ABC’s new Match Game, hosted by Alec Baldwin, is only the latest attempt to revive and update the boozy, glitter-festooned party atmosphere that made Match Game a hit on ’70s daytime TV. Like most efforts to recapture the ’70s, past Match Game remakes have been unsatisfying and vaguely shameful. They’re best left forgotten, but their failure is a prologue to the giddy, captivating success of Baldwin’s version—which is, for this devoted fan of the genre, the best primetime game show since Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.
For ABC’s purposes, the “original” Match Game (which was itself a remake of a successful ’60s show) premiered on CBS in 1973. Two contestants competed to match a celebrity panel’s answers to fill-in-the-blank questions, with affable yet sharp-tongued host Gene Rayburn presiding. On screen, Match Game was a vision in orange. The fuzzy picture tubes of the era would have seemed to smolder with midday celebrity.
That loud disregard for decorum extended beyond set design. It was most evident in the questions—cornball gags that sometimes teased the limits of propriety by hiding lowbrow punchlines in plain sight behind the “blanks.” Rayburn might offer an anecdote about “Susie, the senator’s new secretary,” who reportedly said, “I’m not sure what the senator expects me to do, but when I walked in his office, he was wearing ‘blank’!” As they considered their answers, the panelists’ option was to steer around the obvious or find a coy route through it. Match Game ’73 (…’74, ’75…) married quasi-subversive comedy writing with the unpredictable energy of nothing-to-lose C-listers, and the result was gleefully seedy fun. It seems to be a straightforward formula.
Yet subsequent U.S. remakes bungled what is, in fact, a fragile recipe. There was The Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour in 1983, an ill-conceived Franken-show that split hosting duties between the peerless Rayburn and grating Sha Na Na comedy-rocker Jon “Bowzer” Bauman. The decent but forgettable 1990 daytime Match Game on ABC, seen above, mucked up the flow with rapid-fire “Match-Up!” mini-games. Speed rounds leave no room for silliness, so Match Game does not require speed rounds—counterintuitively, they brought the show to a halt.
Match Game ’90 also felt a bit tame—references to “boobs” no longer made Americans’ face flush with the heat of minor scandal—which may be why a syndicated Match Game in 1998 strove to push the envelope further than ever. Match Game ’98 is the black sheep, defined by cheapness and boorish, sometimes mean-spirited questions. This version was so bad. How bad was it? It was so bad that after its brief run ended, Match Game left the U.S. airwaves seemingly for good, aside from the occasional abortive pilot or one-off special.
Yet now Match Game has emerged from a 17-year hibernation with swagger restored, albeit thoughtfully updated. The producers made a number of savvy choices to rejuvenate the delight of this format, many of which I will explore in this overlong appraisal. Their most important choice is this: Match Game ’16 does not get too cute. It doesn’t cobble together an overloaded format to lengthen the show like Match-Squares Hour. It doesn’t waste time with new rules like Match Game ’90 or seek to offend like Match Game ’98. Instead, Baldwin hosts the simple format that served Rayburn so well, and the writing walks a contemporary line between tawdry and outright trashy—favoring the former, but with a soupçon of sleaze for spice. The recipe still works.
This year’s revival has aired two episodes so far, and it only took that long for Alec Baldwin to make Match Game his own. From the start, Baldwin brought a natural panache to his task of running the game and making everyone else seem funnier while he’s at it. He riffs on the celebrities’ most provocative answers and makes hay of the contestants’ worst. He uses the whole stage, prowling his plushly carpeted domain with a stream of chatter while the panel mulls a question and then perching in anticipation as the answers arrive. This is the dance of a good Match Game host, the one Rayburn choreographed for himself through years of experience. Baldwin has done his homework.
But Alec Baldwin isn’t Gene Rayburn, and he doesn’t try to be. While Rayburn had his own moments of lunacy, he usually served as a buffer of wit and relative dignity that counterbalanced the unruly stars. Baldwin plays this moderating role, too, but as he settles into Match Game, he’s also embracing a role as an instigator. “Just write down the filthiest thing you can, Sherri,” Baldwin sneered this week as panelist Sherri Shepherd struggled with a question. With one remark, he disdained the gutter mentality of Shepherd’s previous responses while daring her to keep it up—which she did, and Baldwin got another laugh by shaming her for it.
