Game Night: Match Game

Match Game panel

By Whitney McIntosh

One of the best decisions (not the best though, we’ll discuss that later) Match Game ever made was to include in each episode’s title the year in which it was taking place. Throughout the peak of its popularity, the show had so many distinctly different versions and so many contestants making multiple (yet non-regular) appearances that it would make your head spin trying to make an educated guess of when a given episode originally aired. All in all, at least half a dozen variations of Match Game spanned 37 years. These include the original Match Game from 1962–1969, the reboot in 1973 (which was the most popular by far and inspired the Match Game PM companion show/spinoff), the Match Game Hollywood Squares Hour, and reboots in 1990 and 1998 which each lasted only one season and were the only years with Gene Rayburn absent from hosting duties. Through all of these different permutations and panelists Match Game experienced a normal curve of creativity and relevance, moving through the standard TV show stages of fresh and new, peak of popularity, still hanging on and failed reboot.

Thus, making the title “Match Game ‘74” instead of just “Match Game” is an easy way to let viewers know if they’re getting an episode pre-moon landing or post-Godfather Parts I and II. It’s a little surprising no other long-running game shows adopted this strategy early in their runs, but it’s not readily apparent whether this option was eschewed because of the connection it already had with another show or because of how Match Game’s use of it was received by the audience. Really, being able to tell in which year a rerun of Wheel of Fortune or The Price is Right on Game Show Network originally aired would be at worst extremely amusing, especially since Vanna White’s and Pat Sajak’s faces have only been getting younger over the past decade.

Fully understanding the joy of Match Game requires the viewer to watch the show as a purely happy activity. Although almost all game shows are created and viewed as pure entertainment, they also entail the audience wanting to play along with the contestants at some point, therefore making them a part of the action. With Match Game this isn’t quite possible, as the outcome of the game is pretty much the last aspect you focus on while watching all of the other shenanigans unfold.  Sure, you can see how many panelists you would match up with, but you would be missing Gene Rayburn “breaking” more often than Bill Hader in a Saturday Night Live Stefon segment. The game structure doesn’t matter in the least compared to the humor emanating from the panel, which is plain old refreshing. 

Match Game title card

Supposedly, Match Game consists of two contestants filling in the blank in a statement read by Rayburn; if they choose the same word as any of the six panelists appearing that week, they get a point for each match. The contestant with the most points after two rounds moves on to the final round, where they then receive help from three of the panelists of their choosing to match an audience poll and ultimately have the chance to play for $1,000–$5,000. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the specifics of any contestant behavior during this part of the show without going back to rewatch, because I’m pretty sure I blocked out any actual time spent with the contestants from my mind. And who could blame me? The contestants on Match Game were the most stereotypical squares from the mid-1970s you could possibly find. I’m 90% sure Match Game had a contestant search team similar to the Jerry Springer contingent, but rather than finding the most interesting people to compete their instructions, they were to find the least colorful homebodies in America. Good job team, mission accomplished.  Maybe—and this is actually a pretty likely theory—this was the strategy on purpose. How can we make our panelists even more enjoyable? By focusing everything on the well-loved panelists rather than contestants the viewer is barely invested in. As such, it wasn’t that the contestants never had a humorous moment—but they never had one that didn’t involve a panelist in some way.

Before we get to a more in-depth look at just how awesome said panelists are, let’s take a look at the people responsible for all of the buffoonery. Like Family Feud, Match Game was created and produced by Mark Goodson (just one more thing to add to your “Reasons Mark Goodson Was Great for TV” list).  Working closely with Goodson was Bill Todman, a long-time collaborator and business partner who died in 1979 near the end of Match Game’s second run. Despite his passing, Goodman kept Todman’s name in the production credits for years after.

Rayburn hosted from the first episode in 1962 until 1969, and then from 1973–1982; the second large chunk of Match Game episodes ended its run 20 years after the whole thing got started. Because so many panelists appeared in most episodes, Rayburn became an expert at how to react to each one’s antics and successfully navigate the shenanigans that ensued approximately every three minutes. Which was a necessary skill to have, seeing as the shenanigans were the best part about Match Game.

I mentioned that we would discuss the greatest decision Match Game producers ever made, and here it is: Time to talk about drunken panelists. Far and away the thing that allowed Match Game to flourish was allowing some of the panelists (especially the regulars) to be sloshed on camera. Even if they didn’t explicitly tell them to appear drunk on the panel, letting it happen is more than enough. Not too long ago, This Was Television’s own Andy Daglas put it best when he tweeted (in the midst of a discussion about the “drunk scale”): “I go by the scale of Draper > Norm > Franklin Sherman > Otis > Match Game panelist.” It doesn’t even matter who else is included on the list, “Match Game panelist” will always be the pinnacle of TV drunkenness. Fortunately, this only heightens the humor coming from a group of already skilled comedians. This is such a difference compared to the present day, when some public appearances elicit so many “That was a train wreck! Were they drunk?” responses on social media they end up skewing more towards embarrassing instead of purposefully funny (See: Eastwood, Clint). On Match Game, inebriated guests were just another variable added to increase the entertainment rather than an obstacle in the way of it.

