Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Television game show newshound Steve Beverly, who operates a delightfully informative site called TVgameshows.net, recently published one of those lists that's certain to inspire conversation among game show aficionados: the 16 worst (or at least, the 16 most dreadfully miscast) hosts in game show history.

Of those on the list whose performances I saw and remember, I have to agree that Steve has them pegged exactly right. Anyone who witnessed Jon "Bowser" Bauman's disastrous run as host of Hollywood Squares (coming on the heels of his trademark stint as the bass singer in the '50s revival band Sha Na Na), or endured soap opera star Doug Davidson's stumbing and fumbling at the helm of a short-lived syndicated version of The Price Is Right knows whereof Mr. Beverly speaks.

There's one name on Steve's list, however, that conjures up some personal memories for yours truly.

In 1990, two years after my five-game undefeated run on Jeopardy!, I was one of 36 former J! champions invited to appear in a special tournament on ABC called Super Jeopardy! Although the particulars of my Super J! performance are best relegated to the mists of history (suffice it to say, I sucked harder than a Dyson Animal), I recall the experience — and the $5,000 I pocketed just for showing up — with great fondness. Any excuse to hang out with other J! legends and semi-legends (I'll rank myself near the tag end of the latter category) works for me.

The reason Super Jeopardy! happened at all was that Merv Griffin, creator of Jeopardy! (as well as Wheel of Fortune) and its executive producer at the time (he sold the show to what is now Sony Pictures a decade or so ago), was eager to sell ABC on another game show he'd devised, based on the popular board game Monopoly. Merv's idea was that Monopoly could run on Saturday nights during the summer, a graveyard for TV programming usually cluttered with stale reruns and failed series destined for the chopping block.

ABC executives were less than thrilled with the Monopoly idea, which the major syndicated programming distributors had already rejected. (If you're wondering how it would be possible to condense into 30 minutes — less credits and commercials — a game that in its original form plays for hours without end, you're already understanding the problem.) The original pilot, which featured former Press Your Luck host Peter Tomarken (who died in a plane crash just a few weeks ago, I was sorry to hear) and a dwarf dressed up in a top hat and tuxedo in the mode of Monopoly icon Rich Uncle Pennybags, was reported to be abysmal.

Still, Merv was convinced that the bugs could be worked out of the concept, and that the TV version of Monopoly would be a smash. Dragging their heels like football fanatics being led to the ballet, ABC agreed to book 13 weeks of the show only if Merv would couple it with a special, big-money Jeopardy! spinoff. That's where Super J!, and not coincidentally I, came in.

But I digress.

For whatever reason, Merv decided not to hire Tomarken for the network run of Monopoly. That, or perhaps the savvy Tomarken decided not to shipwreck his future marketability as a game show host by being attached to a certain bomb. Whatever the case, legend has it that Griffin planned to host the show himself, but realized as the retooled Monopoly was in development that advancing age (Merv was 65 at the time) just wasn't going to permit him to pull it off.

But a former Jeopardy! contestant who (as the story was related to me) was one of the test players brought in to participate in the Monopoly dress rehearsals struck Merv as possessing exactly the qualities of a budding game show host. After a few trial games, Merv offered the job to Mike Reilly, an unemployed actor making his living waiting tables, like so many Hollywood wannabes.

The rest, as they say, is the stuff of myth. Or bad TV. You decide.

Reilly, to put it as politely as possible, stank on ice. Now, to be fair to the man, a genetically engineered construct combining the best game show hosting qualities of Alex Trebek, Bob Barker, Bill Cullen, and Chuck Woolery couldn't have saved Monopoly. The game played like the proverbial camel — a horse designed by committee. The rules were incomprehensible, the play impossible to follow, the theme music annoying and juvenile (the lyrics consisted of repeated spelling of the word "Monopoly" as though the show were a segment of Sesame Street), the set needlessly tricked out with everything from dizzying lights to bosomy models rolling gigantic dice (fortunately, the little person in the tux and top hat didn't last beyond the botched pilot). Worst of all, the game had little to do with the real Monopoly, aside from the graphic design elements.

But Reilly only made things worse.

The rookie host looked perpetually petrified, and didn't become more relaxed or gain visible confidence as the summer progressed. Reilly often appeared completely at sea about what to do next. He was so stiff, so uncomfortable, so robotically awkward that viewers watching him felt as though they had crawled naked into a barrel filled with termites. One could only wonder what Merv saw in this guy to throw him into the shark-infested waters of network prime time without any experience, or training, or discernable personality.

Between them, Monopoly and Reilly were so embarrassingly wretched that ABC didn't even bother to air the season-ending episode. The show was simply allowed to vanish unnoticed into the annals of TV gone wrong. Reilly doubtless returned to the heady task of asking people, "Soup or salad?"

Super Jeopardy! sure was fun, though.

Back to the list for a moment. I'm surprised that Steve Beverly doesn't mention my all-time favorite inept game show host. (Yes, there was someone even more clueless than Mike Reilly.)

Ironically, this was another Merv Griffin fiasco. When Pat Sajak left the NBC daytime version of Wheel of Fortune in 1989 to launch his ill-fated late-night talk-variety show, Merv replaced him with Rolf Benirschke, the former placekicker for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. I happened to be at home ill on the day when Rolf made his debut, and he spent the half-hour looking far sicker than I felt. I have never seen a man appear more tremblingly, lamb-to-the-slaughter nervous on television. The flop sweat beaded so heavily on his brow he'd have melted the Wicked Witch of the West with a shake of his head.

Before enough weeks of terror had passed to damage Benirschke for life, he was replaced by a more experienced host, Bob Goen, who later moved on to the coanchor spot on Entertainment Tonight alongside Mary Hart.

That Alex Trebek sure does one heck of a job, though.

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2 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Janet offered these pearls of wisdom...

I don't care what you say. Add Woolery to any game show and it automatically gets kicked up a notch.

7:50 PM  
Blogger CuzzinDave offered these pearls of wisdom...

The truth was that Mike Reilly got the job because he was harassing Merv from the test contestant area and telling him he was a lousy host. Merv replied something to the effect that if he thought he could do better, then be his guest. He impressed him enough to get him a job. He did suck!

As for Rolf Benerscke...he really was sick! He had real physical problems!

7:13 PM  

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