In the series premiere, Baldwin’s grace faltered only when he had to perform pre-written jokes during icebreaker chit-chats with the panel and contestants. These canned moments felt foreign to a show whose essence is spontaneity. (Rayburn never read wisecracks off a cue card.) After a contestant discussed her Oreo obsession, Baldwin dutifully performed his scripted rejoinder: “My wife has taken all the junk food out of our house, but have you ever tried double-stuffed kale?” He lacked conviction as he read that joke. In fairness, so would you.
By week two, though, Baldwin had figured out an approach that made the one-liners click. He realized that “Alec Baldwin, game show host” was a character he could exaggerate to suit his needs. Now he delivers the zingers with a knowing gusto, reveling in our shared awareness that these morsels of wit are manufactured. Are there traces of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy in Baldwin’s host persona? Sure, but only to the extent that Jack Donaghy was also, in part, an exaggerated version of Alec Baldwin.
Like David Letterman, and like Gene Rayburn for that matter, Baldwin has a passion for the artifice of broadcasting. During a 2012 appearance by Letterman on Baldwin’s podcast, for instance, the two performers reminisced with wonder about the days when local TV stations employed “booth announcers” to maintain patter during technical difficulties. Baldwin exults in such contrivances, and he likes to expose or discard them for comedic effect. “Hurry up! We’re almost out of music!” Baldwin barked at one stalling panelist as the show’s funky “think music” continued to play in the background. He knows how to get a reaction by speaking to the truth in the room.
That instinct serves Baldwin well on Match Game, which has a tradition of breaking the fourth wall, as much as a fourth wall exists on a goofy game show. After reading a Playboy-themed question—“Did you hear Hugh Hefner sold the Playboy Mansion to the guy who owns Hostess snack cakes? It won’t be the first time you’ll see a ‘blank’ floating in the grotto.”—Baldwin sensed confusion in the crowd and accosted a group of tourists who didn’t understand the reference. “You’re from Ohio? Of course you don’t know what a grotto is,” Baldwin growled. Then he sweetly told them that “grotto” is “a fancy name for a pool with a lot of rocks around it.”
It was a classic Rayburn move: Antagonize the rubes in the crowd and then revert to unthreatening kindness. Baldwin could have explained that the Playboy “grotto” is a glorified sex lagoon, and that might have gotten a rise out of the audience. But the discreet choice he made was better, as Baldwin intuitively grasps a core principle of Match Game: Some things are funnier when left unsaid.
“You may not know this about me, but I always keep a panel of six celebrities just off to my left,” Baldwin said as he introduced himself in this week’s episode. That panel may seem like a mere handful of boldface names, but there is an unspoken structure to the Match Game panel. Here’s how it usually shook out in the ’70s:
Seat 1 belonged to a male guest star, typically a relatable type who doesn’t need to be great at the game.
Seats 2 & 3 were the Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly slots, respectively. They were two of the “regulars” on the ’70s version, so they were more likely to come up with clever answers. More importantly, the cantankerous Somers and the showy, sardonic Reilly enlivened the show with playful bouts of bickering—an entire segment could be derailed by Brett making fun of Charles’ hat, or by Charles presenting Brett with a makeshift award for writing down the most terrible answer of the year. Other panelists would inevitably be drawn in, creating the contagious mayhem that Match Game thrives on.
Seat 4 was the female equivalent to Seat 1: A likable, easygoing woman who could bring the energy back down to earth after Brett and Charles’ hijinks.
Seat 5 was the Richard Dawson slot, at least until Dawson found success with Family Feud and left Match Game in an ugly divorce. Dawson practically ensured a smart answer if the other stars whiffed on a question. He was the best all-around player, both in the main game and in the bonus round, where he was contestants’ favorite choice for the climactic “Super Match.”
Seat 6 was the “weirdo” slot, occupied by a woman with an offbeat wit. This is the hardest position on a Match Game panel. By the time the host reaches this seat, the question has been read multiple times and the obvious answers have likely been given—the charge of the joke is almost exhausted. So it behooves the final panelist to come up with an idiosyncratic twist on the gag, one that finishes off a round with a valedictory burst of laughter. This seat was the stomping ground of Match Game semi-regulars like naive Joyce Bulifant, unapologetically daffy Fannie Flagg, and of course Betty White, the innocent-looking provocateur.
