The Greatest TV Game Show Ever

What’s My Line 1950 – 1967

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A few years ago my Tivo was tuned into the Game Show Network weeknights at 3:00 a.m., taping every episode of the greatest TV game show ever made, What’s My Line.

Let me state it was not just a great game show, but one of the best television shows ever.

Unfortunately the series is not being broadcast now, but many segments of the show are available on Youtube.

To describe the brilliance of the show better than I ever could, we will refer to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1948 – Present by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh (Ballantine 1988), an indispensable television reference book.

What’s My Line was the longest-running game show in the history of prime-time network television. It ran for 18 seasons, on alternate weeks from February to September 1950, then every Sunday at 10:30 p.m. for the next 17 years. The format was exceedingly simple. Contestants were asked simple yes-or-no questions by the panel members, who tried to determine what interesting or unusual occupation the contestant had. Each time the contestant could answer no to a question, he got $5, and a total of 10 no’s ended the game. The panel was forced to don blindfolds for the “mystery guest,” a celebrity who tried to avoid identification by disguising his voice.

That little game, by itself, hardly warranted an 18-year run, when other panel shows of the early 1950’s came and went every month. But What’s My Line was something special, both for the witty and engaging panel, and for a certain élan which few other shows ever captured. There were no flashy celebrities-of-the-moment or empty-headed pretty faces on this panel; they were obviously very intelligent people all, out to have some genteel fun with an amusing parlor game. Like (moderator) John Daly with his bow tie and perfect manners, it reeked of urbanity [“that’s three down and seven to go, Mr. Cerf?”]

The panelists who created this special atmosphere were an elite group. The panel on the initial telecast consisted of Park Avenue psychiatrist Dr. Richard Hoffman, poet and critic Louis Untermeyer, former New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman, and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. (Their first contestant: a lissome blonde hat-check girl from the Stork Club.)  Arlene Francis joined the panel on the second telecast and Bennett Cerf in March 1951. Kilgallen, Cerf and Francis were continuing regulars for the next 15 years.

…Gag writer Hal Block was a panelist for a time, as was acerbic Fred Allen and multi-talented Steve Allen (who in trying to determine size as quickly as possible within the show’s yes-or-no format, conjured up the program’s classic question :”Is it bigger than a breadbox?”). After the death of Fred Allen in 1956, the fourth seat on the panel was left permanently open for a different guest panelist each week.

John Daly June 27 1952 I’ve thought many times that this show should be brought back to television, but it never can be for a variety of reasons. First of all there is no one today who can come close to John Charles Daly as moderator. Daly struck a perfect tone between serious and funny when it came to clarifying the questions that the panelists asked of the contestants. “Small conference please,” was Daly’s catchphrase which would elicit laughs when he had to whisper to a contestant on the accuracy of their response.

The panel itself was phenomenal at zeroing in on the the profession of a contestant. This was because Cerf (publisher and founder of Random House Books) Kilgallen, (syndicated columnist) and Francis (actress) played extremely well off one another. Their varying professions and wide knowledge gave them an uncanny ability to correctly identify the regular contestants professions and especially determine who was the mystery contestant.

And that brings us to the main part of the show that can NEVER be replicated-  the stars that appeared on the show as the “Mystery Guest”.

When you watch and see the stars that come on the show you quickly realize it is the royalty of entertainment, sports, the arts, politics and power brokers. Almost every major star appeared on the show during its long run, from Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen.

I’ve watched What’s My Line with children who only peripherally know and understand the fame of the mystery guest stars. But guess what? They don’t have to know anything about the celebrity I’ve discovered. They recognize the fact that these guests were major personages and the humor of the situation as the contestants try and disguise their voices is extremely entertaining.

And they were big stars: Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Willie Mays, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy and Carl Sandburg were among the hundreds of luminaries that appeared on the show as mystery guests over the years.

Even though many people today under the age of 40 will not know anything about the celebrity guest, they also end up enjoying this feature of the program.

Who would be the celebrity guests of today? Lindsay Lohan? Alex Rodriguez? Honey Boo Boo? How many people are that famous, that an educated panel would be able to guess who they are? Fame is especially fleeting today.

I also can’t imagine a slew of major movie or television stars appearing on What’s My Line if it was on the air today. Most of the self-absorbed “stars” of today would not go on a show like this. Also how many famous artists or authors are universally recognizable? Truthfully, today there are very few famous people in the same ilk of the stars that appeared on What’s My Line when it originally aired. The world was a smaller place with bigger and brighter personalities.

Those yesteryear giants of arts, sports, politics and entertainment were not just flashes in the pan or 15-minutes-of-fame reality stars. They put in years developing their careers to be known to a worldwide audience.

After the prime time show ended the were other incarnations of What’s My Line, but without its original moderator and panel, the show was just never as good as the original.

No, today it would never succeed. What’s My Line is off the air forever and it’s never coming back. Look at the taped shows and enjoy them and hopefully one day they will return to Game Show Network or some other channel that wants to add some class to their program line-up.

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