The Canadian Game Show Hall of Lame
As a kid growing up in Toronto, I was struck by the radically different approaches of Canadians and Americans to TV game shows. While a housewife was winning a catamaran, car, or European holiday on Buffalo’s channel 2, her equivalent north of the border was elated to take home an electric mop and 30 dollars cash on the CBC. With hilariously low production values, tacky sets, suspiciously loopy hosts and cheap, quirky prizes, Canadian game shows made staying home sick from school an inadvertent lesson in absurd comedy.
Canadian Game Show Hall of Lame:
The Mad Dash
What’s not to love about players in ill-fitting polyester racing around a lit-up life-sized board game that could’ve been made by Dawn Weiner’s Special People’s Club? Hosted by the Franco-Vegas and notably distracted Pierre Lalonde (he often forgot the score, and on one episode had to be told by a team he’d incorrectly declared them the winners), one member of a groovy couple would answer easy multiple choice questions and then roll a die. Then the audience would yell out the number of steps that the partner — the dasher — could take on the board. Having landed on a square, the team would either win amazing prizes like “Shirt,” “Plates,” “Book,” “Dinner,” ” or “Car for one day” — or they’d have to follow complicated directions like “Miss Turn” and “Go Back”. The real excitement came when dashers landed on “Breakaway”, giving them 1-6 heart-stopping seconds to pass as many spaces as possible. In the end, Pierre would take cash out of his pocket and give $10 - 60 to the winning team. Reliably, contestants (who were usually facing the host — away from the camera) would give shockingly stupid answers.
Please find the dumbest answer in the history of game show television around the 1:30 mark:
“Turning a highway hobby into a challenging game,” this au courant 1987 show had contestants competing to decipher vanity license plates. If viewers didn’t turn the channel after hearing the honking theme song, then they’d witness the winner of the “Super Stumper” in a complicated bonus game, consisting of three rounds and a maximum jackpot of 1500 dollars. Having said that, I never saw anyone win more than 500, which was probably the production cost for a week of episodes. The host, Al Dubois, was famous for referring to the audience, when in fact there wasn’t one. Eventually airing on the USA network, the best moments occurred when players were took wild guesses and were all stumped by such mind benders as 2M8OS and SIR5L.
Beep, f*in Beep:
Between “Card Sharks” and “Jeopardy,” Canadian game show legend Alex Trebek hosted Pitfall, an experience that he called “One of the greatest tragedies of my life.” The foreplay consisted of contestants guessing at audience responses while vying for a pass to the real event: The Pitfall Round. In this meeting of wit and danger, contestants would ride an elevator with Alex to the top of a high and relatively expensive set, where they encountered a bridge that they had to cross in less than 100 seconds. The bridge had eight “pitfall zones” designated by instructional lights. Once they answered a trivia question correctly, they would win 100 dollars and move to the next section. If they landed on the wrong section, an elevator would drop them to the bottom of the set. Two things stand out for me: 1) The episode where a contestant fell off the elevator. 2) Unable to keep up with the costs of maintaining eight high-tech zones, the production company behind the show went bankrupt and most contestants never received their luxurious or cash prizes. Even Sir Alex was stiffed of his salary, leading to his aforementioned lamentation.
A loose Alex Trebek calls a moron a moron and then does a happy dance:
The most boring show in the history of television ran strong for 25 years on the CTV network … I’m falling asleep just writing about it. Four people played hangman for half an hour, taking turns guessing letters based on puns provided by the host. Most of the show was spent while the teams of two whispered guesses to one another . If audience members drifted off, then there were awoken by either “Soul Bossa Nova” (theme music shared with the Austin Powers movies) or the doling out of impressive prizes like alarm clocks or velvet cased pen and pencil sets.