It’s not necessarily the only way to build a good Match Game lineup, but over time this structure tended to foster a lively rhythm. That’s crucial, as reading six answers to the same question can easily turn into a dull proceeding.
The new Match Game mostly adheres to the traditional formula, and the celebrity lineups in the first two weeks have been strong. This Sunday’s panel—Horatio Sanz, Rosie O’Donnell, Tituss Burgess, Sherri Shepherd, Adam Goldberg, and Ana Gasteyer—was as good as it gets. Sanz and Shepherd were suitably sunny in the “just happy to be here!” positions, but those are the easy spots.
More impressive was the affectionate, combative rapport that O’Donnell and Burgess have developed. While Michael Ian Black did a nice job in the Reilly chair last week, the Rosie-Tituss combination is ideal here. Their sparring evokes the days when Brett and Charles ruled the top tier, yet that echo doesn’t feel forced. Rather, the mannerisms of the brassy ex-talk show host and the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star naturally conjure a milieu of mischief for the other panelists to play in.
Ana Gasteyer’s literate and idiosyncratic comic sensibility likewise makes her a perfect choice for the sixth slot. A question from Sunday’s episode provided her with a plum setup by referencing Baldwin’s famous “Schweddy Balls” Saturday Night Live sketch—which, as he pointed out, was written by Gasteyer. The new “Schweddy Log” is the “best thing you’ll ever put in your ‘blank,’” the question went, and after her fellow celebrities took the obvious answer, “mouth,” Gasteyer capped off the round with a prim innuendo: “wood-burning stove.” And that’s how you play the last position on a Match Game panel.
Richard Dawson has no real heir in the fifth seat, but the producers of the ’70s version never found a true replacement for him, either. The aloof tack taken by actor Adam Goldberg this week bore a certain resemblance to late-era Dawson—when he was itching to leave the show—but let’s not belabor the comparison. Goldberg’s sullen self-deprecation was just his own personality coming to the fore, and it lent a fun edge to the sophomoric festivities.
Besides, if anyone is channeling Dawson in 2016, it’s Rosie O’Donnell, who is the superior player and immediately became contestants’ go-to partner for the Super Match bonus round—she’s the only celebrity anyone has picked so far. Contestants know a pro when they see one, it appears, and so does Baldwin, who deemed Rosie “the Shakespeare of game shows” after another Super Match win. She is the one indispensable ingredient of this modern panel, and hopefully, she plans to show up every week.
The production design
From the logo to the carpeting to the eternal sunset that serves as its backdrop, the new Match Game stage is replete with loving tributes to the Rayburn days. A less confident production team would treat the vintage inspirations as ’70s kitsch. This show eschews such ironic distance, instead updating the aesthetic with sophistication that befits a primetime network show in 2016.
There are so many thoughtful touches to admire. The title sequence pays homage to the whirling marquee of the series’ heyday.
Baldwin appears to use a period-accurate ECM-51 microphone—the “game show mic”—that has been adapted into a wireless configuration. (Note that he has a lavalier mic on his chest for insurance, though.)
The celebrities’ stations now have cupholders, as every other facet of American life has acquired cupholders since 1973, so why not a game show? More to the point, it doesn’t hurt to tease the notion that the stars are getting liquored up as you watch.
But the most significant production detail on the new Match Game is this: The contestant area spins around to reveal the Audience Match board. That’s huge. Sometime in the 1990s, it seemed that every game show producer on Earth lost their sense of stagecraft. Giant score displays disappeared, giving way to chintzy superimposed graphics. Dropping, flipping, rotating cards were replaced by cold TV displays. And the sets became static. All of this was total bullshit. I don’t typically make sweeping prescriptions in my criticism, but I am confident in asserting that game show sets should move, damn it. They should dizzy viewers as we plunge into a kinetic wonderland of excitement. When those contestants first spun into view on the new Match Game, it was a tacit signal from the producers to game show fans. Their message: “Don’t worry. We get it.”
And they do. They understand that Rayburn’s Match Game went off the air not because it was broken, or because it needed an innovative wrinkle. Rather, the old show ended because it had been on TV for nearly a decade, and people got a little tired of it. That’s all. You cannot recapture the ’70s, it’s true, but unpretentious fun doesn’t belong to one era. With that in mind, the creators of this revival achieved what long seemed impossible—a great new Match Game—by restoring the concept’s original simplicity and letting smart players fill in the blanks.