Three years ago, the cable channel TLC—a modern-day equivalent of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!—aired a documentary featuring twin sisters Flo and Kay Lyman, two autistic savants with a shared obsession for Dick Clark. Flo and Kay were especially drawn to the various iterations of The $10,000/$20,000/$25,000/$50,000/$100,000 Pyramid, most of which were hosted by Clark. As usual, the TLC production made little effort to conceal its “Can you believe these freaky freaking freaks?” undertone, but when I watched clips of the show, I sympathized with the twins. Their predilection with Clark had a certain logic. If you’re going to obsess over a game show host, then Clark, the televisual beacon of constancy, would seem to be the blue-chip choice.
Last week, Clark did the only thing that he would ever do, or could ever do, to besmirch that legacy of Always Being Dick Clark. He died. Most remembrances have placed the focus foremost on his music-related projects, and rightly so. When I heard the news of Clark’s death, though, my thoughts went to the Lyman twins. For me, as I suspect for them, Clark’s legacy is felt most deeply with Pyramid. There may be no such thing as the perfect game show, but Pyramid is the closest anyone has ever come, in no small part because for 15 years and almost 4,000 episodes, it had the perfect host.
The $10,000 Pyramid first aired on CBS in 1973. It was the creation of Bob Stewart, a longtime game show producer who had worked in the Mark Goodson shop in the ’50s and ’60s. For Goodson, Stewart had created the concepts for the lie-detection game To Tell The Truth and the original Bill Cullen-hosted version of The Price Is Right.
Those are some golden lines for a producer’s résumé, but the most enduring achievement of Stewart’s work for Goodson was an austere, intelligent game called Password in which players and their celebrity partners communicate one-word puzzles using one-word clues. The show was hosted by Allen Ludden, a professorial sort with an easygoing, warm-maple-syrup smile that would have been at home on the front of an oatmeal box. His literacy and gentle humor were the right fit for Password, which kept cash flowing into Goodson-Todman Productions for decades.
Stewart loved word games, and with his own production companies in the ’70s and ’80s, he brought a number of them to air. None of them would approach the longevity and success of the Pyramid series. While Password is a game of collaborative haiku, Pyramid is prose. In the latter game, players can talk as much as they please to help their partner guess the secret words. A good Pyramid team is like a double act in which one half ad-libs a setup so the other half can provide the punchline, in rapid-fire fashion. And given the omnipresent timer, brevity remains the soul of wit.
The masterstroke of Pyramid is its endgame, which takes place in the Winner’s Circle, at the base of the great pyramid itself. In the main round, players are given a category to help them guess a list of words. In the shadow of the pyramid, the clue-giver invents a list of words so that the player might guess the category. The lights are dimmed, and the studio echoes with the inexorable pings of a 60-second clock marching toward zero.
The sound of that clock is essential, serving as a metronomic downbeat to the rhythm of the Winner’s Circle. Clark would often remark on the show that Pyramid is a “game of sounds.” What he meant was that a player could say “sweet” and have it be accepted if the answer were “suite.” There’s a deeper truth to the “game of sounds” notion, though. Pyramid is about exploring the ineffable harmonies and meters of the English language. It’s a lyrical game, and the best Pyramid players are, under high tension, able to find unexpected resonances in the spoken word. They strike the right chord, with the right rhythm, and their partners sing the winning song. Like this:
That’s my favorite Winner’s Circle run. The celebrity is Shelley Smith, an actress who became a Pyramid mainstay despite her mild star power, on account of she was so damn good at the game. In the clip, she’s trying to help her partner win $100,000 during a climactic tournament in the biggest-money version of the show. Bob Stewart would typically load the top of the pyramid with crushingly hard categories when the $100K jackpot was at stake. Cases in point here: “Things That Protrude” and “Things That Are Bound.”
Smith isn’t fazed. I never get tired of watching the way she uses the sound of her voice, and the way the contestant listens so adeptly, bopping up the pyramid. Smith’s play has so many virtuosic touches. There’s the midwestern nasality Smith applies to “herring” so that the contestant will say “pickled.” The casual, just-stopping-in tone of her clues for “Places You Visit.” The moments of quiet when she lets her partner come around to her.
And finally you have what is in my opinion, given the stakes and the situation, the best Pyramid clue of all time: “Old-fashioned Japanese women’s feet” for “Things That Are Bound.” It’s not even accurate—foot-binding is a Chinese tradition—but that only makes it better. Facts aren’t the focus of Pyramid; words are. So you use language to make your partner hear in their own head what you hear in yours. A game of sounds.
