Friday, February 11, 2005

Wheel! Of! Fnordblog!

I used to force my family to appear as celebrity panelists in "Match Game 76." I set a card table on its side with barstools behind. I would use a tinkertoy version of Gene Rayburn's strange skinny microphone, and intone things like, "Dumb Dora was so dumb..." They would dutifully write their answers on cards. I think they had to take turns being the contestants.

I had of course studied the show intently - with scary drunk Brett Somers, flaming Charles Nelson Reilly, half-asleep pre-Family Feud Richard Dawson, and Fannie Flagg bringing up the rear, dishing up cornpone. I learned that in order to win the game, you had to stick to the three answers the cluewriters were hoping you'd give: "Tinkle" "boobs" or "whoopee." That was the level of naughty humor Gene Rayburn presided over with his gaunt-scary-uncle leer. It was best if the slightly dumb contestant blushed a little when she had to flip her Aqua-Netted hair out of her face and lean to the mic to say "Boobs." Oh, they got a lot of laffs out of that. Brett Somers, with dark glasses on and vodka hidden behind her podium, croaking out in her whiskey voice: "I said BOOBS, Gene." Ding!

When I wasn't soaking up "Match Game," it was "The Price Is Right." Again, I had the home version of the game, which my family was compelled to take part in. I used to augment the home version with products from around the house ("Which costs more? This can of Comet, or this bottle of Wesson Vegetable Oil?") The best parts were the showcases, in which you could win a set of livingroom furniture from the livingroom that you were actually in.

The best gameshow on television, though, was "The $10.000 Pyramid" (or $20,000, or $25,000, or $100,000 Pyramid. Pyramid prices are always going up.) To this day my heart starts racing during the Pyramid round. I'm usually leaping around the room if the contestant manages to win.

For those of you who have led sheltered, quiet lives under a rock, here's how the Pyramid works: two Ordinary Contestants are paired with Celebrity Players (Patty Duke turned up on a regular basis, as did Anita Gillette, Loretta Swit, MacClean Stevenson, Barbara Feldon, Sandy Duncan, John Schuck ... the B-list is endless..) First you compete by having to get your partner to guess seven related clues in 30 seconds. It might be a category like "Things You Find in an Italian Restaurant," or "Things with Buttons." Not too difficult. If you won, you and your celebrity trotted off to the winner's circle, where the game was reversed. You were given a category and had to reel off a list (only a list! no descriptions! no using your hands!) of items that fit that category. "Things that are square" ... "What a clown would say" ... "Things you inherit" The categories got tougher as you went up the pyramid, and it was usually quite difficult to make it to the top. That's what made it so exciting.

There's an apocryphal story that in the Pyramid round Sandy Duncan suddenly trailed off from giving clues (the celebrities almost always gave the clues in the Pyramid round), letting the clock run out. When Dick Clark came over to ask what had gone wrong, she said, "Did you know there's a catwalk up there?" I suppose when you have only one eye, it's easy to get distracted.

I don't believe that one actually happened, but I did like the fact that the show revealed which celebrities were smart and could think quickly. If you weren't the sharpest knife in the drawer, you would sink like a stone on this show. Some celebrities who came on clearly hadn't been prepared well for the game. I remember watching Jimmy Stewart on the show in the mid-70s. Whoever he was paired with lost miserably.

Jimmy Stewart: Ahhhnh, we'll take "Lions and Tigers and uh, uhhh. Bears."

Dick Clark: Okay, describe for your partner these things you find in a zoo. Things in a zoo. Thirty seconds. Go!

Jimmy Stewart: (seeing the first answer, which is "A Zebra") Ahhh, ahhh, it's the thing, there in the zoo, it's like ahhh, ahhhh...

Frantic constestant: An elephant! A polar bear!

Jimmy Stewart: No, it's got the, the, ahhh, on the sides there, and uhhh, it's black and uhh...

F.C.: A rhino! A gnu! A wildebeest!

Jimmy Stewart: No, it's aaahhh, not a, a, a, it's got four legs and ahhh, ahhh...

F.C.: A cow! A donkey! A sheep! An antelope! A warthog!

Time's up. Every round went like that. The contestants looked like they wanted to strangle him, but of course, you couldn't do that. He was Jimmy Stewart.

Another celebrity who didn't understand the way the game was played was Lucille Ball. The essence of the game is using words to get the right response.

"Salt and..." "Pepper."

"You come to the house and ring the..." "Doorbell."

"A horse with black and white stripes is a ..." "Zebra."

Unfortunately, Lucy thought she was playing charades. Given the answer "Pepper" she went into an elaborate mime routine where she sprinkled it on her food, inhaled it, sneezed, tasted it, got it in her eyes, cried, sneezed some more, lost control of the pepper shaker and got it all over the place.

The contestant was mystified. Time's up.

Joanne Worley, on the other hand, whipped through every category in record time. She kicked Lucy's ass in that episode.

