“The show you watch on TV… this is not that show.” That’s what the audience coordinator told a crowd of about 200 prior to a recent taping I attended of the ABC game show revival “Match Game” in New York City.
And that’s because, we were told, host Alec Baldwin and the celebrity panelists are in control of how long the tapings go, not the producers or directors. They’re allowed to say anything, drink anything and pretty much do anything, all while the cameras are rolling. And the live audience gets to witness it all. The version of the show America gets to see each week is vastly different than what I was about to see.
I’ve attended tapings of “Wheel of Fortune” in LA and “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” in Las Vegas. At each of those I got to watch three 22-minute episodes be shot pretty much “live to tape”. That’s the standard for game shows (and talk shows, btw) because, among other things, the integrity of the gameplay and the money are at stake. Both of the three episode blocks of “Wheel” and “Millionaire” — approximately 66 minutes of television — took about 90-minutes to record, start to finish.
My day as a “Match Game” audience member began around 12:30p, standing in line outside ABC’s NYC studio on 66th St. (also the regular home of Dr. Oz). Soon I was brought-in through security and stood in a lobby waiting area with the others for the next 45 minutes or so.
At 1:00, audience members from the 9:30am taping began arriving down from the 3rd floor off of two elevators, 10 at a time. Very few of them looked happy. That should have been a clue.
Some complained about it being too cold in the studio (it’s kept at a brisk 55 degrees. We had been warned to dress warm). Others seemed to be relieved, while others were downright grim. A group of women next to me commented on the fleeing fans while also scrambling for food — after finding out we weren’t going to be able to leave the building until 5:00p “if we’re lucky”.
Before heading upstairs we got a pep talk from the over-zealous audience coordinator. “If you are offended by the words f*ck, s*it, c*ck and Donald Trump, leave now,” he warned us. As a game show aficionado, I know quite well that “Match Game” has always been a little looser and edgier than most. Watching the reruns of the original you can always tell which episodes were recorded after the four martini lunches, as Charles, Brett, Richard and Gene would amp-up the double-entendres and sexual innuendo humor.
But, outside of the free-wheeling style and joking around, “Match Game” provides exciting gameplay and the potential for plenty of drama. That’s what I was there to see, along with how this new version is put together. Warnings that we all were about to be subjected to an R-rated, free-for-all had to be an exaggeration. At least that what I thought.
It’s now about 1:30, and 10 by 10, everyone is ushered into the elevators and taken up to the third floor. My first surprise came upon seeing the orange/gold dominated “Match Game” set. It’s actually bigger than it looks on TV. That’s also very rare. Normally, sets look larger on television than in real life. But this set is HUGE, wide enough to accommodate three sections of audience bleachers. I was directed to a seat in the top row of the center section, which provided a perfect view of everything.
Unlike at “Millionaire”, audience members were not allowed to take any pictures of the set – not even from our seats. In fact, you weren’t allowed to have your cell phones on AT ALL. We were told, “ABC doesn’t want the names of the celebs appearing on the show getting out on the internet”. This, of course, makes no sense. The best way to create positive buzz for a show would be to allow the public to take selfies before the taping began and post them online. Major missed opportunity by show executives.
A couple of women sitting in the row below me didn’t hear/ignored directions and took some photos. They were then Googling the first names of the celebs to see who they might be. A cameraman quickly descended on them, ending their conversation with, “I wouldn’t post them if I were you.”
After at least another half hour of waiting, the warm-up guy made his presence known with a wireless microphone and the declaration, “My name is Jay and I’m really gay”. Things quickly turned into “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”, as he asked the audience to get up and dance to a series of pop hits. Most shows use comedians to warm-up an audience. Maybe with the 55-degree temps in the studio the producers felt they needed someone to literally warm-up the audience. But Jay added nothing positive to the overall experience.
Once that wrapped up, Alec Baldwin appeared on stage to a mild round of applause from the crowd. He made a crack about Jay: “Isn’t he great? He just got out of rehab.”
Baldwin then headed backstage. And Jay tells us: “We have some more time” (ugh). He decides to do a “Audience Bachelor” contest with six older guys dancing on the stage floor. It was as awkward and unfunny as it sounds.
Finally, mercifully, out come the celebs. One admits he’s had a few drinks, while another says she’s only had “a bowl of fruit”. There are seven stationary cameras, one crane cam, and one handheld. There are more cameras than I’ve every seen in one studio to shoot one live show. The two contestants are off stage, in their chairs, ready for a ride on the rotating turntable that will bring them face-to-face with the stars. But that doesn’t happen for a little while.
In the meantime, the celebs are schmoozing with each other, taking selfies and enjoying their beverages. What’s the audience doing? Listening to more music. It was clearly stated on my ticket to the show that audience members would be featured on camera. We were told to dress as if we were attending a nice dinner party. I’ve watched this “Match Game” enough times to know the audience is never shown on camera. And we never were. Glad I dressed up.
