Heartwarming holiday-themed sitcom episodes and reruns of classic Christmas cartoons are TV’s way of insinuating itself into our December traditions. These broadcasts are meant to mingle with sparkling lights and tinsel as we reminisce in later years. But not all Christmas TV creates lasting memories. The culture largely forgot the December 25, 1987 episode of Hollywood Squares as soon as the credits rolled, because unlike its self-important primetime brethren, this daytime celebrity game show was intended to fill a time slot and then vanish.
Thanks to one obsessive fan with a VCR, it was preserved despite itself. (The full episode is above; there are clips throughout the article.) Twenty-seven years later, the recording has ripened into a trove of ’80s pop culture curiosities, as if every square in the game’s giant tic-tac-toe board offers a stocking stuffer made of failure.
Take Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, who occupied the lower-left square for this taping. When one of the kiddie contestants calls his name, dutiful host John Davidson pulls out a copy of Coleman’s new album. “It’s called The Outlaw And The Indian,” Davidson says, “and on this record, there’s love songs sung by the Outlaw—uh, by the Indian, and you’re the Outlaw, and you do rap against the beautiful songs, and it’s a very interesting album.” (If only there had been a reissue of The Outlaw And The Indian, they could have included this quote on the dust jacket.) Davidson isn’t on camera when he jokes that the record is “very thin,” so it sounds like the emcee is offering his review.
The album’s title song—maybe its only song—features Coleman in a duet with his friend Dion Mial. That would be the aforementioned Indian. (Mial also dabbled as a Michael Jackson impersonator; his mother would later claim that the Outlaw album failed because Jackson personally sabotaged it.) Around the time of the Squares taping, Coleman and Mial promoted the record on a syndicated talk show, a cultural happening seen directly above. First, the host introduces the duo with a “nerdy white guy raps!” routine that makes a compelling case for reparations. Then comes the performance. Coleman is the slacks-wearing-est gun in town, and Mial is a pair of jeans wearing the top half of a bobblehead doll. “Look at my jacked-up ride / Ain’t got no place to go inside,” Coleman sings. It rhymes.
In a post-song interview, Coleman references his countless regrets, lies about his mishandled finances, observes that he’s “not a very responsible person,” and shares his dream of becoming a short story writer. The audience laughs, on account of he is short.
Camp icon Paul Lynde was the center square during The Hollywood Squares’ original 15-year run. In the Davidson era, Joan Rivers took his place. Only a few months before this episode was taped, Rivers had been fired from her late-night show, and her husband had committed suicide. A couple years before that, she was arguably the heir apparent to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show desk. Center square was not where Joan Rivers had imagined herself.
Yet here she is, outwardly delighted to make room in her minuscule stomping grounds for John Davidson Jr., the emcee’s idiot son. The recurring guests on Davidson’s Squares sometimes couldn’t hide their desire to be elsewhere, but Rivers was always engaged. She was cast for her wit, but she also brought grace to the proceedings.
Take the question in the clip above, which is even easier than normal because the game is being played with children this week. (The kids are ostensibly a nod to the season; in truth they may have been a crafty excuse to use cheap prizes for a low-rated week of shows whose holiday trappings made them unsuitable for reruns.) Davidson asks, what is “an opening through which hot gases and rock fragments burst forth”? Rivers lets John Jr. deliver the pre-written gag answer—“Congress”—even though he has the comic timing of a dirt mound. Then she goes along with John Jr.’s answer, “meteor shower,” which doesn’t even make sense. It’s a sweet gesture.
Joan Rivers died this year. When I heard the news, my first thought wasn’t her stand-up or talk shows. It was Hollywood Squares. At a low point in her career, when she had every excuse to be miserable, she brought intelligence and cheer to the center square. Instead of acting like she was better than Squares, she made Squares better.
Joan Embery is a talk-show animal wrangler, and she has a lemur, because talk-show animal wranglers always have a lemur. Embery explains that a lemur is a primate. “From some angles, he looks like a skunk,” Davidson remarks. “No, actually a primate,” Embery says. Before the host can cut her off again, she squeezes in one more astonishing fact: “They eat fruit.”
