There’s an awful lot of game show content debuting in all forms of media–TV, online, print–of late, many of which directly involve people I’d like to think are personal friends. I realize I’m in a very small minority of those who consume this eagerly and avidly because, hey, I admit I love the genre, and it’s been a significant part of both my career and my life.
Hence, I was exceptionally disappointed when the first few minutes of the new weekly podcast THIS IS JEOPARDY!: THE STORY OF AMERICA’S QUIZ SHOW were somehow dedicated to the decades-old and largely irrelevant ramblings of a certain obsessive fan who eagerly told the stories of how he rushed home from school to watch the original version, scheduled at 12 noon, almost every day, and how he was personally distraught when the short-lived revival with original, bloated host Art Fleming–the one that immediately preceded the far more enduring incarnation that Alex Trebek fronted that dominates TV ratings today–was, in his view, prematurely cancelled. Only after that enthralling story–one I admit I’ve heard a lot more often and frequently than most–did host Buzzy Cohen drop an interview with creator Merv Griffin’s son Tony, who dished some heretofore untold details about how his dad and his beard–er, mother–concopted the format on a transcontinental flight.
Once Cohen and the Sony Music team that is producing this decided to pivot to telling stories from those who aren’t all that ubiquitous, the series took on a much more interesting tone. Subsequent episodes have delved deep into the mechanics and backgrounds of the show’s “signaling device” and the teachings of a former five-time (the old maximum limit) champion Fritz Holznagel, which several more recent experts, now competing in ABC’s highly rated JEOPARDY! MASTERS tournament, have adopted to shave thousandths of seconds off their reaction times, giving them a slight but crucial advantage in having the opportunity to supply correct questions that have won some of them millions of dollars as well as fans. I actually learned something about someone I had never heard of, and had a story to tell.
In recent years, game shows–and, yes, like it or not, competition reality shows are defined as such by a less niggly generation of fans–have become more dominant on summer TV schedules, especially at ABC. So it was both a fitting and mercenary move for the network to commission a four-hour documentary series, THE GAME SHOW SHOW, whose second episode premieres tonight at 10 PM ET. Given the enthusiasm of the person who convinced Sony to have his history precede that of the Griffin family, I feared it would be nothing more than a rehash of the same faces and stories we’ve had access to for decades, told by the same voices we’ve heard all the while. And yes, history can’t change. The same 1950s-era scandals that were depicted in Robert Redford’s now nearly 30-year old movie QUIZ SHOW are covered in detail. But, fortunately, those that have advised and greatly contributed to efforts like this are new, equally impassioned, detail-oriented researchers, fans and storytellers, and as a result the first episode was far more swiftly paced, aesthetically pleasing and frankly, interesting, to a mass audience than some of the more recent work they did under the direction of the person I referenced earlier.
You may not know who Adam Nedeff is unless you’re as much of a fan as I am, or perhaps even more of one. Nedeff is a tireless and highly curious thirty-something who comes from the same hard-scrabble West Virginia roots as the likes of Peter Marshall and Soupy Sales. He is one of the, as he humbly puts it “highly overpaid” fact-checkers and production assistants who helped ABC News organize and synthesize these episodes. But given some of the rare footage that he was able to help direct them to, as well as provide frequently useful narratives that are liberally used to guide viewers through segments, his imprinteur is all over this. I’d contend he wasn’t paid enough. He has authored several biographies of long-deceased hosts from the genre’s golden era and somehow continues to dig up new information and details on them to the point where a now ten-year-old work of his, QUIZMASTER, the life story of the genre’s most revered emcee Bill Cullen, will be publishing an updated edition later this year. Spoiler alert: When you gain access to the desk drawers of his widow after she passes, you’d be amazed what you can find.
Nedeff is one of many newer voices that are used in this series. Another is Christian Carrion, another thirty-something who is seen frequently and has developed a series of podcasts spotlighting both famous and intriguing (sometimes both) game show contestants of the past, TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF. Real people, real stories. Some won life-changing amounts of money, some never got paid more than a free meal to do run-throughs and pilots which fans like Carrion geek out on when they somehow emerge from garages and attics on decaying old-school videotape. Much like any good interviewer, his ability to relate to his guests is quickly obvious. Best of all, he drops his episodes on Saturdays, when few other weekly podcasts choose to. If you’re looking for a pleasant listen while doing errands, exercise or gardening, Carrion’s series might be ideal for you.
And you can even be a baby boomer and have a new voice. Yet another member of the “Algonquin Roundtable” of fans and friends that I’ve referenced in the past, Shelley Herman, has authored her own life story, now available on Amazon and perhaps in a brick-and-mortar bookstore near you. Herman was an NBC page during the golden era of Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW and the busy NBC Burbank lot that housed many game shows in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Herman spills quite a bit of tea about those both in front of and behind the camera, with a refreshingly honest and authentic voice that engaged me from page one right through the detailed bibilography. And yes, there’s some untold revelations of game show people that you probably won’t see on the GAME SHOW SHOW (though I am told Herman may appear in one of the upcoming episodes). Example: one producer who was in charge of a show where the studio audience vote determined the potential payoffs would race through the aisles and push random buttons in front of empty seats to add votes to the tallies, effectively negating the authencity of the game itself. Look, I at least found that interesting.
As networks, specifically broadcasters, become more reliant on game shows for self-sustenance, they will need to embrace and attract a broader and less obsessive new generation of fans. Indeed, ABC announced a fall schedule yesterday to advertisers in New York that assures that not a single new episode of a scripted series that had not already been planned to air this year will air before the calendar changes to 2024. FOX’s presentation the day before, delivered by a network president who came up through the ranks of unscripted TV on two continents, reinforced the reliance and priority of the genre to a cost-conscious network, even renewing some middling performers like one run by yet another friend, the reboot of NAME THAT TUNE that will return for a fourth season at some point (it has been produced overseas, which all but assures it will be unaffected by any union action in the U.S). It’s more essential than ever to the survival of these networks, let alone the genre, that new voices engage and embrace people other than those that would consider the storytelling and producing acumen of someone like our obsessive home-lunched fan to define them.
And, hey, if the strikes do endure, perhaps they may be a place for some of those works on a more prominent stage after all. There’s a whole slew of interviews with aging producers and executives available at the website of The National Archives of Game Show History. I once considered many of these subjects both friends and mentors, and I suppose they deserve their victory lap. Personally, I would have shown a smidge of creativity and not produced every single episode to a highly regimented format that insists upon telling the story of what their favorite elementary school subject was, nor would I have let my old boss ramble for nearly three solid hours about every single aspect of their career. But, hey, you be the judge. Assuming you’re so inclined.
For the majority, efforts like THE GAME SHOW SHOW and the newer, fresher voices behind them may just keep us all employed and entertained in some fashion. Good luck and continued success to all of those involved with it. Especially those who have yet to achieve their own level of appreciation.
Until next time…