You could get lost for hours looking up clips of great moments from the show, and that’s more or less a direct result of the perfect combination of natural comedic talents and alcohol. In addition to the primary players, so many panelists made single or recurring appearances that you never really knew what to expect from each new celebrity that popped up. I’ve chosen a variety of the most famous one-stop panelists, a few sporadically recurring ones, and the four main panelists to take a look at only a fraction of the best moments during Match Game’s 1973–1982 run. I’m focusing on the second stretch of Match Game for two reasons. First, the panelists are slightly better known than those who appeared during the ’60s run; second, during this stretch the show was orchestrated to encourage more inappropriate answers and generally debauched behavior.

This isn’t a foolproof list of the best moments from each celebrity—in fact I’m sure you could easily find five more for each without too much effort. But there’s only so much room, and if I didn’t give myself a loose limit there would be no end to the clips I could talk about. So now, in a general order of fewest to most appearances, Match Game panelists at play.

Ed Asner

Asner appeared in this episode from 1977 and joined the powerhouse I fondly call the back row. He didn’t make much of a splash during his appearance, but I include this particular episode because he was involved in, and the partial spark for, one of the most memorable moments in Match Game history. The “School Riot” incident begins when the judge changes his decision on the validity of Charles Nelson Reilly’s answer and then decides not to do the same for the entire front row of panelists, which results in one contestant losing by one point. Around the 9:30 mark in the second clip, you can see Asner’s token charm in a brief but fun interaction with Rayburn. Although the exact date isn’t readily available for this episode, it came during the tail end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s run; when viewed with that knowledge in mind it serves as an appropriate cap to Asner’s time on that series.

Bob Barker

Bob Barker was already a household name when he appeared, from hosting both The Price is Right and the Miss America pageant. For readers who were not alive during his early career, it serves as an interesting peek at his good looks and flirtatious personality compared to the grandfather-like figure he transitioned into during his later years on The Price is Right. Like most of the other panelists, Barker didn’t hold back much in his antics during the show, even audibly swearing multiple times (he wasn’t alone in this, but it’s still weird to hear Bob Barker drop an “Oh shit!”). The clip below offers a great look at his infectious personality and game attitude when some good-natured flirting between him and Rayburn turns into a lovers spat over Rayburn wanting to see his hair messed up on camera. Although he never failed to induce laughs on The Price is Right, this offers a different look at Barker’s humor when he wasn’t focusing on hosting a show at the same time and could improvise and play off others on the panel.

Marvin Hamlisch

Since panelists were scheduled to appear on Match Game in week-long blocks, you could usually count on whomever was on the show at least once to pop up a couple more times, either consecutively or in a few episodes sprinkled over a short period of time (if the contestants worked out in an even manner and did not require the end of one episode to be completed at the beginning of the next, as happened fairly frequently). Despite this, Marvin Hamlisch technically appeared in only one large episode that was cut into three during post-production, which some sources have dubbed “The Never Ending Episode.” Below you can find two of the three episodes in this “series” which both contain priceless moments from the dearly departed master of music. Starting out, it is indeed strange to see a man with two Golden Globes, a Pulitzer Prize, and an EGOT pop up on Match Game. But as these episodes progress it becomes clear that, although this may have been a stunt appearance, Hamlisch can back it up with some comedic chops.

This hits home about the 7:00 mark in the first clip, when he and Charles Nelson Reilly team up to serenade the defending champ with a quickly penned song shortly after she wins the $5,000 grand prize, taking advantage of a xylophone conveniently situated next to Hamlisch’s seat. Although you are unable to deduce whether it was his suggestion or the producer’s to bring along instrument, it doesn’t really make a difference. The xylophone let him be part of the action while also keeping one foot in his own element. He makes less of an impression through most of his second episode, but more than makes up for it at the end (starting at about 18:37 in the second clip) when he, Reilly, and Brett Somers team up for a stirring rendition of a song that was written “for Brett” during the episode. It should put a smile on your face any day, just as Marvin himself did.