Stumbling over the back-and-forth with Davidson, Embery might have yearned for the rapport she enjoyed with Johnny Carson. Unlike the other Joan on the panel, she remained in good standing with the Tonight Show host, and Carson kept inviting her back until he retired. Embery is known best for moments like a visit with a cuddly koala or the time her marmoset pissed on Carson’s head. Yet the animal advocate also shined with less spectacular beasts like the two ferrets in the clip above. Embery has Carson stick one ferret into a Plexiglas cylinder and then blocks the end so we can watch the little guy twist around in there. The premise of the segment is “let’s screw with these ferrets and see what happens,” but because Embery peppers her speech with educational tidbits, it all comes off as quite proper and scientific. Embery’s genius lay in her ability to mess with animals’ heads on TV and make it seem okay.
Rivers isn’t the only one in close quarters. Because this week’s harvest of boldface names is too bountiful for Hollywood Squares’ usual one-star-per-square setup, many of the celebrities share a bunk, including Who’s The Boss? co-stars Danny Pintauro and Alyssa Milano. Pintauro takes a math question that showcases the clumsy staging that often marred this show. Eager to set their Squares apart from the long-running original, the producers of the Davidson version garnished the game with variety elements (Davidson frequently burst into song for musical questions) and dubious technical wizardry (like a “helmet cam” once donned by regular panelist Jm J. Bullock).
This question falls into the latter category of enhancements. The blue backdrop behind Davidson gives way to a disembodied hand that scrawls a grade-school division problem on the screen. Davidson starts to explain the effect but gives up, mumbling, “Something new on the Hollywood Squares,” because the truth is he has no idea what is happening above his head. All he knows is it’s distracting the audience from his hair. The contestant is confused, too, so he asks the host to skip the TV magic and just read the damn question already. (The question: What’s the dividend in the equation 24 ÷ 6 = 4?) Pintauro, meanwhile, only gets to speak two words, which is the real problem with this whole mess given that the show is ostensibly about the stars. Still, Pintauro utters his answer—“The six?”—as adorably as any person could, the mark of a talented child actor. He is, however, wrong.
Growing Pains’ Tracey Gold is the center of celebrity gravity in the east square, where she’s flanked by less famous siblings Brandy and Missy. (The whole second tier is a housing crisis.) Davidson observes the pecking order: “Notice how Tracey usually does the talking,” he says as the sisters confer over a question about genetics. On cue, Tracey reacts with a giggle, sweetening it with a squeak. This is why she is the alpha starlet in the Gold household. Like Danny Pintauro, she’s ruthlessly darling.
Gold is best known for Growing Pains, but her resume is filled out with dozens of TV movies. Less than a year after this visit to Squares, Gold would appear in the made-for-TV prom movie Dance ’Til Dawn. This film is remarkable for the sheer quantity of ’80s and ’90s sitcom actors in its ensemble. Aside from Gold, the cast includes Kelsey Grammer, Matthew Perry, Christina Applegate, Gold’s Growing Pains costar Alan Thicke, The Cosby Show’s Tempestt Bledsoe, and ubiquitous character actor Edie McClurg.
In Dance, Gold plays an unpopular nerd, as you can see: She is wearing glasses that make her appear hideous and disfigured.
Later in the film, she removes her spectacles to make herself suitable for viewing on television. She is now pretty, but there are downsides. Without corrective lenses, she is less able to appreciate the majesty of her prom date’s mullet.
But at least she can gaze directly into his robot-lizard eyes.
Two acting careers summed up in one shot. McClurg and Grammer play Gold’s concerned parents. At first, Grammer comes off as a fuddy-duddy pharmacist protecting his daughter from an oversexed teen cyborg. Then Grammer, dragging McClurg with him, surreptitiously trails Gold and her mullet to a restaurant, to the prom, and to a prom afterparty. When Gold’s date takes her upstairs, Grammer finds a ladder so he can climb up and look in the window. It becomes clear that Grammer really just wants to watch Gold hook up with the dude. There’s no other rational explanation for his actions. Grammer’s window-peeping antics are thwarted when police show up and arrest him. This is supposed to be comic relief, but it’s just relief. If you’ve ever wanted to see Kelsey Grammer play an incestuous pedophile druggist, watch the entire movie on YouTube.
Christina Applegate wears this dress. That is the only other significant thing that takes place in Dance ’Til Dawn.
That’s not a typo. For a stretch in the late ’80s, including his Squares run, there was no “I” in Jm J. Bullock. Although Joan Rivers occupied Paul Lynde’s traditional spot on the board, Bullock filled Lynde’s role as the flamboyant panelist who’s gay and not allowed to say it. But while Lynde got laughs by raising an eyebrow for his suggestive one-liners, the more spastic Bullock amused himself by lampooning the artifice of Squares. It’s like he was intent on making his closeted persona one bit of fakery among many.
