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Moments #10 - #1

The Newlywed Game - 1977

In its dozens of years on the air and its multitude of forms, the Newlywed Game has had more than its fair share of interesting answers. Sometimes, the couples are confronted with words they've never heard of, like "urban" or "condiment". Other times, they share information about their intimate love lives that ultimately we wish they hadn't. But one moment rises above them all - not just for its amazing response, but also because of the mythical search for the clip. When asked by host Bob Eubanks where the most unusual place couple Hank and Olga had gotten the urge to "make whoopee", there was no doubt from the audience that he was referring to a location. But Olga interpreted the question in a completely different way and responded, "In the a**." Hank's actual answer was in the car on the freeway.

The most interesting element of this moment is that for years, its veracity had been in question. Eubanks denied that the exchange had ever taken place (and one would argue that that's not the sort of thing you would forget). But in February of 2002, a tape of the moment had finally been secured, and NBC aired it on its Most Outrageous Game Show Moments special, where Eubanks served as its presenter. It remains one of the few moments in game show history to go beyond the genre and become true urban legend.

Travis' Take: "I have to be honest; this is my least favorite item on the list. Mainly because the legend is so pervasive, and now we've finally seen the clip; so there's no debate anymore. That and the fact that I can't sit through an entire episode of "The Newlywed Game." There are dozens of times on "The Newlywed Game" where one of the contestants misunderstands a word, or doesn't understand at all, and it's only so funny for so long. But there are 45 other moments on the list that I like, so I'm willing to let this one slide."

Password Plus - 1980

Very few game show hosts have been at the helm of a show for so long that the two become interconnected. Bob Barker and The Price is Right, Pat Sajak and Wheel of Fortune, and maybe Alex Trebek and Jeopardy! (although older viewers still may associate the show with Art Fleming). But for twenty years, one man has been responsible for bringing the home audience the game of Password. That man was Allen Ludden.

Having been diagnosed with stomach cancer in March of 1980, Ludden took four weeks off the revived format of Password, Password Plus, to undergo surgery. Meanwhile, the inimitable Bill Cullen came in for relief. In April, Ludden returned to the set, and was welcomed with uproarious cheers from the audience. Ludden was all smiles, waving to the camera as he walked onto the stage, even though the surgery wasn't completely successful. "I've missed you!" he announced. "It's great to be back." Cullen made another appearance, this time as a celebrity partner, and helped his contestant win $10,000 in the Alphabetics bonus round.

Unfortunately, Ludden's return to Password was short-lived. A few months later, he suffered a stroke that ended his career, and he passed away shortly thereafter. Tom Kennedy - best known for his stints on Name That Tune - became the permanent replacement host of the show, and remained the host until its cancellation in 1982.

Travis' Take: "Born in 1980, I grew up only knowing of the Super variety of Password, with Bert Convy as host. As nifty a show as it was, it pales in comparison to the progenitor, only titled "Plus," as if to imply it were inferior. Not even close. After seeing the reruns, often staying up far past what would be healthy, I grasped the greatness that was Allen Ludden and Password. Only by watching Bill Cullen, Tom Kennedy and Bert Convy all host the game can you truly appreciate how much Allen brought to the hosting pit where he stood for three years. Ludden is second only to Bill Cullen as the greatest loss that game shows have suffered in terms of hosts dying. He WAS Password. There may be another revival someday, but it won't come close to the original. Nothing will."

High Rollers - 1980

A number of finales have made this countdown. Some of them have been filled with teary goodbyes, others have had big wins that helped the show end on a happy note. And then, there's High Rollers.

When the show's second run ended in 1980, host Alex Trebek walked onto the set, and belied a demeanor unlike one the viewer was used to - certainly not like the demure self he currently has in his current show, Jeopardy! "To business, to business, to business!" he declared at the top of the episode. When talking to a female contestant who remarked about Jack Nicholson possibly making a good uncle, he replied, "I've got two bits of information for ya: He's not that old, and you're not that young!"

