Charles Nelson Reilly, 1931-2007
“The day they knocked down the Palais, part of my childhood died”
— “Come Dancing,” The Kinks
When I was a boy, one of my favorite shows was MATCH GAME, and I didn’t even come close to realizing how brilliant it was at the time. But whenever as an adult I had access to the Game Show Network, I would watch the reruns and love every minute of it. Over the years, it creeped up on me the reason that MATCH GAME holds up so well — it was just as much a comedy show as a game show. Watching MATCH GAME, the outcome is hardly the point, you’re eavesdropping on a bunch of wits trying to spontaneously outdo one another. The interaction between Gene, Brett, Charles and Richard (I don’t even think last names are necessary), along with the occasional spice of variety from Fannie Flagg, Betty White, Mary Wickes and others, became the life of the show, and the reason it is still watchable to this day.
All the jokes about Brett’s wigs, Richard’s roving eye, Charles’s flambuoyance, Gene’s leering lip-smacking, some ventures into real politically-incorrect humor with Scoey Mitchell, Gene’s horrible voices and imitations, Richard’s Wildean persona, the ditzes like Joyce Bulifant and Patti Deutsch, “that motel in Encino.” To the TV exec, it was unconscionable the way the panel wasted so much time on MATCH GAME with theatrical “bits” like (I am not kidding) once everybody dancing on the set and all the celebrities once walking off the set in mock protest of who-cares-what. The in-jokes piled upon the in-jokes, particularly with the bickering between Brett and Charles, nudging “Pathetic Answer of the Year” cards into the other’s frame.
My first interaction with Rod Dreher, who’s since become a face-time friend, was an intense e-male bonding experience over our shared love for the 70s game shows of our TV-obsessed boyhoods (we’re only a year apart). Rod wrote:
I’ve got on my refrigerator a yellowed newspaper photo of Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers and Gene Rayburn in a publicity still from the show. My wife, born in 1975, thinks I’m a weirdo. I cannot in good faith contradict her. I remember calling my mom to hurry and pick me up from my friend’s house so I could get home on New Year’s Day in time to watch the Match Game ’73 sign change over to Match Game ’74.
And my commiepinkobud Michael Sicinski put the show’s brilliance together better than I can (quoted with permission):
I think the show stands up as one of the major pop culture contributions of the 70s. I used to watch it as a kid and enjoyed it, but watching it on GSN today I realize just how awesome it was. Nothing like that could be on TV today, where even so-called reality TV is processed into generically recognizable tropes and stock characters. MATCH GAME is so loosey-goosey, so extemporaneous, that it really just seems like they’d be playing the game whether there were cameras or not. You can watch them on the podiums, smoking and even occasionally taking a drink of god-knows-what. Some episodes, you can see Charles and Brett becoming increasingly inebriated as the show goes on. And the coy ribaldry, the silly yet honest nods to “women’s lib” and the dawning consciousness of gay culture (with or without Charles), all of this makes it a time capsule, but really, so much more. It is an amazing aesthetic object, with its own rules and rituals, right down to the orange shag carpeting. On a purely sculptural level, the old PRICE IS RIGHT is a better work of art, but in terms of performance and overall package, it’s MATCH GAME hands down. And lest we forget, Gene Rayburn was the greatest game show host of them all, a rare mix of Barker’s avuncular style with the lecherousness of your creepy Uncle Ned. The slicked-back Max Headroomisms of [Bert] Convy and [Wink] Martindale are the prototype of game show hosting, sadly, because they are safely slimy and easily mocked. Rayburn understood that it was all silly dinner theatre and conducted himself with humor and self-deprecation. …
(Needless to say, I was not only pissed, but felt that it exemplified my disconnection from current pop culture’s values of slick professionalism, when Alec Baldwin mocked CNR on SNL’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” parody. Holding Reilly up as the nadir of celebrity and talent…what could possibly miss the point more thoroughly?)
Three men as different as me, Rod and Michael all loved the same show and for pretty much the same set of reasons. And part of our boyhoods died at the weekend, announced earlier today.
Something else is dead too. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized that on MATCH GAME, Charles and Brett (whom he sometimes called “Auntie Brett,” a reference whose full meaning only just now “clicked” with me as I typed those words in) were basically doing a “fag hag” routine. But 12-year-old me, watching the show for the first time, never had any clue about the cultural buttons being pushed, the references, though I did laugh at it. “Gay,” “homosexual” “fag hag” … none of it meant anything to me. And I don’t think that, as a 12-year-old, any of it should have.
Wikipedia claims that MATCH GAME “pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards.” That may be the case, but it misses the point that the boundaries remained and were, in fact, key to what made their bickering so funny and so enduring. Charles and Brett and Richard and Gene were brilliant comedians because they knew how to deliver a dirty joke in a clean way, in the classic double entendre, which has become a lost art as content standards have waned.
But this pre-pubescent MATCH GAME fan remembers all the innuendo (which the adult fan well catches) going over his head. In fact, what is very much part of the fun (watching it now at 40) is appreciating the tension in how the MATCH GAME team were so deft as to get away with so much while keeping the surface G-rated.
Sex and sexuality are legitimate subjects for humor, and I have no per se moral problem with locker-room jokes. But the double entendre is not only funny, but respects the innocence of some in the audience through its “double meaning” (in a slightly different context, Ernst Lubitsch noted that if you tell the audience “2 and 2,” they don’t need to be told “4”). But when comedians can say whatever they want, you don’t need a Bocaccio to write in “The Decameron” of a randy groundskeeper at a convent that “he tended all their gardens.”