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TelevisionWeek Executive Editor Tom Gilbert joins our roster of bloggers with this forum all about classic television, where anything from "Leave It to Beaver" to "Malcolm in the Middle" is fair game for discussion. Reunion specials, DVD releases of classic shows, vintage commercials -- anything that's ever been telecast is the hot topic here.

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Timeless TV



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

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Comments (10)

Queenelieneb:

I love "What's My Line". Thanks for the article.

Susan Janssen:

It would be hard to resurrect. Alas, there are no more John Dalys left in this world.

Kris:

What's My Line is entertaining to a point, but the issue I had with that show and a lot fo panel shows (even the modern day "Secret" on GSN) is that there's no audience play-along factor which is what gets most audiences involved in game shows. They tell the audience the answers up front, you eliminate your own guessing from the process.

I have long thought that one of the upscale networks ought to resurrect "Password" with its original rules (not the cheesy later "Password Plus" or "Super Password" variants). I, too, thought that if you had the right host and celebrities, it would fit an upscale audience.

"To Tell The Truth" was brought back about five years ago, and I liked John O'Hurley as host and Paula Poundstone and Meshach Taylor as the regular panelists (Taylor was almost too good and could take some of the impostors apart pretty quickly). But the producers apparently thoght they were in competition with the daytime talk shows and the selection of guests and topics was wildly oversexed.

Randy:

The original What's My Line was a genteel show from a more genteel time, and I'm fascinated by its reruns. The cast was urbane and well-read. It's doubtful such a show would ever appear on television today, but perhaps one network would consider trying it as a summer replacement show, a practice that was common in earlier days. It would be a welcome change of pace to the boisterous, inane "game shows" attempted by the networks as of late.

MawTiMo:

Arlene Francis is a Godess among women and in my opinion makes the show worth watching week after week and year after year.

For several years recently, a live stage version of What's My Line took place i a 99-seat theater in L.A., hosted by former Beat The Geeks host J. Keith Van Straaten. It was indeed a lot of fun, he pulled in some fun-to-see mystery guests. If he ever resurrects it - and he may - catch it!

I did catch one performance of the live "WML?" in L.A. and had a great time ... the price was right, too, at $15 a head. I was hoping that live version would generate interest in a revived TV version.

Michael Shoshani:

For suave urbane conduct and conversation, I think the only thing we've had in the last ten years to even compare is the British version of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?". Also a panel of four with a moderator - in this case, the moderator being Clive Anderson, whose delivery and voice (and wit) actually remind me a bit of John Daly.

Tony:

Hi, Love this guy - I'm trying to find the clip/blooper where he breaks up when describing a contestant's '14 foot chocolate totem pole'. He was embarrassed and it was quite hilarious.

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