That Blankety-Blank Game Show

Caught in that polyester-happy, aviator-glasses-shaded, vodka-soaked period between the end of the staid, nerdy quiz-show era and the flowering of open raunch on cable, the ’70s incarnation of the fill-in-the-blank game show Match Game was something truly special: a martini-lunch romp that saved this venerable daytime genre from boring hosts and brainiac contestants and celebrated flirtation, spontaneity, witty party chatter and the word “boobies.”

As frequent panelist Charles Nelson Reilly once remarked to the show’s legendarily silly MC Gene Rayburn during the infamous alcohol-flowing dinner breaks between tapings, “This is not a job. This is a social engagement.” Rayburn recounts that quote in a snippet from his last interview — he died in 1999 — that appears on the Game Show Network special The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank, airing this Sunday at 8 p.m. (A marathon of classic Match Game episodes follows.) Fun behind-the-scenes tales abound: from the strategic placement of celebs in the three-up, three-down panels (ditzy blonde lower left, handsome male stars upper left), to the meteoric rise of satyrlike Englishman Richard Dawson, to writers’ deliberate submission of obviously filthy questions so that the dirty ones they really wanted to get on the air (“Dumb Donald is so dumb, when he went to the wife-swapping party he swapped his wife for a BLANK”) seemed not so bad. That last tidbit comes from interviewee Dick DeBartolo, and I have to say, discovering that one of Mad magazine’s top writers worked for Match Game was like some sense-memory bell going off: the snark in my favorite naughty after-school read converging with the snark on my favorite after-school TV show. Well I’ll be a _____.

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