When an unemployed ice-cream-truck driver whammied Press Your Luck

When an unemployed ice-cream-truck driver whammied Press Your Luck

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next two installments focus on episodes featuring “interlopers.”

Press Your Luck, “Michael Larson” (originally aired 6/8 and 6/11/1984)

In which an ice-cream-truck driver breaks the game…

Todd VanDerWerff: He doesn’t look like a devious mastermind. Indeed, Michael Larson doesn’t look like much of anything at all the first time you see him. He’s just another overly enthusiastic contestant on a game show, which is more rigged against the contestants than many on the air. Press Your Luck isn’t much of a game, honestly. Contestants answer some easy questions, then, well, press their luck on the big board, trying to win cash and prizes. If they hit a Whammy, a cartoon monster takes all their stuff. The game is set so contestants will hit the Whammy every sixth or seventh spin. The network won’t have to pay out. Everybody goes home happy.

But Larson has the secret. He’s going to break the game.

So much of television is based on rituals, and the interloper episode is often about inserting a character into the middle of our favorite shows to disrupt the rituals. Somebody shows up who gets in the way of the cogs running smoothly, and the disruption is pitched as much at the viewing audience as it is pitched at the characters onscreen. But this necessarily limits itself to scripted television, or to particularly fake reality shows. The interloper isn’t supposed to invade something like a game show or talk show. Those are spaces where we know what’s going to happen within a narrow range of possibilities, and when somebody like Larson shows up, we might feel a surge of excitement. Or we might feel a slight twinge of panic. There’s nothing to stop Larson. He takes over the game, and he could theoretically keep it going forever.

Larson’s full story is fascinating, and I’d invite readers to go and check it out online, but the gist of it is that during his unemployment, Larson discovered that the patterns on Press Your Luck’s big, flashing board were just that: patterns. He bought a VCR and used it to carefully study those patterns and determine the two squares on the board where a Whammy was never hidden, then also determine where in the pattern the lights landed on those squares. He memorized the sequence, and then he got on the show. Outside of a brief misstep in the early going, Larson nails everything. And listen to the people around him: Host Peter Tomarken seems increasingly incredulous this is happening to him. The two other contestants look on in befuddlement. The studio audience members sound on the verge of mass hysteria, until Larson’s streak just seems to wear them out.

Because—let’s be honest here—Press Your Luck quickly gets boring without the Whammy. TV game shows are designed as thoroughly as any board game or video game, balanced so the viewers at home get the momentary thrill of victory and agony of defeat, feeling right along with the contestants playing on the show’s set. The truly good game shows—your Jeopardys, Wheel Of Fortunes, and Price Is Rights—give the audience a “play along at home” component, but Press Your Luck doesn’t have any of that. The only thrill here is watching somebody lose everything right after they seemed to gain it, and once Larson removes that, the whole show becomes a march to see just how much money he’s going to win.

I only knew about this episode because I read about Larson and then went seeking it out. I’ll be curious to see if any of you didn’t know the backstory of Larson’s misadventures before watching this, because I’m wondering if you realized Larson had found a loophole in the game’s design. (Videogame players would call it an “exploit.”) Tomarken, in the occasional onscreen moments when he freezes the action to comment on what’s happening up there on the game floor, doesn’t let on that Larson had made CBS look vaguely idiotic for leaving this large a flaw in the design—but you had to have known, right? People don’t get that lucky. (Notice how quickly the other two contestants fly through their Whammies once Larson is done with his spins.) 

As to Larson himself, I’m also curious about what you all thought of him. I find him fascinating. He’s got that great smile and over-the-top attitude, but it all seems to be masking something. Concentration, perhaps? By far the best moments here are toward the end, when he has to take those passed spins, and you can see that concentration slipping. He almost loses it all. But, then, all he would have to do is dig deep, find more concentration, and start all over again. He’s broken the game, but he’s also broken television as a whole. And that’s thrilling, to be sure, but it’s also surprising to find that it’s just a touch boring.

Ryan McGee: Is it a coincidence that this episode takes place in 1984, the year made famous by the George Orwell novel of the same name? Well, yes, but roll with me here a moment, please: In thinking about the way Larson went in and broke this game, the word “thoughtcrime” crept into my head. I’ve seen this episode maybe a half-dozen times over the years, but never sat down to think about its true implications. We now have an actual game show on the air in multiple countries called Big Brother, but when this episode of Press Your Luck aired, I doubt the audience members were as savvy as those watching today’s reality television. Whereas now people watch with a keen eye and understand the behind-the-scenes machinations as well as the onscreen antics, those watching TV in ’84 didn’t think much about how the drama of their game shows was rigged. They just wanted to see a Whammy dressed as Boy George, because that is comedy, my friends.

