Sunday, June 10, 2012

GAME SHOWS & HOSTS! A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS IN LIGHT OF RICHARD DAWSON'S PASSING



Is it just me, or are there not a lot of quality game show hosts anymore? I've been a fan of game shows pretty much all my life, and I've watched nearly everyone that's been on in my lifetime, and that includes many obscure ones. You remember "The Challengers"? No you don't, and you shouldn't, but I do. As most of you know, we recently lost Richard Dawson, the longtime, original host of "Family Fued," passed away last week, and it was one of those losses that was sad for me. I actually didn't grow up with him, I grew up originally with Ray Combs as the host of the show, and he was a great and very underrated host of that show. He unfortunately killed himself, years ago, and he's become more well-known for the problems he had off-camera than his work on the show, but if you ever watch one of the reruns, you'd never know he was so troubled in the mind. Now, as good as Combs was, nobody was better and more natural at hosting "Family Feud," than Richard Dawson. He really was the best at it, and I bring this up, not because "Family Feud," is a great game show or anything, in fact I actually don't care for it as a game show that much, but the one thing it does have is that more than any other game show, is that in order for that show to be good, or even just watchable, it has to have a good host. It's arguably the most host-centric TV series around, and he has to do everything. He interviews the contestants, and goes up to them one at a time, he has to fill time when there's a bad answer, or compliment a good answer,he has to build the drama of the show..., it's a difficult show to host well. There's a few others that are quite hard, like "Let's Make a Deal" or "The Price is Right" that need more than a simple moderator/referee type host who just asks and answers questions. You can tell when it's a sub-par host and the show just flops, like a Richard Karn for instance who was the worst among the recent version of "Family Feud"'s numerous hosts, and there's a reason why they've had more than a few hosts trying to do that show. Steve Harvey, the current one, is certainly improving. The point being is that while their are fewer and fewer successful game shows on TV, at least in terms of the ones on syndication anyway, there seems to also be a lot fewer quality game shows hosts around nowadays, and on top of that, their isn't a lot of great game shows to begin with. I have a hard time even remembering the last new great one to come around, and some of the revised ones don't have the same charm as their original versions. "Million Dollar Password," comes to mind as an example of a colassal failed reinvention attempt for that show. Even Regis Philbin hosting couldn't help that one.

It's not just the hosts, even the game shows, aren't really game shows, anymore, they're basically overdone reality sideshows with a bunch of lights and gimmicks that make the old "Password" set look like a 14-year old boy's messy bedroom. (Which was actually what the "Remote Control" set looked like, but I digress) FOX aired a couple bad game shows last night. One, was a remake of a remake, the other was just, making fun of "The Voice," by turning it into a glorified bachelorette auction. "The Choice," is just a stupid-ass, mean-spirited concept. The former, called "Take Me Out," is a better idea, not much better. It's basically the same concept as "Singled Out," where there was one guy/girl and 50 or so of the opposite sex, and eventually you eliminate, until you end up with your date. Basically the same game with a minor twist or two, and George Lopez hosting, who could be a good host. "Singled Out," was basically a tricked-out version of "The Dating Game" to begin. Oh, what am I talking about, they're both remakes of "The Dating Game". "The Bachelor," and "The Bachelorette," are remakes of "Love Connection," which wasn't even a real game show, it's was more of a like a Post-Dating Highlight Show. None of these are particularly new, they're just more exploitive than they have been or bigger in some way. The idea of the show has become more interesting than the actual game anymore. "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader," is an interesting story. It's not a great game show either, but apparently, the show was only a day or two from going on the air when they realized they didn't have a host. They had the game, the concept, they forgot the host! Luckily, they talked Jeff Foxworthy into coming in at the last second, which, had they gotten him earlier, they could've promoted him as the host, he's certainly marketable enough, he's a big enough name to draw in an immediate audience, and it's actually an appropriate combination of host and show (And he proved to be quite a capable host too.). I think most of the time, if you start with a good game show idea, you'll eventually get a good game show host out of it.