From the tournament of champions, hence the uncharacteristic, big-time prizes:
Just Like Mom
Kids and their mums played a “How well do you know each other?” rip off of the Newlywed Game, hosted by the creepy, future Blue Jays Baseball host, Fergie Oliver. After a round of personal questions, the kids would jump into an amusing bake-off, in which they had 60 seconds to make a recipe that the mothers would have to eat and identify as the product of their child. Somehow, I dragged my lawyer mother onto this show when I was 12. We kicked serious ass and I walked away with a 7 pound chocolate bar, a bucket of jumbo Lego and 10 Kilos of Robin Hood bread flour. Long after my appearance, they upped the prize ante by adding a trip to Disney World on the prize wheel. The odds, however, were highly against snagging it; most kids ended up with a week stay at a summer camp that looked suspiciously like the one that Tim Horton’s Donuts has co-opted for disadvantaged youth.
I’m not the only one who thought the host was a total sexpest:
Another CBC gem that was picked up for US syndication, this Vancouver based show gave contestants 20 seconds to “talk about” something, after which time his or her partner would have to guess the subject. Bonus points were given if preselected (and hidden) keywords were used in the process. The bonus round was the same thing with an isolation booth thrown in the mix. Although it was fun to hear the nonsense shouted out of desperation when the clock was close to zero, and fascinating to see how little most people know about almost everything, this was another attempt at a TV show that should have just been an unnecessary board game.
Many a junior high lunch hour was spent watching “Chain Reaction” and speculating on the inebriation of its host, Geoff Edwards. This US/Canadian co-production was famous for randomly featuring local radio host Ron Charlobois in order to satisfy Canadian content laws. The goal was to string together eight related words, after having been shown only the first and last letter of the chain. Although this sort of thrilling word play is usually reserved for trips in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the show caught on and a spiffed up American-only version was soon to follow. Although the prizes were raised from 500 to 40,000 dollars, it lacked the charm of manually carded slots and grade school computer graphics.
This episode lies between the cheapest and ritziest versions of the show:
Based on the American original, our version featured 15 contestants sitting in bleachers opening secret envelopes that contained riddles or cash. Game play would last a week, with a designated Queen and King among the players. My memory of this show is a muddle of confusion, reinforced by its 8 page Wikipedia entry which covers multiple changing formats. I think the goal was for the King and Queen to select the Jackpot secret envelope last, resulting in a player jumping up and yelling “Jackpot!” with admirable (and often prize-disproportional) exuberance.
Round 1: Charades. Round 2: Charades. Bonus Round: Charades. Throw in guest stars like Jim J. Bullock, Sally Struthers and Jenilee Hairron and you’ve got a recipe for Out Of Control, A-Bomb Zaniness. Man, did things go off the rail when D-List celebrities, ordinary citizens and house players sat on stacked wooden blocks and battled it out with secret pantomimes. If they survived the madcap hijinks, then winners browsed the “Acting Crazy Galleria” (later referred to as the “Prize Emporium”), encountering treasures like a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, a Water Pic and a dictionary.
Shot in Sebastian Bach’s hometown of Peterborough Ontario, this improbably long-running quiz show that featured supremely dorky grade 7 and 8 students could have been the inspiration for SCTV’s classic “High-Q” sketch. Host Graham Hart kept a tally on a note pad, often misread questions and reported incorrect scores. At the end of the show, every player went home with a bag of Humpty Dumpty Chips, but the winners also bagged a Big Mac coupon or a $5 gift certificate to the Peterborough Square mall. It’s hard to imagine that anyone whose school wasn’t on the air actually watched this show for any reason other than delicious ridicule. Sadly, I could not find any clips to link, but I’m really hoping some are out there and will show up in the comments section.
Evidenced by Shania Twain’s contribution to pop-country music, Canadians are good at taking something crappy and making it even crappier. Thus I present “Supermarket Sweep.” Like its American cousin, the game involved teams of two contestants, one of which would run around a supermarket filling a cart with groceries. The team procuring the highest cash total would win the game and enter the bonus round, during which they would race around, solving clues that were taped to various products like kitty litter and ham. Despite its banality and brazen product placement, the existence of this show would be justified if it, in any way, led to the classic Don Adams (AKA Maxwell Smart) grocery store sit-com, “Check It Out”.
Michelle will crash her cart:
Celery Kovinsky is a writer based in Toronto and Nova Scotia. She’s frequently inspired by dogs, Neil Young, and Ethiopian food.
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