By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
New Year's Eve, 1976, and the set of "Match Game" was its usual loony cocktail party. The New Year was always festive on this set, as "Match Game '73" was rechristened "Match Game '74" and so on, with reliably cheesy pageantry, until '79.
This episode opened with a gaudy fake bird, a bicentennial eagle, floating overhead and dropping an egg with the new '77 logo on it. Later, co-producer Mark Goodson made a rare appearance, asking host Gene Rayburn to read a special question for the celebrity panelists. Rayburn read, in the typical corn-pone style of the hit game show's questions: "Old Man Goodson said, 'By the time it gets to be "Match Game '99," I'll need a new BLANK.'"
Rayburn died in 1999, but even then "Match Game" was still filling in blanks on TV schedules. That is, the star-studded game show had been reincarnated half a dozen times, and for the last several years its classic '70s version has been a fixture of cable's Game Show Network. Today, the network is moving the show's reruns back to the fore of its late-night block — that's the "Daily Show" and Adult Swim hour — with two episodes starting at 10 p.m. weeknights.
The show's endurance is impressive given that "game show" these days is starting to mean reality-TV gladiator gaffe-fests. Even the Game Show Network now calls itself GSN, shying away from the original implication as its programming fills with reality reruns and new shows that aren't games at all, such as "Anything to Win," a documentary series about "the competitive spirit" debuting Jan. 10. Slipping away is the ding-ding-ding of the game show bell, and all that's left are a bunch of ding-a-lings.
"But 'Match Game' has always been a staple on our network," said Lou Fazio, GSN's vice president of programming and acquisitions, this weekend. "We've talked a lot about this in meetings, about the uniqueness of this show compared to other game shows. It's the casualness or looseness to the format, the camaraderie and the banter. You watch a couple of episodes and you notice they don't always finish the game, they'll let the game spill over into the next episode. Because the natural comedy aspect to it — Charles [Nelson Reilly] and Brett [Somers] busting each other's chops, mainly — is what's entertaining."
Indeed, "Match Game" is perhaps the only game show in which the game itself is irrelevant. Who cares if anyone wins? The contestants are distractions, unwitting straight players to a panel of sodden cut-ups. You tune in to watch the B- and C-list "celebrities" crack one another up with vaudevillian nyuk-nyuks and occasionally risque (for the '70s) camp. You watch to see what ludicrous outfit Reilly wears while deadpanning and puffing on his pipe. You watch to see just how far Richard Dawson can mack on a woman — contestant, co-star, crew, it didn't matter — in the era before finely tuned sexual harassment litigation. You watch to see these people smoking like stacks and sometimes joking openly about the well-stocked backstage bar. It's the surreality of encamped celebrity, decades before "The Surreal Life."
"Everyone on the show was just so likeable," said Rich Prouty, host of the weekly "Improv Match Game" at IO (formerly ImprovOlympic), 3541 N. Clark. "And they all seemed to like each other. They were having a great time. They're just friends hanging out, doing bits, laughing a lot — at and with each other. It's infectious."
In fact, three years ago, Prouty decided to launch his own version of the show. "I figured with Second City and 'Mad TV' and 'SNL' people around, I had the exact same caliber of panelists they had for the TV show, right here," he said.
He had a successful eight-week run in 2002, and when the smaller theater at IO came available on Monday nights late in 2004, he started an open run of the "Improv Match Game" with local panelists. The show — 10:30 p.m. Mondays (including tonight), free admission — observed its first anniversary last week.
"I try to keep three or four of the panelists as regulars, because that was kind of the key to the TV show," Prouty said. "That way, the majority of people know each other, they're comfortable enough to poke fun at each other, take jabs. They made fun of Charles Nelson Reilly's toupee, and kidded Brett about being old. That was the comedy."
That's the allure of this chestnut game show. It's not a game, it's a living room full of very funny friends. "This isn't a job, it's a social engagement," Reilly once quipped about his top-tier "Match Game" gig.
And what's a little sexism between friends? The show that traded in double entendres often showed its Freudian slips. In one of his more notorious goofs, Rayburn was introducing two contestants, one of whom was a woman with a perky smile and adorable dimples. Rayburn, however, attempted to remark on those dimples, but it came out, "Doesn't she have nice nipples?" Censors, schmensors.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.