So credit Larson for being so forward thinking, especially since what he pulls off here feels like it belongs inside Ocean’s Eleven, not an early ’80s game show. Now, people watch shows like Survivor and study them like the Zapruder film. Only those competing in the first seasons of shows like that have a truly blind advantage. After that? Strategies are adopted, counterstrategies are developed, and soon shows are in the bind of having to be smarter than the contestants they select. It’s definitely possible, but this requires the show to be smarter than the collective intellect of those watching. Part of the energy devoted to outwitting/outlasting/outplaying a show comes from the desire to win the game, naturally. But part of it also comes from an intense, innate desire to somehow find cracks in the system, any system, seeking to rig the game for those conducting it. This impulse goes far beyond the world of reality television and creeps into every aspect of society. Maybe this is why Larson’s achievement is so extraordinary, and why CBS’ decision to reprogram the Press Your Luck boards in the immediate aftermath is so predictable. Neither action came from an inherently evil position, but both reflect the constant tension that exists between those who seek to impose order and those who just want to see the cracks exposed.

Donna Bowman: I’m fascinated by this bit of game-show history. Granted, I’m fascinated by most bits of game-show history, even the most mundane, but this one stands out because, as Todd says, it involves not playing the game, but breaking it.

Or does it? Larson is exploiting a flaw in the game, which is different from actually cheating. Games need to be built robustly to eliminate opportunities to gain unintended advantage within the game parameters. Everyone understands that acting outside the game parameters to gain advantage violates the spirit of the game and ruins the competition (like stealing the opponent’s playbook). But if the gameplay itself offers a chance to gain advantage, then the only thing standing in a competitor’s way, typically, is some sort of gentleman’s agreement or simply an additional rule (like the prohibition against stealing signs, or casino rules against counting cards). Players who seek an advantage through this means aren’t really cheaters; they’re spoilsports, in the precise terminology of Dutch thinker Johan Huizinga. They ruin the game for others by refusing to play in such a way that others can participate on a more-or-less equal level. They take advantage of a tilt in the playing field instead of, in the interest of allowing competition, pretending that the tilt doesn’t exist.

The spoilsport as interloper turns out to be a wonderfully fruitful combination of metaphors. Huizinga points out that games create their own worlds because players mutually agree to a set of norms and rules that’s different from those existing outside of the game boundaries. The reason for those new norms and rules is to carve out a space for competition, and everyone playing the game is presumed to be doing so in order to compete—to test his or her skills against other players. To play within the letter of the rules, but in a way that doesn’t allow other players to compete, is to violate the game at a deeper level than breaking one of the overt rules. Such behavior reveals that the spoilsport isn’t playing for the assumed reason—that winning is the only thing, rather than gaining meaning from following on fair competition. Nevertheless, even though I understand all of that, I’ve always felt sorry for people who have to turn their backs on an advantage that’s right there for everyone who’s dedicated or talented enough to take. As Press Your Luck’s technicians finally understood, after the Larson debacle, the fault wasn’t in the player who figured out how to break their game. It was in their failure to see the brokenness that was there all along.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’d never heard this story before. On some level, Larson belongs to that special category of interlopers who unexpectedly break through the façade of TV rituals: the streaker at the Academy Awards, the prankster who calls a TV network during a breaking news event and actually manages to get on the air with a message from Baba Booey, the South Carolina senator who called the president a liar during the State Of The Union address. Larson is different from those examples because he wasn’t looking to start any shit or draw attention to himself; he just wanted to make some money. 

I don’t think I’d call him a spoilsport, exactly. He gave himself an edge, but it’s more like counting cards than having Shirley Eaton installed above your card table with a set of binoculars, describing your opponent’s hand into your earpiece. Anyone could have done what Larson did, and doing what he did took work. If he spoiled anything, it was the illusion that Press Your Luck was purely a game of chance. From the producers’ point of view, it was a game of skill but, as Todd describes it, they thought that all of the skill flowed one way—in setting it up so that the contestants would always be at a disadvantage. 

By figuring out the skill it would take to win and applying it, Larson leveled the playing field—at least, so far as he and the game itself were concerned. You could even say that he was playing on behalf of everyone who watched the show, including his on-air rivals, who weren’t going to break the bank armed only with luck. (I just flashed on David Warner in Titanic, flashing the pistol under his coat and saying, “I make my own luck.”) They might not see it that way. If they were real saps, they might even say that they would have had a chance to be the first to win a super-fortune on the show by sheer force of luck, if this bastard hadn’t unfairly blocked them by dragging skill and intellect into it. I suspect that a lot of game show fanatics are “authenticity” freaks.

The funny thing is, American game shows, with the conspicuous exception of Jeopardy, have basically abandoned games based on deep reserves of knowledge and intellect. They did so in favor of games that seemed to come down to “luck” and educated guesses (“Survey says…”) as a response to the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, which left behind the impression that knowledge-based games are easier to rig in favor of the contestants. (Rigging a game in favor of the producers seems to be generally accepted as the nature of the beast.) Though it may have seemed unfair to people who want to believe that a big win on a game show comes down to luck and the favorable opinion of the Lord, what Larson did doesn’t strike me as that much different from the way Ken Jennings broke the bank on Jeopardy by knowing a whole bunch of stuff. Of course, when Jennings had his winning streak, it did get a little boring after a while.

