Archive for November, 2009

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WHEW! memories

November 24, 2009

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!

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A lot can happen in 40 seconds….

November 20, 2009

You’re standing there listening to music in a headset.  You feell a tap on the shoulder.  You turn around, and you’re face to face with someone who needs you to understand what they’re talking about.  You understand, and now it’s your turn to pass it on to someone else.  Just one problem…you can’t repeat what you just heard.  You’re in the middle of a round of HOT STREAK, one of the most underrated game shows of the 1980’s.

HOT STREAK didn’t actually start out as HOT STREAL.  It actually started life as PARTY LINE.  MATCH GAME veteran host Gene Rayburn was the host of the PARTY LINE pilot episode, and did a wonderful job working with two teams of five people (men versus women), who had the daunting task of communicating a single word through all the members of the team in 40 seconds WITHOUT repeating a key word or phrase, with the members of the winning team having to communicate one more word to 9 (count ’em!) new people in the same time limit, observing the same rules.

I have to wonder why it took Reg Grundy three years to get this show to air.  I know it’s not always easy getting a new show on the airwaves, but when you have a concept as strong as HOT STREAK’s, three years seems unreasonably long.  I applaud ABC for having picked up the series in 1986, but they put the show up against a little show called THE PRICE IS RIGHT, and another little show called WHEEL OF FORTUNE…death slot times two.  They also made the mistake ( or maybe Reg Grundy dropped the ball here) of hiring a host that American audiences didn’t know from a hole in the ground:  Bruce Forsyth.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bruce is a likeable personality, genuinely interested in his contestants, loves to engage the audience, and is geneally speaking, a lot of fun to watch.  Unfortunately, his American credits were limited to a guest appearance on the Muppet Show in its first season, and a brief appearance as the Bookman’s henchman in BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS.  A more familiar name, and a better timeslot would have done wonders.  That name, though wouldn’t be Gene Rayburn, though, he was already hosting the latest version of BREAK THE BANK in syndication.

I have to admit I was scratching my head on first viewing of HOT STREAK.  I honeestly didn’t see how you could get an idea communicated through five people without repeating.  My sister was even less kind to HOT STREAK-she said it was stupid..  I watched it again, when my sister wasn’t around, and it started to grow on me.  I started to see how it WAS possible to accomplish the object of the game.  I also noticed that instead of a ticking clock, we were treated to an old fashioned silent movie style chase riff, which seemed to have a few variations throughout the main game.  Interesting touch, if you ask me.

It’s been almost 25 years since HOT STREAK came and left the airwaves, and I have been finding myself thinking about it with great fondness and longing lately.  HOT STREAK had that element of creativity that is sorely lacking in daytime TV these days.  These days, we are having courtroom reality shows, violent and foul-mouthed talk shows (I mean YOU Jerry Springer, and Maury Povich–Maury, at least you used to have class-not anymore-you’re just as sleazy),  and even sleazier tabloid news shows being forced down our throats.  I do applaud CBS, though for their new version of LET’S MAKE A DEAL…Wayne Brady and the gang are doing that right.  We need fun, we need variety, we need programming that you don’t have to worry about the kids seeing (don’t get me started on the decline and fall of kids’ TV, I have a friend who can describe that for you even better than I).  HOT STREAK may not have been a hit here the way it is in other countries, but at least Reg Grundy TRIED to do something that was all of the above.

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THE GHOST BUSTERS (1975)

November 16, 2009

Before GHOST WHISPERER, there was GHOSTBUSTERS, and before GHOSTBUSTERS there were THE GHOST BUSTERS.  Now you might be looking and looking again to see if I may have just repeated myself.  I promise I have not.  GHOSTBUSTERS ( one word) was the hit movie franchise from 1985, about a team of ghost busters in NYC saving the world from Gozer.  THE GHOST BUSTERS was a 1975 live action Saturday morning sitcom from Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer’s FILMATION comapny, and was played for even more laughs than the 1985 movie.

Forrest Tucker played Jake Kong, the grizzled middle aged straight man of the trio of spectre chasers.  Jake ran the office, operated the de-materializer (“ZZZZZZZZZZZap!”), and was essentially the brains of the operation.  Larry Storch (who played opposite Tucker on F-TROOP) was Eddie Spenser (or Spencer, if you observe the opening titles’ spelling of the name).  Eddie was the enthusiastic, but not-too-bright sidekick, who inexplicably always wore a tacky zoot suit, with an equally tacky tie.  Spenser was always having to carry out the plan, which usually meant that he was the bait for the ghost guest star.  Rounding out the cast was Tracy-a gorilla who never spoke, but was always ready with a visual wisecrack when Kong was trying to get the job done.  According to the credits Tracy ws “trained” by actor Bob Burns.  In reality, of course, it was Bob in the outfit the whole time.

This trio worked for the mysterious Mr. Zero (executive producer Lou Scheimer himself), who always delivered the assignments as a recording in an unlikely object-anything from a rubber chicken to a whipped cream pie.  The running gag was taken right out of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.  The object would explode when the tape destructed, and poor Tracy always got the worst of it, while Spenser cluelessly chastised his gorilla partner about it.

Each week, our unlikely heroes had to contend with a ghostly guest star.  Many of whom were well-known faces in the 1970’s:  Johnny Brown, Ted Knight, Billy Barty, and Krofft character actor Lennie Weinrib, were just some of the faces who tangled with Spenser, Tracy, and Kong.  But fear not:  like I said, this was played for laughs.  The ghosts weren’t out to control the world, or destroy it.  Most of the time, they just wanted to get a precious object to finish some unfinished business, or get some treasure.  Mostly harmeless, but troublesome nonetheless.

I was thrilled when they released the series on DVD.  THE GHOST BUSTERS was one of those shows you watch twice in your lifetime.  As a kid, you loved the physical comedy/slapstick angle, and that de-materializer was a pretty neat prop to handle.  As a grownup, you get to enjoy the subtle humor, and refernces, and yes, the slapstick still works.  My favorite running gag involved Spenser trying to open the filing cabinet.  No matter what he did, the wrong drawer would open, the right drawer wouldn’t open at all, or several drawers would open at once-you never knew what would happen when Spenser had to get a file.  It really made the show feel like a live action cartoon.

You should still be able to find this on DVD at BEST BUY or AMAZON.  I highly recommend it.  Especially if you’re thinking of creating something for Saturday morning TV.  There’s an element in this show your creation will need, and that element is FUN=pure and simple.  No agenda, no overstating a point, just fun.

One last bit of trivia:  The background music credit is for one Yvette Blais.  This is actually the pseudonym of Ray Ellis, who composed a lot of great music for Reg Grundy’s game shows in the 1980’s.