Take Two is an occasional series examining game shows that flourished, died, and came back to life again. Previously, John Teti reflected on the luxurious fantasies of Sale Of The Century. In this edition, Noel Murray charts the four-decade evolution of Family Feud.
Here’s how popular and powerful Family Feud host Richard Dawson had become by the end of the 1970s: He began some Feud episodes with a monologue. Imagine that happening today. Picture Alex Trebek walking onto the set of Jeopardy! and cracking a few jokes about Snooki, or Pat Sajak beginning each Wheel Of Fortune with one-liners about those clowns in Washington. (And don’t think Sajak wouldn’t do it.) It feels way off-model for a game show, and yet there was Dawson, taking a few minutes at the start of special primetime editions of Family Feud—and sometimes even on the regular daily version—to riff on current events, like a cut-rate Johnny Carson.
But then why wouldn’t he? During its heyday, Family Feud was the number one show on daytime television and a huge hit in syndication. Dawson leveraged that success to make demands, just as he had for his entire career.
Game shows often outlive their original hosts and original incarnations. (If they didn’t, this column wouldn’t exist.) But there are times when the personality of a host becomes so inextricably tied to a game show that everyone who follows is doomed to unflattering comparisons. That was true of Dick Clark and Pyramid, and Monty Hall and Let’s Make A Deal, and even Bob Barker and The Price Is Right (though Barker himself inherited a very different version of the show from Bill Cullen). Family Feud has had five hosts since Dawson’s original 1976-85 run, but only the current host, Steve Harvey, has been able to establish an identity for himself and the show outside of Dawson’s heavy imprint. Harvey and the current creative team have thrived by appealing to the worst instincts of the viral-video age: ramping up the smuttiness and effectively taking the “family” out of the Feud.
Would Dawson do the same if he were alive and hosting today? Perhaps. Dawson did always have a rakish wit, and an instinct for playing to the crowd. Born Colin Emm in 1932 in Hampshire, England, the future Feuder took the name “Dickie Dawson” when he launched a career as a comedian in his homeland in the 1950s. (He later had his name officially changed to “Richard Dawson.”) Then Dawson married actress Diana Dors and moved to Los Angeles, where he found work as a bit-player in movies and television, until he got his big break, playing a Royal Air Force officer in the World War II sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Dawson had been considered for the lead role of Hogan—which eventually went to Bob Crane—and though Dawson later denied it, people who worked on the show have said that Dawson could be quite brusque toward the star, because he was sure he would’ve done the job better. That set a pattern for Dawson’s career, in which over and over he’d prove himself and then start grumbling.
That’s the way the scene played out when Dawson became a panelist on the Gene Rayburn-hosted ’70s revival of The Match Game. Dawson’s sharp sense of humor and superior skill for the game made him an audience favorite. He was the go-to panelist for contestants looking to dominate Match Game’s bonus round. (Dawson was especially good at the classic Match Game fake-out, dramatically pretending that he hadn’t matched the contestant’s answer before flipping over his card to show that they were, in fact, simpatico.) Dawson’s popularity won him the Family Feud hosting gig, but because he was still under contract to Match Game, he had to stick around that show longer than he wanted to, and he made his displeasure known by becoming increasingly snappish on-camera. He got even grumpier when the producers decided to make the Match Game bonus round more “fair” by adding a big “wheel of panelists” for the contestants to spin, so that they wouldn’t just choose Dawson all the time.
Dawson was clearly more comfortable in command of his own kingdom, hosting Family Feud. Ostensibly an expansion of Match Game’s bonus round, the Feud format featured two teams of five—each made up of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins and in-laws—trying to guess the most popular answers to survey-type questions asked of 100 people. Sometimes the questions would be evergreen, like, “What’s the best month to hold a wedding?” Sometimes they were more era-specific, like, “Name a celebrity with the last name ‘Jackson.’” For that reason, old episodes of Family Feud—same as other survey-style game shows, such as Match Game, Card Sharks and Hot Potato—are even more fascinating to watch now than they were then. They’re like a constantly evolving record of public opinion and public awareness. Playing along at home entails not just coming up with good answers, but coming up with what people in 1979 would’ve said.
The original Family Feud is also a treat to watch today because of Dawson, who apparently decided early on that this show was either going to be his stepping-stone to a major career in showbiz or his one lasting legacy, but that either way, he was going to make sure that the Feud was his baby. Hence the monologues. And hence Dawson’s occasional on-camera swipes at his network, his producers, and his crew. Dawson always made sure to let the home viewer know who was really in charge—or who should be.
If Dawson was an overly demanding boss and unruly employee, that’s only because he knew he had value. In those late ’70s Family Feud episodes, Dawson is mesmerizing as he milks laughs from bad answers, flirts with all the female contestants (young or old, pretty or plain), works in a bit of bawdy winking, and seems genuinely invested in the outcome of the game. Dawson may have been rude to the help, but he was a fierce advocate for the Feud’s players. He registered every minor blunder in the production as a deep injustice to these people who’d given up part of their valuable vacation time to appear on the show. No post-Dawson Feud host has ever been as committed to making sure the contestants felt loved—or as good at shouting, “Survey said!” and swaggering away once he knew they’d just won Fast Money.
