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I’ve recently become entranced by the Game Show Network’s airings of “What’s My Line.” (Of course I don’t catch it as it airs. Thank you once again, oh great Spirit of TiVo.) I’m a sucker for things retro, and those old black-and-white kinescopes just grab me like I’m actually there in the early sixties, watching one of the three available channels as the urbane action unfolds.
And urbane action it was. The lady panelists wore evening gowns, the men panelists tuxedos with bow ties that I doubt seriously were clip-ons. The strangely employed guests might not have raided Christian Dior’s shop for their wardrobe, but they still put on their sartorial best. You’re as apt to see a coatless male contestant as you are a go-go dancer.
The urbanity went beyond clothing. Host John Daly did sometimes refer to a panelist by first name, but the guests were always referred to as “Mrs. Winklebottom” or “Mr. Figgleforth.” First-name familiarity was still a few years off.
All the panelists—usually Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen (who appeared in “Pajama Party” with, well, everybody from Elsa Lanchester to Buster Keaton, and who played a role in JFK conspiracy theories; a grateful Dale Gribble salutes your memory, Mrs. Kilgallenand a rotating guest panelist—all have the air of someone just in from a smashingly sophisticated cocktail party. Close your eyes and inhale, and you can smell the unfiltered
or Virginia Slims they easily grasped in one hand as they held a martini glass in the other and relayed the latest political joke. (“Well, it seems Ike and Estes Kefauver both died. When they get to Heaven, St. Peter asks them…”) [Corrected to eliminate historical error pointed out by the esteemed Michael DeBow. Virginia Slims weren't around then.]
My wonderful friend TiVo has lots of identical brothers and sisters, and their commercial-skipping ways have advertisers looking for more and more product placement. It’s imperative that they get their products in front of the eyes of a nation, and if those eyes are blipping their way through commercials in 30-second increments, then the advertisers are durn sure going to have Jeff Probst drink a slug of Sierra Mist Mango Madness while he’s telling the contestants that once the votes are read, the decision is final; the person voted out will be asked to leave the Tribal Council area immediately.
This product placement has some people concerned, although how someone can be concerned about the integrity of mass-market television is beyond me. It’s not as if the president is saying, “In tonight’s
And today’s placement is nothing the “What’s My Line” folk wouldn’t recognize. The show’s sponsor is usually splashed prominently on the panelists’ dais. Every time you see Bennett Cerf, you see Kellogg’s or Stoppette Deodorant. It’s television, which, despite what the folks at PBS would have you believe, is now and always has been a business.
According to Wikipedia, which is where I always go for interesting but completely unverifiable facts, WML created the “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” question when it comes to playing 20 Questions. (I do wonder how Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis would react to being replaced by a computer.)
From the Internet Movie Database, we find that John Daly was probably better-known to plenty of WML viewers as the voice of
Of course, television never shows 100% reality. While cultured panelists were trading quips with each other, inwardly marveling at the absolute vortex of sophistication there existed between the four of them, a large percentage of the nation’s darker-skinned residents were unable to vote. Smoking was not only tolerated but downright expected, like crew cuts and hornrim glasses. (Nothing like socially accepted lung cancer to put the quietus on hilarity.) And while medicine wasn’t quite mired in a leeches and bloodletting phase, it did pale in comparison to today. A cat scan meant your tabby was looking you over and hoping you’d drop a sardine.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to kick back in the Barcalounger, tune in an old episode and pretend it’s the good parts of 1962 all over again. As Bennett Cerf might say, “Am I correct in assuming that one would be amused if one were to watch the show?”
*Any similarity between this and James Lileks’ writings is appreciated.