Film

The State of the Comedy Game Show: Notes on ‘Match Game’ and ‘Celebrity Family Feud’

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Alec Baldwin is no Steve Harvey. Unlike Harvey, Baldwin seems diminished on the set of a retro Seventies game show dedicated to getting contestants to say gently dirty nonsense. On ABC’s baggy, boozy Match Game, Baldwin crabs into a skinny last-century microphone about how everything’s stupid: his celebrity panelists, the show’s judges (disputes are resolved, he says, by whichever answer “the monkey poops on the most”), the audience itself. “You’re watching Match Game, and that can only mean one thing,” he announces, coming back from commercial. “It’s time to examine your life choices.”

Baldwin has the confused bearing of a buzzed uncle at a fractious family soiree — one minute he’s calling for order, the next he’s more out of hand than anyone. “I told you to rub my hair for good luck,” he says to a male contestant. “That was a typo. You’re supposed to rub my balls.”

The laughs on the old Match Game came from the contestants’ and panelists’ fill-in-the-blank responses to writers’-room setups like “Sally the Girl Scout lost her _____ in a pup tent.” Glenda, a ’75 contestant, answered that beaut with “cookies,” but she scored no points for doing so. She didn’t match with celebrities Brett Somers or Gary Burghoff, who wrote on their blue Match Game cards “innocence.” (Burghoff, touchingly, spelled it innocents.) “Innocence,” ironically, was the dirty answer, the closest that NBC’s Standards and Practices would let the show come to “virginity.” The old Match Game‘s tension rose from the contestants’ negotiation of bawdiness — would everyday folks dare say on TV the suggestive thing that Charles Nelson Reilly would? Would Reilly et al. swallow their egos and help those folks win some cash by penning the most obvious un-dirty answer?

Nobody’s writing “innocence” on the new Match Game. Nobody’s stirring up much tension, either. The contestants still win points for matching the answers of six celebrity panelists, but when the host establishes that “rub my balls” is the baseline, there’s little point to answering “cookies.” In the fourth episode, a young woman named Colleen is given this freebie: “Dumb Dora is so dumb that once a month she goes to the car wash to have her _____ waxed.” As the funky Match Game theme plods along and the stars pen their answers, Leslie Jones, the funniest of the panelists so far, gets into a scrap with Leah Remini about whether or not Colleen would pick the dirty answer. (“Colleen’s nice!” Remini shouts.)

When she gets to speak for herself, Colleen does so with pride: “Her vagina!”

That answer almost runs the board. Only wrongheaded gentleman Josh Charles gets it wrong, telling Colleen that he had tried to guess what “a nice Irish girl” would say. His answer: “legs.”

The ramshackle new Match Game will be a shock to the handful of Americans unaware that in 2016 nice Irish girls do not fear the word “vagina.” It has little of the frisky, liberated joy of “Snatch Game,” the crisply edited occasional segment on RuPaul’s Drag Race, or of the campy taboo-flouting that gay celebrities like Reilly or Paul Lynde dared on the Seventies version and Hollywood Squares. The most daring thing on it, so far: One contestant won big by guessing that the right verb to drop into a line about Donald Trump was “lie.” In a cheering display of American unity, the panelists, audience, and host all agreed.

Mostly, the best it offers is TV stars, loosened up by cocktails, trying to work out how to play a game that doesn’t quite deserve to be called one. (Only Jones and Rosie O’Donnell seem fully up to speed.) Maybe Match Activity would be a better title. The Family Feud–like final round, entailing basic word association, is a jokeless snooze, and the contestant who gets there will always be the one who lucked into a blank fillable with “penis” or “vagina.”

If Baldwin is a drunk uncle, Harvey commands the Family Feud set like a judge in a courtroom. You know not to fuck with him. Harvey’s presence is mighty, but his authority doesn’t just come from within. He conducts the Feud as if the weight of family-time broadcasting itself were bearing down on him, as if any lapse into tastelessness dishonors every kid or grandparent who ever scarfed down a dinner with Richard Dawson on in the background. When the Feud turns blue, or a contestant spits out something ridiculous, Harvey plays stunned, his face going still, except for his eyes, which widen, the pupils inching upward. He seems to be looking to the heavens for help, or to Dawson’s ghost. A master of timing, he’ll hold this look for precisely as long as it’s funny. Then he’ll tear down the terribleness of the answer in an impersonal, rafters-shaking sermon of good sense.

Few things on TV are as funny as when Harvey stops the show dead, shaken to the core by what humanity has become. But even fewer funny things on TV are as disingenuous: The grandmother who dismays Harvey by shouting “flatulence!” has been set up by the show to do just that. Harvey’s gag is deeply conservative — he pretends to live in an America that answers “legs” rather than “vagina.”

On ABC’s Celebrity Family Feud, Harvey treats the families of Sugar Ray Leonard or the Band Perry like he does anyone else brought before him, on the regular show, to guess the top-ranked responses to dumb opinion surveys. But there are revelations and hilarity in the Leonard episode, which pits the boxing great against Snoop Dogg. The first: Turns out Snoop is really into Family Feud. He knows the show’s every beat and sound effect, and when his family guesses wrong, he’s annoyed at having been outvoted — they should have listened to Dad.

The second: The producers will do whatever it takes to guarantee that Harvey gets to chew someone out.

Unlike Match Game, the Feud is a game, and Snoop is justified in looking proud to make it to the “Fast Money” bonus round. There, he has to offer quick responses to five easy questions, with points awarded for selecting the answers chosen by a survey. Snoop aces most of these, but he flubs the fourth, “Pie in the _____.”

“Horse,” Snoop says.

Harvey sounds shaken, for a breath. But this is a speed round, and the clock’s ticking, so he can’t say anything now. Then, afterwards, when it’s time to score Snoop’s answers against the survey, Harvey notes that Snoop might hit the 200 points required for victory before Harvey even gets to “horse” — meaning the game will end before Harvey can dress Snoop down. “Sure hope we get down to that one,” Harvey says, “because I don’t know what the hell you said.”

The drama isn’t whether Snoop will win — it’s whether Harvey will get the chance to go off.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, the points after Snoop’s first three answers total up to exactly 199. The crowd claps in anticipation. “Sometimes God hears and answers prayers,” Harvey exults, probably meaning “the producers and scorekeepers.”

Snoop hunkers down to his knees, braced for it.

Harvey storms away to stand beneath the Feud scoreboard.

He barks: “Pie in the what?”

“Horse” appears on the board. Snoop is laughing so hard he holds his hand on his heart, like something’s going to give. Harvey shouts “pie in the horse!” a couple more times in raspy disbelief. Then he wrings the joke for all the drama he can, explaining the game situation to the crowd: “We need one point! I need one other person in this world who for some reason has found a pie stuck up inside a horse! Survey says — ”

Zero. The audience roars. Snoop beams and laughs and looks like being upbraided by Steve Harvey is the highest honor life has ever paid him.

“Horse” was the fourth Fast Money question. On the fifth — “name a color in a traffic light” — Snoop scores more than enough points to win some money for his Snoop Youth Football charity.

Celebrity Family Feud, like regular Family Feud, is brisk, tense, dumb, disingenuous, and a cheat. It’s also, in its best clips, so funny that I don’t care. Harvey understands what should always be the first rule of game show hosting: He’s committed to making sure you don’t regret your life choices.

Match Game and Celebrity Family Feud air Sunday nights on ABC.