Quiz show demons are running wild
Commentary by JOELLEN COLLINS
We are in the midst of game-show mania. I started to write a column titled
"Twenty-one Reasons not to be on 21" but ran out after two or three, since the
reality is that given the chance, most people who are not already wealthy would probably
jump at the chance to get the big winnings.
At this juncture in early 21st Century affluence it hardly seems worthy to
note that prizes for winning quiz shows are out of bounds. But then I grew up in the era
of "The $64,000 Question" (yes, I know that that was a lot of money if
translated to todays values) and other game shows where contestants really had to
have a deep knowledge rather than a mastery of cultural trivia.
As a matter of fact, I was on some game shows myself in the late
60s, when I lived in Los Angeles. Some of you will remember "Password." I
was lucky enough to be on that show twice, once with entertainer Carol Burnett and Ross
Martin, co-star of the popular television series "Wild, Wild West."
I won the maximum then possible for that show, $750, and a set of luggage.
My husband and I took the Samsonite on a trip to Mexico with my winnings. We thought it
was a fortune. Most of all, though, I remember the experience as one of great fun. My
mother was in the audience, and I saw her on the opening scene when it replayed a year
after her death. I often wish I could get a copy of that ancient episode.
Then, a year later, the show called me back for a "Tournament of
Champions," again with Carol Burnett and actor Peter Lawford, both charming, Lawford
even more amiable as he drank the martinis he had lined up under the booth.
Carol was gracious enough to call me by name and mention that she still
laughed occasionally at my use of the word "memorabilia," which I had used to
get her to say the word "attic." Martin had joked that it sounded like a rare
disease. On that show I again won the maximum, $750, and then this time a small TV set
(black and white) which lived in my kitchen for years.
After that show I must have been put on a list for potential game-show
tryouts, for I was called often to play sample games being considered for future shows. I
soon discovered that this meant I could not compete in any of them for real, and the
"honorarium" of $25 or $35 for helping them iron out the kinks was all I would
So I retired early from my game show binge, but over the years I have
watched the progress of this form of entertainment. It seems to me that either one has to
act like a simpering idiot (as in "The Price is Right") or be extremely lucky to
even get on any game show now.
Access to Internet applications has upped the numbers of people who want
their 15 minutes (or even 15 seconds) on TV. My heart goes out to the 10 people who sit on
the sidelines and wait for their turn to be on the hot seat in "I Want to Be a
Millionaire". They have to wave like orangutans and look pretty stupid as the camera
pans their needy faces.
The thing that surprises me most, however, is how savvy even the most
dorky looking contestant is once he or she sits across from Regis or banters with Maury.
(Incidentally, there are many more men than women who make the cut.) They all seem very
much at ease with their hosts, often calling them by first names and looking into the
camera at just the right angle. Many dont even seem to shake or show abject
embarrassment when they lose over some too-simple question.
Perhaps just watching TV as much as we do gives many viewers the ability
to mock the manners and postures of these announcers. I have taught public speaking and
often noted to my students that, for many, speaking in front of an audience is an almost
primal fear; it ranks next to death and above poverty. So I am aghast at the poise these
representatives of the population exhibit under the pressure of the cameras and the big
Certainly we have gotten used to seeing people expose their secrets in
front of Oprah or Jenny or Sally. While Oprah has rejected the most salacious
manifestations of this seeming need to launder our dirty linen in front of millions, the
talk-show circuit gets more crowded every day with even grosser examples.
Someone out there is probably studying the phenomena, but I have a totally
unscientific idea about all of this. I think we have television on so much of the time
that the little screen has, in effect, become a natural component of our lives. Its
like another member of the family, a TV sibling. We accept its presence as naturally as
anyone elses sitting at our dinner table.
So when we get a chance to be seen on the tube its as natural to
shine on television as it is to play a home game of "Trivial Pursuit." After
all, TV is always there. Its nothing to be afraid of. However, I do think our gross
pursuit of money is.