Here's a weird story, I can actually speak to this a bit, I've actually been a game show host. Well, sorta. In 4th Grade, I convinced my teacher to have the class compete in a trivia contest. I separated the class into teams, I wrote out the rules of the game, which I actually stole from Varsity Quiz, which I'll talk about in a minute, I even had a pretty co-host to basically stand there, erase the board when a category was done with, and keep score. In my mind, she was also there to basically look pretty while doing it. Yes, when I was young, I wanted to have my very own Vanna White, and I had a teacher who was willing to let me have one. (The person I selected, I also picked because she was the smartest person in the class; I wasn't that shallow a ten-year old) It was a bad idea, trying to convince a bunch of kids who thought "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," was the TV event of the day, to participate in a glorified Jeopardy! game, but I enjoyed hosting, so I decided to do it, even if I had to drag my class kicking and screaming into my little world to help me fulfill my dream. I loved game shows, and I never thought much about being a contestant, I wanted to be Alex Trebek. I still do to some extent. I've been a contestant on a game before. That Varsity Quiz game I talked about was actually a "Jeopardy!"-like contest between High Schools in Clark County, the Nevada school district I'm from. I think most school districts have something similar, basically it's the trivia team, and I eventually lettered in it, and if the school's are good enough, they make the playoffs, and the farther you make it into the playoffs, they actually aired a few of the games on TV. I was on TV twice, once for my Middle School, where we finished second in the Jr. Varsity Quiz tournament, and once in 9th Grade, again losing in the Playoffs. The next three years, I was the leader/captaion of my High School, and I still hold school records. The point being, is that I've been a contestant too, and even on TV, and I still think hosting is more fun.

"Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" are two of a few game shows that are still around, remnants of the last time game shows ruled the airways, (They were once the majority of the daytime-TV landscape, espeicially during the early years of television) and they're still the biggest moneymakers in syndication, and both have legendary hosts. Pat Sajak and Trebek were honored last year with Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmys, and both game shows, actually tied to win the Emmy for Best Game Show as well. Their are certainly a few good game shows around, and a few good game show hosts. "Cash Cab," is my personal favorite, and Ben Bailey has a difficult hosting job of actually driving while hosting, that's not easy. (Although, unfortunately "Cash Cab," was recently cancelled) The uber-talented Wayne Brady is one of those rare people who's so talented in so many different arenas that he kinda ended up in game shows because nobody else was sure what to do with him, but he was hand-picked by Monty Hall to host "Let's Make a Deal", probably the second or third most difficult game show to host, because it's both, host-centric, and it's barely a game to begin with. You need to interview skills, some improv skills, multiple different games to know, and memorize, and that's one of the reasons "The Price is Right," is a hard game to host, and why Bob Barker has all the Emmys. You have to know the game or game(s) cold, and that includes every little obscure rule the game may have. For instance, how often have you seen a "Tie Breaker" in "Jeopardy!"? It actually exists, under very specific circumstances. There's also the rare "Wheel of Fortune" tiebreaker too. Anyone remember when "Family Feud" had a "Bullseye round"? Some games like to be tweaked too.

At least these are actual games that involve some kind of knowledge or skill. "Deal or No deal," basically made that concept damn near obsolete for the future, and other shows basically have the same difficult level of questions as "Joker's Wild" or "Tic-Tac-Dough" used to have, or lower nowadays for some of them. Basically, instead of a game show resurgence that should've happen after the runaway success of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", we ended up with a reality show takeover. I'm not against reality shows, although I do wish that many of them were better than they are, but it's a fairly meaningless job, "Reality Show Host". They have an Emmy category for that now. Not that I have a problem with that, or with Jeff Probst winning it every year for "Survivor," but it's not like it's much of a job. They appear sporadically to explain something about the game, give us a rundown of what's happened so far, that's often intercut with previous and/or current footage, and they show up, maybe stand still, and wait for their time to reveal a final vote/decision, and maybe say a few signature words or phrases, but that's about it. Frankly, I wish I coiuld make a lot of money doing a job like that, but the skill level involved in minimal, although there are a few very talented people at that job like Cat Deeley for instance on "So You Think You Can Dance?", it's a different, and in reality, a less-demanding set of skills as most game show hosts have to do. Sometimes, they're glorified Award presenter basically, announcing results like they're giving out an Oscar.