The appeal of the next group of panelists is less about individual moments and more about what they brought to the show as a whole. These panelists were the regulars that tied the whole group together even if all four weren’t necessarily present at the same time. When they were on Match Game they always sat in the same seats, leaving a sort of empty space if they weren’t on that week, even if an equally talented comedian like Anne Meara was filling in for a few episodes. There is even less of a chance that what makes these panelists so special can be captured in one video, but there are many examples of these Match Game legends, in the clips and compilations here and elsewhere, that will give you a good appreciation for what it was like to watch this particular group of comedians play off each other on a consistent basis.

Betty White

Betty White is the second person on this list to appear on both Match Game and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her give-and-take rapport with Somers, combined with her acceptance of being lightly mocked by pretty much the entire panel (notice Somers poking fun at her crow’s feet for one answer when she wasn’t even present in the “School House Riot’ video above) foreshadows both her hilarious time on The Golden Girls and her recent, well-deserved career resurgence (aided by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, of course). Although she was never the outright “dumb blonde” of the panel, she came awfully close many times. Yet she still managed to hold her own against the boys’ club of Gene Rayburn and Richard Dawson that she witnessed on more than one occasion. Because of her constant position in the first row to the left of Dawson, White was subjected to their antics more than almost anyone else and handled it by ragging on them right back—not that we would expect anything else from Betty White. The first video below contains a few choice clips of her interacting with the whole panel, while the second shows what happens when Betty and her animal loving tendencies (as well as her husband) get inserted into the question, as the show was wont to do with panelists’ personal lives from time to time.

Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly

Brett and Charles are together on this list because they were nigh inseparable when they appeared on the show. Whenever one appeared without the other, it was obvious the episode was lacking a certain dynamic. One was never without a quick remark to mock the other during game play, and both were always prepared to come up with a bit to entertain the audience and the other panelists. Brett and Charles occupied the rear center and rear left seats, respectively, and it is easy to draw comparisons to a pair of rambunctious school children left to their own devices. Rayburn does just that in the first video below, deciding he is finally fed up with the distraction and forcible moves Reilly to the first row next to White. The pair was also the best example of panelist drunkenness. This is pretty clear in the “School House Riot” episode above, when Reilly shows up with his shirt inside-out and proceeds to play out an actual school house riot with Somers post-commercial break. The second video below sees the show playing “Freaky Friday” with Rayburn and Reilly when the host is too tired and fed up, and the panelist is installed as the host for a few rounds. The third clip makes it abundantly clear (if it wasn’t already) that the back row was imbibing during filming more often than not. Between Somers’s signature glasses, Reilly’s loud clothing and ubiquitous pipe, and the pair’s endless laughter, these are two panelists who brought more to the table than almost anybody else to appear and were not soon forgotten.

Richard Dawson

While Brett and Charles had each other to play off of, Richard Dawson worked best from front row center with Rayburn as his partner in crime. It was easiest for the host to patrol the front row while waiting for answers to be filled out, and he and Dawson made a natural couple to mess with the other panelists or pretend they were above the craziness occurring around them. We saw last month how successful Dawson became hosting his own show with Family Feud, at first towards the end of his Match Game tenure and then after he departed from the panel permanently. But his time as a stalwart on this dais provides a better look at his comedic chops when he wasn’t carrying the load of an entire show and was simply given the chance to goof off and do impressions.

One of Dawson’s best moments was also in the “School House Riot: episode (I did say it was one of the most memorable), but instead of reacting to the controversy like Somers and Reilly, the Brit was at the center of the issue. His future career as a host is plain in the many times he disagreed with Match Game judge Ira Skutch and caused trouble over it. The first video below features Rayburn best describing Dawson’s behavior as “getting his dander up,” which is also one more instance of Match Game enjoying a double entendre without ever overdoing it. The relationship between Richard and Gene never failed to amuse, which the middle video makes clear with the former’s offhand reaction to the latter receiving a fake hickey on air. We conclude with a good old-fashioned Dawson meltdown, since there really is no other way to end it.

Match Game was in a league of its own as a long-running game show that never truly lost steam until the very end. After the final episode of this classic run in 1982, reboots were attempted but never successfully carried out. That’s probably for the best. The hosting and panel combination that Goodson and Todman were able to come up with was a lightning-in-a-bottle style success; to think that it was possible to find the same magic today, even with many talented comedians currently in show business, seems unlikely. It is best to leave Match Game as a capsule of the great work those comedians were capable of, and to enjoy the timeless laughs the show still gives us.

Previously on Game Night: Family Feud

Whitney McIntosh resides in Massachusetts and is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. You can follow her on twitter at @whitneym02.

4 Responses to “Game Night: Match Game”

  1. noho

    Good article, but can I show some love for Patti Deutsch, the original kooky alterna-chick. Never tried to match, always had funny answers, and had that blank stare thing at the beginning of the episode.


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