Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
The end was already nigh for the daytime network TV game show by the time Hot Potato debuted on January 23, 1984. Having survived the scandals of the ’50s, game shows grew in popularity through the ’60s thanks a few tried-and-true formats, like the “panel show”—where an assortment of Broadway stars and noted raconteurs asked questions of average Joes—and games where ordinary folks were asked to perform silly stunts or solve little brain-teasers. In the ’70s, the genre exploded, as The Price Is Right, Match Game, Pyramid, Family Feud, and Wheel Of Fortune anchored daytime lineups, surrounded by dozens of colorful, sometimes crazy shows. (The Magnificent Marble Machine, anyone?) But by the ’80s, the networks were increasingly leaving the gaming business up to the syndicators, while saving their own airtime for soap operas and talk shows, which were proving more lucrative. The golden age was over.
Hot Potato followed a fairly typical game show arc for the time. The game itself wasn’t terribly original: Like Family Feud and Card Sharks, the questions relied largely on public surveys, the results of which the contestants were asked to list one at a time. Hot Potato’s big gimmick was that it was played by two teams of three, who had the option to name an item on the list or to challenge an opponent to come up with one. (It was Family Feud with more strategy, in other words.) The show failed to catch on in its original format, with teams of civilians related by occupation or hobby, and so on April 23, NBC and Barry & Enright Productions relaunched the program as Celebrity Hot Potato—a change that savvy fans of the genre recognized as a last gasp. Run down the list of short-lived ’80s game shows and you’ll find that a significant number added a celebrity element just before their inevitable cancellation.
One big problem—circa 1984, anyway—was that celebrities weren’t what they had been. Stars were a common component of the game show heyday of the ’60s and ’70s too, though even then, the “stars” in question were usually old comedians, ingénues, or fourth-billed character actors promoting their new TV series. Some, like Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, and Brett Somers, became more famous for being on game shows than they ever were as actors. Some, like Richard Dawson, made the transition from the panel to hosting. And many picked up an extra paycheck in primetime once shows like Love Boat and Fantasy Island gave the C-list a comfy home. The end result was celeb-glut. The mere presence of a famous face on TV became less than enticing.
Then there was the added problem of exactly how these celebrities were meant to behave. Why were they there, exactly? To help the contestant, or to be entertaining? There were some shows—like Password and Pyramid—where the guest stars were expected to know the game and to come to compete. Others—like Hollywood Squares and Match Game—were far looser. Match Game became the biggest hit in daytime when it was revived in 1973, and drew numbers to rival primetime programming during its peak year of 1975, which led to the show’s shrewdest and most popular player, Richard Dawson, being tapped to host Family Feud. During Family Feud’s biggest ratings years, Dawson was a swaggering presence who had enough leverage to insist on beginning each show with a short monologue. That’s how popular the “game show celebrities” were in the ’70s.
Yet the Saturday Night Live cliché of the idiotic celeb contestant—seen in Will Ferrell and Norm Macdonald’s Celebrity Jeopardy sketches, or in the recent Secret Word—didn’t come out of nowhere. Like nearly every other game show, Hollywood Squares and Match Game would tape five episodes a day, and they became notorious for their liquid dinner breaks, which meant that the Thursday and Friday episodes of any given week sometimes verged on mayhem. And whatever the show, some celebrities—older comedians in particular—were always going to be more interested in cutting up than playing the game, even if that left their poor non-celeb partners in the lurch.
Which brings us to the June 29, 1984 episode of Celebrity Hot Potato. The show begins with Carrie Olsen, a freelance photographer, competing alongside former Laugh-In star Arte Johnson and Happy Days’ Anson Williams against Rod Garrett, a pier coordinator, on a team with veteran comic Jan Murray and Broadway legend Lainie Kazan. (Later, Carrie is supplanted by Trudi Miller, a “certified aerobics instructor.”) This is the last-ever Celebrity Hot Potato, and everyone involved knew it. In the opening, Johnson jokes with host Bill Cullen that it’s “nice to be on the Titanic with you,” while Murray says that he wishes he were Cullen so he could kick back and draw unemployment checks. There’s a little bit of last-day-of-school cynicism and silliness to the celeb behavior—though to be honest, they’d probably be acting this way even if they were guesting on a hit show that had just been renewed.
