Now, I know what you all think of when you think of the Match Game: calamityjon’s awe-inspiring set of user icons. Possibly you also think of the highly enjoyable internet version of the game that Jon occasionally runs in this space. And, if you are old enough, you may remember, vaguely, the actual program.
I do. I remember watching it when I was, oh, six-seven years old, and thinking, even then, that it was kinda crazy. What was it about this show that so hypnotized? What was so good-bad, bad-good, utterly repulsive-strangely brilliant about it, that today, 30 years past its heyday, it still holds sway over the psyches of sick fucks like myself?
On a hunch, I decided to watch it.
First of all, the Match Game, like preternaturally repulsive host Gene Rayburn, had a shockingly long life. The first edition of it with Gene at the helm was in 1962, and the last was in 1980 – meaning that this lifelong showbiz hack (and former Broadway hoofer, whose understudy was Charles Nelson Reilly!) was doing some version of it for eighteen fucking years. The premise, in case you never saw it, was this: some affable dimwits were pitted against one another in a contest. Gene Rayburn, the yellow-toothed, leering, badly-touped host of the show, would ask a “celebrity panel” (consisting largely of people who stretched the definition of ‘celebrity’ to its absolute breaking point) to fill in the blank on a sentence like this: “Freddie says he doesn’t like that new restaurant for streakers. He ordered a hot dog, and it came with (blank)”. The contestants, who to a man looked completely out of their depth even when he asked them what their names were, had to guess what these “Love Boat” C-listers would answer. As the show progressed into the ‘70s, the questions and answers became more risqué – and references to sex and (especially) drugs were pretty commonplace. Unlike a lot of game shows, the Match Game was often broadcast live, so you’d get the show ending in the middle of a round if someone was fucking around too much.
Additionally, it was hard to shake the feeling that most of the people on the show – host, guests, contestants, even crew – were coked out of their minds. The “celebrity guests” (who included a panoply of minor semi-stars known today, if they are known at all – I mean, who the fuck was Patti Deutsch? – more for being contestants on the Match Game than for whatever it was they did to become famous enough to get on the show in the first place) often acted like they were just hanging around at a wrap party; they swapped stories, told insider gags, wrote each other goofy notes on their game cards, and sometimes even vanished for half the show. Dessicated pro Gene Rayburn hit on all the women, wielded a mic so thin he could have done needlepoint with it, and told fag jokes about Charles Nelson Reilly. Watching it is like stepping into another dimension where the worst parts of the 1970s hold absolute sway: it’s like being trapped at Plato’s Retreat after a “Love American Style” cast party, being hosted by a wooden-toothed zombie in a suit made out of corrugated cardboard.
And yet, and yet: it’s utterly compelling. The contestants' poe-faced stupidity makes them hilariously joyful at every minor triumph; the questions lead to funny answers from some of the wittier contestants (like Chuck Nelson Reilly and Richard “Rico Suave” Dawson); and the celebrities, gopped up on marching powder as they are, genuinely seem to like each other, so it’s fun to watch these Z-list nobodies have a grand old time shooting the shit as if they were doing a “Citizen Kane” reunion.
Even though the presence of Gene Rayburn traumatizes my girlfriend, I’ve become obsessed with the nightly reruns on the Game Show Channel. You can tune in any given night at 10PM C.S.T. and see one of the following things:
- A broad, leering grin on the face of Gene Rayburn, a man who God never meant to grin
- Charles Nelson Reilly wearing some completely bugfuck ascot or sailor hat or velveteen blazer
- Brett “Mrs. Jack Klugman” Sommers looking for all the world like her husband in drag
- Lesbian novelist Fannie Flagg taking a break from whatever else it was she did to camp it up with Brett Sommers
- Some other wooden-voiced game show host whoring his product, as if it could possibly compete with the Match Game
- Gratuitous use of the words “fanny”, “whoopee” and “grass”
- Sparkle-motion stucco
- Several of the celebrities degenerating into incomprehensible, jokey small talk for at least five minutes of screen time while the contestants sit there bewildered
- Really, really bad mustaches
- Joe Garagiola fixin’ to punch someone
- Really, really bad hats
- Someone writing a cryptic phrase on an index card and wearing it on their head all show long
- The audience vigorously booing someone for a particularly dumb-ass response
- Gratuitous use of Avery Schreiber/Rita Moreno
Just in the last week of reruns, I have witnessed:
1. Fannie Flagg wearing a bridesmaid’s hat and a sequined top that spelled out “MENAGE A TROIS” in rhinestone letters
2. Fannie Flagg claiming to have had dinner at Brett Sommers’ house the week before, a dinner which consisted of “Kool-Aid and pork”
3. Charles Nelson Reilly manically switching his tobacco pipe for a bubble pipe
4. A female contestant whose husband (named “Excel”!) came to the studio in a rhinestone-studded denim jacket that matched hers
5. Richard Dawson claiming to be from Guam, and sporting a huge Zodiac medallion
6. Charles Nelson Reilly, Patti Deutsch and Brett Sommers all telling the exact same drug joke, but on three different shows
7. Jimmie Walker delivering his “DY-NO-MITE!” line approximately 3,499 times, then getting kinda pissed at Richard Dawson for cribbing it for the 3,500th variation
8. A contestant, clearly bombed off her skull on coke, who identified herself as a “retired Playboy bunny”
9. A celebrity guest (I wanna say it was Bobby Van, but I can’t be sure) who, to my knowledge, did not say a single word the entire show, but just sat there smiling enigmatically
10. Rita Moreno making cracks about Puerto Ricans that would get a white person punched, then cackling insanely, falling out of her top, rubbing her nose, and remembering that sometime, a long old time ago, she won an Oscar
Honestly, the amazing and depressing thing about it is that you can take any frame of any episode and it so totally encapsulates everything wonderful and horrible about the 1970s. Plus, it had the funkiest theme song of all time. God bless you, Match Game!