Game shows are not at all unique in the history of television. Neither is there any shortage of bad game shows. There is one bad game show, however, that deserves special attention. It is memorable not so much because it was bad but because it was so horrible that its host insisted on apologizing to the public for the ordeal.
The program was called You’re in the Picture. The game consisted of a four-member celebrity panel, placed behind a life-sized picture that depicted a scene from history, a song lyric, or some other concept. The faces of the people and animals in the picture were cut out, allowing the celebrities to fit their heads in the holes. They were unable to see the scene and had to try to guess what it might be. To do this, they asked questions of the host.
You’re in the Picture premiered on the evening of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20, 1961, at 9:30 p.m. on CBS. The host was Jackie Gleason. The celebrity panel consisted of Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, and Arthur Treacher. Johnny Carson was also chosen for the celebrity panel but after a single rehearsal, left and did not come back.
The premier episode had the celebrity guests attempting to guess the scenes of Pocahontas rescuing John Smith, three men looking at a girl in an “itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini,” a depiction of four playing cards, and a scene of high school hurdlers in a track meet.
To say that the show failed to impress would be an understatement. Gleason said he had a feeling of dread during the show but hoped he was the only one that felt that way. His feelings were confirmed, however, when no one involved with the show complimented him once it was completed. The only positive things he heard were remarks about how good the commercials were and how they finished the live program precisely on time.
The show aired on a Friday. Consequently, it wasn’t until Monday’s newspapers came out that Gleason was able to read the critics’ reviews. They were as bad as he had feared. The show was lambasted as being boring, unimaginative, and a complete waste of everyone’s time. Time magazine later opined that You’re in the Picture was evidence of the fact that the 1960-1961 television season was the worst in the 13-year history of network television.
Gleason knew they would have to do something radically different to save the show. When he told the studio executives about his plan, they were aghast. That would be tantamount to admitting that they made a mistake — something no one in the entertainment industry is ever supposed to do. There was no dissuading Jackie Gleason, however. He had made up his mind.
The second episode of You’re in the Picture aired on January 27, 1961. If anyone who had watched the first episode tuned in for the second, they saw the same opening credits. After that, everything was different.
Gleason appeared on a stage that had been stripped down to brick walls. Only the silhouette figures of some of the cast and crew could be seen in the background. The only thing on the stage was a chair and a side table. Gleason sat down, lit a cigarette, and started to talk. He didn’t stop for the next thirty minutes.
Gleason began by saying, “Last week we did a show … that laid, without a doubt, the biggest bomb in the history of television. I’m telling you, friends, I’ve seen some bombs in my day. This would make the H-bomb look like a two-inch salute.”
The thirty-minute episode consisted of one giant apology to the viewing public for the prior week’s show. Gleason said that he had spent the week trying to figure out who to blame for the horrendous program. Ultimately, he concluded that the fault was his. He said that when the show was pitched to him, everyone in the room thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. He also suggested that nearly everyone was under the influence of alcohol at the time.
As the apology episode came to an end, Gleason said, “I’m coming back next week! I don’t know what we’re gonna do … so, take my word for it … tune in on the next chapter, because this might be the greatest ‘soapless’ opera you’ve ever seen!”
That was the final episode of You’re in the Picture. The rest of the season was rebranded as The Jackie Gleason Show. It ran with a talk/interview format until March 24, 1961. Shortly thereafter, CBS contracted with Gleason to do American Scene Magazine, following a similar format. It. Ran from 1962 until 1970.
Although TV Guide ranked You’re in the Picture as #9 in its “50 Worst TV Shows of All Time” list in 2002, Gleason’s apology episode earned him critical acclaim. Time magazine called it an “inspiring post-mortem.” It took a show that would have been happily forgotten and elevated it to an honored place in television history.
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Categories: Entertainment, History, Humor, US History
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