Trebek's sardonicism continued as the game progressed. When a player lost a chance to win an antique fishbowl (inexplicably worth $10,000), he went to a commercial announcing, "And when we return - and return we will - we're gonna add something to it. FISH!" When a player made an unlikely roll to stay in the game, Alex mentioned that he was "Stayin' alive with the Bee Gees." Among other unusual comments made by Alex during the show were "$700 in cash-roo", "Seven-ahhh!" and "Many moon come - that's a niner." When he signed off for the last episode, he talked about one of the show's models being pregnant because she "drank too much wine."

Speaking of which, it has been heavily rumored that Trebek hosted the final episode while intoxicated, since his performance was so out of character for the normally straight-laced emcee. After attending a taping of Jeopardy! in person, however, this writer can safely conclude that Trebek was perfectly sober while hosting.

Travis' Take: "I smell a rat. I refuse to believe that someone so straight-laced as Alex Trebek would let himself go like that, even for a finale. I think either someone put him up to it, or he thought it would be a great joke. Either way, it was one of the more amusing ways to finish off a game show."

Greed - 1999

The amazing success of Millionaire convinced the other networks into presenting prime-time, big-money games of their own. The first one to respond to Regis and the Hot Seat was FOX's Greed, where teams of five answered up to eight questions - half of them with multiple answers - in an attempt to win a growing jackpot worth over $2,000,000, but risking their entire winnings with every question.

Viewers wouldn't have to wait long to see a team be presented with the decision of going for the eighth and final question. The team of Dan Avila, Melissa Skirboll and Curtis Warren had reached the penultimate $1,000,000 question. Though Warren and Skirboll were happy to stop with the $210,000 they had each earned - having both terminated a fellow teammate and incorporated their share of the money as a result - team captain Avila heard the $1,000,000 category of Dead Celebrities and replied, "I'm feeling lucky". As it turned out, they certainly were lucky, identifying four famous people who had died before the age of 30. Even a bribe of $75,000 and a new Jaguar for each player didn't convince them to quit.

The following week, it was time to make one final decision, this time as individuals: go for the final question - at this point worth $2,200,000 - or stop with what they had already won. While Skirboll and Warren were scared off by the category of "popular smells" and both opted out with $410,000 each, Avila decided to put his $200,000 stake on the line all by himself to answer the question. He alone was asked to identify the four most recognizable smells as per a university study. He chose Coffee, Vicks VapoRub, Tuna and Peanut Butter as his picks out of the nine available choices. One by one, he learned that Coffee, VapoRub and Peanut Butter were three of the four correct answers, leaving Tuna as the last thing between Avila and the biggest jackpot in game show history. "For 2.2 million dollars," host Chuck Woolery declared, "is it Tuna?" Viewers were left hanging for five whole seconds before the verdict finally came to light. Tuna turned red. It was the wrong answer.

Just like that, Dan Avila had gone from having $200,000 in his pocket to absolutely nothing. Chocolate, it turned out, was ranked higher on the list than Tuna. Avila was sent away with a lot of admiration for the guts he had shown, but no money to show for it. Even worse, Avila was brought back for a sweeps stunt to get a second chance at winning $1,000,000 by answering an eight-choice question, but again came one answer short. He remains the only contestant in game show history to have two separate chances to win a seven-digit prize and miss out on both. He remains comfortable with his decisions, however, explaining that multiplying one's winnings elevenfold was a worthwhile gamble, even if it didn't work out.

