June 24, 2002
-- Hello, and welcome to Wink Wink... Don't Pick That One, That's the Wrong Answer
, npr.org's completely unofficial, blatantly self-referential, multiple choice quiz show. Today's topic? Why, it's none other than that old radio and television standby, the quiz show itself.
Players, are you ready to begin? Okay, here's our first question. And, oh my, is it ever a stumper. Hands on your buzzers.... Here we go.
How did the quiz show come to be?
Was it A) an early form of government welfare informed by the sadistic desires of television and radio executives to see adults squirm like ninth-graders on the day of a history pop quiz? Did it B) spring fully formed from the mind of Regis Philbin? Was it C) built into our genetic code by a higher power? Or can the origins be traced back to D) the Druids, who built Stonehenge as a primitive soundstage for an annual competition with an eerie similarity to The Weakest Link
Anyone? Anyone? Well, it's all right, that was a tough one. And we're just getting started. The correct answer, of course, is E) none of the above.
According to Peter Sagal
, host of NPR's on-air quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me
, the history of this venerated entertainment format looks more like an evolution than a single explosion of creativity. Sagal's report on Morning Edition
is part of NPR's Present at the Creation
series on the origins of American icons.
The earliest quiz shows, according to John Dunning, the author of On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio
, grew out of the person-on-the street interviews of Vox Pop
, a radio program that began broadcasting from KTRH in Houston in 1932.
On Vox Pop
, contestants would be approached by host Parks Johnson and asked random questions. They would win a token of a prize for a correct answer.
Over the next few decades, countless other shows made their way across the airwaves, each contributing a few key changes to the formula.
By adding money to the mix, Professor Quiz
, which premiered on CBS radio in 1936, earned its place in the pantheon. Generally recognized as the first true quiz show, the format was simple. Guests would ask Professor Quiz
(a.k.a. Dr. Craig Earl) questions, and those who were able to stump him walked away with a cool $25.
Later shows made other contributions. Add a whole lot more money and the thrill of random, at-home winners? You've got Pot o' Gold
. Plug in the now-obligatory pompous and talkative host? Doctor IQ
was your program.
As a general rule, quiz-show questions were easy and the concepts were not exactly refined. But, as Sagal reports, the vehicle got a boost from Dan Golenpaul and his 1938 creation, Information, Please
. This show, which was hosted by Clifton Fadiman, became a success not because of its prizes, which were modest, but for its mix of intellect and entertainment. Fadiman, who was a book critic for The New Yorker
, forwarded questions from audience members to panelists like Gracie Allen, who would try to come up with correct, or at least entertaining, answers.
Clifton's daughter Anne Fadiman remembers her father's reaction to the show: "I think he thought it was going to be great fun, especially when it was explained what kind of panelists were going to be on the show. It didn't matter if you got it right…it was the askers who got the prize."
may have been the standard for excellence in quiz shows, but it wasn't the only early powerhouse. By taking the prototype and adding a famously goofy host, his ever-present cigar and a duck with a secret word, You Bet Your Life
tweaked the formula enough to find major success with audiences along its 14-year radio and TV run, which ended in 1961.
Contestants were given some leeway in You Bet Your Life
, allowed to pick their topics and decide how much of their money to wager. And because the show was taped in advance and edited, host Groucho Marx was given some room to maneuver as well, and the show's most memorable moments often came during his improvisations.
Some of these shows have had a more obvious impact on the scores of other quiz shows that have followed, but each was founded on an unshakable premise. People liked hearing -- and later seeing -- others who looked like them put to a challenge. The formats, which over the years would range from extremely gimmicky (Hollywood Squares
, anyone?) to, well, a little less gimmicky (Jeopardy!
's answer-in-the-form-of-a-question rule), didn't matter nearly as much as the opportunity the shows gave normal people to be stars for just a moment.
So, there you have it. Simply put, the ever-renewable popularity of the quiz show.
Everybody ready for the next question? Excellent. Wait... what's that sound? You know what that means. It appears that we've run out of time. It looks like we won't have a winner today. Better luck next time. Keep guessing!
Play NPR's own quiz show, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me
Search for more stories
about game shows.
Read about Vox Pop
and view a photo archive
about the interview/quiz show at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland.
Learn about the TV quiz show scandal
of the 1950s.
Visit a What's My Line?
fan Web site.
Read about the TV version of You Bet Your Life
See a collection of radio game show home games
Read about quiz and game shows
at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Review host Bill Cullen
's radio quiz show career.
Read about Jeopardy!
when Art Fleming
was the host.
Play online versions of Jeopardy!
(registration required) and Who Wants to be a Millionaire
See how many of these TV game shows