As ABC readies to relaunch Match Game with Alec Baldwin at the helm, we’re looking back at the classic version of the game—back when Standards and Practices were so stringent that the slightest hint at innuendo that slipped past the censors was hilarious, when Gene Rayburn routinely broke the fourth wall, when wardrobe malfunctions were limited to a flash of underwear, and Rayburn’s microphone was an object of overcompensating curiosity begging to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud.
Match Game, which was the most watched daytime show for four years straight, was—as Charles Nelson Reilly once said—less of a game show and more of a social engagement.
1. IT BEGAN IN A CONFERENCE ROOM.
During a corporate “creative” meeting in the early 1960s, Goodson-Todman staffer Frank Wayne had an idea. “Try this,” he said to his co-workers at the conference table, “write down something about an elephant—and try to write the same thing that you think the others will.” Several different answers came up— “it’s grey,” “it’s big”—but two people wrote “it has a trunk.” Mark Goodson was intrigued with the concept of a game where there were no right or wrong answers and only matching answers scored points. Thus, The Match Game was born.
2. ITS EARLY TECHNOLOGY LEFT SOMETHING TO BE DESIRED.
The Match Game debuted in December 1962, with Gene Rayburn as the host and Bert Kaempfert’s catchy “A Swingin’ Safari” as the theme song. The game pitted two teams of three (one celebrity and two civilians) against each other, with points being won if team members’ answers matched one another. Game show technology was still in its infancy, so even though they had electronic signs to indicate a “match” and the number of points, players had to raise their hands to alert the host that they were ready to show their answer.
3. A MAD WRITER’S “SAUCE” QUESTION MADE THE GAME SAUCIER.
Dick DeBartolo was a Match Game question writer, and a freelance writer for MAD Magazine. The Match Game had been on the air for 10 months when Goodson approached DeBartolo to give him a “heads up” that ratings were sagging and NBC was hinting that the show would be canceled after its one-year contract was up. DeBartolo had a suggestion: why not put a silly, MAD sort of twist on their questions? He gave an example: “Mary likes to pour gravy on John’s ___.” (It was 1963, so of course the panelists would give answers like “mashed potatoes” or “meatloaf,” but the unspoken possibilities made the audience laugh.) Goodson started incorporating one or two “silly” questions per game, and the ratings steadily increased.
4. THE SHOW HAD SOME A-LIST CELEBRITY FANS.
When the show became a hit, everyone’s contracts were renewed and soon a variety of A-list celebrities were clamoring to play. The Match Game was taped in New York, so actors who were working on Broadway could easily slip away to tape a few shows on their days off. Lauren Bacall, Gloria Swanson, and Jayne Mansfield were just a few of the stars who served as team captains during the show’s original 1962 to 1969 run.
5. THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER WASN’T LOOKING FOR LAUGHS.
When the revamped version of Match Game came back to the airwaves in the summer of 1973 (the original version went off the air in 1969), it had a bigger set, a bigger selection of celebrities, and bigger cash prizes. Much had changed, but not the game play; in the beginning, it was still pretty straightforward (“Name a red flower”) like the 1960s version of the show. Executive producer Mark Goodson preferred it that way; when it came to his game shows, he was very rigid about rules and procedure. He even sent a lengthy memo to Gene Rayburn once, chastising him for clowning around and “getting laughs.” That didn’t stop the writing staff from slipping in the occasional double-entendre-type question.
6. SOME WORDS WERE FORBIDDEN.
Back in the 1970s, there were several words you couldn’t say on television. Match Game contestants and panelists were warned ahead of taping, for example, that they couldn’t say “urinate” or “pee”—only “tinkle” was acceptable. Likewise, any biologically correct word for the naughty bits of human anatomy were verboten, as Fannie Flagg found out one day when she wrote “genitalia” on her card. Director Ira Skutch stormed over to her when they cut the tape and advised her that this was her first and only warning. If she ever said anything of that ilk again, she’d be banned from the show.
7. THE KEY TO THE SHOW’S SUCCESS WAS IN THE CASTING.
The show was still finding its feet during the first few weeks of its return and had a revolving, disparate cast of celebrity panelists. It was decided that perhaps a couple of celebrity “regulars” for Rayburn to get to know well enough to develop a rapport with would also keep the audience tuning back in daily. Jack Klugman had been a reluctant panelist on the first week’s episodes, appearing only on the condition that his then-wife, Brett Somers, would be invited to appear in the future. “Brett is dying to get out of the house, you’d be doing me a favor,” he told Skutch. The gravelly voiced actress with the oversized glasses turned out to be a perfect fit for the show and became one of the three regular panelists.
Charles Nelson Reilly was an old friend of Rayburn’s—the two had worked together on Broadway in Bye, Bye Birdie—and Rayburn invited him to play, thinking his sly wit and flamboyant personality would make for an amusing panelist. British actor/comedian Richard Dawson was often sarcastic but had a quick mind and was a good game player; it didn’t hurt that he was also handsome and charming. He became the third permanent panelist. It wasn’t long before the three had more or less developed into “characters” that fit together like puzzle pieces—Somers and Reilly, the bickering couple, and Dawson, the droll matinee idol who kissed the female contestants.
8. THE SEATING CHART WAS CAREFULLY PLANNED.
Somers and Reilly occupied the middle and end chairs of the top tier, and Dawson was stationed in the center chair, bottom row. The remaining spots were filled by a variety of different celebrities, some of whom appeared almost semi-regularly. The first seat on the top row was reserved for a comedian or sitcom star, preferably a male. The fourth seat (first chair on the second tier) was called the “dummy seat” behind the scenes; the celeb in that chair was always the “ditzy blonde” type—think Loni Anderson or Suzanne Somers. The sixth seat was “the worst” according to the celebs who sat in it over the years; the previous five panelists have already used the best jokes or quips, and you were expected to be original. This “thinking person’s” spot was frequently filled by Betty White, Marcia Wallace, or Fannie Flagg.
9. THE EPISODES WERE FILMED MARATHON-STYLE, OVER A SINGLE WEEKEND.
No wonder the panelists often seemed a bit tipsy as their answers grew more outrageous—they frequently were. Rayburn lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and flew to Los Angeles every two weeks on Friday, and then the cast and crew proceeded to tape 12 shows over the weekend. With such an exhaustive schedule, the panelists (and host) tended to imbibe a bit during the lunch break … and the dinner break. (Depending upon what time of day the episode was taped, the Styrofoam cup a cast member was seen sipping from was frequently filled with vodka instead of water.) Despite his onscreen demeanor, however, Dawson did not indulge; his beverage of choice was always coffee. The cast never appeared to be outright bombed, but they were decidedly “looser” in some episodes…
10. THE PANELISTS ONCE PROTESTED AN ANSWER.
Despite all their wacky hijinks, the panelists still kept in mind that their goal was to try and win some money for the civilian contestants. So when the judge made an odd, arbitrary decision on the acceptability of “college” versus “finishing school” during a 1977 episode, the panelists went into full protest mode. Of course, today such anarchy would have been edited out prior to broadcast, but it was this type of spontaneity that kept viewers tuning in.
11. SOME CONTESTANTS WENT ON TO BECOME CELEBRITIES.
ChiPs actress Brianne Leary competed on a 1976 episode and won a little over $9000. (She appeared as a celebrity panelist three years later, the only civilian to do so.) While she was a struggling actress Kirstie Alley from Wichita, Kansas (who listed her occupation as “interior designer”) paid her bills by appearing on TV game shows. In 1979 she won some big bucks (and an approving leer from Rayburn) as a Match Game contestant.
The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank