Take Two

Richard Dawson hosts Family Feud

That Feud Attitude

Family Feud started out as a celebration of the common man (and Richard Dawson). Now it’s a venue for dick jokes. What happened?

By Noel Murray • April 15, 2013

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.”

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59 Responses to “That Feud Attitude”

  1. Dick jokes are always funnier when they come up organically. 

  2. Monty Ashley says:

    I cannot say enough about how much fun it is to play the home version of the 1979 Family Feud. It’s pretty hard to answer “Name a kind of dog food” from 30+ years away.

  3. Citric says:

    My dad is a bit obsessed with game shows – if he is holding the remote, the channel is on GSN – and so I saw the Steve Harvey Feud this weekend, and I kind of got tired of the whole “Shocking off color answer” schtick pretty quickly. Mostly because the answers weren’t very shocking.

    • Dikachu says:

      I used to watch the shit out of GSN, but lately it’s been almost exclusively recycled primetime post-Millionaire fake-tension bullshit, or their own horrible original shows.

      When they showed a lot more stuff from the 70s and 80s, it was so great, though.  Match Game 197x is still my favorite all-time gameshow.

      • duwease says:

         Ditto..  I watched *so* much Match Game when GSN first came out.  I feel like Match Game stories could fill out an entire 4-part “Take Two” saga.

        • Match Game was brilliant, and I was, like, 12, when GSN first started airing them. You’d think that such old shows wouldn’t appeal to a youngin’ like me, but they were fascinating and genuinely exciting. Now that I’m older, it’s even more fun to watch not only the game, but also to play “which drug is X celebrity using today?”

  4. Flying_Turtle says:

    One of the things that was so great about Feud was the team aspect of the thing, and it seemed like on every show, at least one of the families would have a crazy uncle or nervous cousin hidden in its lineup who would provide a ridiculous answer, to which the team would almost always look around for a second and start clapping and yelling “Good answer!” even though there was no way that answer was showing up.

    Along those same lines, I wonder if there are families that have lingering resentments about a Feud failure. I can just imagine everyone gathered at Thanksgiving dinner when someone says, “How about I tell you all about the time Aunt Millie cost us $10,000 because she went on national television and said that the best month to get married was Thursday?”

  5. Sillstaw says:

    The least fun part about Steve Harvey’s “Family Feud” is the way that the show will sometimes just stop in its tracks to let Harvey react to something, for what feels like upwards of a minute. I don’t watch game shows to see the host mugging.

  6. zhirzzh says:

    The “Indian” chanting Dawson does in that clip is seriously uncomfortable.

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      Let’s imagine that, in keeping with his wish to defend the contestants at all times, he was trying to distract everyone from her borderline-offensive “skirt” response with something more obviously offensive.

  7. CNightwing says:

    When I was in the US a couple of years ago, I had nothing to do on a couple of weekday mornings, so I left the TV on whilst browsing the web, as you do. I gravitated towards the gameshows, mostly wondering what they would be like compared with the UK offerings.

    The Price is Right was ok – nothing special, it seemed to be a bit hollow, many of the contestants feigning interest, somewhat blasé to the near-random minigames throwing relatively expensive gifts at you. The host (Drew Carrey?) was also just ok, he wasn’t really trying to be funny from what I could tell, so the whole thing seemed like going through the motions rather than actually entertaining the audience at home. This show hasn’t been in the UK for years, but what I remember was that it matched the low-key entertainment with low-key prizes – it didn’t pretend to be anything exciting.

    Let’s Make a Deal was at the same level of inane. It was barely even a game, it felt much more like a hidden camera show or something, where any second the contestant might get told it’s all a joke and they’ve won nothing. The prizes were impressive but ephemeral. The host (Wayne Brady?) was likeable though, and somehow managed to string things along in an amusing way, rarely resorting to making someone feel bad about their decision by adopting a positive attitude. I’ve never seen a version of this in the UK, but it seems like the sort of thing that would only work with the right hosts – I recommend Ant and Dex, they could play the angel and devil on your shoulders as you decide between three giant boxes.

    Then there was Family Feud. In the UK Family Fortunes still runs, but as a stupid celebrity vehicle. The host is alright and the show hasn’t resorted to false innuendo. That’s what bothered me about this – the first time it’s funny, I get it, but then you start to realise that they’re not going to stop, that the second and third round are just as stupidly worded questions, that the host isn’t going to stop pretending he’s shocked by the smut. It was absolutely awful, cringeworthy stuff.

    I’ll finish with Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, which was on at lunchtimes, and was a much superior version to our own. Again, ours has become mostly a celebrity/charity vehicle, and they made a small rule change to essentially skip the first few questions. The random quantities employed by the US version was a good idea though, and the host is friendly, but authoritative – just what you need when the game gets to the tough part as you close in on a million dollars.

    • Girard says:

      Part of me feels like if you had seen the Bob Barker Price is Right, you might have been a little more engaged, but part of me is wondering if my memories of Price is Right are rose-tinted by the fact that every time I saw that show was necessarily a day I got to be home sick from school, and was consequently in a pretty positive mood.

      • Dikachu says:

        No, Bob Barker was definitely better.  The man was just as great as his legend.  He was just engaged and excited enough to elevate the action, without making it all about him.  The contestants were the stars, and he made it possible.

    • RTW says:

      Let’s Make a Deal is just unfiltered insanity. Brady is a perfect straight man for that show. He’s able to keep things moving along briskly, commiserate with contestants, and be understated without winking at the camera and being all “you and I both know this is the stupidest fucking thing you’ve ever seen, right?”.

  8. Alex Witenberg says:

    So I would call Steve Harvey a hypocrite.  If you really don’t approve of the sorts of behavior Family Feud the Next Generation revels in, don’t host the show.  

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      It’s almost certainly an act, though. The moralizing sells books and gets the game show-watching church ladies in his corner.

  9. “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.”
    I knew game shows were skeezy and weird, but why do they have to be this skeezy and weird?

    • Logoboros says:

      It’s also rather frustrating that it seems to have become almost impossible to try to make a case against crass vulgarity without getting branded a reactionary Neo-Victorian conservative.

      I saw another discussion on a different site about a plane that got diverted because a family started protesting because the PG-13 “Alex Cross” was playing on the cabin movie screens. Now, clearly the angry parents probably went crazy overboard if the pilot felt the plane had to land to deal with the situation. But the discussion online turned to the more general question of whether the airline should have been showing “Alex Cross” (a film that features, apparently, a serial killer cutting off a woman’s fingers among other things) or any PG-13 movie on the cabin drop-down screens. A couple of commenters raised the idea that maybe a PG-13 movie isn’t really an appropriate choice for an essentially involuntary public display (even if you don’t have to hear it), only to have the vast majority of the rest of the community jump down their throats for trying to force their uptight moral code on everyone else, and why should we have to kowtow to prudish parents who are fools (or intolerant, oppressive monsters) for thinking their kids can be insulated from this kind of content, etc., etc.

      This was an online community that is overwhelmingly liberal and progressive (which is generally my position, too), but they had reached the ideological conclusion that endorsing any standard of public decency would be tantamount to theocracy. Unless, of course, that standard involved hate speech, in which case they held exactly the opposite belief.

      • ProfessorFarnsworth says:

        I agree.  It is incredibly difficult to find a happy medium in which to have both an uncensored content, but an ability to “turn off” or opt out of content if one desires to.  I definitely find it difficult for online communities to make that distinction as well.

      • Effigy_Power says:

        Great post. I felt like the “Like” didn’t cover it. Well done.

        It’s hard to complain about Lara’s cleavage and whatnot without seeming like some outraged old Victorian aunt, fainting first, then organizing Suffrage movement evenings to ban outrageous attire or something.

        The problem with not just the internet, but our society at large, is that apparently it’s impossible to be in the middle of a spectrum of opinions rather than at the edge. You’re either for or against, compromise is seen as weakness and if you’re not 100% definite on what you believe, people will fill the blanks for you, usually to suit their own pet theories.

        The ocean may make more waves on the coasts, but in the middle it’s usually the deepest. Hey, that was pretty good.

  10. Moonside_Malcontent says:

    “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

    I think that’s true, and I think there comes a point when people watch a game show as much for the host as for the game itself.  Could NBC have kept You Bet Your Life running after Groucho Marx quit?  Not a chance.  In some ways, game shows are one of the last vestiges of that carnival-barker, top hat and tails, “come one come all” archetype of the American showman.  Sure, Regis and Alex get multimillion dollar production values and high-tech sets.  But is it really so hard to see them in boater hats and sleeve garters, directing our attention to the Eighth Wonder of the World?