Even when Dawson adopted an icy tone that undid his attempts to make himself seem like an ingratiating guy, the tension made for fine daytime TV psychodrama. Television was full of game shows in the ’70s, and full of people whose only real job in entertainment was to be a game show host or a game show panelist. None were quite like Dawson, who recognized that even if he’d never host a talk show or a variety show (although he did occasionally guest host The Tonight Show at the peak of his fame), he could bring elements of that shtick to a game show, so long as he kept the ratings high.
When the last echoes of the ’70s game show boom finally faded, Family Feud left the air, and Dawson went into early semi-retirement. When the show was revived in 1988, its new host was stand-up comedian Ray Combs, who was every bit as irascible as Dawson, but without the compensatory warmth. (He was also a deeply troubled individual, who committed suicide in 1996 at the age of 40.) With the new version of the Feud sputtering in 1994, Dawson returned to host its final year with a much softer disposition than he’d shown the first time around.
Family Feud returned again in 1999, and it has stayed on the air in syndication ever since, with a succession of hosts: comedian Louie Anderson, actor Richard Karn, actor John O’Hurley, and now comedian Steve Harvey, who started in 2010. Aside from a few bits of tinkering with point values and round structure, the rules haven’t changed significantly since 1976. Family Feud is still a game where two teams of five answer survey questions, and then the winning team sends its two best players to a nail-biting timed bonus round, where they have to think of popular answers quickly. The only real variation over the years has been the tone of the hosts. Anderson came across as bored and condescending. Karn was a jovial lightweight. O’Hurley actually had a likably contrived old-school showbiz smarminess. And Harvey now plays the part of an exasperated, incredulous straight man, holding for big laughs after every off-color answer.
Which is fine—to an extent. Harvey is a funny comedian with terrific timing, which he’s shown off to best effect as a stand-up (as documented in Spike Lee’s film The Original Kings Of Comedy). But he’s also developed a sideline as a public scold, dispensing advice about how men and women should act toward each other, about how young people should behave, and about how society needs to embrace God and get some morals. That stance makes its way into Harvey’s Feud hosting, which now includes more than a little tsk-tsk-ing at the contestants’ dirty minds. It’s for comic effect, sure, but the moralizing is still hugely unappealing, given that Family Feud’s survey questions these days have been clearly designed to coerce raunchy replies—and thus to get passed around as “most outrageous Feud answer ever” YouTube clips. A typical Harvey-hosted Family Feud includes questions like, “Name a magazine a man likes to read in the bathroom,” and “Name something a man pulls out.” (One of the correct answers to the latter, by the way, was, “His ‘knockwurst.’”)
In fairness to both Harvey and the current Family Feud producers, double-entendres—and even single-entendres—have become the norm for game shows these days, not the exception. NBC’s Minute To Win It apparently has a policy that female contestants must sport cleavage-enhancing T-shirts and perform stunts that involve a lot of bending over and manipulating objects with their mouths. The Game Show Network word game Lingo is far less high-toned than it used to be—more vulgar and giggly in its latest incarnation. Likewise, GSN’s Catch 21 throws in a couple of questions each episode that most parents would rather not have to explain to their kids. Anyway, Harvey’s Family Feud has become the hit in syndication that O’Hurley’s never was, so he must be giving the people what they want.
There’s some symmetry to what’s become of Family Feud. Dawson’s show spun out of a Match Game that was itself much crasser than its original model. The Match Game had a good run in the early ’60s as a celebrity panel show where contestants guessed how famous folk might complete short phrases or answer general-interest questions. Then in the ’70s, the new question writers concocted punny, innuendo-filled sentences, and at first the contestants and panelists were too tentative to take the bait. (The first-ever question on Match Game ’73 was “The sexiest thing a woman can wear is ____.” No one on the panel had the temerity to say, “Nothing.”) By the middle of the first season, though, contestants and celebs alike were giddily filling in blanks with words like “whoopee” and “boobs.” So now Family Feud is adjusting to the times, just as Match Game did.
Still, there’s a fundamental difference between Dawson’s most famous Family Feud gesture—kissing contestants full on the lips—and Harvey’s most common move, which is to brace himself on the podium and then crumple with exaggerated, fake-looking laughter. There are some elements to hosting that Harvey does very well. He’s involved with the game and engaged with the contestants, just as Dawson was, and he explains the rules to each round as though he were imparting essential life-lessons. But a lot of what he does feels forced, that laughter in particular. Like the questions that are meant to elicit “I can’t believe she said that!” replies, The Harvey Laugh is designed to be cut up and inserted into Family Feud promos, to emphasize what a wonderful time everyone’s having on the show.
That’s why it’s so off-putting when Harvey feigns shock at a contestant answering, “Name something that’s made to vibrate” with “a woman’s toy,” or when Harvey puts on his judgmental face for a woman who answered “a condom” in response to the question, “Name something you might keep in your desk drawer if you’re having an office affair.” It’s not that the Dawson Feud didn’t have its blue moments or its times when Dawson’s reactions to answers were hilariously exaggerated. But these tended to spring up organically, and they were relatively rare over the course of Dawson’s first decade as host. Harvey’s Family Feud is more like a group of actors trying to reenact an episode of Family Feud, cutting straight to the wacky bits. If the Dawson Feud is a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal, then Harvey’s version is Oops! All Berries. Accent on the “oops.”