1. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger on Password (The Odd Couple)
Sometimes television’s real and fictional worlds intersect, creating the mind-bending possibility that everybody on TV—be they action heroes, sitcom stars, athletes, newscasters, or game-show hosts—exists in the same shared universe. In a 1972 episode of The Odd Couple, slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) is invited to be a celebrity guest on Password after he runs into the show’s host, Allen Ludden, and his wife (Betty White) at a restaurant. Because Oscar’s fastidious roommate Felix Unger (Tony Randall) is a Password freak, he begs Oscar to accept the invitation, and to bring Felix along as his partner. Then, on the day of the taping, Felix overthinks every clue. When Oscar says “meat,” Felix says “Lincoln” (because “Lincoln loved mayonnaise”). When the password is “bird,” Felix gives Oscar the clue “Aristophanes” (because Aristophanes wrote The Birds). “If Charlie Chan had these clues, he’d be running a laundry,” Oscar grumbles. But the game isn’t a total disaster. When Oscar gets the password “ridiculous,” he gives Felix the clue “Aristophanes” right back, and Felix responds correctly. And though the two friends lose the game, at least Oscar remains Ludden’s favorite nonexistent sportswriter.
2. Ralph and Alice Kramden on Beat The Clock (The Jackie Gleason Show)
In 1954, The Jackie Gleason Show was preceded by the game show Beat The Clock, so it was a seamless segue between timeslots when host Bud Collyer introduced his final contestants for one evening’s episode: salt-of-the-earth bus-driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and his longsuffering wife Alice (Audrey Meadows). Ralph starts out smug, but his confidence dissipates when the game’s first task leaves him with a face full of whipped cream. As the couple begins their next task—moving lemons from one spot to another while keeping a balloon aloft—the show ends, and the Kramdens are invited to return next week. Ralph spends every waking moment of the next seven days practicing, but suffers a setback when Alice opts to help her sister with her newborn twins rather than go back on Beat The Clock to win a new TV set. Fortunately, the ever-faithful Ed Norton (Art Carney) steps in to play the wife—as it were—and though Norton accidentally pops the balloon with his hangnail at one point, the pair ultimately walks out not only with a television set, but also a pair of baby buggies for Alice’s sister.
3. Fred Sanford on The Gong Show (Sanford And Son)
After Lamont Sanford (Demond Wilson) crosses paths with Chuck Barris on the NBC lot, his crotchety junkman father Fred (Redd Foxx) winds up with four tickets to a Gong Show taping. But Fred is so appalled by a performance of “If I Didn’t Care” that he decides to audition for the show himself, dragging his brother-in-law Rodney and Lamont with him. Calling themselves “Sanford And Son And Rodney,” the trio auditions with a charmingly ramshackle version of “The Sunny Side Of The Street,” then head back to the junkyard, where they learn that they’ve made the cut. Rodney, meanwhile, decides to double his chances at winning $500 by slapping on a hairpiece and mustache and re-introducing himself to Barris as a solo act: Raymond C. Gordon. “Raymond” makes it onto the show too, but is scheduled to perform immediately after “Sanford And Son And Rodney,” leading a panicked Rodney to feign injury and drop out of the group. Fred’s buddy Bubba reluctantly fills the void, and the act does go on—they don’t even bother to change their name!—but before scatting his way through “Exactly Like You,” Fred runs over to the judges’ podium and steals their mallets, later using one to gong the competition. (Fortunately for Rodney, Fred is mallet-less when he finally discovers who “Raymond” really is.)
4. Lenny and Squiggy on The Dating Game (Laverne & Shirley)
Greaser pals Lenny and Squiggy are busy collecting bugs off windshields when Dating Game host Jim Lange selects them as contestants for his show. Lenny’s intro does him no favors: “Bachelor No. 2 is an ice-cream vendor who plays the guitar. He’s a champion shadow-boxer, and he enjoys Bosco and Squiggy.” But Squiggy’s description is practically designed to win a lady’s heart: “Bachelor No. 3 is a top Hollywood agent whose hobbies including hang-gliding, deep-sea fishing, and building a bridge to Japan. He’s very proud of his collection of beautiful women and moths.” After Lange welcomes blonde bachelorette Monique—a former-Playmate-turned-stewardess who’s studying to be a dental hygienist—a dumbstruck Lenny can only wave. Squiggy, however, delivers a pitch-perfect “Hello!” and sets to berating the competition. When asked to describe Bachelor No. 1 (Jim Staahl), he uses Tarzan’s “pet monkey Cheetos” [sic] as a frame of reference. When asked to do the same for Squiggy, Lenny reaffirms the pair’s bromance, saying, “I have heard women say that in a dark alley with all his clothes off, he looks sort of like a young Jack Lalanne.” Monique seems certain to select Bachelor No. 1, but instead, Squiggy gets the call-up—not because his perfect romantic evening begins with him slathering her with honey and ends with something that gets him bleeped by the censors, but because Monique liked the way he said “Hello!” Andrew Squigman: the original Jerry Maguire.