So, now here's the question, do the lack of game shows lead to a lesser-quality of hosts, or are there fewer game shows, cause their aren't a lot of good hosts anymore? It's kind of an interesting conundrum. With Dawson and Dick Clark as well, we've lost two of the best hosts ever this year, both of them came from completely diferent backgrounds. It's hard to say exactly how and where game shows host are created, they come from almost random backgrounds, although the basic thing they have in common is an irrefutable desire to on television. That's the first thing that all good ones, and the ones who stay on the air need. They also need some "it" quality that makes them memorable and/or distinctive, and it has to be natural. Phony game show hosts can be spotted a mile away, (especially if you're one of the unfortunate ones like me that's seen "The New Price is Right". Look it up, it actually existed.) It also helps to be paired with the right TV show, and that can be tricky, especially if it's an established show with a famous and/or legendary host to begin with. (Or in the case of "Match Game," having to replace not just a legendary host, but legendary celebrity panelists. Yeah, try finding another Charles Nelson-Reilly, I dare ya.) It's trickier than it seems. There's a classic science behind great game shows, that's all in the details, a science that reality-competition shows don't really even need. They're more entertaining if things go wrong, while a game show going wrong, is just a great blooper.

I don't know, I see the current daytime TV lineup, and I think there's room for game shows to come back. Soap operas are disappearing, talk shows on the decline and more scattered than ever, there's way too many judge shows to count, and not much else really. "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune", always win the syndicated ratings, currently their new competition is "The Big Bang Theory," but they destroy the oversaturation of entertainment shows on TV. I wonder if they're waiting for "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," to finally fall off, or at least until Trebek and Sajak retirein order to try to compete with them. Or possibly the inconsistent success of other game shows, which don't seem to have the natural longevity as those shows do. ("Hollywood Squares," for instance has had multiple different runs as a game show, but was never a major hit.) It might also be possible that those two game shows have really cornered their markets so well that most other game shows would be copying them, especially "Jeopardy!". You ever notice how so few shows that use a question and answer format, have as many questions (Or I should say answers) as "Jeopardy!" does? It's always a show where one question can help win you a lot of money, like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", as oppose to a true test of one's wide-ranging knowledge. That formula's not new either, that's a throwback to "The $64,000 Question", but pretty much all other shows have no other choice but to use some form of that formula. They're good for building tension, but none of them have ever been a long-running hit show before, (Granted, the game show fixing scandal was responsible for the demies of some of those earlier shows) and "...Millionaire?" which has certainly become the closest to achieving it, has changed their rules so often, I dare you to explain every rule to me now. I don't think games shows will ever go out of style, or be extinct, and if anything, the reality-competition shows, insinuate that there's more of a craving than ever before for real people in a competition, to win a fabulous prize. Well, there's also as much craving to see some normal everyday people look like fools on national television, but game shows offer that too. For every Ken Jennings, there are dozens of people on game shows who think Africa is a country, or lack some other basic piece of knowledge, we love yelling at those stupid people on game shows. Hell, game shows were one of the first places we saw wild and crazy drunk celebrities being themselves. "Celebrity Rehab", screw that, go watch a "Match Game" rerun, and you'll see some really crazy celebs. Well, that kind of dynamic also happened in an era when people smoked on TV, and it didn't look weird, so unfortunately, that might not be entirely possible again, but I sure would try it. Get the right combination of celebs, maybe Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman, Carrot Top, possibly, you might actually have a show. Well, maybe not, but I think it's worth a try, it's gotta be better most of the crap on syndicated TV now. Just pick the right show to do it on, come up with a good host, there should be some room to compete. (Don't pick "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" again, whomever's stupid idea to syndicate that one should be shot.) You're most likely gonna have to train someone to be a game show host, and that's gonna be the real problem. Tom Bergeron can't host everything, lord knows, we tried that, but you're still gonna have to break someone in. That'd be my only reluctance; there is no school for game show hosting, is there?
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