Around 2:30, taping finally began… sort of. The introductions, done in the classic style with the six celebs doing something goofy into the camera from their seats, were shot twice before Baldwin entered, and picked-up the iconic telescoping tube microphone, made famous by Rayburn during the show’s initial run in the 60s.
If you’ve watched this new “Match Game” and have gotten the impression that Baldwin is constantly reading off teleprompters — even when delivering jokes — you would be correct. In doing opening chats with the six celebs, he was often looking off to the nearest monitor words; fumbling and stumbling over them multiple times. He was also confused about which celebs to go to before saying “Let’s meet our contestants!”
But, after this short intro, instead of meeting the contestants and getting on with the game, production is halted. Makeup artists storm the stage, powdering Baldwin, fixing the panelists hair. Mind you, they’ve only been under the lights for 2-3 minutes. Finally, taping resumes, and the contestants are rotated into place.
The women contestant has a common first name, but an awkward first interaction with Baldwin. He looked at a monitor, which had an odd emphasis on the second syllable of her name. He vocally questioned why someone had written it in that way, ultimately apologizing with a “Grandpa made a mistake” remark.
She went first in the game. The celebs took a surprisingly long time locking-in their responses. During this period, they consistently jabbed Baldwin for having so many kids (it felt like a warm-up to Baldwin’s Comedy Central roast, coming later this summer).
The enthusiasm level in the audience was around a 5, with little cheering or booing of answers.
Then it was male contestant’s turn. But a technical issue stopped things for several minutes. As the producers were ready to begin again, they called out to Baldwin over the P.A. system, but he was deep into telling a story about Sting to the bottom row, ignoring a number of cues.
Baldwin was clearly thrown off. As he tried to reach for the question card, there was another issue, and as he tried to put it back, he didn’t put it into the slot correctly. You could tell everyone in the audience and on the set wanted to yell “OTHER WAY!”, as the male contestant tried to assist him.
No doubt this guy was clearly very excited to be there. At one point Baldwin leaned into him and noticed there were issues with the lights causing shadows. He said, “It’s like I’m filming a movie with Sam Jackson”. The contestant then dropped an F-bomb in doing a Sam Jackson “Snakes on a Plane” impersonation.
Baldwin was stunned. Several of the stars gasped. Audience members were speechless. Of course, none of this will ever be shown on TV (I assume), but it was clearly a defining moment for the day.
Eventually it was first segment break time, and the top row trio began doing the wave for the first of several times during the taping. No less than 25 people rushed onto the stage, fixing lights, mics, doing makeup and providing cocktails.
With pop music blasting, a lower row celeb got up from her chair to dance with an older woman in my section. Someone from the staff got her phone out and began recording it. I’m sure I’m in the background, and I’m sure it will end-up on Instagram down the line.
When segment two began, Baldwin said, “Welcome back to Match Game, a show critics say is… on television.” He’s very good at delivering these dead-pan lines.
The male contestant answered his second fill in the blank, and then it was the female contestant’s turn. Baldwin announced which of the stars she would be trying to match in this round. But those celebs didn’t hear him or didn’t understand how the game is played. They were doing everything BUT writing down their answers.
After a long minute of confusion, with everyone now seemingly understanding who was playing, a bottom row contestant, instead of putting her card in the slot, showed it to the camera, the audience and the contestants. Obviously, this is a no-no — so taping had to be halted (yet again) and a new question inserted.
Five minutes later, a producer appeared with a new card, and the show resumed.
I won’t reveal who won the game. During the next break (which took at least 10 minutes), a sound person had to adjust a microphone under one of the desk, inspiring the nearest celeb to announce that he had an erection.
Fans of the show know Segment Three is the Super Match bonus round. Recent studio audiences are no longer polled. Apparently it’s all now done online. Damn internet! The segment was awkward, but at least there were no stoppages.
After the recording of an alternate chit-chat ending (common for shows), this game was finally in the books. 22-minutes of television taking a little more than 70-minutes to record.
It’s pretty obvious why “Match Game” is not shot “live to tape”. But the result of this free-wheeling style is a production and editing nightmare. And having so little structure, giving celebs complete freedom to ad lib, in hopes of getting something funny that can be used on the show, all the time relying on the fact that they can “fix it in post” makes for, as someone who sat through it, a very rough and often uncomfortable viewing experience for the audience.
The warm-up guy declared, “HALFTIME!” and the blasting music returned. Baldwin and most of the celebs exited the stage. And I’d seen enough. I had planned on watching both games of the episode, but having already been at the studio for nearly 4 hours, and a movie screening to attend in less than 2 hours, I had to make a break for it. Who knows how long it would have taken for that second game to be completed — not to mention the wait to get all of us back down to the lobby, 10 at a time.
But I’m glad I went. Getting to witness the live taping of a TV show is always fascinating, whether things run like clockwork, or it’s organized chaos.
Overall, as for my “Match Game” experience, I’d say it _______ ed.