By Whitney McIntosh
In case you weren’t already aware, the month of February has been a generally love-themed month around This Was TV. So, in keeping with that motif, let’s dive into a double header of romance themed game shows with The Newlywed Game and Love Connection. Romance has generally been left behind as a game show device as the years go on due to the rise in reality shows bent on exploiting dating and marriages for all they’re worth. But in the heyday of cheesy game shows, these two were some of the best when it came to maintaining entertainment value without having to crank the sugar notch to high.
Post-Real World, paying to produce and air game shows about romantic pairings is about as worthwhile as setting that money on fire. Mass audiences aren’t about to watch a group of couples chastely answer questions about each other or recap dates that occurred off camera if there are juicier hook-ups to be found in MTV reality shows or on a nighttime soap airing a few channels over. This unfortunate trend has reduced any new game shows about dating to Jerry Springer-inspired concepts like Baggage (actually hosted by Springer) or the endless VH1 dating spin-offs that began with Flavor of Love.
All in all, this is a real shame. As the selections this month will show, game shows centered on couples and coupling could be cute, hilarious, rewarding, and awkward all at the same time. And really, what more do you need out of a game show? Back in the 1980s, the answer was essentially “not much.” Both Love Connection and The Newlywed Game were very much a product of the decade; from the hosts’ wardrobe choices to the neon lights and set design. Although the popularity of both has resulted in multiple attempted re-launches or rip-offs none of those ratings have come close to replicating the popularity that the originals brought in syndication. Apparently, shows born of the innocence and simplicity of the 1980s game show scene were meant to stay there.
The birth of Love Connection is itself owed to the success of the 1960s show The Dating Game. Although the former changed the general outline of the show and rules of the latter, the goal was more or less the same. Two people would be tested for general compatibility in order to facilitate a match between them. On The Dating Game, the date would occur after the show was filmed and was of no real import to how the filmed portion unfolded. In a stroke of brilliance (or necessity, depending on how you look at it), Love Connection flipped this format on its head and staged the date before the show (although didn’t film it), and used it as a more realistic way to gauge the match-worthiness of contestants. Given three choices before appearing, each contestant would pick which person they believed would be the most compatible option off-camera and then attend said date. Instead of ignoring everything that happened on this date like its predecessor, Love Connection could then leverage the account of what went on in order to craft an entertaining episode of television.
During the studio show, the audience would be presented with three choices to match with that day’s contestant. They would vote on who of the three they considered the best match, but the outcome would not be revealed until later on in the show. The contestant and (newly revealed) chosen second party would then recount the date, muse on how it went in each of their personal opinions, and decide if they would be interested in going out again. At this point the studio audience vote would finally be revealed to the contestants and viewers at home and four possible outcomes could play out.
One, the audience and the contestant agreed on the match and the contestant would be offered a second date with the same person at the expense of the show. Two, the audience and contestant would disagree on the appropriate match, so the contestant would have a choice between a second date with their original selection or a first date with the audience’s selection. Third, the audience and contestant would agree that the first option was not a solid choice and the dater could then choose to try and find a connection with the audience’s pick (also at the expense of the show). Lastly, the audience and contestant could agree on a choice, only for the date to have gone poorly resulting in the contestant having the option to choose between the remaining two selections. In the event a second date occurred, the couple would revisit the show sometime in the future to discuss if anything ever came of the “love connection” made.
Overall, Love Connection was an unqualified success. Running for 11 years and more than 2,000 episodes, estimates have around 22,000 couples meeting on the show (and yes, you read that right: twenty-two thousand). Even though the end results of matches made aren’t crazy by any means the final statistics have it that over the show’s run 29 marriages and 8 engagements were achieved. Which when you think about it, breaks down to 2.6 marriages and .72 engagements a season, which is pretty impressive for what amounts to an early form of reality television.