5. Mike, Rik, Vyvyan, and Neil on University Challenge (The Young Ones)
Whenever it was convenient to the plot, the anarchic British comedy The Young Ones acknowledged that its core quartet of motley London housemates were actually students at the none-too-prestigious Scumbag College. In the episode “Bambi,” sad-sack hippie Neil suddenly remembers that he and the lads have been selected to appear on University Challenge, and the gang sprints into action—inspired, no doubt, by the Motörhead performance of “Ace Of Spades” in the same episode—and arrives just in time to challenge the Footlights College team: Lord Monty (Hugh Laurie), Lord Snot (Stephen Fry), Miss Money-Sterling (Emma Thompson), and Kendal Mintcake (Ben Elton). Things start off poorly for Scumbag: Moderator Bambi Gascoigne hasn’t even finished the first question before Neil asks to go to the toilet, and although Lord Monty doesn’t know the right answer, a £50 bribe results in Footlights earning 10 points. But the game takes a turn in Scumbag’s favor when cool-guy con-man Mike lucks into two consecutive questions about Toxteth O’Grady, the famous American marshmallow-stuffer/sticky-bogey-producer. Then pretentious poet Rick pushes Scumbag into the lead by correctly answering the question “Who’s been tampering with my question cards?” (Spoiler alert: It was Rick.) Immediately thereafter, everyone gets crushed by a giant éclair, which is then fed to an elephant. A typical Young Ones ending.
6. Murdock on Wheel Of Fortune (The A-Team)
If you’d escaped from a maximum-security stockade and were wanted by the government, why in God’s name would you think it was a good idea to become a contestant on a high-profile game show like Wheel Of Fortune? And yet there’s Howlin’ Mad Murdock (Dwight Schultz), chatting it up with Pat Sajak and Vanna White, spinning the wheel, solving the puzzles, and taking home prizes, including a humidor and cigars, a waterbed, and a trip for two to Hawaii. Murdock is also tapped to come back for the Super Challenge Match, where he hopes to take home a new Mazda truck. When Faceman (Dirk Benedict) arrives at the V.A. hospital to spring Murdock for the umpteenth time and finds him MIA, he presumes that his A-Teammate has flaked out and gone to Hawaii alone. Not so; he’s actually been kidnapped. But he does make it back to Wheel in time, and after winning the truck, Murdock finally heads off to Hawaii… with a beautiful blonde. Sorry, Face; Murdock might be crazy, but he’s no fool.
7. Randy Marsh on Wheel Of Fortune (South Park)
It’s a proud moment for the population of South Park, Colorado, when Randy Marsh makes it not only onto Wheel Of Fortune, but into the bonus round. His family—wife Sharon, daughter Shelley, and son Stan—sit in the audience, smiling and cheering, and then host Pat Sajak (voiced by Matt Stone) reveals Randy’s category: “People who annoy you.” Between the four consonants and vowel provided and the three additional consonants and vowel Randy selects for himself, he needs only a single letter to guess the answer to the puzzle, which now reads, “N_GGERS.” The correct answer is “naggers.” Randy’s answer…? Well, let’s just say that the episode is titled “With Apologies To Jesse Jackson” and leave it at that.
8. Cliff Clavin on Jeopardy! (Cheers)
As the bar’s resident know-it-all, mailman Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger) never misses a chance to spout off arcane facts and complicated theories to anyone who’ll listen, and even to some who won’t. So when Cliff gets picked to appear on a special Boston edition of Jeopardy!, he looks forward to showing that he really does know what he’s talking about. It helps that the categories are so Cliff-friendly: “Civil Servants,” “Stamps From Around The World,” “Celibacy,” et cetera. By the end of the game, Cliff has amassed $22,000 to his competitors’ $3,300 and $750. But when the Final Jeopardy answer is “Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwarz, and Lucille LeSueur,” Cliff draws a blank, and writes, “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?” This wouldn’t be such a big blunder, except that Cliff also wagers “22,000 big ones.” When he loses, Cliff protests loudly that his question is technically correct. Alex Trebek stops by Cheers later and tells Cliff that he’s been so shaken up by Cliff’s suggestion that there are many answers to every question that he’s decided to quit his job as Jeopardy! host. So Cliff withdraws his protest, feeling better that even if he didn’t win the game, at least he “saved Jeopardy!”
