What's My Obsession? What's My Line?

Outside of the mega-brainy Jeopardy , old school Match Game larf-fests, the not-really-a-gameshow The Gong Show, the Groucho-rich You Bet Your Life, and the occasional current episode of Lingo (where my chief compulsion is to stare like a drooling idiot at Bush-lovin' ex-Miss USA Shandi Finnessey, who could only get hotter to me if she were actually discovered to be a bush-lovin' ex-Miss USA instead), I am really not a game show guy.

In fact, as a breed, they sort of make me sad to a large degree. This could be because much of my time spent viewing them was when I was either stuck at home sick as a kid, so watching them reminds me of being sick, or when I was stuck inside on summer vacations due to rainstorm or snow blizzard, with no hope of actually doing anything fun. They also remind me of those bygone days when, if you were indeed stuck inside at home due to inclement weather or illness, you only had the four local channels and some fuzzy UHF to rely on for entertainment, and these, along with the horrendous soap operas, were the shows you had at your fingertips. No wonder I quickly developed at an early age a taste for watching any movie matinee show that popped up. But, for the past couple of years, I have become increasingly addicted to a game show. A very, very old game show. Not quite as old as the Groucho show, but nearly as wizened. The Game Show Network (GSN) has, for quite a while now, been airing late-late night (or early-early morning... take your pick) episodes of the classic What's My Line? Until very recently, these episodes only aired Sunday night/Monday morning, and only at the pace of one precious half-hour dose a week. I have been recording these episodes for much of that time, cherishing my Monday morning wake-up time, as I prepared for work, to catch up with old favorite celebrities like Tony Randall and the evil-punning Bennett Cerf (whom I only knew growing up from ancient collections of already then ancient jokes... and as Dr. Seuss' publisher). Then, just a short while ago, GSN, perhaps at the request of impatient viewers, began showing Line? every single night/morning (3 a.m. PST). And now, my every single morning is now filled with the dryly mannered and dulcet tones of John Charles Daly as he wonderfully obfuscates his contestants' lives to the point of driving his panelists crazy.

What's my obsession with this show? Well, I have a certain love for old radio and TV shows, especially variety or panel shows, where there is a revolving door of huge celebrities that just drop by, seemingly out of the blue (though in the case of Line?, like many shows, they were paid to do so). Recent guests were, on separate episodes, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, with the twist on Farrow's being that Sinatra was sitting on the panel. Naturally, when Ol' Blue Eyes ended up getting duped by his then-Mrs., he basically implied with a waved, closed fist that he should give her an ol' black eye, a motion not commented upon at all, except by laughter, by an audience then largely used to men being men and women shutting up for the most part. This attitude is also captured by the round of wolf-whistles that emit from the males in the studio audience anytime a female even remotely decent looking steps onto stage. Signs of the times, though there is also much evidence, especially in the current crop of episodes circa-1967, of the changing of those attitudes. Women come on the show in an amazing and surprising, for that time, array of occupations, though it is great fun to watch the generally staid and behind-it celebs struggle with their preconceived notions of pretty girls and elderly women who are doing things that pretty girls and elderly women just weren't supposed to be doing, dammit!

It's also fun to see current celebrities show up early in their careers, such as a pre-film directing Woody Allen, who is introduced on the panel as the playwright of the current Broadway hit Don't Drink the Water (and filming Casino Royale at one point as a guest). Watching Allen struggle to play a celebrity schmoozing game he clearly already thinks is beneath him is a bit uncomfortable but fascinating, though the panelists seem to love his non sequiturs and oddball observations. Also, seeing Raquel Welch appear just before One Million Years B.C. came out was amazing, as was watching Jane Fonda in her Vadim years pushing their latest married couple opus.

But the chief reason I have grown so fascinated with the show is John Charles Daly, the dryly mannered but charming moderator of the show, who verbally spars (and obviously quite lovingly so) with Mr. Cerf each and every introduction, wishing the most evil things to happen to Bennett, usually after Mr. Cerf pops off with yet another devastating pun for which he was so feared in those days. Daly, against what must be his outward demeanor, is really quite humorous. It seems like great, cruel fun as he wonderfully obfuscates his contestants' lives to the point of driving his panelists crazy, and I, watching this time capsule some forty-odd years later, go crazy myself sometimes trying to plot a course through the labyrinth of wit in his explanations, delighting in his twists of logic.

What I have discovered watching it now is how little I actually knew of Daly's life, and of many of the panelists, such as Arlene Francis, whom I primarily know from Billy Wilder and James Cagney's sublime comedy One, Two, Three. It has prompted me to dig a little more into my television history, a task which, as you know, I have been just dreading terribly. Even just as a catalyst for this alone, What My Line? is invaluable to me. And as a place where I can finally see a public appearance by someone like Jean Shrimpton, who is primarily a Smithereens song lyric to me, it has vast pop cultural value. The show is followed each night/morning by old episodes of I've Got A Secret, which has similar appeal with its panelists (though not as high class), but its host, Garry Moore, is largely more insufferable to me than Daly, without half his smoothness.

Of course, as someone who is usually juggling about four dozen obsessions at any given moment, this Line? fervor will die down within me, and I am interested in seeing what happens in a couple months when they run out of 1967 episodes. '67 was the final year of the original series, before it moved not much later from its 18-year black-and-white prime-time run to a syndicated color version. I am hoping that they don't jump to the later version, and simply start showing much, much older episodes from the 1950s. But my fear is that GSN may have jumped up its Line? output to simply run out the show to make room for new programming.

And that's the danger of obsessions and addictions. The best thing in the world would be to get the monkey off your back. But who really wants the monkey to leave if it feels so good?

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