    • John Teti says:

      That’s an excellent example. Have you ever seen the Bill Cosby You Bet Your Life (which wasn’t a direct continuation of the Groucho YBYL, but still)? Oof.

      Although it is a little amusing to watch it now and observe how every aspect of the production screams THE NINETIES!

      • Bill Cosby’s banter was always better with children than adults.

      • Moonside_Malcontent says:

        Yeah, no kidding.  And holy cow, that intro.  That’s got more gyrating, neon-blue acronyms than Geocities circa 1995.

      • Effigy_Power says:

        Man, that is hard to watch… I can’t really make it longer than 45-60 seconds into that intro. If “Hackers” and that Lullapalooza episode of the Simpsons was the quintessential 90s fare of the counter culture (more or less), this is the archetypal 90s fare of the “Moral Majority”.

  11. O Superman says:

    Wait, how did they dirty up Lingo? I haven’t seen it in a long time, but is it just through the words?

    “Nope, sorry, it was FARTS.”
    “Ooh, close, but it was VULVA.”

    • Merve says:

      I used to watch the Québécois version of Lingo a lot growing up. You would be surprised how many times the contestants guessed “PÉNIS.”

    • Daniel B. says:

      Lingo added clues that were generally written to make the players think “dirty”, hence answers of “SPERM” and “PENIS”.

  12. Dikachu says:

    Ya know, I think the best post-Dawson host was Richard Karn.  He was likeable and energetic, and helped carry the action without making it about himself (which is the job of a good gameshow host).  I was really disappointed when they replaced him with John O’Hurley, who seemed to me more like a robot programmed to simulate what an alien culture might guess is our speech patterns and behaviors.

    Also, god damn the set has gotten worse and worse over the years.  It’s so glitzy and eye-searing now.  The original with its huge, manually-spinning board was so great.

    • Yeah, I really enjoyed Richard Karn. He kept the energy level high, he wasn’t afraid to poke fun at dumb answers, but he never made himself the centre of attention.

    • Merve says:

      I liked how warm Karn was. He was never reluctant to comfort a contestant after a disappointing loss. I also appreciated his energy; it was almost as if he believed that each episode of Family Feud was the most exciting thing in the world.

    • RTW says:

      I agree with this. The Karn version was my favorite. He was avuncular and really emphasized the “family” part of the title. He’s the kind of guy that you’re always really glad to see is still getting work. 

    • Jess Ragan says:

      Oh lord, I hated John O-makes-me-Hurley. He’s so dripping with smug arrogance that I’m still cleaning the pool of slime that spilled out of my television set.

  13. duwease says:

    And to this day, there exist drunk old men who think it’s charming to plant one on someone’s wife.  And it’s considered rude to punch them.  Thanks, Richard Dawson.

  14. His_Space_Holiness says:

    I’ve been seeing a lot of TV and subway ads for a Family Feud-themed lottery lately, which is just baffling because it doesn’t seem to have a damn thing to do with Family Feud beyond the name. One of the ads even had the slogan “No family. No feud.” Which raises the obvious question, “Then why the hell are you using Family Feud in the first place?” Are people really into branded lotteries? Did some marketing firm run a demographic analysis that shows that people who watch lots of game shows tend to play the lottery a lot, given that they enjoy the fantasy of winning lots of money with little effort and are likely to be unemployed? I don’t get it.

  15. Greg Buck says:

    on a slightly related note – the Super Nintendo version of Family Feud accepts some pretty awesome alternate spellings of things.


    • RTW says:

      That is my absolute favorite speed run of all time. It’s pretty easy to figure out why it allows answers like that, but no less impressive.

  16. Django Zeaman says:

    Steve Harvey sucks…in more ways than one.

  17. Jess Ragan says:

    I understand what you’re saying about his tendency to shame the contestants, but Steve Harvey is still the best thing to happen to the Feud in years.  (Although considering past hosts like Anderson and Karn, that might not be saying much.)

    I always wondered what would have happened if Al Roker had been given the chance to host more than a handful of Feud episodes. He did give us one of the series’ best lines…

    “Show me… Captain Winky!”