9. Marge Simpson on Jeopardy! (The Simpsons)
After Bart accidentally sets fire to the Simpsons’ Christmas tree and destroys all of the family’s presents—leaving nothing but a puddle of melted plastic—he hides the evidence and convinces everyone that a burglar was responsible. The local media (read: “Kent Brockman”) picks up on the story, inspiring the townsfolk of Springfield to donate $15,000 to the Simpson family. Bart’s guilt eventually leads him to tell the truth, but not before the Simpsons spend the money on a new car, which they destroy before they even make it home from the dealership. In a futile attempt to redeem the Simpson family name, Marge decides to go on Jeopardy! to win enough money to pay everyone back, but she ends up $5,200 in the hole, and after the game, she’s greeted by a cross-looking Alex Trebek (providing his own voice), menacingly asking, “Aren’t we forgetting something, Marge?” Turns out the dirty little secret of Jeopardy! is that losers have to pay what they owe. “I asked you before the game if you knew the rules, and you said you did,” Trebek snarls. Then he snaps his fingers and calls for his “judges,” a pair of hired goons. (Hired goons?) Although the Simpsons successfully dash to safety, Goon No. 1 adjusts his tie in annoyance and extracts his own version of justice: “She ain’t getting’ the home version.”
10. Eric Matthews on Singled Out (Boy Meets World)
Eric Matthews (Will Friedle) is bored at home on a Saturday night and bemoaning the lack of hot college girls in his life when he learns that MTV’s dating-game show Singled Out is going to be filming in town. He applies to be a contestant, but in order to sound more impressive, he lies on his application and claims that, ahem, he’s currently earning a 7.0 grade-point average at the Philadelphia campus of Harvard. (He still ends up making it onto the show, which says much about MTV’s quality control.) Escorted onto the stage by chubby, diaper-wearing cherubs, Eric is quizzed about his likes and dislikes by host Chris Hardwick, whose hairdo here is as funny as anything on the Nerdist podcast. After thinning the herd of potential dates by selecting “nice” over “naughty” and “Einsteins” over “beer steins,” Eric makes a final selection—although, seriously, who picks “hot cocoa” over “hot showers?”—and ends up on a date with a Columbia student named Lisa. But it turns out that Lisa is also a pathetic townie who lied to get onto a game show. So, wait… that means they’re, like, soulmates or something, right? Apparently not: In spite of their evident compatibility, Lisa never appeared on Boy Meets World again.
11. Paul Lassiter on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Spin City)
When Paul Lassiter, press secretary to the mayor of New York City, lands in the hot seat on Who Wants To Be A Millionare?, most of his friends figure he’ll only be around long enough to say “Hi, Regis! Bye, Regis!” But after blowing through two Lifelines with his first question, Paul stumbles his way to the $500,000 level. The secret to his success? “I’m guessing!” The sight of Regis Philbin holding up the $500K check causes Paul to suffer an asthma attack, but he pushes forward, explaining, “I’ve gotten used to the money.” When the million-dollar question turns out to be about hockey, Paul doesn’t even wait to hear the possible answers, instead opting to phone Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox) for assistance. But before he can finish reading the question, Mike is called away, leaving Paul flummoxed and freaking out. Rather than taking the money and run, he decides to take a guess. In fact, he takes all the guesses, variously selecting A, B, C, and D several times each before finally going with D. “Are you confident?” asks Regis. “I’m an ulcerous wreck!” shouts Paul. “Is that what you want to hear? Are you happy?” Not as happy as Paul is a few minutes later, when he learns that he’s won a million dollars. (Fun footnote: Millionaire experienced its first actual million-dollar winner, John Carpenter, only three days after this episode aired.)
12. Joey Tribbiani on Pyramid (Friends)
The blessing and curse of Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) being a daytime television star is that he frequently gets offered amazing opportunities that he’s too dim to appreciate. When Joey takes part in “soap-opera week” on the Donny Osmond-hosted version of Pyramid, he doesn’t really understand the rules of the game. (While trying to get his partner Gene to say “blueprint,” he gives the clue “If I’m building a house, the plan isn’t called a schmoo-print.”) And even when Joey does pick up the knack, he still tends to guess wildly. (Gene: “You put this in your coffee.” Joey: “A spoon! Your hands! Your face!” Gene: “It’s white.” Joey: “Paper! Snow! A ghost!” Gene: “It’s heavier than milk.” Joey: “A rock! A dog! The Earth!”) Surprisingly, Joey gets hot in the Winner’s Circle, until the category “Supermodels” comes up and Joey answers Gene’s litany of hot ladies with “Girls Chandler could never get!” After the final buzzer sounds, Joey reminds Gene that it’s just a game, but Gene points out that Joey cost him $10,000, and that he has a kid starting college and knee surgery coming up soon. Hey Gene, don’t feel too bad. Entire networks have lost big money by banking on Joey.
