The overlooked artistry of the fun & games guys

Chicago Tribune

Apropos of the quotidian duties of game-show host, we offer three simple words:

Looks easy.


Yet the game-show host remains misunderstood and underestimated. He is regularly dismissed as a grinning mannequin in a good suit, as a charming boob. He still must endure, with distressing frequency, the muttered sarcastic refrain, "Yeah, like, OK -- who couldn't do that?"

Let us be clear:

You couldn't do that.

You couldn't do what Peter Marshall did, or Gene Rayburn, or Allen Ludden. They were the hosts of, respectively, "Hollywood Squares" and "The Match Game" and "Password." You couldn't do what Bob Barker does -- and soon, like a leaf that falls and is blown by the winds of change, that verb must turn to "did." Barker recently announced that he'll retire in June, after half a century of hosting game shows such as "Truth or Consequences" and "The Price Is Right."

We know our game-show hosts -- and you, sir or madam, are no Bob Barker.

That they make it look easy is a tribute to their suavity, their unflappable finesse. Being a game-show host is not just about being dapper and good-natured, although those attributes are important. It's not just about being pleasant and keeping things rolling along and congratulating winners and consoling losers -- although those too are helpful.

A game-show host is the quasi-sacred guardian of the status quo.

There -- we said it.

Before you dissolve in obnoxious guffaws and execute the newspaper equivalent of a speedy channel-change (namely, turning the page), please allow us to make our case.

A game-show host is a crucial cultural linchpin. He doesn't just keep a TV show going; he helps keep society functioning and intact.

He -- and it's virtually always a "he," with a smattering of beskirted anomalies such as Meredith Vieira's turn on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and that irksome British dominatrix on "The Weakest Link" -- is the well-coiffed keeper of an ancient set of behavioral norms, to wit: Getting stuff is good. Getting stuff for which you haven't actually worked -- except, perhaps, for spinning a wheel or answering a few questions or guessing the right door or just being lucky -- is an even better thing.

But the public spectacle of this sort of rampaging and unrepentant greed, occurring as it does in a nation that piously professes values such as compassion and charity, is a bit gauche. What's needed to smooth it all over, to hide the ragged seams of our unbridled lust for goods and services for which we haven't toiled or sacrificed, is a glib, debonair guy in charge.

The game-show host reconciles what we say with what we do. He makes it OK for us to jump and clap our hands and squeal and say, "Big money! Big money!" even as we're tsk-tsking at money-grabbing politicians and grotesquely overcompensated chief executives.

The game-show host's duties can look like child's play, but in truth they require a delicate balance of attitude and affect. He can be a smart-aleck, but not a grump or a sourpuss. He can be hip, but not too hip, because there's a decidedly cornball feel to game shows, a wholesome, old-fashioned, nonthreatening element. Game shows seem to be all about nostalgia, even when they're brand-new.

Within the golden circle of the game show, the host reigns. He's the dad in the front seat of the mini-van; he's the ringmaster, the hall monitor, the head honcho, the big enchilada, the boss. But it's a benign kind of kingship. He's no despot, no tyrant. He rules the roost, but he rules by being mildly flirtatious, by looking good and by never letting our minds stray to a distasteful truth about the human condition: We all want something for nothing, and we get an extra kick out of it when competitors are forced to witness the unearned triumph.

Making it look easy is the magical part of a game-show host's achievement.

Making it seem as if just anybody could do it -- could don that pretty tie and chitchat amiably with contestants and announce commercials with an enthusiastic flourish -- and could pull it off with an irony-free smile is the art of the job.

Alas, though, you're no Barker. And neither am I. We don't have his honey-baked voice or infectious inflection. We don't have his patter or his patience, his calmly authoritative (but never mean or domineering) demeanor.

If game shows are the comfort food of the TV universe -- warm, filling, familiar, with maybe a tad too many saturated fats -- then game-show hosts are the fellows who serve it all up, earnest and engaging and polite, and who garnish it with the implication of a tender little head-pat that says, "There, there."

You can make fun of game-show hosts all you want, but let's get one thing straight: Even if you're exactly the same size as Bob Barker, you couldn't wear the man's suit.


Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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