Match Game was a television game show which had begun life on NBC on the last day of 1962. Gene Rayburn hosted the show, which lasted through to the end of the decade, when more popular daytime fare (such as the phenomenally huge Dark Shadows) caused its ratings to slide.
In 1973, however, the production team of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman decided to bring the show back, under the title of Matchgame '73, on CBS; they had the good sense to retain Rayburn as host. After a season to iron out the kinks and get the groove of the show going, as well as to start injecting a bit more racy, post-Love Generation humor into the mix, the show began to find its audience. Within two years of its return it was the funniest and most popular game show on television - maybe in the history of television.
Matchgame's approach to humor originated with the show's writers, but was interpreted with great skill by its celebrity panelists. Contestants were given the opportunity to match the celebrities' responses to incomplete jokes, offered by Rayburn; for example, Gene would read from a card that said, "Superman must be getting old; he's taken to standing on the street corner and showing people his wrinkled old BLANK." The six celebrity panelists would write their answers out and the contestant would then give his own answer, which would earn him a point for every panelist he matched. Inevitably, many of the questions - given their very format - gave the panelists as well as the audience a chance to fill in the BLANKs with all sorts of deouble-entendres, suggestive phrases, naughty words, etc. Since this was in the era of game shows where 'fannie' referred to one's ass and to have sex was called 'making whoopee,' the humor never got too racy for its viewership. On the contrary, they - we - loved it.
Over time the show developed a regular and rotating cast of well-loved celebrities as panelists. Its one-two punch consisted of actress/comedienne Brett Somers, who occupied the top-left seat, and writer-actor Charles Nelson Reilly, who sat at the upper right beside her. The two spent much of their on-air time engaging in a mild banter. Bottom center was occupied by Richard Dawson, the British-born actor (post-Hogan's Heroes) who was the first regular panelist on the show, and who would eventually leave to host another game show stalwart, Family Feud. The other chairs were occupied by a rotating group of B-list writers and performers, many of whom were semi-regular and were treated like family whenever they appeared. These included Betty White (post- Mary Tyler Moore Show, later to become even more famous as one of The Golden Girls and wife of Password host Allen Ludden; author Fannie Flagg, who wrote the book upon which the film Fried Green Tomatoes was based; Marcia Wallace, then of The Bob Newhart Show and later the voice of Mrs. Krabappel on The Simpsons; and others including Mary Ann Mobley, Nipsey Russell, Joyce Bulifant, and Elaine Joyce.
What made Match Game work so well was the easy, friendly cameraderie between Rayburn and the various celebrities. Although Somers and Reilly exchanged gentle insults and admonishments, it was clear the two adored one another, and Rayburn was often there to either goad them or act as referee. Betty White, who often occupied the bottom right seat below Charles, was so comfortable and natural in her many appearances that she was considered a semi-regular fixture of the show. Even Dawson, who often smoked and sat unsmiling behind dark glasses, contributed his own dry humor and always did his best for the contestant (especially if the contestant were an attractive young woman). As a week's worth of shows were taped in a single day, and the cast often had a few drinks at lunch between tapings of the third and fourth episodes, perhaps alcohol contributed to the looseness and joviality of the Thursday and Friday shows.
Viewers' love of the show and its stars propelled it to the top of its ratings beginning in 1973; the show enjoyed its status as #1 among all game shows (and during certain periods, was more popular than many evening TV hits) until about '77, when ratings started to slip. A short-lived evening version, Match Game P.M., was also introduced. It is rumored that, during the height of the show's popularity, Brett Somers was receiving a quarter of a million dollars a year to appear.
Growing up in the 70's, I recall Match Game mostly from summertime viewings, though of course it was on all year 'round, eventually ending up in a 3:30 time slot which caused schoolkids to miss the first few minutes of every episode. (I was one of those kids who raced home as quickly as I could, to watch shows like Batman and Gilligan's Island... as well as wake up early on Saturday mornings to catch all the cartoons possible.) Naturally, I loved the show's easygoing humor and the interplay of its stars, even though I'm certain that much of the humor - especially the very subtle, gentle jabs at Charles Nelson Reilly's homosexuality - was probably lost on me.
The job of any gameshow - indeed, any sort of television show - is to entertain its audiences so that its sponsors are kept happy. This Match Game accomplished in spades.