Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Constructing a Game Show

Putting together a successful TV game show isn’t as easy as it looks. As far as the audience knows, a bunch of people get together and have fun guessing at stuff with a windfall at the end. But there’s more to it.

The game itself has to be simple enough for the audience to be able to play along (and interesting enough that they would want to). It should have an element of suspense (will she guess all the answers on the pyramid and win the $10,000?). And there has to be chemistry among the people on the show so the audience will like them and their interaction, and would like to have them in their living rooms again.

Chemistry is an elusive thing and something that’s never guaranteed, even when viewers like panelists or a host as individuals. And producers learned in the radio days that there has to be some variety. Information Please had dry, intellectual panelists but tossed into the mix the quick-witted and cutting Oscar Levant. When network TV blossomed, What’s My Line? captured enough viewers to enable it to hone and refine its panel (though the producers had no say when it came to the departure of Louis Untermeyer, thanks to the blacklist).

This unbylined story in the New York World-Telegram and Sun of August 17, 1955 expounds on the make-up of a game show panel in that more refined era. I admit I’m posting it mainly for Willard Mullin’s great caricatures more than anything else.

How to Be a Panelist
Every successful TV quiz show should have one its four-member panel 1) an eager beaver, 2) a funnyman, 3) a serio-comic (i.e., someone not quite as eager as the eager beaver and not quite as comsciously funny as the funnyman), and 4) a guest or representative citizen.
The top eager beaver is What’s My Lines?’s Dorothy Kilgallen, who often seems to have patterned her technique on that of tenacious Lawrence Spivak of Meet the Press. Hearst Columnist Kilgallen is distinguished by her no-nonsense approach and her relentless slicing away of extreme issues in solving such epic equations as whether a contestant is a rabbit poacher or a gravedigger by trade. Says Moderator John Daly admiringly: “Dottie follows a logical, syllogistic construction; she is more of a technician and a scientist in her approach.” The only other quizzer to come close to equaling her eager beaverbility is Florence Rinard of Twenty Questions. Cinemactress June Lockhart of Who Said That? has been described as a “walking encyclopedia,” but she lacks the determined Kilgallen pounce.
Play by Ear. If one of the funnymen should, even accidentally, correctly guess an answer, he would undoubtedly be fired. On What’s My Line? Fred Allen listens alertly, not for clues, but for tags of phrases that can be turned into boffolas. Of his job on I’ve Got a Secret, Funnyman Henry Morgan says bluntly: “I’m just there to talk. I haven’t asked a sensible question in two years.”
The seriocomics like Arlene Francis and Bill Cullen may well have the toughest jobs of all, for they are expected to contribute to the evening’s gaiety as well as keep the game going steadily forward. Says John Daly: “Arlene plays it by ear, and more boldly than Dottie Kilgallen; therefore she misses more often.” Bill Cullen of I’ve Got a Secret underlines some of the hazards of the seriocomic: “I’m always thinking automatically of what question I can ask in case a joke falls flat. But even when jokes go over, I’ve got to be careful that Henry Morgan and I don’t get kidding and forget about the game. We’ve had the riot act read to us, let’s face it. We’ve gotten the riot act for horsing up the show too much.”
Look & Listen. The ideal straight man of the quiz shows is Publisher Bennett Cerf of What’s My Line? He fills the role of the man of substance, serious, determined, but not quite as scintillating as the rest of the panel. When he does solve a contestant’s trade, he is likely to worry the problem like a dog with a bone, asking repeated questions long after it is obvious to even the dullest viewer that he knows the answer. Cerf’s apparent function is to slow down the headlong pace of the game. He does it almost too well.
On the art of playing TV games, all panel members agree that the most important knack is to be able to listen. Explains Arlene Francis: “Newcomers on a panel are always too tense to listen well, and sometimes will ask questions that have already been answered.” Also, she and her cohorts know from sad experience that if the first contestant is not interesting or gay or entertaining, the show generally does not get off the ground: “Once you get started well, the mood is easy to sustain, but after a bad beginning, you have to fight to recapture your audience.”
On I’ve Got a Secret, Actress Jayne Meadows works to a pattern: “I have a theory that there are certain leading questions to ask to cover different areas, but intuition is just as important. You can learn many things just by the look on a contestant’s face or the studio audience’s reaction. For example, if on our show the secret has something to do with one of the panelists, the audience usually will laugh and look straight at that panelist. Fortunately, I’m farsighted.
Read the Papers. Any panelist working a show with a news angle, e.g., What’s the Story? needs to do as much homework as a student cramming for an exam. During the week before they go on the air, the Who Said That? team study morning and evening newspapers, magazines and assorted almanacs and source books. Blindfolded What’s My Line? panelists have a secret source of help when it comes to identifying mystery celebrities, before the show they work through Variety and see what top entertainers have recently arrived in Manhattan to promote new movies, rodeos or circuses. Some critics believe that quiz shows build and maintain their ratings on the strength of the double-entendre. The moderators are well aware that a situation having to do with personal services, e.g., guessing the occupation of the president of a diaper laundry, keeps the audience on tenterhooks waiting for the inevitable break, e.g., “Is it something I would be likely to use?” But over the long pull, the quiz masters have learned that popularity must depend on the personalities of the moderator and panel.
A steady job as panelist pays an average $500 per half-hour show (including an average extra hour of pre-show warm-up). Says Bill Cullen candidly: “It’s such a snap that sometimes I feel as if I’m stealing the money.”

My thanks to Kathy Fuller-Seeley for this article


  1. The most-viewed video on the What's My Line? YouTube channel is the episode where Groucho Marx pretty much bulldozes the decorum of the show. But since Groucho was neither a regular nor an semi-reoccuring panelist, and his comedic reputation was based on destroying decorum, he gets away with stuff others in the 'comic' or 'seriocomic' categories listed in the article could only dream of.

  2. That's why Groucho wouldn't have made a good regular panelist. . . but for a one shot, his dismantling of the show's format was absolutely priceless, just about my favorite Groucho performance outside of the original Marx Bros movies!

    Great post-- a member of the WML Facebook group linked to it or I probably would have missed it. I absolutely love the William Mullin drawing!