The rules of Hot Potato weren’t exactly celebrity-friendly. The first question of the June 29 episode asks the contestants to name seven of the eight characters who’ve appeared most often in the comic strip Dennis The Menace which is a subject that Williams handles well but which leaves the rest of the celebs utterly confused. Cullen tries to elicit responses from stars who don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, and since Cullen’s only allowed to list the already-given answers once each round, he can’t provide any real guidance. Murray tries to play along the best he can, but Johnson gives a joke answer—“Norman Feldkaiser!”—and then immediately turns around to take his seat on the bench, where he looks exaggeratedly bored and irritated for the remainder of the game.
Murray, meanwhile, is cranky throughout the entire episode. Murray had been a TV game show host himself in the ’50s and ’60s—most notably on Treasure Hunt, which his own company created and produced—though he was better-known as a smart-mouthed Borscht Belt comedian. Here, he snipes with Cullen because he doesn’t understand the rules, and he takes issue with a question about what people keep in safety deposit boxes. He argues with the audience when they laugh at him for saying that he knew an answer but didn’t say it. And when he helps Rod in the bonus round by offering his opinions on whether Paul Anka or Barry Manilow was born in the United States, he snarls at Cullen’s joke about how long he took to answer, saying that he’s “fighting for airtime.”
It can be frustrating to watch any of the celebrity episodes of Hot Potato—not just this one—because the talent doesn’t pay enough attention to the particulars of the game-play, and Cullen doesn’t try hard enough to keep them on-task. (At times, Cullen seems surprised that anyone knows the answers to the questions.) Don’t misunderstand: Cullen belongs at or near the top of any list of the greatest game show hosts of all time. He started on TV in 1952, and worked steadily for the next 35 years, having his greatest success with the original version of The Price Is Right, which aired from 1956 to ’65. His affable demeanor, bright sense of humor, and cheerful energy—none of which ever dimmed, not even in his final years—made him a go-to host for the ’70s boom, since he could keep an audience entertained whether the game made any sense or not. But Cullen’s just-tell-me-what-time-to-show-up professionalism also meant that he didn’t stress out about selling a tricky game like Hot Potato. (The big exception on the Cullen résumé was Blockbusters, a clever game that Cullen genuinely seemed to love watching contestants play.)
On the final Hot Potato, Cullen doesn’t seem overly morose. “We’ll pop up again,” he says as he’s saying goodbye to the audience at the end. And he was right… sort of. After Hot Potato, he did go on to host The Joker's Wild. But there weren’t as many available jobs as there had been a decade earlier, when Cullen set the record for most game-show-hosting gigs. Plus, he took ill in the later half of the ’80s and died of lung cancer in 1990, at the age of 70.
Hot Potato was a victim of its times in many ways, from its quick cancellation to its super-’80s set design: flashing lights streaking across colors the shade and texture of modeling clay, and video screens sporting a boxy font best-described as “Nouveau Tic Tac Dough.”
But the dated aspects of the show also give Hot Potato much of its enduring value, and not just because the wiggly synthesizer music and booming announcer’s voice will instantly transport anyone over the age of 35 to his or her childhood living room on a precious day off from school. No, just like Family Feud, Card Sharks, and even The Price Is Right, half the fun of watching Hot Potato today is trying to figure out what the answers to the questions would’ve been at that time.
For example, in this episode, Bill Cullen says, “When we asked people which famous living person would you like to have as your best friend, we got a list of nine celebrities. Can you name seven of those famous people who seem like they could be good friends?” Well, can you? Who did the average person want to be best friends with in 1984? The full list is at the bottom of this page, but here’s one that you probably wouldn’t expect: Jane Fonda, who in ’84 was enjoying a brief window of popularity as an Oscar-winning actress and fitness guru, not A Symbol Of All That Is Wrong With The American Left.
That’s what makes old game shows more fascinating than new ones. These broadcasts were meant to be daily diversions, not lasting records of the time in which they were made, but it’s because they weren’t shooting for posterity that they retain their watchability. The games themselves are still playable by the home viewer, and the passing references to politics, popular culture, fashion trends, and sporting news make some game shows as tied to their times as a stack of old newspapers.
And who knows? Stumble on the right episode and you might be treated to the poignant spectacle of four celebrities standing on opposite ends of a podium manned by a TV legend in the last years of his life, all engaged in the last taping of a show nobody was watching, going back and forth, one-by-one, naming people more famous than they.
Here’s the complete list of “friends:” Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Bob Hope, Michael Jackson, Paul Newman, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, and Tom Selleck.
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Dinosaurs, “Changing Nature”