Nobody was better suited to such a game than Clark. This was a man with an extraordinary ear for sound. More specifically, he had a talent for using the sound of his own voice, his own language, to contextualize and elevate the sound of others.
Clark loved a challenge. He thrived in those moments when the sound seemed especially cacophonous. In a cultural moment when teenagers and their music were demonized as an out-of-control scourge, Clark handed his American Bandstand microphone to those same teenagers—on broadcast television, no less! He did it because where others heard noise, he heard a rhythm on which he could build a career. The noise simply needed the voice of Dick Clark, he reasoned, to frame it and tame it—and to convince a new generation that his ears resonated to the same vibrations as theirs.
So of course Clark adored Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The average bystander might observe a screaming mass of drunks crammed into a concrete jungle to face the end of days. No, that’s not it at all, Clark would say. He’d recite simple facts in the assured manner of a grade-school teacher—the temperature, say, or the attendance numbers. He’d play us the songs we’d heard on the radio for the past 12 months. He’d lead us in the countdown. And once the confetti had rained down on 42nd Street, he would always remind us how hard the New York Department Of Sanitation was working to clean it up in time for morning, a sign that life was already resuming normality. In a way, he was the ultimate master of ceremonies on Dec. 31, by virtue of the fact that he made the night seem so predictably ceremonious. That noise you hear isn’t the frenzied, heartless procession of eternity, he reassured us. It’s merely another verse in the song we’ve all been singing.
Clark’s Pyramid tenure is of a piece with these other landmarks of his career. Pyramid had the potential to be an unruly game, especially in comparison to Password. Bob Stewart had gone all the way from “use one word at a time” to “use all the words you want.” The result could easily have been a scattered, prolix mess (as demonstrated by the dismal 2002 remake hosted by Donny Osmond). But Clark’s presence helped give this composition the shape that it needed.
As host of Pyramid, Clark knew when to maintain the game’s downbeat and when to let the tempo pick up. Take the way he opens the episode above. He reacts to the noise of the audience, contrasting their hoots for cleavage-baring celebrity guest Markie Post against the “smattering of applause” that greeted the other celebrity and Clark himself. He stokes the raucous energy until the moment where it might unravel, and he can feel just when that moment arrives. So he shifts the vibe from exultation to recitation so quickly that it’s over before you know it’s happening, his voice applying a diminuendo to the excitement: “Happy days are here again, we ended up in a tie yesterday…”
Clark ran the game in similar fashion, setting its pace with on-the-fly mastery. He often would give the players brief cues to help them settle into the rhythm of the game. “A little louder, please,” he’d say, or he’d advise a nervous player to ease their agitated pace and approach each word with calm confidence. Clark was the rare host who would tell players when they had no longer had a realistic chance of winning, and he’d encourage a sure loser to stay focused and use the remainder of a hopeless match to prepare for the next one. These quick gestures were always friendly and delivered in good cheer, but the unstated goal was to keep the proceedings moving, always, always. He knew that Pyramid ought to have a good beat, so you could dance to it.
Watch that first $100,000 Pyramid Winner’s Circle clip with an eye toward Clark. It shows a man with a preternatural sense of how to make his game compelling. We begin, at Clark’s behest, with a few moments of silence. Calm. Easy. After that, we don’t hear from Clark until 11 seconds remain on the clock, when he feels the drama building and uses two words to inject some juice into the moment: “Hurry, Shelley.” And she does. Victory. Clark whoops. Then, everyone is lost in the mayhem. The entire audience gushes onto the stage—Times Square in a studio.
In the background, while everyone else is atwitter, you can hear Clark calmly arranging the crowd to prepare for the next shot. He’s like an orchestra conductor, always a beat or two ahead of the players. And he knows that even after a massive climax like this one, the music must calm again, so he lays the groundwork for the quieter beats, which arrive soon enough: Here’s the family. Here are the kids. Tell us how you feel. We’ll be back after this commercial.
I’ve watched Clark on television for hundreds of hours, and I doubt I’ve ever seen a moment where he didn’t appear to be in complete control of the proceedings. For some people, this made Clark come off as stiff. I found it comforting. I don’t know the minds of Flo and Kay Lyman, but I would guess that they were comforted, too. While the steady downbeat of Dick Clark may not have been especially adventurous, that was the point—with Clark as a grounding force, the rest of the world made a little more sense.