And Now, Let's All Play 'What's My Line?'
March 19, 2007 12:00 AM
Every Sunday at midnight (3 a.m. if you’re on the East Coast), a nearly forgotten national treasure pops up on GSN: the long-running CBS panel show “What’s My Line?” I relish it and TiVo all the installments so I can watch them at a more civilized hour.
Over its 17-year run (1950-67, and that was for 52 weeks per year—no reruns), “What’s My Line?,” broadcast live from New York Sunday nights at 10:30 ET, presented history as it happened. Today the series is a fascinating living timeline.
The witty, urbane panelists, always formally attired, set out each week to determine the occupation of the evening’s series of layperson “challengers,” along the way chattering with the moderator about current events or the latest fad. “Line” also showcased the day’s biggest celebrities—newsmakers, politicians, movie stars, sports legends—in weekly mystery-guest shots, all adding up to a remarkably well-defined picture of the postwar era that, owing to the innate simplicity and enduring appeal of the game at hand, still manages to entertain even while it informs in a new way that it hadn’t intended.
This granddaddy of panel shows was one of many class programs that helped put the patina onto what was once known as the Tiffany Network. “What’s My Line” was presided over by genteel, high-minded moderator John Daly, by then a statesman of the broadcast news business; the regular panelists for most of the run were Arlene Francis, an elegant (and sometimes naughty) Broadway and radio actress and pioneer TV hostess; Dorothy Kilgallen, a sharp and powerful (if priggish) gossip columnist who died mysteriously of an overdose during the 16th season; and Bennett Cerf, an affable Random House book publisher with a penchant for really bad puns. Along the way, a couple of regulars were lost: Steve Allen, who left for the greener pastures of NBC and “The Tonight Show,” and radio comedian Fred Allen, who dropped dead of a heart attack the night before the March 18, 1956, telecast.
As it is with live TV, the shock and sorrow of the show’s participants were evident the next night on the air. Have a look:
GSN recently resurrected “I’ve Got a Secret”—never one of my favorites; rather forced and silly, I always thought—with a new, hip version. Wouldn’t a better choice (and saving convoluted rights issues) be to revive “What’s My Line?” with a contemporary panel of sophisticates?
Who would make up your ideal panel for a revived “What’s My Line?” Say Anderson Cooper moderating Stephanie Miller, Frank Rich, Oprah Winfrey and Andrew Sullivan? Charlie Gibson moderating Janeane Garofalo, Tom Shales, Jodie Foster and Sean Hannity?
Or is the country so politicized now that there’s no way to bring its brightest together for some lighthearted fun on a Sunday evening?
A detailed breakdown of “What’s My Line” episodes can be found at http://www.tv.com/whats-my-line/show/5501/summary.html