Travis' Take: "Great game shows will always elicit some sort of physical reaction to the happenings onscreen. Whether a laugh, a yell, or a chorus of "I knew that!" the great ones manage to involve the audience at home. Few shows managed to draw a bigger reaction from me than Greed. The first time Dan played the big money question, I was hoping he would win, but the realist in me figured that the question would be more or less a crapshoot, and no one would be that lucky. But after that third answer was right, things changed. Maybe he nailed it, I thought. Maybe Dan is going to win two million dollars right before our eyes. I was on the edge of my couch, all alone watching, but watching alongside several million other viewers across the country, waiting to see whether he would be the hero or goat. Even though Dan missed the last answer, it was still one of the greatest moments on a show that had more than a few good ones."

Hit Man - 1983

Some moments go by so quickly that you don't believe they just happened.

Coming out of the last commercial break during the finale of the short-lived memory show Hit Man, announcer Rod Roddy normally would have explained to the folks at home how to go about becoming a contestant. But seeing as this was the last episode, the need for more contestants no longer existed. This prompted Rod to announce, "If you'd like to be a contestant on Hit Man... forget it!" Although the riff was met with canned laughter, no doubt there were people in the production booth who were thinking along the lines of "did I just hear that?"

It was then up to host Peter Tomarken to wrap up the show. "We tried to do something a little bit different," he explained, "and if you learned something along the way, we think we've done our job." Tomarken went on to thank much of the production staff as is standard procedure during these final shows. Years after having left the show, however, Tomarken later explained how much he had hated the concept of Hit Man and how they executives at NBC had eventually "put that in its place". Still, Rod Roddy's contestant plug is one of the more spontaneous bits of humor that have happened in the genre.

Travis' Take: "It's a safe bet that if you asked 100 people about the show Hit Man, either none or one would remember that such a show existed, and even then likely would not be able to explain it. I have only seen the bonus round of the final episode, I haven't even heard the plug mentioned here. Even so, it is one of the most often referenced lines in the history of game shows, at least among the fans. The fact that the line is so out of left field, and out of character for jovial Rod Roddy makes it all the more funny, and it was smart of the producers to not cut the segment and run it again."

The Price is Right - 1978

More than once, the process of calling contestants to "Come on Down" to The Price is Right's front row of bidding seats has resulted in hilarious and unexpected moments. Several times, contestants bypass Bidder's Row entirely and head right up onto the stage. Some contestants become so apopleptic that it takes a minute or two to calm them down. Once, a woman was called into the game while she was taking a visit to the ladies' room. But at the beginning of a 1978 episode, one woman's trip to Contestants' Row gave the show a brush with the censors.

As the first four players were invited onto the podiums, Johnny Olson's voice boomed. "Yolanda Bowersley, come on down!" he screamed. Instantly, Yolanda jumped up from the rear-left corner of the audience pit, squeezed through the row of seats, and came running down the aisle towards the front of the studio. But as she did so, the skimpy tube top she was wearing crept further and further down her body. It wasn't long before the inevitable happened. As host Bob Barker has recounted numerous times, "She came on down... and they came on out!" Bowersley herself was oblivious to the fact that she was flashing the audience and the viewers at home - although an enormous blue bar covering the bottom of the bottom of the screen helped obscure the sight from any children staying home sick that morning. It wasn't until a fellow contestant informed her that she was "giving her all for Bob" that she realized what had happened. Needless to say, both Bob and the audience were in stitches to begin the show.

Yolanda's memorable trip down the aisles of Studio 33 overshadowed another historical moment for the show that wsa also taking place that episode: the pricing game "Secret X", still used in its current repertoire, premiered during Yolanda's episode. (She wasn't the one to play it, though.)

Travis' Take: "This one falls into the same boat as the Newlywed Game clip earlier. Even though we know it happened, and it has been one of the most talked about TPIR moments, it's just not a big deal for me. It happened, the show goes on, and it's done. Whee."

The Big Showdown - 1975

There's nothing more embarrassing than to fall on your butt in front of a large group of people. Just imagine, now, if such a thing happened on television.

