It was inevitable, wasn’t it? After they revived Password and announced plans for new versions of Celebrity Family Feud and The Something-or-other-Dollar Pyramid, I thought: “When are they gonna revive Match Game?” Well, now, that’s when. TBS is shooting a Match Game pilot with Andrew Daly as the host, Sarah Silverman and Norm MacDonald and two familiar Canadian entertainers (Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall and “Super” Dave Osborne) among the panelists, and Robert Smigel as the executive producer.
The question about Match Game is always how dirty you can make it. The original show in the early ’60s was one of many shows that tried to do a variation on What’s My Line? (the show where panelists had to guess what a contestant did for a living). Allan Sherman, later the famous song parodist, created an earlier successful What’s My Line? clone, I’ve Got a Secret, and he wrote in his autobiography that the appeal of What’s My Line? was: “Well… it’s dirty.” Not dirty all the time, but the producers often tried to pick people with occupations that would lend themselves to double entendres; Sherman recalled seeing an episode where the contestant was a mattress salesman, and the audience giggled at questions like: “Is this product something that Bennett Cerf and I could use together?” The original Match Game was actually, compared to some of the shows that had come before it, kind of clean.
The other thing What’s My Line? had, which Match Game and I’ve Got a Secret and many other shows copied, was the fun of watching showbiz personalities and “regular” people trying to figure out how each other’s minds worked. Celebrity panelists and contestants come from different worlds, and the audience loved watching celebrities, even minor celebrities, trying to re-connect with the ordinary world where people work for a living and come up with non-obscene fill-in-the-blank answers.
When Match Game was revived in the early ’70s (as always with game shows, in imitation of something else, in this case Hollywood Squares), the format was changed so that potentially-dirty questions and answers became the whole focus of the show; every phrase had to be something that suggested a possible dirty answer. The fun of the game, apart from watching the drunk celebrities, was twofold. One was that it was one of the few game shows without “right” answers. The people who wrote the fill-in-the-blank phrases may have had their own ideas about what the right word would be, but there was no official answer. So it was kind of unique to have a game show with no facts, no actual retail prices, no occupations or secrets, just the issue of whether the contestant could think the same way as a bunch of inebriated showbiz types. (Family Feud, which was probably based on the audience-participation survey round from Match Game, had a similar appeal, except that you were trying to think like boring average Middle America instead of crazy wild celebrities.) That could still work today, but there’s a problem: the fun of this format depends on the idea that celebrities are a lot different from you or me. They think differently, they live differently and they drink a lot more, and the contestants have to knock themselves out trying to match them. But many of today’s celebrities don’t present themselves as being all that different from you or me. In some ways they are, in some ways they aren’t, but it’s much more fashionable than it used to be for celebrities to affect regular-guy styles, post stuff on the internet, and so on. The panel they’ve pulled together for this new pilot has at least two celebrities whose styles are built around their contempt for social norms, Silverman and MacDonald. But those types of celebrities are harder to find than they used to be; today you’re going to get celebrities who actually act distressingly similar to the contestants.
And the other fun thing was that many times, the “obvious” answer was something that couldn’t actually be said on TV. The celebrities were clearly instructed beforehand that there were limits on what they could write (legend has it that Marcia Wallace was almost kicked off when she wrote something censorable and they had to stop taping), but there were no limits on our imaginations, and the biggest laughs on the show came from moments where all the celebrities clearly knew they couldn’t write the first word that came to mind. This can still work, and it’s why a more or less family-oriented network like TBS is a good place for it. If it were on Comedy Central, where language restrictions are relatively loose and even George Carlin’s Naughty Words can be said if you bleep them (and South Park sometimes gets to say them unbleeped), it would be a lot harder to get those moments. I think TBS needs to keep the language restrictions fairly tight and make it very clear to the audience, somehow, that there are certain words that the contestants aren’t allowed to say, because it’s funnier if we’re all thinking a certain word and they can’t write it.
The biggest challenge of reviving Match Game: the format has a lot of kinks in it. And I mean a lot. The rule that a celebrity can’t participate in a round if the contestant already matched him/her in the last round was a problem from a comedic point of view, since it was frustrating to watch celebrities sit out a phrase that we knew they’d have fun with. But the show had bigger problems as a game show. The repetitive format, the lack of additional games and rounds, the fact that everybody chose Richard Dawson for the final round (something they tried to fix by adding that stupid wheel, which created more problems), and most importantly, the inherent problem that some questions were incredibly easy to match while others were incredibly hard. The writers couldn’t predict beforehand which ones would be the easiest, but in the context of the show, you always knew instantly when a question had an obvious answer that all the paneliests (and the contestant) would think of first. It meant that your chance of winning really had nothing to do with skill or ability to match the celebrities; it was just about whether or not you had the dumb luck to get one of the easy questions. And that ‘s not a very satisfying game. We’ll see how much they tweak the format for the new version, but it really needs some tweaks, because audiences today expect more from the games, and more display of skill from the contestants.
By the way, the longtime head writer of the questions on Match Game was Dick DeBartolo, who was also a longtime writer of movie and TV parodies for Mad Magazine.