Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Lie Detector

A hundred years ago, people played parlour games at home. So what’s wrong with doing the same thing on television?

That’s the question I probably would have put to syndicated columnist John Crosby.

On radio, there were noisy game shows that were unnecessarily hyper and showered a cascade of goods on contestants who didn’t need to be too clever. Crosby somewhat sourly pointed out the shows’ lack of wit in several columns, much like Fred Allen was doing on his radio show as it played out the string. But Crosby did the same thing with at least one quiz show on television and I don’t necessarily agree with him.

Crosby aimed his disdain in his column of May 25, 1960 at “To Tell the Truth,” somewhat suggesting something more enlightening should be broadcast in its stead. But “To Tell the Truth” is just like an old-fashioned parlour game where people can use their own sense of logic to deduce an answer. What’s wrong with a pleasant little diversion involving a bit of mind-power?

Perhaps Crosby wanted a panel show akin to “Information, Please” with queries on fine arts mixed with popular culture. That show may have been a little more intellectually rarefied but always came across to me as dry; even a wit like Oscar Levant drones out his drolleries too much of the time for my liking. I’d rather take guessing games like “What’s My Line” and “To Tell the Truth” which feature interesting people and friendly interaction amongst the various panellists who are neither too urbane nor too low-brow.

Crosby’s critique does present something besides disregard. He gives us a little insight into talent screening on “To Tell the Truth.” However, his analogy involving Diogenes isn’t quite apt. While the lamp-bearing Greek continually failed to find an honest man, staff at Goodson-Todman found a truthful person in one of three contestants every time.

Television And Radio

Chief Ingredient: Lying

One of the increasingly lucrative professions in what Walter Lippmann calls our purposeless society is time wasting. The great merchant princes of time wasting are Goodson & Todman, who have expanded time wasting into a commercial empire.
One of the flowers of this great empire is “To Tell the Truth,” which is the very model of a quiz show. That is: Empty-headed.
It requires nothing of the observer but the temporary exercise of his eyeballs. It’s cheap. That means it can sell cigarettes and beauty products at a marvellously small cost per thousand.
And it occupies a splendid half hour of prime evening time on an important network, thus successfully preventing that half-hour from being put to any important use, which is the highest aspiration of the time wasting profession.
Ah, when you think of 30 million pairs of eyeballs fixed on “To Tell the Truth” successfully getting through another half hour of eternity without a flicker of thought of a motion of the use of a muscle you realize the suburb achievement of the Messrs. Goodson & Todman in the fine 20th century profession of wasting other people’s time and charging them money for it.
Quiz shows, in the opinion of some philosophers, have supplanted the chewing of gum as the great nirvana of the masses.
Now then, the chief ingredient of “To Tell the Truth” is lying. That is, three people are gathered together, two of them to lies about who and what they are, to a panel consisting of Kitty Carlisle, Polly Bergen, Tom Poston and Don Ameche.
The Liemeister for the show is a man named Willie Stein, associate producer of the show. Years ago, before Congress took a dim view of the matter, we had schlockmeisters who gathered loot for the giveaway programs. Now we have liemeisters who gather liars for “To Tell the Truth.”
I don’t know what posterity is going to say about this—that a grown man could earn his living looking for liars.
Just as Diogenes went through the streets looking for an honest man with a lantern, Stein goes out looking for liars; but whereas Diogenes couldn’t find any honest men, Stein finds a lot of liars.
There’s a commentary on our civilization in there somewhere, but I haven’t time to look for it. Goodson & Todman have murdered time as Macbeth murdered sleep.
Anyhow, Mr. Stein was queried the other day about his curious profession, the procuring of liars. He’s an unlikely guy to be in such a job—an unassuming gentleman with a raging honesty.
“I hate dishonesty, although I teach liars,” he said. “I was always taught to tell the truth, because sooner or later the lies would catch up with me.
“We keep a file on all the people who want to be on the show. I got a wonderful letter two years ago from a woman who said her husband was the most wonderful man in the world—intelligent, handsome and a former Olympic champion.
“Today for the first time I had the right spot for him, so I called her. ‘We’re not married any more. You can call the bum if you want to. He’s not very smart.’”
Stein shook his head at the changeableness of women.
“Women are better liars than men,” he said. “We made a list of statistics and the women’s average is 65 per cent and the men's is 50 per cent. Children are the best liars.
“Some people are so intent on playing the game they forget who they really are. Now we give each guy a card with his real name on it. Twice already, people at the end of the show couldn’t think of their own names.
“I feel anyone can be taught to lie. I hate to say this, but I think the best educated people are the best liars. It’s not only what they’ve been taught, but what they’ve accumulated.
“We had a man on the show who had to pretend to be president of the Republic of Panama. By show time he knew more about the Panama Canal than the president of Panama.
“The worst liars are men and women between 40 and 50 years of age. They’re home life, their own reality, must be too important to them. They’re the worst imposters.”
Mr. Stein was asked how he felt about the state of television when so much creative energy went into creating such triviality as “To Tell the Truth.”
He said: “It’s sad. It’s hard to tell people just how much work and how much ideas you have to put into a panel show.
“I call my mother after each show and ask her how she liked it. She usually says, ‘It was o.k.’ It kills me when I think of the work I do just to make it o.k.”

“To Tell the Truth” has a nice, long jog on the airwaves. It debuted on December 18, 1956 and carried on until September 6, 1968. Then it returned in daytime syndication the following year and ran through most of the ‘70s. If millions of people wasted their time on it, they must have enjoyed doing it.

1 comment:

  1. The time Crosby penned this column coincided with the death of live television and extended originals plays made-for-TV, many of which were based in New York. Lots of angst all around from TV critics and others bemoaning the "dumbing down" of network offerings, leading to Newton Minnow's speech in 1961 after being named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by John F. Kennedy. New York-based TV critics all around were sounding particularly curmudgeonly during this time period about anything that was replacing their beloved shows of the 1950s.

    (TTTT also lasted long enough on CBS to make it into the era where some of the color broadcasts have been preserved, unlike other Goodson-Todman game shows of the time. Here's a particularly nice-looking video from Thanksgiving 1967 which features Betty White as one of the liars.)