By Whitney McIntosh
One of the most common problems that people complain about when it comes to new pop culture today is that more often than not it isn’t “new” pop culture at all. Whether with movies, books, television or overarching cultural trends, there is more of a tendency to assume that no one can properly come up with any new ideas and would rather just settle for borrowing from the last century of original thought. The most obvious instance of this happening would easily be Words With Friends ripping off the game of Scrabble to make an iPhone app and then be able to turn around and convince Hasbro to not only spend the time and money to produce a Words With Friends Board Game, but go on to sell it right beside the game they ripped off in the first place.
We’re living in a world of re-tooling, re-booting, freshening up and ripping off. There’s no real way around that part of our current culture, but it is important to realize this isn’t the first era of using nostalgia to turn around a struggling network (hey there, CW) or launch a successful literary effort. However often people want to blame opportunists of ignoring original creative thought in favor of simple or nostalgia based projects to increase their bottom line, there is one imperative thing to remember. It’s not like this is the first stretch of years where this is the norm. Just because the present people in charge can’t even come close to successfully adapting a childhood game as simple as musical chairs doesn’t mean this will be the last you hear of some of your old favorites become a new quadrilogy or something, but it also wasn’t the first time. Because for three whole seasons way back in 1987 this country aired a television show based entirely around the game of Pictionary.
I’m genuinely not sure what’s better about NBC airing a show based around Pictionary: that it was called Win, Lose or Draw (hence forward referred to as WLM), or that they actually pulled off a certifiably entertaining half hour program built around people scribbling on an easel. Who would have thought that in the same ’80s game show landscape where audiences were still watching celebrities placed in a 30-foot high grid just to amp up the stakes of Tic-Tac-Toe that it would be possible to settle for a bare bones living room set with only two couches, an easel and the contestants?
The state of the set is surprising, at least for a game show airing on a major network. The main reason is that up to this point most of the adaptations of well-known games had placed more emphasis on making them supersized in comparison to the original (for probably the best known example, one merely has to look towards the transition made from hangman to the glitter filled Wheel of Fortune). You would think a game centered on drawing would reach the heights of using oversized brushes on a wall or at minimum forcing the contestants to draw with their eyes closed. Instead it’s a straightforward 3-on-3 draw off with a board the size of a child’s easel. All of the standard Pictionary rules you followed in your own family room on game nights apply here as well. Two teams (always segregated as women vs. men) are given a pen, paper, a clue to draw, and one minute to do so using no words either vocal or written. If a viewer didn’t know any better when first tuning in no one could fault them for thinking they were rudely interrupting a planned night of family bonding in a normal suburban home instead of watching a primetime game show.
The other way it differs is the overall relaxed ambiance, if you will. Even if game shows aren’t blatantly over the top there’s usually at least some structure to the proceedings whether it be a clear cut area for the contestants to stand, or at least a podium for the host to circle as they go about their business. Not WLD though, not even close. Each of the two sets of contestants have a couch from which to participate but these are only used liberally, guests choosing to sit on the floor or stand while guessing what each person is drawing. This relaxed atmosphere gives more opportunities for shenanigans not seen elsewhere. Likewise, the host is left to fend for themselves, roaming their area of the set with only a microphone and their wits. Luckily for the audience, both hosts that spent large amounts of time helming WLD were adept at keeping things light and rolling with whatever craziness showed up in the drawings each episode.
WLD had two separate yet equally funny versions during its three years on the air. Both the daytime edition and the syndicated primetime show debuted on the same date in the fall of 1987, used the same set, and the game play more or less abided by the same rules, but because of the two different time slots and hosts the similarities pretty much stop there. For the first show of the day Vicki Lawrence put her comedy chops to good use early and often, while at night Bert Convy turned on the charm to entertain audiences at home and in studio alike.
One of the more creative practices WLD did take part in was using the only real prop, the easel, as the method by which to introduce the guests. Starting off the show with pre-drawn over the top caricatures of each contestant rather than just announcing them as they walked out served as an adept way to let everyone know that all bets were off in respect to the behavior the audience could expect. It set the tone of the whole show moving forward. With a show that essentially centers around scribbles on a piece of paper it serves well to play up all the fun the guests will be, which WLD smartly accomplishes right off the bat.
This brings us to the guests themselves. One might think for such a marginally forgotten show the guests would be B-list celebrities with not much else going on at the moment, and one would be right. During the daytime show, you could view guests of the stature similar to what you find on most of the cooking shows on the air now. Marginally-known celebrities there to plug something, have a little fun, and mostly get through everything without upsetting anyone. Of course there were some appropriately behaved guests with not a hair out of place featured, but half the fun is when things go off the rails and all the host has left to do is cross their fingers and fall back on whatever crisis comedy tactics they possess
Which is exactly what happens when you throw Vicki Lawrence on the same stage as WWE superstars facing off in a battle of the sexes showdown, in costume nonetheless. Introduced as “The Pride of American Wrestling,” NBC cashed in on the popularity of pro-wrestling and personalities like the Farmer’s Daughter and Sgt. Slaughter went all out in bringing their type of entertainment to a much more subdued locale. One of the best moments came at the end of the show when the official scorer gave a point to the girls’ side on a questionable guess, leading the guys to go after the scorer off-screen and Lawrence to jokingly hide out behind the set in fear as a full on wrestling match ensued front and center. Of course this was all preceded by great moments during game play as well. There’s something generally hilarious watching intimidating people struggling to correctly draw “Things George Bush Says.” Watching it today, that category actually becomes even more entertaining as your brain keeps drifting to George W. quotes instead of his father’s more professional prose.
Where Vicki Lawrence presided over stunt guest appearances and outrageous contestants, Bert Convy on the syndicated series had an arguably easier job at hand. Because the show was a production of Burt and Bert Productions, and one of those people was the host of the show himself, it seems to have led to a phenomenon many late night hosts know well: the “when all else fails invite your good friends and have a blast goofing off for an hour” corollary. Why worry about scrambling for guests when you can just have Burt Reynolds (the other Burt in the production company header, incidentally) and Alan Thicke stop by? Putting three chummy guys in room together pretty much never fails to entertain, and that trend doesn’t stop here.
In this case, Convy knowing he can rely on his male guests to imbue the proceedings with comedy and lighthearted jokes helps him more than usual because both contestants are pretty much squares. Unless some of Thicke’s other friends were about to drop in and compete instead of the present contestants, Convy should have been extremely thankful Reynolds was there as someone with whom to enjoy some rapport. In one of Convy’s more obvious failings, it’s quite evident without people receptive to jokes, he is lost in the woods. When interacting with the less-than-hilarious girls, Convy has to resort to complimenting them on their sartorial choices, leading to him heading a bit too far into Musberger territory a few times.
Overall, the syndicated series was the more streamlined and professional of the two, but none of the differences translated in a big way to the length either was on the air. Ending after only three seasons and with no reboots attempted in the last 20-plus years, Win, Lose or Draw is destined to be a diamond in the rough of NBC’s game show history. With any luck a network in the near future will feel the need to cash in on nostalgia and replicate the pure fun of people drawing crazy clues so we can all stop going through reams of paper playing at home.
Previously on Game Night: Scripted Series Can’t Have All the Holiday Fun
Whitney McIntosh resides in Massachusetts and is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. You can follow her on twitter at @whitneym02.