Remember when big-name stars didn’t want to do TV? Now they’re even clamoring for jobs as game show hosts.
Alec Baldwin (ABC’s “Match Game”), Taye Diggs (Fox’s “Hypnotize Me”), Jane Lynch (NBC’s “Celebrity Game Night”) and Anthony Anderson (ABC’s “To Tell the Truth”) are just some of the actors who now front major primetime game shows, in addition to their regular scripted work.
“You look at game shows from the 1970s and 1980s, they were somewhat cheesy,” Anderson said. “It’s different now. It’s a lot classier. It’s cool.”
Wayne Brady, who has hosted a “Let’s Make a Deal” revival for CBS since 2009, joked that “being a game show host was very much akin to being a local affiliate weatherman – and no offense to local affiliate weathermen, but there’s a stereotype.”
Indeed, the slick game show host has regularly been parodied by the likes of “Saturday Night Live” and even “Sesame Street,” where character “Guy Smiley” once hosted skits.
Early on, Brady “felt like the uncoolest kid in class. But now everyone’s coming to sit at our table and I love it… I think the networks want, instead of a bland personality piloting the ship, someone who comes with a built-in fan base, someone who comes with their own funny, so that they don’t have to rely on the contestant.”
Brady points out another interesting trend afoot: So many of the new hosts are African-American men. “I kind of paved the path, for black men specifically, the Anthony Andersons, the Steve Harveys, the Michael Strahans. That wasn’t looked upon as the coolest gig in the world. I think that flipped the paradigm a little bit.”
In the early days of television, stars like Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke and Mike Wallace hosted game shows, but eventually trained hosts became the norm. The 1970s and 1980s was probably the heyday of the professional game show host: Bob Barker, Chuck Woolery, Bob Eubanks, Wink Martindale, Gene Rayburn, Monty Hall, Bill Cullen, Bert Convy, Peter Marshall and Allen Ludden were some of the most famous. Alex Trebek (“Jeopardy”) and Pat Sajak (“Wheel of Fortune”) still host two of the biggest shows in all of syndication.
Of course, hosting is a skill, and it’s not easy when you simultaneously have to keep a game going. That’s why traditional hosts were (and are) a critical part of game shows. “The hardest part, is to learn the game,” Lynch said. “I just really trust in the mechanism that they set up. Learn the nuts and bolts.”
Game show veteran Bob Boden said Howie Mandel jumpstarted the era of celebrity game show hosts in 2005 with NBC’s “Deal or No Deal.” A few years later, Drew Carey replaced Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.”
“I’m not sure all managers and agents want their stars to be game show hosts,” Boden said. “But I think that there is enough of a trend toward putting big names into game shows that some of them are thinking it over. They’re realizing that it’s great exposure, it’s very little work typically for very good pay, and there’s nothing harmful about it. It’s not a disease, it’s an opportunity.”
Lynch said she shoots “Hollywood Game Night” on weekends, giving her plenty of time for her acting jobs. The actress had been working on a pilot for the game show “Pictionary” when she was approached by “Hollywood Game Night” executive producer Sean Hayes to host his show instead. “It’s certainly nothing I thought I would want to do,” Lynch said of hosting game shows, “and it turns out it’s something I love doing. I love helping people have a good time. I’m pretty good at enforcing rules and stuff like that.”
Kal Penn, who hosts Fox’s “Superhuman,” said hosting a game show “didn’t necessarily make sense as part of any kind of master plan. There isn’t really a master plan, and my interests are pretty varied… Hosting feels more like a combination of hanging out with friends, meeting new people, and public speaking.”
Anderson had been talking to FremantleMedia North America (which owns the lion’s share of classic game show titles) for a while before “To Tell the Truth” grabbed his interest. “I have been on a few in my lifetime and in my career, and just realized that it’s a cool gig to be known as a game show host. I was looking for something to do in my off-time during the summer months that wasn’t heavy lifting but would keep me busy and allow me to have some fun.”
Other big names in the game show host business now include Steve Harvey (“Celebrity Family Feud”), Michael Strahan (“The $100,000 Pyramid”) and Craig Ferguson (“Celebrity Name Game”). Game shows are experiencing enough of a renaissance that ABC is even airing a “Fun & Games” block of “Celebrity Family Feud,” “$100,000 Pyramid” and “Match Game” on Sunday nights this summer.
“If you’re a comedian like Steve Harvey, it’s an amazing opportunity to do what you do, and be amongst people that you can bounce off of,” said FremantleMedia North America executive vice president of alternative programming Toby Gorman.
Gorman credited ABC alternative programming head Rob Mills and FremantleMedia co-CEO Jennifer Mullin for securing Baldwin on “Match Game.” “Alec was a fan of the show,” Gorman said. “He knows it incredibly well. He wanted to keep it very much as we all remember ‘Match Game’ being. We changed very little. We couldn’t be happier with how he’s delivered. He’s a total natural.”
Of course, the rise of celebrity game show hosts means there’s less room for “Guy Smiley” in primetime. “I think it’s tough for traditional game show hosts,” Boden admitted. “The value of traditional game show hosting skills has diminished in favor of star power and promotability. [But] I think over time, there will be a balance of big celebrity hosts and some hosts who are just hosts.”