You’re In The 60s Game Show With Jackie Gleason


On January 27, 1961, newly-formed comedic actor and game show host Jackie Gleason took the stage at Studio 52, a CBS television installation on West 54th Street in New York City. The set was practically empty, with a chair, two small tables, an ashtray and a lamp.

After being introduced by announcer Johnny Olson and with TV cameras pointed at him, Gleason spoke directly to viewers of the live show.

What they had seen in that time slot the week before, he said, was “the biggest bomb in television history.”

Gleason was talking about his own series, a game show called You are in the picture. And its first and only episode was so horrible that Gleason felt the need to apologize for it.

You are in the picture was the idea of ​​Don Lipp and Bob Synes, both television producers with experience in game shows, and was produced by Steve Carlin, who also had experience, but perhaps not the kind that looks good on a resume. Carlin was at the center of the quiz scandals of the 1950s, when contestants confessed to receiving answers or asking to run games on The $ 64,000 question.

The idea was simple, and that was part of the problem: in You are in the picture, a panel of celebrities would be tasked with poking their heads through a large painting they couldn’t see, then asking the host questions to try to identify their situation. It was similar to the kind of images of muscles and bikinis on display at Coney Island, where people had their photos taken. The dynamic would allow the host to throw jokes in a manner similar to Groucho Marx, the movie star who has enjoyed great success as the host of You bet your life.

The producers and CBS had their star in mind: Jackie Gleason. The actor had become a household name thanks to Honeymooners, the sitcom that only lasted one season in 1955 and 1956 but managed to remain memorable for years and decades to come. Gleason, a savvy businessman, had the foresight to film comedy using Electronicam, a method of preserving television programs that was rare in the 1950s. This allowed him to later sell the show. to MCA, which could syndicate crisp and crisp images. (Gleason got $ 2 million, a godsend for MCA, which raked in millions of dollars from the show.)

Due to Gleason’s popularity, he had a unique deal with CBS where the network paid him a guaranteed annual salary of $ 100,000 whether he worked or not. This kept Gleason in the fold of the network. While a six-figure sum for doing nothing might have been tempting, Gleason enjoyed working and made frequent appearances on variety and game shows, including The $ 64,000 question. When he was approached to host You are in the picture, he was eager to participate.

Gleason understood his role straight away: With his quick wit, he would be able to play around with the concept and use the game as a clothesline for humor. No money was at risk for the players, who should be fun personalities.

Gleason later recalled that he and the producers had tried out the series for secretaries and everyone loved the idea. But when the show was officially announced in December 1960, problems started to mount very early on. The producers struggled to find guests for the first panel, but ultimately opted for actors Pat Carroll, Arthur Treacher, Jan Sterling and Pat Harrington Jr. Although they were a talented group, none of the performers were particularly known for his sense of humor.

This meant that most of the heavy lifting would be left to Gleason. For the first episode of January 20, 1961, he walked through a series of paintings with the guests, including scenes depicting Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Pocahontas saving John Smith, and an image inspired by the popular “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot “Bikini”, among others.

Unlike Marx, who had prepared certain lines often, Gleason was released live and without rehearsal except for scripted approvals for the sponsors of Kellogg’s and Liggett & Myers cigarettes. While he was gregarious and charming, the game was not. The panelists – who often all appeared in the same scene at once – asked trivial questions, seemed confused, and rarely guessed correctly. Worse, the stakes were non-existent. If the panel won, 100 charity packages would be donated on their behalf. If they lost, the packages would be donated in Gleason’s name. For viewers, there was virtually no emotional investment in the outcome.

“You braved a blizzard,” Gleason told the audience at the end of the episode. A seasoned artist, he experienced a disaster when he saw one.

The reviews were mean. “It didn’t just bomb,” wrote newspaper columnist Milton Bass. “No, he lay there in shuddering agony, naked to the world, broken, beaten, flayed alive; and exhaled slowly, excruciatingly, beyond pity, contempt, fear or favor. The debacle was made worse by the fact that Gleason was one of television’s biggest stars. Although television has always offered flops, few were so publicized. TIME the magazine said You are in the picture the worst show in television history then in 13 years.

Although the producers organized another panel for the following week – one newspaper reported that a second show was even taped and ready to air – Gleason didn’t believe it could be salvaged. The afternoon before it was scheduled to go on air, Gleason decided to take the stage and apologize.

“Last week we did a show called You are in the picture who has undoubtedly planted the biggest bomb in television history, ”Gleason said, as studio audiences laughed.

Explaining that “honesty is the best policy,” Gleason began to expand on his own weeklong show. Calling it a “disaster” and likening the first episode to the “H-bomb”, he spoke for 30 minutes, acknowledging that the show had been terrible. Jokingly, he had machinists unroll one of the tables so Gleason could show how the game was supposed to work. The stagehands kept their faces turned away from the camera.

“You will notice, ladies and gentlemen, that the stagehands have their backs turned to the audience,” said Gleason. “Now this is understandable. They don’t want to be identified with this thing. They have wives and children and are respected members of their community.

While sipping a mug, Gleason joked that he was drinking “a new coffee called Chock Full o ‘Booze”. He read the bad reviews aloud and then confessed that he wasn’t sure what he would do next week.

The same critics who had been so mean to Gleason and the show were won over by this rare franchise moment on television, and the apology episode was well received. Gleason continued to fulfill his obligations with a talk show, The Jackie Gleason Show, in the You are in the picture time slot for the next seven weeks. It has been replaced by an anthology program, ‘Exit, hosted by author Roald Dahl.

During filming the scammer in 1961, Gleason reflects on the failure of the show with a reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News.

“The show was just awful,” said Gleason. “Now the mechanics of the show were perfect; the panel was as witty as possible under the circumstances and there were no technical errors. Nonetheless, he planted a bomb and I think I’m to blame. I think if someone other than me had been the host, or the catalyst, or whatever they called it, the show would have been good.

May be. But it certainly wouldn’t have been so memorable.


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