Games Celebrities Play

"Hollywood Game Night," premiering Thursday, harkens back to the days when big stars were game show fixtures.

The old "Celebrity Jeopardy!" bits on "Saturday Night Live" mined plenty of laughs from the inability of Will Ferrell's Alex Trebek to get a serious answer – or question – out of Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery. (Connery: “I’ll take ‘The Rapists’ for 200.” Trebek: “That’s ‘Therapists.’”)

The jaunts into the delightfully absurd poked fun at overblown stars whose game show misadventures suggest they should stick to scripted fare. Still, the annual "Jeopardy!" celebrity tournament marks one of the few opportunities for notable names somewhere below the A-list, but far above the D-list to show another side of themselves. (Who could have predicted Andy Richter would steamroll Wolf Blitzer in 2009?)
That's plenty of reason to look forward to Thursday's premiere of "Hollywood Game Night," hosted by "Glee" star Jane Lynch. The NBC show's concept – celebrities playing goofily fun games to help ordinary contestants win a few bucks – harkens back to days when (fairly) big stars were nighttime game show fixtures.
Burt Reynolds drafted celebrity pals to his “Win, Lose or Draw” in the late 1980s. A decade earlier, his buddy Bert Convy’s “Tattletales” drew star couples like Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Allen Ludden’s “Password,” in various incarnations beginning in the 1960s, brought together his wife, Betty White, and many celebrity friends – including a young David Letterman.
Shows like “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game” made stars again out of Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson. Hosting “You Bet Your Life” on radio and TV put Groucho Marx’s prodigious wit to use in the final phase of his career.
The best of the shows recruited celebrities for their smarts – a stark difference from our current age, in which too many Reality TV pseudo-celebrities are prized for playing (or being) dumb.
Johnny Carson hosted a game show in the 1950s and later became a panelist on “To Tell the Truth,” which proved good training for his “Tonight Show” approach of making viewers feel like guests at a celebrity party.  “Hollywood Game Night,” which involves various pop culture-driven contests, is based on informal bashes former “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes throws for his famous pals.

Ferrell and Hammond aren’t on the current “Hollywood Game Night” guest list, but a slew of SNL alumni are, including Martin Short, Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen. Minnie Driver, Jason Alexander and “Friends” co-stars Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry also are among those slated to play. Check out a preview below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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