I remember the summer of 1979, Just out of third grade, getting ready for a return trip to Vermont with my parents. Maybe a few trips to my aunt and uncle’s rambling farm-house in Brooklyn Connecticut. But one other thing made the summer of 1979 great fun for me.
I had to have the TV on by 10:30, so I could see the most amazing game show I had ever seen in my young life. This show had, and has everything I look for in a format: A set that was a riot of color, and a total fantasy environment, gameplay that engaged the audience, and was insanely fast-paced, and a kick-ass theme by actor and composer Alan Thicke, which accompanied an animated opening sequence done by the Hanna-Barbera Studios (who also designed the life-sized cutouts for the bonus round). This was WHEW!, a show that true believers, and diehards, like myself, remember with a great deal of fondness, and longing.
WHEW! was the brainchild of Jay Wolpert-the man behind the highly successful and entertaining PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN movie trilogy. Jay was a protegé of Mark Goodson, and had created several of THE PRICE IS RIGHT’s pricing games. WHEW! was, I believe, Jay’s first venture outside the Goodson/Todman fold, and what a debut! I recently learned, through my own research, that WHEW! was Jay’s idea of marrying a comic book adventure to a game show format. That’s why the set was as colorful as it was, and why Hanna/Barbera’s artwork was all over the place. At 8 years old, I never made that connection. I was too busy being engrossed in the game itself, but the more I think about it now, the more it makes sense.
Think of it this way. The two contestants were like rival adventurers who knew that 10 villains were stashing away $25,000 in their lair. Each adventurer wanted to be the one who was able to outsmart the other adventurer, and beat the villain’s at their own game. And what was the game? To correct blooper statements in a wide range of categories. In the main game, the category was specific. When you got to face the villains, it was uncategorized. How did our contestant adventurers outsmart each other? They either blocked the other person’s progress, by placing 6 blocks on the board, or by avoiding these blocks, and reaching the top in under one minute. I loved watching someone hit a block. Host Tom Kennedy (one of the all time greats) would count down the five seconds with the audience, and when several blocks were hit during the course of a game, Tom could barely contain his laughter (not mean spirited, more like laughter in disbelief.
The person racing the clock did have a way out. All he or she had to say was ‘Longshot!”. This brought the player up to the top, and gave the other player one extra chance to block. Invariably, the game was won or lost here, as either, the player would get it right, get it wrong, or hit the extra block. I’ve got to take a minute to mention another feature of WHEW! that made it so different, and so special. The comic book theme was not only present in the set design, and show opening animated sequence, but also in the sound effects package. When the player racing the clock entered or exited the stage, you heard footsteps, and a slamming door. The clock timer, was the drum portion of the theme music without other instrumentation. “Longshot!” gave you the sound of tires screeching, and an automobile crash. And the best part, when you ran out of time, it wasn’t a buzzer that told you, it was the voices of the villains themselves saying, “Time’s UUUUUUUuuup!” in a sing-song voice. I absolutely loved that.
CBS , however, made two HUGE mistakes with WHEW! first, they didn’t give it a full 30 minutes. It’s 10:30 time slot was partly taken up with a news break at 10:55. That killed the pacing of the show, in my opinion. Tom Kennedy, more often than not, was forced to use time that could have been used for a round, to just talk to the contestants, and then close the show. The second mistake was adding celebrities to help the contestants. Lousy idea. The show’s format was perfect with the contestants playing solo. If CBS wanted celebrities playing the game, it should have been celeb versus celeb for one week playing for charity.
CBS, however, does not deserve the blame for my next criticism and complaint. There are three or four episodes on YouTube available for viewing. The entire series, however, is in the hands of producer Burt Sugarman. Burt has placed a huge price tag on the rebroadcast rights to WHEW! Higher than GSN (which would be the one network that WOULD rerun WHEW!) can afford to dish out. Word on the street is that Burt is unwilling to renegotiate his asking price, and the master tapes are just sitting there, possibly breaking down, and decomposing as we speak. If it were possible, I would ask Burt why he’s being so tight-fisted about this. He’s not exactly doing anyone any favors. If anything, he’s coming across as miserly. and what if someone wanted to bring it back for a new generation? They can’t. Burt’s holding that as well.
I don’t mean to be negative. I just wish Burt would realize what he’s doing. If anybody ever DOES bring back WHEW!, don’t be so presumptuous to think you can improve on what Jay Wolpert did. He nailed the format and the feel of the game, and you’d be doing a huge disservice to fans by turning it into a dark, industrial set-themed show-in other words, don’t pull an Endemol or Fremantle with the format.
HUGE mini update: The Television Production Music Museum (tvpmm.com) has just announced on Twitter that Alan Thicke has released the WHEW! music package to them. This post will be updated again when the files have been uploaded. Thanks for the awesome Christmas present Alan!
UPDATE: since seeing is believing, I’m adding two episodes that were wrapped around each other from a Monday and Tuesday. It’s in 5 parts. Enjoy!