Thursday, June 29, 2006

Enter and sign in please*

I’ve recently become entranced by the Game Show Network’s 2:30 a.m. 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 Chesterfields 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 Coca-Cola State of the Union Address, I’ll be using Hewlett-Packard graphics on Georgia-Pacific paper to show you how we’re winning the Microsoft War on Terror, presented by Nextel.”

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 Pearl Harbor. He broadcast the news of the Japanese attack on CBS Radio.

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.


Blogger Adjoran said...

Love that phrase: "the integrity of mass market television."

It is amusing to think about it ever existing, but then, it surely MUST have, in some form or fashion, because the level is continually declining even today. And that which doesn't exist could hardly decline . . .

I have no useful suggestions for reversing the trend, however, unless the networks would replace the word "news" with "infotainment" in the titles of their evening telecasts, and that is rather much for which to hope, eh?

WML did provide some great moments. One of the things modern viewers might notice is that the feature of the "Mystery Guest," where the panel donned ridiculous blindfolds, illustrates a marked difference in the public mind between those days and these. Those audiences would instantly recognize authors, scientists, artists, and others on sight.

It would not happen so often today. Heck, the panel wouldn't need the blindfolds most of the time if a great scientist were the guest.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Jim Dunn said...

Those mystery guest segments are absolutely wonderful. My favorite parts by far. It's usually somebody like Peter Lawford or Phyllis Diller, and once they deduce who it is, the panelists all act like they're good buddies. That only furthers the cocktail party atmosphere.

Thanks for the kind words about my phrasing, also. As the old saying goes, even a blind pig can find an acorn every now and then.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Wow, I couldn't agree more with this piece. Of course, I'm watching it at its new 3a.m. slot, and wasn't around back in '62 so I can't imagine only having three channels (but I can remember only having six to seven!). They just started the series again from the beginning and I think in those first few episodes one or more people might have smoked. And for several episodes it was "Stoppettes present's television's gayest of games. . . . " which gives the game a whole different vibe, especially if you believe the portrayal of the Bennet Cerf character in the movie Infamous. Also during these early shows, the dollar amount is even on the $ cards that John Daly flips (occasionally getting stuck as the metal clips are loose and not hard-wired into place -- I'm waiting for that to change). Also, I should note just for triviality if the episodes were aired in chronological order as I think they were, the first few episodes did not have the Stoppette bottle on the scorecards, but got added on very shortly.

12:17 AM  

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