Big bucks, expensive vowels, and a million cackling Whammies.
The Daytime Emmys are this Sunday, and for the first time ever, there’s a gay nominee for Best Game Show Host — the marvelous and frightfully funny Billy Eichner. Wahoo! To celebrate, let’s rank the 25 best game shows of all time. Get out your purse and prepare to buy some vowels, gents.
25. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: Sorry Double Dare, but Carmen Sandiego is the greatest kids’ game ever. It made geography cool while highlighting the glamorous felonies of a femme fatale. I wish more TV shows concluded with the entire cast yelling in unison, “Do it, Rockapella!”
24. Let’s Make a Deal: Carol Merrill and Monty Hall could woo you into anything. Though if you’re already wearing a chicken outfit, you probably don’t need much coercing.
23. Sale of the Century: Jim Perry’s lickety-split delivery made this trivia show a stressful, yet suspenseful half-hour.
22. The Gong Show: Most TV shows these days need a gong.
21. Supermarket Sweep: It’s an ingenious idea — racing through a supermarket to find the most expensive items. Supermarket Sweep and host David Ruprecht taught us the fundamentals: always go for the hams, geese, and cheeses first.
20. Tic Tac Dough: The classic games of Xs and Os as a trivia-tinged, Wink Martindale-hosted spectacle. Still Wink’s greatest game show to date (though I have soft spots for High Rollers and Debt). One hell of a theme song.
19. Tattletales: As far as I’m concerned, this is The Newlywed Game done right. Celebrity couples revealing themselves, answering silly questions, and winning money for the red, banana, green audience sections.
18. Remote Control: MTV’s big debut as an original programmer was both influential and a marvelous game on its own. The late Ken Ober’s dry emceeing paved the way for future game show hosts Jimmy Kimmel and comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, who hosted the most underrated MTV show ever, Idiot Savants.
17. Greed: Chuck Woolery’s most dramatic hour, this post-Who Wants to be a Millionaire series forced contestants to team up and betray each other for six-figure payouts.
16. Press Your Luck: Big bucks, no Whammies, stop! Though the famous Whammy board was an eye-popping delight on its own, host Peter Tomarken deserves credit for infusing the silly randomizer game with harsh urgency.
15. Name That Tune: Can you name that tune in five notes? Four? Two? Tom Kennedy (and underrated follow-up emcee Jim Lange) conducted hits for contestants with serious musical acuteness.
14. Win, Lose, or Draw: Pictionary as rebranded by Burt Reynolds and Bert Convy. It could be the greatest living room set ever.
13. Scrabble: One of the few board games ever to work as its own half-hour series, Scrabble forced contestants to solve riddles, pick letter tiles, and avoid stoppers for cash.
12. Win Ben Stein’s Money: This Comedy Central gem was Jeopardy!-level tough, hilarious, and an amazing concept. Ben Stein is a trivia giant, and watching him lose to lowly plebeians was always a treat.
11. To Tell the Truth: Kitty Carlisle knows where you sleep, knows you’re lying, and will now tell you why while voting for #3.
10. Who Wants to be a Millionaire?: Who knew multiple-choice trivia could be so damn suspenseful? Uncle Regis, of course.
9. Hollywood Squares: Paul Lynde for the win. Forever.
8. Family Feud: Survey says that a kiss-happy Richard Dawson probably infected a generation of game show contestants with mononucleosis, but still, his Hatfields-and-McCoys-esque series is a deeply entertaining, rewatchable game.
7. Password: All hail the sepia-skinned Allen Ludden and his game-loving wife Betty White, who made this free-association word game so addictive in its original and Plus incarnations. The Super version with Convy is aight.
6. Match Game: While Gene Rayburn belittled contestants, Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly gossiped and cackled for our amusement. Also: Fannie Flagg is awesome and probably wearing a poodle sweater over a collared shirt right now.
5. The Price is Right: In my dream wedding, I’d recite my vows in front of the Plinko board, and my husband would be the yodeling Mountain Climber. The minister is Janice Pennington.
4. Wheel of Fortune: Wheel of Fortune is a fun game on its own, but so much more is entrancing about its presentation: the hypnotic wheel, the intriguing puzzle, Pat Sajak’s subversive humor, and Vanna White’s flawless letter-tapping poise (seriously, watch the week when a guest hostess stepped in; you’ll see how hard it to maintain grace when reaching a high vowel). Never forget that football player Rolf Benirschke got to host the daytime version of Wheel in the late ’80s. So weird.
3. Pyramid: The best set. The best music. The best bonus game. And probably the best host: Dick Clark is so in control as an emcee, his very poise commanded greateness from both the contestants and their celebrity partners.
2. What’s My Line?: An utterly simple game of Twenty Questions, What’s My Line? teems with class, sophistication, and fun. There was a time when Bennett Cerf, the Random House publisher, was a national celebrity. That’s how great this show was. The best celebrity contestant ever is either Esther Williams or Salvador Dali, with Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor close behind.
1. Jeopardy!: It’s as simple as this: Without Jeopardy!, we’d all think a little bit less of game shows. It’s an unerringly entertaining half hour of answers and questions, “the Olympics of trivia,” as one contestant put it. Alex Trebek is both your awkward uncle and a fearsome headmaster, and its his commitment to the integrity of the game that has made Jeopardy! the defining and most satisfyingly difficult game in TV history.
Your turn. What are the best 25? Just missed my cut: Classic Concentration, High Rollers, Cash Cab, Gambit, Body Language, G.E. College Bowl, The Joker’s Wild, and the infamous Twenty-One.