The modern remake (is it still on?) with Donny Osmond fails to capture what made the original Pyramid so addictive. They made the set look like every other ripoff of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, with the black screens and the swiveling spotlights, while misunderstanding the types of categories and clues that work best in the game. I tried to like it. Didn't.

The show I never liked - in fact was mystified by - was Wheel! Of! Fortune! (And, by the way, am I the only person on earth who remembers that Chuck Woolery was the original host of this show, before Pat Sajak and Vanna White came along?) The basic premise of the show is fine: I like word games, I like playing Hangman, that's all good. I like that giant wheel: in fact, it fascinated me in the same way all the giant gameshow apparatus did. The pyramid, the showcase wheel, the giant slot machine arm on "Joker's Wild." The wheel, with it's blinking pointers and satisfying clickety sound as it spins - that, I loved.

It was the contestants: so incredibly dumb. More than once, I have seen someone get down to only one blank left in a puzzle, and then blow it.

Imagine the giant letterboard, lit up like this: GOLDEN GATE _RIDGE.

Contestant: I'll solve the puzzle, Chuck.

Chuck Woolery: Okay, go 'head. Read it out for us.

Contestant (proudly): Golden. Gate. Fridge.

Then the next contestant guesses the one remaining letter but only wins $100 or so. It's that kind of agonizing stupidity that I can't take. When the whole country was mad for The Wheel and Pat and Vanna, I was left cold. I was still watching reruns of "Pyramid," watching Patty Duke and Marcia Wallace kick ass. I once was working in California and the show happened to be on three times a day. I watched every episode I could, inventing elaborate excuses to be home at 11:00, 3:00 and 6:30. You know, Della Reese is a damn fine Pyramid player.

Okay, here's an easy one for you: "What a maniacally obsessive person would say."

Ready? Go.


Blogger jwer said...

Actual tears in my eyes as I read the Jimmy Stewart bit... nice. Phew!

5:48 AM  
Blogger David said...

I liked it on the Wheel of Fortune when the winner could purchase prizes from that weird showcase. After they started letting them just keep the money, the magic was gone. Money can't buy love, but it can buy a ceramic dog statue for $200.

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No more wire hangers!!

I take it you don't like Jeopardy? I will proceed to tell you about it though... It's the ultimate champions tournament, a 15 week event of old 5 time winning champions fighting it out with one another until it's down to two and those two will battle it out with top master, Ken Jennings. Very Bruce Lee -esque.

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with David.

P.S. I also love your writing David but I couldn't tell you so first hand because I didn't feel like giving up my soul to leave you a comment. I like the anonymity that blogspot affords me.

6:31 AM  
Blogger crumblord said...

Ah yes, the Wheel of Fortune showcase... where everything was given some arbitrary bizarrely high value. But you have to take it!

Anonymous: I *do* like Jeopardy, and also had the home version of that. The post was already huge; Jeopardy, Password, Tattletales and High Rollers will have to wait for another time.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Broadsheet said...

Ahhh - Password! Now THERE was a game. Alan and Betty White. Used to watch it with my grandfather as he chain smoked and drank Schwepp's Bitter Lemon. Then we would watch Lawrence Welk and he would always call the female cello player his girlfriend.

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Thank you, David, for a Wheel of Fortune ceramic dog shout-out!

Rob, didn't the celebrities of Match Game and Pyramid seem so much more glamorous than the B-listers we get today? Now we get the cast of Queer As Folk, which seems fantastically subversive on a show hosted by Donnie Osmond, but they're certainly not Lucille Ball. They're not even Betty White.

Today's Pyramid also features 25 second rounds with six clues, which is five seconds and one clue less than the classic. I guess with six rounds, that gains you thirty seconds and one extra commercial. Sigh.

Well, this could go on forever. Let's get together for game show night! Oh wait, I live 7 hours away. Double sigh.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Rindy said...

I have the same problem with Wheel of Fortune. I love word puzzles, I do cryptograms for fun, I totally dug the giant booping wheel. Like David, I used to adore the way they made you spend your hard-earned money on a roomful of weird, unrelated objects. But oh, the dumb, it was too much. And getting rid of the Mandatory Shopping was the last straw.

I do remember enjoying watching which low-tier celebrities rose to make a good living kicking ass on the game show circuit. Joanne Worley? Jamie Farr? Who knew they had so much hidden talent?

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're my Mystery 7

10:44 PM  
Blogger Hanuman1960 said...

I'm amazed that no one else saw the Fnord! Hello people! Hasn't anyone else read the Iluminatus Trilogy? Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia!

7:50 AM  
Blogger crumblord said...

Hanuman: You've discovered (one of) the secrets. But don't you remember that you forget "fnord" as soon as you've read it.

Men in black should be showing up at your house momentarily. Don't be alarmed.

8:39 AM  
Blogger jwer said...

I noticed it, but I never read the books, just played the Steve Jackson card game. You can see why I might be embarrassed to share that information.

3:47 PM  

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