As the 68th episode of The Big Showdown began, host Jim Peck entered the stage the way he normally did - descending a spiral staircase towards his hosting podium. Unfortunately, his right foot overshot one of the steps on his way down, and it resulted in Peck taking a spill right at the bottom of the stairs. The host laughed off the blunder as he sat at the foot of the stairs, being welcomed to his lectern by sarcastic applause by the contestants. The audience was similarly sardonic as Peck tried to explain himself. "Sure, you people would applaud a lynching!" he said in mock annoyance. "We have one fast course of amazing grace, and welcome to The Big Showdown - that was, in fact, The Big Showdown!"

Peck made a number of references to the gaffe as the episode progressed. After the first commercial break, he walked back to the stairs and kicked the offending step in retribution. Later on in the program, he mentioned that one of the contestants had asked during another intermission if they were going to change the show's name to "The Big Falldown". In a phone interview, Peck explained what was going through his mind as the blooper - which has gone down as the most memorable moment of both the show and Peck's career - took place. Normally, the opening would have been reshot, but when Peck got the laughs he was hoping for with his line about lynching, he decided to run with it. Meanwhile in the production booth, the producers were also willing to let the show go on without starting over. In a way, it's a good thing it happened - Peck's fall was the only episode of The Big Showdown - an otherwise excellent game - that has survived over the years.

Travis' Take: "It's too bad that Jim Peck had to follow up a neat quiz show like this with the bottom-of-the-barrel "Three's a Crowd" a few years later. He truly deserved better. When some hosts might have pouted, made a big stink, or asked to do the open again, Jim persevered, and turned the whole thing into comedic gold. For that reason, Jim gets respect from me, although from most accounts, The Big Showdown was one of the more innovative quiz shows of the seventies."

Twenty One - 1956

When the ultraquiz Twenty One premiered on NBC during the '50s, producer Dan Enright was troubled by the fact that players were getting more questions wrong than they were answering correctly. Not wanting to dilute the subject matter of the program, he decided to take a completely different approach - give the contestants the answers to the questions ahead of time. Thus was born the genre's most infamous scandals.

Things came to a head in late 1956, when champion Herb Stempel began racking up several consecutive victories. Stempel was groomed to be an antagonist, the kind of nerdy know-it-all that the home audience would root against. All that they needed was the knight in shining armor to defeat him, and producers knew that the show's already ratings would climb into the stratosphere. They found their wonderboy in Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren. The two opponents clashed again and again, forcing their confrontation into three tie games. In the third game, Stempel had the opportunity to win the game by identifying the movie that had won the Best Picture Oscar the year before. He knew the answer handily, but was instructed to blow it with an obviously wrong answer. He did so, and as a result, Van Doren came out the victor, siphoning $20,000 from Stempel's winnings in the process.

Charles Van Doren ended up leaving the show with $122,000 in cash after his eventual defeat, but the saga did not end there. Stempel, angered at Van Doren's meteoric rise to fame while he got pushed to the margins. His claims of the show being fixed went unheeded until 1958, when another contestant supplied questions he sent to himself through registered mail, dated prior to his appearance on the show. That's when the plot began to unravel - when all the smoke had cleared, Van Doren lost both his career at Columbia and his weekly spot on NBC's Today Show, Jack Barry and Dan Enright were all but banished from television, and the genre itself suffered a severely injured reputation.

The aftereffects of this moment are present in the genre to this day - Standards and Practices departments in all networks and production firms now run a tight ship in matters of contestant eligibility, contact with personnel, and most importantly, isolation from game information.

Travis' Take: "I will go to my grave steadfast in my belief that "Twenty-one" is a viable quiz show, even though all three attempts had something wrong (including the 1982 pilot). It is a test of knowledge, psychology and daring, all in a high stakes race. When informed that 17 of 18 questions on the premiere were missed, Dan Enright chose one way to deal with things, and that choice left it's mark on the genre forever more. Instead of perhaps lightening up on the material, he thought he could get away with making game shows no different than a half-hour drama. Enright thought he was smarter than the viewers who watched his shows, but he was sadly mistaken. But for this, we might have been treated to Joker's Wild and Bullseye years earlier, but we'll never know."

