Like a scene out of a stereotypical 1980’s movie, my family used to watch this show on a 13 inch TV resting atop a cart that was rolled right up next to the table while we ate dinner. This isn’t the later Whoopee Goldberg / Gilbert Gottfried version, but rather the old school version (or perhaps the “middle school version,” seeing as how the show was first on the air in the 60’s). This version had celebrities like Jim J. Bullock, Milton Berle and Joan Rivers, a woman so terrifying that just as I was getting over my fear of witches from my toddler years*, I tuned into “Hollywood Squares” and couldn’t watch The Blair Witch Project until I was 22.
B and C grade celebrities sit in open-faced cubes stacked 3 x 3 to form a tic-tac-toe board. The stars are asked questions by the host (e.g.: “True or False: This is the lowest point of your career and rent is due.”) and the contestants judge the veracity of their answers in order to win control of that box. According to Answers.com, original host Peter Marshall’s description of the objective to the contestants was legendary: "Object for the players is to get 3 stars in a row; either across, up-and-down or diagonally. It is up to them to determine if a star is giving a correct answer or just making it up; that's how they get the square."
Peter Marshall, ladies and gentlemen.
John Davidson, known as a “world class bluffer” when he appeared as a guest on the original version, hosted this updated version. The opening paragraph to the bio on John Davidson’s webpage reads: “Singer, comedian, actor, television host, beautiful person, above average bocce player, perfect husband, father of the century, your best buddy, a swell guy, John Davidson . . . wrote these liner notes.” Call me crazy, but I like John Davidson.
Basically John’s job was to set up the celebrities for jokes and not look too stunned when one of the contestants got any one of the ridiculously easy questions wrong. And as far as hosts go, he did a good job. There is also no doubt in my mind that John Davidson slept with a TON of women because of that show.
The guest appearances made the show. In the same way that the only reason people watch “Saturday Night Live” anymore is for the host and the musical guest, so too was it the main reason people tuned into “Hollywood Squares.” Everyone from The Monkeys (all in one square) to Weird Al Yankovic to Wolfgang Puck (with a hotplate cooking food) took their turn in a square. Even the host, John Davidson, spent a show in a square when ALF appeared as a guest host.
Is it just me, or were the 80’s a simpler time? The fact alone that “ALF” was a hit show in primetime is staggering, but then a game show decides to make him the special guest host for an episode? It’s like we were all Russian immigrants and the simplest things amused us to no end.
Why I Liked It
This seemed like a grown up TV show. It had all these celebrities whose names my parents knew and they made jokes I mostly didn’t understand but my parents laughed at anyway, such as:
John Davidson: “A Russian man has just shown you his "balalaika." What has he shown you?”
Jim J Bullock: “Why he's not so popular with the party girls.”
Right there, that’s funnier than anything Regis Philbin has ever said in his life. Plus there was the absolutely CLASSIC prize ceremony at the end of the show when the winner would choose one of five keys and then choose one of five cars to try with the key. If they chose the correct car for the key, the car started and music played, people screamed and balloons fell from the sky. Mind you this car was probably worth $8,000. People won that on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” by answering questions like ‘Which one of the following is not a vegetable?” If the key did not start the car, it made the typical game show sound (whaa waaaa) and the contestant tried again the following week. Basically, if you didn’t need a car there was really no reason to go on this show.
What Was Wrong With It
This game took little to no skill whatsoever. Just like in regular tic-tac-toe, if you went first and you didn’t have a rod sticking out of your cerebrum, you probably won. Even if the celebrity was asked a difficult question, all the contestant had to do was point out the obvious – that the celebrity had no idea what type of grass the White House’s lawn was made of and by pointing out that the celebrity’s answer was wrong the contestant still won. It was so rare that contestants didn’t answer correctly that when they missed a question the audience gasped, as if to say, “I didn’t know getting it wrong was even an option.”
Also, this was my first brush with Richard Simmons, who was a regular guest. I remember asking my mother what was wrong with him and her replying that there was nothing wrong with him, he was just different and me thinking “If that’s what being different is, I can’t wait to grow up and be just like everyone else.” And that’s why I’m a paralegal today and not a world famous explorer / travel writer.
* I’ve done extensive research trying to find the name of the show that first instilled my deep seeded fear of witches and I can’t seem to find it. All I remember is that it was a show made up entirely of hand puppets and they were small and cheap looking with hoop dresses and plastic faces. And the witch character was particularly frightening. Come to think of it, she even bore a close resemblance to Joan Rivers. If anyone has any insight to this, it would be appreciated so I can gather the courage to face the fears of my childhood and finally watch this documentary on the Salem Witch Trials I’ve had on my TiVo for months. Thank you.