Truth be told, most game shows are anodyne distractions that rarely produce classic moments. But on some occasions, either the concept is so wrong that it becomes hypnotic in its awfulness or the contents are so bizarre and unexpected that they transcend the genre to become a warped version of performance art.
To celebrate game shows where the winner is the unsuspecting audience, here are 10 of the weirdest game show experiences in U.S. television history.
A Gutter Ball For Uncle Miltie: In September 1960, Milton Berle saw his once-stellar television career hit a nadir when NBC dumped him into “Jackpot Bowling,” a hybrid sports-game show that alternated between professional bowlers and B-list celebrities trading quips with the one-time king of television comedy. Berle gamely went through his paces on the program, but he knew that NBC dumped him in that unlikely job to pressure him into renegotiating his expensive long-term contract with the network.
A Picture Is Worth One Word: In January 1961, Jackie Gleason debuted a prime-time game show called “You’re in the Picture” where four celebrity panelists inserted their faces into holes cut out from a life-sized illustration and had to guess the type of image that they were in. Critical and audience reaction to the show was so negative that Gleason scrapped the format and returned the following week with a comic apology for “a show that laid the biggest bomb—it would make the H-bomb look like a two-inch salute.”
A Visit From A Superstar: Many game shows populated their celebrity guests from B- and C-list entertainers, but the long-running “What’s My Line?” harvested many of the most prominent figures for the “mystery guest” segment. These included people would never appear on other game shows: Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and, from this March 1967 episode, Judy Garland:
Camping It Up: When the daytime game show “Hollywood Squares” launched in October 1966, Paul Lynde was not part of the celebrity panel. Instead, the comic actor made occasional appearances that almost always stole the show. When he was finally enthroned in the show’s “center square” position, he reigned with a wild series of envelope-pushing one-liners that gave the impression NBC’s Standards & Practices Department was not paying attention to his risqué quips. To Lynde’s amazement, nearly all of his fan mail came from women who didn’t recognize his gay camp humor.
Will The Real Bette Davis Stand Up?: In December 1966, the incomparable screen legend Bette Davis was an unlikely guest on “To Tell The Truth” in a segment where she and two sound-alike actresses (Kaye Ballard and Patricia Bright) were behind a curtain. The panelists had to guess which of the three was the real Bette Davis by their answers, although Ballard and Bright’s frenzied bluffing didn’t help their cause.
She Said What?: During its mid-1970s run, “Match Game” often seemed more like a slightly out-of-control cocktail party rather than a game show, thanks to its smutty sense of humor and unpredictable on-air talent. Case in point: The reaction to a contestant’s slightly naughty answer:
Now About Those Popsicle Twins: Chuck Barris’ “The Gong Show” generated a cult following for its wacky notion of a talent show that offered the most unusual and surreal performers imaginable. One of the “acts” from a 1978 episode called itself “Have You Got a Nickel,” but became better known as the “Popsicle Twins” and created a censorship uproar at NBC that resulted in the segment being axed for its West Coast broadcast. (The East Coast censors didn’t see anything wrong with the act and let the vulgar act go over the air.)
Foreign Man Seeks American Woman: Also from 1978, the long-running “Dating Game” opted to have sly fun with its audience by having Andy Kaufman as one of the bachelors trying to impress a female contestant. Kaufman used his Foreign Man persona for the show and effectively hijacked it into a mini-masterwork of off-kilter comedy.
Survey Doesn’t Say That: While it is not uncommon for game show contestants to be nervous or flub their answers, rarely has there been such undiluted cluelessness on display as the pair who joined Richard Dawson in this late-1970s “Family Feud” segment:
This Bird Has Flown: Last March, Sony Pictures Television’s SONY made international headlines when the three contestants were repeatedly unable to solve a too-easy puzzle. If you feel like laughing and cringing at the same time, check out this clip:
Photo: Promotional photo for Jackie Gleason’s ill-fated “You’re in the Picture,” courtesy of CBS