Tonight the game show To Tell the Truth returns to television on ABC, hosted by Black-ish star Anthony Anderson. It's proven a surprisingly scrappy, long-lived, battle-scarred veteran of show: since its first run on CBS from 1956 to 1968, there have been three different syndicated versions of TTtT, plus a brief one-year run on NBC (1990-91).
With every iteration, however, certain constants endure. The format, for example, is simple yet durable: three contestants attempt to convince a panel of four celebrities that they are a specific person. Two of the contestants are impostors, who are permitted to lie when questioned by the panel. The other is the actual person in question, and must tell the truth. After a round of querying, each member of the panel votes on which panelist they believe is telling the truth. For every wrong guess made by a panel member, the contestants win money. Fooling the panel completely earns big money.
Pretty straightforward, right?
(Real talk: Pretty dull, maybe?)
Here's the some hard truth re: To Tell the Truth. The game itself is a pretty thin gruel. The reason it has endured, or at least keeps reanimating like the some kind of Mark Goodman/Bill Todman zombie, is all the fetishist folderol that surrounds the game itself – the stuff that's entered the cultural consciousness.
Oh let's just come out and say it: branding. Things like:
- The contestants are introduced in silhouette, facing the audience. One by one, a spotlight falls upon them, and the announcer asks them "What is your name, please?" Each, in turn, says "My name is ...." (The different ways they inflect this statement – the second contestant invariably goes with a slightly defensive "My name is ..." – proves oddly comforting.)
- As they stand there, staring ahead, blinking under the harsh lights, the host reads what is portentously referred to as a "sworn affidavit" from the true individual in question. The camera pans over their faces, inviting the audience to become living-room police interrogators – "FESS UP, YA DIRTY CROOK! THE JIG'S UP! WE KNOW YOU'RE JACK MERCER, VOICE OF POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN IN A POPULAR SERIES OF ANIMATED SHORTS PRODUCED BY PARAMOUNT PICTURES BEGINNING IN 1933!"
- Once the panel has voted, the announcer declares "Will the real [name of person] please stand up?" This is the contestants' cue to ham it up, with each feinting "Dude I am so totally getting up from my chair right now" stage-business for a few a seconds. This is accompanied by the panel, and the studio audience, making communal sex noises: "Ooooh... uhhhh....AHHHHHH!" For long decades, this has invariably proven the very dumbest, and the very best, part of the show.
Those are the bedrock aspects of the show that must not, that cannot, change. But as we prepare for the show to kick off its six-episode run on ABC tonight, it seems a propitious time to ask our own questions of it, like we're Peggy Cass grilling Orville Redenbacher (in 1973 he famously stumped the panel).
Question One: What's the Mood You're Going For Here, Show?
The show's original run on CBS predates me; as a kid, I was all about its subsequent 1969-1978 syndicated version. And there was something different about To Tell the Truth, something that set it firmly apart from other favorites like Match Game and Hollywood Squares.
It seemed quieter, more serious. Stodgier, frankly. It steadfastly refused to give in to the brassy brashness of the 1970s, and retained a stubborn air of thin lapels and starched cocktail dresses.
All of which to say: it was taped in New York City, not Los Angeles, and it showed.
Shows like Match Game featured celebrities of higher wattage but duller wits. They were L.A. pool parties minus the pools: louche, boozy, overfamiliar, pinky-ringed affairs. To Tell the Truth aimed for something closer to a stiff-necked Manhattan dinner party, where you would be judged by the quality of your conversation, not of your cocaine.
Subsequent versions of the show – both its brief NBC stint and its syndicated 2001-2002 run –were taped in Burbank. They were looser, more casual, more L.A.
They didn't last.
Question Two: Who's Your Kitty Carlisle?
The four core celebrity panelists of the '70s run of the show formed an ideal, complementary pantheon of tweedy personalities.
There was actress Peggy Cass: throaty-voiced, sardonic and wildly knowledgeable on a host of obscure topics.
There was Orson Bean, a wryly garrulous fan of wordplay and shaggy dog stories.
There was Bill Cullen, whose thick glasses and trivia expertise (hard won over a long career hosting game shows) made him an early nerd icon.
But it was the studied, patrician presence of actress/singer/socialite/arts advocate Kitty Carlisle that defined the show. She represented, to millions of viewers like my mother who could not care less about the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, sophistication.
That's a Dream Team of gentle, witty asides, right there. So tell me, 2016 To Tell the Truth: Who do you got?
According to press materials, the panel includes NeNe Leakes, Jalen Rose, and because it's 2016 and that's the law, Betty White.
Now, White appeared on many different versions of To Tell the Truth over the years. She's always welcome. But we live in a sad and fallen world, a world without Kitty Carlisles, so you've got quite a job to do, show.
Question Three: What's Your Celebrity/Contestant Dynamic?
I am convinced there are the makings of a chewy American Studies thesis in the different ways classic game shows constructed the relationship between celebrities and contestants, and what it says about us as a society.
I mean, nobody would read it, but it could be written: this I believe.
To Tell the Truth and its sister show What's My Line? set up their celebrity panels and their contestants in opposition. They were zero-sum games: when celebrities won, contestants lost. The whole crux of the show, after all, was having ordinary people attempt to dupe famous people. The celebrities were genial enough about it, but both sides took the competition seriously.
Later, game shows like Password, Match Game and the $25,000 Pyramid instead placed celebrities and contestants into forced marriages, competing together against opposing celebrity-contestant teams.
(And a show like Tattletales did away with the celebrity/contestant team altogether: celebrity couples played on behalf of audience members, who sat passively while gaining gossipy, voyeuristic insights into the lives of, say, a Bert Convy and wife Anne Anderson.) (It was the '70s. Our thrills were cheaper.)
The challenge before you, 2016 To Tell the Truth, is to introduce some of that classic, flinty, pseudo-urbane, dinner-party frostiness back into the mix. And that's a true challenge, because our relationship to celebrity is different now, and that sense of a cool, dispassionate remove — the hallmark of To Tell the Truth — has faded from the world.
But if you can't do that, at least make sure the contestants do that fakey "I'm getting up from my chair now no I'm not YES I AM" thing. Because that's the real stuff, right there.