Most importantly, Love Connection single-handedly revived Chuck Woolery’s dying career in a big way. Perhaps what he’s best know for out of all the shows in which he was front and center, making matches kept Woolery in the game long past when his expiration date seemed to be. After leaving Wheel of Fortune amidst a salary dispute, Chuck had no projects to speak of for two solid years, a gap that would point to the end of anyone else’s career in entertainment on any sort of big stage. Luckily, he was offered Love Connection and never looked back, cementing himself as one of the all time greats when it comes to game show hosting. Reflecting now, the fact that without that turn of events we might never have had Lingo is borderline unbearable.
What is most interesting to me about Love Connection is how the format foreshadowed the demise of exactly this type of game show. This was the first instance of audience involvement that evolved past shouting numbers or answers at the participants. By allowing the audience to experience control, even to a limited extent, the producers paved the way for future shows to embrace fan favorites being saved or voting people off. The excitement of being able to steer the outcome of matches based on preference and opinion is what allowed dating shows to slowly merge into later examples like Blind Date and the ilk. Rooting for someone when you’ve invested time beyond just turning it on is infinitely more entertaining than just watching choices unfold. In the late 90’s, Love Connection even incorporated one of the first instances of online voting into the proceedings. At times, the show is written off as just one more in a long line of cheesy ‘80’s programming but the ripples it caused gave the dating show conceit new life and for better or worse we can thank it for at the very least a portion of the dating shows on the air today.
At the other end of the dating spectrum, we have The Newlywed Game. Where Love Connection found its success by mining entertainment from awkward interactions and puppy love between near strangers, Newlywed looked towards couples already past the initial uncomfortable dating stage to the uncomfortable marriage stage. In a time when it was still a fairly recent trend for couples to live together before tying the knot, there was more of a chance that when asked a question about their significant other the contestants would get it wrong, sometimes embarrassingly so.
Different forms of the show are drawing nearer to double digits as the years go on, but the most well-known and popular versions are hands down the years when Bob Eubanks was asking the questions. He was the original host when the show premiered in 1966 (at the time setting the record for youngest game show host ever) and continued to wrangle newly married couples on and off until as recently as three years ago when he made his most recent appearance participating in special episodes. Looking over old clips, the reason Eubanks returns to the show so often is readily apparent in the way he handles excessively awkward moments (including my all-time favorite) and good-naturedly teases couples for exceedingly awful answers.
Even with a “winners and losers” set-up and a points system in place, the show excelled for so many years due to the inherent laughs that come out of a married couple not being able to accurately predict their significant other’s answer to a sometimes simple question. Because the rules dictate only couples married for two years or less were allowed to participate, being asked about situations that may not have come up in the relationship yet means contestants are almost assuredly about to be caught completely off guard. I mean, asking a husband when the last time his wife went to the dentist could have really gross results that he isn’t at all prepared for.
The Newlywed Game was able to survive for so long mostly due to the fact that the creators hit a major sweet spot in how to bring forth the humor of marriage. There aren’t many other ways for a show about not knowing your spouse to stay so lighthearted (although certain reports state some mistakes on the show later resulted directly or indirectly to divorces). With this status as a hit that was inherently difficult to rip off, The Newlywed Game mostly coasted on its popularity with no major changes to speak of. Couples answered questions with their spouses off stage, these spouses returned to the stage to predict the answer given and the couples were given points for every correct prediction. Rinse and repeat for the second round, only the spouses switched roles.
Where Love Connection was so successful in relying on (mostly) spontaneous moments to entertain their audience, The Newlywed Game was expert at manufacturing hilarity and mischief in equal doses based on the questions they supplied each episode. Hoping to find a match to date a few times on national television might end up not working out, but it’s a far cry from hoping that the match you’ve already made and committed to in the long term isn’t revealed to be a huge mistake in front of millions of people.
Previously on Game Night: Win, Lose or Draw
Whitney McIntosh resides in Massachusetts and is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. You can follow her on twitter at @whitneym02.