Erik Adams: I watched Press Your Luck religiously when it cropped up in the GSN rotation around the time of the 2003 documentary about the show, so I’ll cop to being taken by Larson’s streak longer than anyone in the studio audience. With the hypnotic beeps and bops of the show’s big board—broken up by the inevitable intrusion of the Whammy, the show’s original interloper—Press Your Luck is the ultimate in background viewing. Frantic as it is, the sound design of the game eventually washes over the viewer like white noise—so it’s a huge deal when someone busts up that rhythm, even if what he’s doing is actually stretching it out, turning its short blasts of noise into a big-money raga.

But beyond those meditative connotations, Phil’s and Ryan’s entries bring something a little more sinister to mind. Larson’s clearly having the time of his life, and he’s imbued with an impish energy as he takes CBS and the Carruthers Company to the cleaners. But his run also has an unsettling effect, a potentially upsetting disruption of the Press Your Luck trance. This isn’t supposed to be happening, and I feel (or at least I hope) like this is the closest we’ll ever get to being brainwashed drones looking on in awe as a heroic resistance intercepts the broadcast signal of a dystopian overlord. In line with Phil’s observation, I’d place Larson closer to signal hijackers like Captain Midnight and the weirdo who threw on a Max Headroom mask and freaked out Chicagoland viewers in the fall of 1987. These guys put a lot of time and energy into temporarily shaking up the system, and the way they did it is so far out of the norm that it can’t help but be a little thrilling—and a touch disturbing, too. 

David Sims: Todd got me into the story of Larson many years ago, so this is probably my third or fourth time watching his insane run on the show, which is ridiculous because I’m watching someone break an already bad game show that went off the air six months after my birth. He looks like a homeless Santa Claus who somebody stuffed into a suit (which is probably why Todd is so fascinated with him), and his personality on the show is genuinely jarring—possibly because of the extreme concentration I’m sure he needed to keep up with the game, or possibly just because he’s a lunatic.

I find the whole thing to be compelling television, but it’s also a little disturbing in a way, especially as someone who grew up watching a lot of game shows. The way Tomarken is trying to keep the reality of the show together even as Larson rips it apart (winning more money than they can even display properly on his board). The building sense that something insane is going on, on top of the already weird carnival world of an ’80s game show—it’s amazing this story has never been filmed. I can think of a half-dozen directors who would be suited to Larson’s journey.

It’s wonderful that this footage exists and is still analyzed, but its rarity underlines what we all like about game shows: The structure and rules are so clear, so set in stone, that the idea of someone circumnavigating them is mind-boggling. I’m reminded also of the Charles Ingram scandal on the original U.K. edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, where he won the top prize but was found to have cheated. His cheating was even more cut-and-dried, but still, there’s something weirdly admirable about someone managing to get around the strict rules of the game. There’s also something weirdly comforting about the fact that they won’t even be able to leave the studio without someone guessing that something went wrong.

Stray observations:

A 2003 GSN documentary about this episode is entitled Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal. Now all I can do is imagine Olivia Pope swopping in to defend Larson against a defamation suit from CBS. [RM]

According to Wikipedia, Larson met one of the people he trounced on the air in the green room before the taping. Larson asked the man how carefully he’d studied the game, and gave the guy a funny look when he said he’d only seen the show once. I share Larson’s incredulity. I guess that a free trip to Los Angeles and a chance to be on TV are not to be sneered at, but still, I would think most people would want to make the most of an opportunity and bone up beforehand. For me, this story confirms my awful hunch that a lot of people imagine a windfall should just happen to them for being nice folks, and there’s nothing they can do to improve their chances anyway. (The icing on the cake is the detail that Larson’s under-informed future competitor was “a Baptist preacher.”) As a Survivor addict, I’ve grown increasingly familiar with this phenomenon in the last several years. There always seem to be people on that show who appear dumbfounded at the physical challenges expected of them, when you’d think they would have prepared by camping out in their backyards a month in advance, or practiced starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together. [PDN]

Two years before he gave sad-sack high-school males a live-action cartoon alternative to watching Harold & Maude for the umpteenth time, Better Off Dead director Savage Steve Holland animated the Whammies for Press Your Luck. None of the Whammies could wail like John Cusack’s Van Halen-aping burger creation, of course. [EA]

And if all of the excitement of watching a man bail himself out of financial destitution on national television has you feeling too optimistic about the resiliency of mankind, might I recommend sending yourself crashing back down to Earth by listening to This American Life’s account of what happened to Larson after Press Your Luck. Larson’s story only gets more fascinating when it turns into a hicksploitation version of The Pearl. [EA] 

Next week: It’s the Readers Choice! We’ll be discussing what happens when the brother of Mike shows up on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Time Chasers.” After that, Phil Dyess-Nugent kicks off a new theme with a controversial episode of NYPD Blue.

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