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - 1999

On November 19, 1999, a tax collector from Connecticut walked onto the circular set of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, unaware that his life - and the genre - were about to be changed forever.

IRS agent John Carpenter, with wire-rimmed glasses and a cocky demeanor, sat in the hot seat of the quiz phenomenon having already answered two of the 15 necessary questions to reach the million-dollar grand prize. He fantasized about going to Paris with his wife if he managed to win it all. Carpenter breezed through the lower and middle tiers of questions without even considering a Lifeline. As the upper-tier questions fell in turn, viewers began to marvel at the man's range of knowledge, not to mention his rapid-fire responses. When he answered the $500,000 question correctly while leaving all of his Lifelines untouched - becoming the first player to reach that level without use of a Lifeline - Regis was almost flabbergasted. One player had seen the million-dollar question already, but had already used their Lifelines. Could John be the one to finally cross the finish line victorious?

The final question asked about the president that appeared on the variety show Laugh-In. After looking at the questions, he giggled, and opted to finally use a Lifeline. Activating his Phone-a-Friend, he called upon his father to discuss the question. But rather than read the question and its choices, Carpenter merely remarked, "Hi Dad. I don't really need your help - I just wanted to let you know that I'm going to win the million dollars." Needless to say, the crowd ate it up, applauding wildly. Regis was speechless. As the phone call expired, John ended the teasing and locked in Richard Nixon as his final answer. With no need to string anyone along, Reege announced, "This is the final answer heard all around the world - He's won a million dollars!"

Music blared. Lights flashed. Confetti fell from the ceiling. The audience cheered. Carpenter got up from his seat, took his million-dollar check, hugged his wife, and exited the stage as the first person in prime time television history to win a seven-digit prize.

Almost instantly, John became a celebrity, appearing the very next day to open up Saturday Night Live. And just as quickly, controversy flared up around John's win. Many onlookers complained that the stack of questions he had been given were significantly easier than those of contestants past. Some cried foul, claiming that the producers dumbed down the material to ensure a winner during the show's 18-episode run. But in May of 2000, Carpenter was brought back during a special week of the show where previous winners could return for another crack at the game. He silenced his critics again by reaching the $250,000 level the second time around - the other two millionaires at the time never got past the middle tier.

Since then, Carpenter has made a handful of appearances on the show as a panelist for one of its more recent Lifelines. His space on the panel has been very well earned.

Travis' Take: "Who was the fifth person to walk on the moon? Go ahead, ask anyone in the room. I'll still be here when you come back.

Done? Good. In all likelihood, no one remembered. I had to look it up myself. Eleven people have answered their 15 question stacks and won the million dollars, but John was the first. It would have been spectacular enough for John to just give his final answer, take his check and leave, secure in the knowledge that he made the production company pay for having an easy stack. Mere mortals might have done that, but this is John Carpenter we're talking about. He did the equivalent of the Deion Sanders high-step, the Ickey Woods shuffle and the Merton Hanks chicken-dance all rolled into one, and made his triumphant phone call one of the all-time great quiz show moments. Was his packet easier than normal? Yeah, I was running a 102 fever that night and was able to answer them all. But that's no matter, because he did it, and he outlasted the other grand prize winners in the Champions of Millionaire special in 2000. John's was a job well done, and I'm glad he had the gumption to make it a great moment, even if others critized him for it."

Press Your Luck - 1984

To the casual viewer, every spin on Press Your Luck seemed like a random draw. The light cursor would flash around the board with apparently no rhyme or reason to its pattern. It took an unemployed ice cream truck driver from Lebanon, Ohio, to expose the wizard from behind the curtain.

