The only thing better for YouTube binge-watching than classic Soul Train episodes is 70s game-show reruns– things like Hollywood Squares, $25,000 Pyramid, Password, and of course Match Game.
What is it that makes these programs so compelling? Is it the clothing and hairstyles? The chance to see long forgotten celebrities in their middle-aged primes? Or…is it something less tangible?
Despite being competition-based game shows, Hollywood Squares and Match Game in particular are quite relaxed affairs, with plenty of time for witty banter, and no buzzers, timers or countdowns to create artificial drama.
Match Game’s appeal forty years later is that it is like an improvised conversation breathing life into a bygone era, an era that for many people is no more than a caricature defined by polyester shirts and beanbag chairs.
In the same way that Mad Men opened a door into the lives of 1950s people and turned them into more interesting and fully-realized characters, Match Game gives us an unscripted glimpse into what was really going on behind the big hair and wide collars of 1974.
Despite rumors of Episode 165 being banned from the Game Show Network due to Orson Bean’s use of the word “nymphomaniac,” there’s nothing particularly special about this episode to set it apart from the other Match Games available on the Internet. What you see here is what you get most of the time: A wide range of innuendos–sexual, alcoholic, and otherwise; along with the chance to watch minor celebrities show off their wits while Gene Rayburn wields the thinnest microphone in show biz.
When you watch Match Game Episode 165, you’re not watching a vital piece of television history. Far from it. You’re watching just another day in the life of 1974, and that is precisely what makes it so compelling.
Orson Bean starts off the match by deadpanning to host Gene Rayburn that he’s on mushrooms. Betty White then holds out her hand and complains that she’s “wet and sticky” because her nail polish hasn’t dried yet. Rayburn saunters over and blows on the starlet’s outstretched hand like he’s putting out a burning marshmallow. It’s hard to tell if he’s supposed to be flirting with Ms. White or just trying to hurry the game along. Part of the confusion is never knowing whether Rayburn considers himself a legitimate sex symbol or not. Most game show hosts do think of themselves that way, but most don’t have the Sam Donaldson hair and emasculating antenna-thin microphone that are Gene Rayburn’s trademarks.
Throughout the show, sassy Brett Somers keeps on trying to pick a fight with former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley. It’s a good thing these two are seated apart or there might have been some hair pulling to contend with. But to be fair, Brett seems ready to scrap with anybody, even Betty White.
Richard Dawson is at his physical peak here, and his body language says that he knows it. The only other men on camera are Orson Bean, Charles Nelson Reilly and Gene Rayburn, and Dawson knows he’s the tannest, thickest haired, most alpha male of them all. The former Hogan’s Hero is seated between Mary Ann Mobley and Betty White in the front tier of the set, and he aggressively flirts with each of them in turn. Mobley responds positively and eventually winds up pushing her body into his like an affection-starved cat that needs to be scratched until Dawson shoos her away, feigning disgust. Classic Dawson. He has Mobley firmly under his thumb, right where he wants her.
The pressure on Match Game can be immense. There are no multiple choice answers, yes/no responses, or fact-based replies here. There’s only a phrase with a blank line with a key word missing, like a Mad Lib. Your job is to fill in that blank with the same word that everyone else in the room has pulled from thin air for the same purpose.
What are the odds that multiple people working independently are going to arrive at the exact same word to complete the phrase? It’s such a precise science that the only hope for success is to throw science out the window altogether and rely purely on intuition instead.
The pressure is so immense that Orson Bean announces he needs a quick whiff off his marking pen for inspiration, then puts it under his nose and begins to inhale deeply before Gene Rayburn steps in and bats the marker away from his face.
Keep in mind another piece of information: This episode originally aired on a Friday with the same celebrity panel that had been on all week. What that really means is that this is the last episode in a bloc of five filmed in a single day, with a half-hour break between each one (plus a couple of hour-long union-mandated meals for the crew). That leaves plenty of time for the on-air talent to get a buzz going and keep it going. So by “Friday,” these celebrities are probably fifteen sheets to the wind.
And why wouldn’t they be? This isn’t a knowledge-based contest like Jeopardy or a puzzle-solving competition like Wheel of Fortune. There’s no need to keep a clear head at all. Match Game answers are all about wit, innuendo and reading the room, not hitting a buzzer and regurgitating book knowledge. And what better way to make sure that that chemistry happens than by creating a pub-like atmosphere with a well-stocked bar? And Rayburn doesn’t look like he’s one to run a dry ship.
As for the celebrity panel, I can’t remember when I’ve seen any of these people looking more young and lively. Mary Ann Mobley always looks fabulous because she was Miss America. But even with Brett Somers and Betty White you get a glimpse of what they must have looked like at the tail end of their college years. Richard Dawson we spoke about. Charles Nelson Reilly appears young and rangy, like a country lawyer who just walked sixteen miles to return a penny. Orson Bean is Orson Bean, a youthful version of the filthy old man he is today, and spry Gene Rayburn looks like he’s ready to host another five episodes.
Seeing them all there like that makes it all the more sobering to realize that besides Betty White and Orson Bean, they are all dead now. Rayburn, Mobley, Reilly, Dawson, Somers, all of them are no longer with us. When this episode originally aired in 1974, it seemed you could count all the dead TV icons on two hands, because the medium was so young that nobody on it was old enough to have died of natural causes yet. Nowadays, you look at classic TV and the dead people onscreen seem to far outnumber the living.
The Match Game contest itself was a close one, involving not one but two tie-breaking rounds. Once the winning contestant finally bested her opponent in this epic, nail-biter, Gene Rayburn congratulated her by slipping a C-note into her palm and proclaiming, “here’s a hundred dollars for ya!” practically giving her a pat on the rear and calling her “doll-face.”
By the way, a hundred bucks?? That’s what the winning contestant gets after a twenty-minute battle with her opponent? Even in the Seventies that isn’t a lot. An assembly line worker installing gas tanks on Ford Pintos makes that much in a day. In the following round, $500 is the highest prize on the board. But then in the final segment of Match Game, the contestant is given a shot at winning $5000, enough for a down payment on a house plus a used Rambler.
After Richard Dawson helps the cute young contestant win the $500 cash prize, she runs over and kisses him right on the lips. Dawson always seems to make a deep connection with the female contestants on Match Game. He gives them his undivided attention, and that soul connection seems to help Dawson match their answers in the bonus rounds better than most celebrities could.
Dawson was always one of the favorites with the Match Game contestants. After seeing him work his magic on Episode 165, it’s a lot easier to understand why Dawson was so comfortable taking liberties with the female guests on his own game show, Family Feud. And that is a discussion for another day.