My Obsession: Match Game

AFS programmer exposes his [BLANK] for the classic game show


A few months ago, Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast featured an interview with Dick DeBartolo. I knew DeBartolo as a Mad magazine gag man, but it turns out that he was also a prolific question writer for a number of game shows, including Match Game.

Though I was born in the Seventies, when Match Game was a raging cultural phenomenon, it was never on in my house, but DeBartolo's stories were so funny that I soon found myself descending into the deep digital broadcast spectrum where I landed on channel 7-3, transmitter of the nationally syndicated Buzzr network.

The weekend programming block provides at least three hours of Match Game in a row every Saturday and Sunday. This has now become life-disrupting appointment viewing in my home.

During the Seventies, it must have seemed like the civilized world was grinding to a halt in a deep-shag, wide-collared, Quaalude apocalypse. Considered in retrospect, from our fiery perch on the edge of something truly resembling the actual end of mankind, it looks pretty good. The clothes and hairstyles, much maligned in the yuppified years that followed, are actually pretty appealing, and the pool of celebrities willing to slum it on a game show is, to my mind, much more interesting than the modern equivalent.

The Match Game format is simple. A pair of contestants are rolled out on a pivoting pneumatic float. Host Gene Rayburn, a genial, tall man in perpetual need of a haircut, in a suit that looks like a Jim Rockford hand-me-down, reads brief gags that are missing a key word. "Mrs. Smith has to keep telling her husband to tuck in his BLANK," and so forth. Celebrity panelists secretly write down their ideas of what the missing word might be, and the contestant tries to match his or her guess with as many of them as possible. The formatting of most of the questions encourages double-entendre answers, but the contestants and panelists mostly – mostly – avoid the temptation and play it clean.

It's an unbeatable premise. It would be hard to mess up. You could install any six winos as your panel and it would work. But the producers of Match Game haven't just chosen any six winos. They have chosen a rotating selection, with a few rare exceptions, of the finest winos in the world.

This brings me back to DeBartolo's appearance on Gottfried's podcast. He explained that a week's worth of shows were filmed in one day. After the first two episodes, there was a break for lunch, and all the wine the panelists, and by the evidence presented, the host, cared to drink. The panelists' rapport would be magical enough without the juice of the grape, but Bacchus' warm glow transmutes this ordinary leaden magic into show-business gold.

The configuration of the panel conforms to a loose formula. At top left is a male star the audience can presumably identify with. Think McLean Stevenson or Tom Bosley. Next to him is inevitably the stylishly bewigged and bespectacled Brett Somers, a comic actress who was first cast on the show as a favor by the producers to her husband, actor Jack Klugman, but who proved to be a natural in the format, particularly in combination with the man who generally occupies the top right chair, Charles Nelson Reilly. Somers and Reilly have a mock-adversarial relationship that, under the influence of wit and wine, produced some of the show's funniest exchanges. The bottom left chair is generally occupied by an attractive young woman, sometimes an ingenue from one of the network's shows. At center, until he bolted to host his own show, is the actor Richard Dawson, a man quick with deft wordplay and sly roguery. The final slot is generally allocated to the screwball – a comic, most often a woman – who can provide, after all the other answers have been revealed, something different. This is the role commonly held by Betty White or Fannie Flagg.

DeBartolo, in his interview, revealed, somewhat surprisingly, that the producers originally intended for the show to be played totally straight and that host Gene Rayburn more or less disregarded their wishes and went for laughs. It's a good showbiz instinct.

Match Game is a pretty fair display of good showbiz instincts right down the line, as a matter of fact. The level of charm and speed of quip displayed by the panelists is, on a good week, dizzying. It's a kind of blissful delirium when it gets rolling. There are callbacks to earlier answers, recurring jokes about Brett's wigs, Charles' unusual flamboyance, Richard's hedonistic bachelorhood, Fannie Flagg's sweaters, and more. Rayburn is the best imaginable master of ceremonies, goofy and avuncular.

The contestants are the least of it, but at times, such as in the recently aired case of a woman whose stage fright, combined with an entirely transparent face, made her seem a comic genius on a level with Lucille Ball, even they can contribute mightily to the mayhem that has made Match Game such a potent reminder of what even the cheap end of show business can do with a little heart and the right company.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Match Game, Buzzr, Charles Nelson Reilly, Lars Nilsen, AFS, Austin Film Society

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