Larson was looking for a quick buck, and Press Your Luck was quickly becoming his favorite show on television. Wanting to try out for the show, he wondered if there was some way to beat the game and take the show for as much as he could. Using a VCR to slow down video footage of the board, he quickly learned that the "random" patterns of flashing lights were hardly random at all - in fact, the game repeatedly use six simple patterns to direct the movement of the cursor. Larson had them. Flying to Los Angeles and buying a 35-cent shirt from the Salvation Army to try out, he easily charmed the contestant coordinators. Even though producer Bill Carruthers detected that something was not quite right, he earned a spot on the show against champion Ed Long and fellow challenger Janie Litras.

Michael's run began inauspiciously - his very first spin of the game landed on a Whammy. And even though he managed to hit the "Big Bucks" square with his remaining two spins, he still finished the first round in third place. That would soon change. He earned seven spins in the second round, and with Michael going first on the big board, he quickly seized his chance. There were two spaces on the board that not only were whammy-free, but also consisted fully of slides that won both money and an extra spin. One such space was the Big Bucks space, that granted the player between $3000 and $5000 to go with the free spin. With the board patterns firmly in Larson's memory, he quickly wreaked havoc on the board. His first two spins of the game were Big Bucks squares. He continued to spin again and again, as his total rose over $20,000 and even $30,000, even though the average contestant surely would have passed his spins to an opponent, or hit a whammy for his folly.

After 15 spins, Michael had racked up over $36,000 in his score. And for the first time, the show had to come to an end even though the game was still in progress. When the show resumed the following Monday, Larson's reign of terror continued, eclipsing the $50,000, $60,000, and $70,000 levels. Host Peter Tomarken was in total shock. The crowd was in a frenzy. Ed and Janie could only sit and watch helplessly as the middle contestant added more and more to his total. When his total crossed the $100,000 mark - pushing the dollar sign off of his score tally in the process - Michael finally passed his spins to Janie.

Ed was next to play, and was understandably distressed at his circumstances. Things would only get worse for him - the very first spin of the round he took after Michael passed was a Whammy, adding even more legend Michael's enchanting run by giving him the appearance of knowing exactly when to stop. Needless to say, neither Ed nor Janie were able to come anywhere to close to Michael's total, and Janie's attempt to stymie Larson with passed spins resulted in Michael only bumping his total up even more. When Janie's final spin of the game landed on a meaningless prize, Michael was declared the winner with an amazing $110,237 in cash and prizes. After the game, producers and network executives accused Michael of cheating, but there was nothing against the rules about figuring out the patterns. In fact, word has it that other contestants trying out at the same time had also figured out the rhythms of the light cursor. The producers had to respond by adding over a dozen more patterns to the game in order to throw off overambitious players.

Larson's winnings did not last; he wasted much of his money on worthless real estate and futile lottery schemes. When Larson passed away in 1999, he was in trouble with the law and on the outs with his family.

Michael Larson's legend of domination has endured for almost 20 years. The episodes on which he appeared - and weren't rerun until 2003 - were heavily sought by tape traders. He was one of the few players to ever figure out a game completely and make it work for him. His story even inspired a documentary of GSN which detailed his quest for easy money. Without question, Larson's mastery of Press Your Luck has been one of the most talked about events in the genre, and the story that surrounds it makes it the most memorable moment in game show history.

Travis' Take: "I've exhausted a thesarus full of superlatives in describing most of the moments on the list so far. Michael Larson has truly earned his place at the top of the heap. When others were content to whack the button randomly, he put in long hours to solve a game no one thought could be solved. Two weeks before, one contestant even got on the show and had a strategy of his own relating to counting the whammies on the board, then waiting for the board to change. But that wasn't foolproof, Michael was. He put on a clinic for how to beat a game into the ground, embarrassing the game programmers and befuddling the producers in the process. As most fans know, the story has an unhappy ending, it seems like Larson put more work into this get-rich-quick scheme than he did with any other, and that's too bad. Rest in peace, Michael, you're the man."