13. Arthur Spooner on The $10,000 Pyramid (The King Of Queens)
Game-show geeks appreciated The King Of Queens’ wink to them when the backstory of Jerry Stiller’s character Arthur Spooner was expanded to include an appearance on The $10,000 Pyramid—a show where Stiller frequently served as a celebrity guest. Arthur stumbles on his episode while channel-surfing, at which point viewers are treated to footage of Stiller’s own 1976 appearance on Pyramid. Unfortunately, Arthur’s misty water-colored memories of the experience are supplanted by rage when he realizes he never received the year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni he was promised. Attempts to “sue the boyish grin off Dick Clark’s face” ensue, as does a trip to the former Pyramid host’s production company, where Arthur demands his original consolation prize, “plus all the extra Rice-A-Roni I would’ve accrued in interest over the last three decades!” When Clark’s assistant refuses the request, Arthur breaks out his secret weapon: a steamy photo of Dick Clark in a muddy embrace with Fannie Flagg during Battle Of The Network Stars. The end result: a garage full of everyone’s favorite San Francisco treat.
14. Rose Tyler on The Weakest Link (Doctor Who)
When time-and-space traveler Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) wakes up bathed in a spotlight on an otherwise-dark soundstage, she has no idea where she is, let alone how she got there. Helped to her feet by her new friend Rodrick (Paterson Joseph)—who gravely intones, “The android’s word is law”—Rose quickly realizes that Rodrick isn’t saying “android,” but rather, “Anne-droid,” as in the robotic version of Anne Robinson that hosts The Weakest Link in the year 200100. Although Rose has been selected as a contestant, she spends most of the first round giggling at the oddness of it all. After nominating fellow contestant Fitch as the most ripe for dismissal, however, Rose watches in horror as the Anne-droid delivers her catchphrase (“You are the weakest link, goodbye”), slides open her slit of a mouth, and unleashes a beam that reduces poor Fitch to a puff of smoke. Another contestant tries to make a run for it and promptly meets the same fate. Rose makes it to the final round, thanks mostly to Rodrick’s position that her stupidity on common 200000th-century knowledge makes her the easiest to defeat in the end. And it’s a fair cop: A few questions later, all that’s left of Rose is a pile of dust—though only because she’s been transported to another adventure, not because she’s actually been disintegrated.
15. Barney Stinson on The Price Is Right (How I Met Your Mother)
Because fashionable womanizer Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) grew up fatherless, he’s long been convinced that The Price Is Right host Bob Barker is his dad. So before Barney shows up at a Price Is Right taping, he studies retail prices and wheel-control, hoping to impress his father. During the game, Barney practically begs Barker to say he’s proud of him, as he rolls through the Clock Game, the Showcase Showdown, and the Showcase, getting every dollar value exactly right. (And this was years before a controversial exact bid on a Price Is Right showcase.) But during the post-Showcase handshake-and-back-clap, Barney pulls up just shy of telling Barker about their alleged genetic connection. Instead, he congratulates the retiring host on his 35-year run, and returns to New York to donate his stack of prizes to his soon-to-be-wed pals Marshall and Lily.
16. The Griffins on Family Feud (Family Guy)
Given the density of the pop-culture references in the flagship show of Seth MacFarlane’s animated empire, it should be no surprise that Peter Griffin has been a contestant on several game shows, including The Price Is Right, Wheel Of Fortune, and Jeopardy! When Family Feud comes to Quahog, however, it’s a chance for the entire Griffin family to win cash and prizes. The Griffins barely survive the audition process because the producers are looking for a family with three sons. (Meg’s attempts to correct their presumptions about her gender earn her an elbow in the ribs from Peter, who hisses, “Shut up, Greg!”) Then when they do make the show, Peter stuns his entire family when he responds to “something you’d like to receive as a gift” with “The flute that Captain Picard played, first in his imagination and then in real life, in the episode ‘The Inner Light,’ from Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Lois slugs him for betraying the family—she wanted him to say “groceries,” while Chris wanted “assorted lotions,” Meg wanted “money,” Stewie wanted “an Uzi,” and Brian wanted “a dead squirrel”—but Peter’s answer is actually on the board. (“I was in the survey,” he explains.) Moving on to the bonus round, Lois takes the family to 199 points, but even though Peter only needs a single point to secure victory, he not only fails to do so, but also angers host Richard Dawson to the point where he’s hurled headlong into his family’s podium. Which is about the best that could be expected, really.