynde’s amazement, almost all of her fan mail was from women who didn’t recognize her gay camp humor.
Will the real Bette Davis stand up? : In December 1966, the incomparable screen legend Bette Davis was an unlikely guest on “To Tell The Truth” in a segment where she and two similar-sounding actresses (Kaye Ballard and Patricia Bright) were behind a curtain. The panelists had to guess which of the three was the real Bette Davis by their answers, though Ballard and Bright’s frantic bluffing didn’t help their cause.
What did she say ? : In the mid-1970s, “Match Game” often felt more like a slightly out-of-control cocktail party than a game show, thanks to its saucy sense of humor and unpredictable on-air talent. Example: the reaction to a candidate’s slightly naughty response:
Now about those Popsicle twins: Chuck Barris’ “The Gong Show” generated a cult following for its wacky notion of a talent show that featured the most unusual and surreal performers imaginable. One of the “acts” in a 1978 episode was called “Have You Got a Nickel”, but became better known as the “Popsicle Twins” and created a censorship outcry at NBC that resulted in the deletion of the segment for its broadcast on the West Coast. (The East Coast censors saw nothing wrong with the act and let the vulgar act pass.)
A foreign man seeks an American woman: Also from 1978, the long-running “Dating Game” opted to sneakily amuse its audience by having Andy Kaufman as one of the bachelors trying to impress a candidate. Kaufman used his alien man persona for the show and effectively twisted it into a quirky comedy mini-masterpiece.
The survey does not say this: While it’s not uncommon for contestants on the game show to get nervous or cheat their answers, rarely has there been such undiluted ignorance as the pair who joined Richard Dawson in this “Family Feud” segment from the late 1970s:
This bird flew: Last March, Sony Pictures Television SONY made international headlines when the three contestants were repeatedly unable to solve an overly easy puzzle. If you want to laugh and cringe at the same time, watch this clip:
Photo: Promotional photo for the ill-fated “You’re in the Picture” by Jackie Gleason, courtesy of CBS