Throughout this pre-taped episode, Davidson maintains the facade that the game is taking place on Christmas Day. He even asks the kids if they got what they wanted for Christmas, to which both of them—visibly uncomfortable with the obligation to lie—mutter in the affirmative. Bullock, after being made to sing “Jingle Bell Rock” for no apparent reason, ignites in mockery of this needless bullshit. “I can’t wait to get home and open my presents!” he cries. “I hate working on Christmas Day!” He milks the crowd for laughs as a flustered Davidson tries to plow ahead with the question.
At other points in the half hour, Bullock mocks the cheap payouts that the kids receive and laughs sarcastically at the lame jokes that other stars read off their briefing sheets. Nobody on the panel or at the hosting podium entirely gets his shtick.
In 1996, Bullock would briefly work with a more suitably lunatic partner, ex-televangelist Tammy Faye Messner, on a syndicated talk series. Messner was diagnosed with cancer shortly after The Jim J. And Tammy Faye Show premiered, though, and Bullock was left to play out the string with a replacement co-host. Like Lynde, Bullock struggled to find a place where he could be a star and be himself at the same time. On Squares, he came the closest: himself, with no “I.”
Joe Alaskey goes the entire episode without being chosen, so in essence, he spends a half hour watching kids play tic-tac-toe while seated in a structure that surely violated multiple fire codes. His only significant moment of screen time comes during the opening introductions, when Shadoe Stevens announces that Alaskey hails “from Out Of This World.”
This syndicated sitcom exists in the same fuzzy region of popular memory as Davidson’s Squares itself, but you might recall Out Of This World as that show with the half-alien girl, Evie, who had superpowers. Like its spiritual cousin Small Wonder, the supergirl premise was merely a way to free the show’s writers from the bothersome constraints of coherence and plausibility. (A TV.com synopsis of one episode reads, “A crystal egg Troy left causes havoc when it is found out that it is a truth device.”)
Alaskey played Evie’s uncle Beano on World, and as you might have surmised from the name, Beano was the go-to guy for broad comedy. In the episode “Beano The Kid,” for instance—seen above in an inspired YouTube presentation—Evie alien-magically makes Beano think he’s a child and then can’t turn him back to normal. She asks for help from her alien dad, played by Burt Reynolds, who lives elsewhere in the solar system and can only communicate via a glowing plastic cube. Reynolds never appeared on-screen or interacted with the rest of the Out Of This World cast, an arrangement that allowed the producers to market Reynolds’ star power while respecting his wish to be an entitled asshole.
Alaskey’s big moment with Reynolds in “Beano The Kid” comes when Alaskey flings mashed potatoes at Reynold’s interplanetary squawk box. That’s right. He has a food fight with a prop. The irony is that Alaskey is an accomplished voice actor, so it probably should have been him in the box. Fortunately, we instead get to hear Reynolds rattle off zingers like “Don’t let him ride the little horse outside the Kmart” in between gulps of diet cola.
8. Mitch Gaylord introduces the world to the members of Anthrax, who complain about their Japanese fans
When Mitch Gaylord’s name is called, Davidson plugs Gaylord’s Fan Club as a “syndicated celebrity show.” Hollywood Squares viewers, no doubt, rushed to check their local listings. Those who tuned in to Fan Club would discover a cheaply made program that produced glorified promo reels under the guise of entertainment journalism. Holding it all together is Gaylord, a former Olympic gymnast who looks like he just wandered into the studio and was told to start talking. It’s like Extra if it were hosted by someone who is terrified of cameras. (The strangest thing is that Gaylord looks much more comfortable on Squares than he does on his own show.)
At the beginning of a segment about the “speed metal” band Anthrax, Gaylord’s eyes twitch and squint as he undertakes the painful process of converting the teleprompter symbols to mouth noises. “It’s like taking heavy metal and putting it into hyperdrive”: These are some words that Gaylord pushes out of his face. Then Anthrax shows up to tell the story of the time in Japan where they invited a few fans to come up on stage, and nobody did, and then a lot of people did. It’s a striking metaphor for America’s contemporary fears of aggressive expansion by Japanese corporations. Either that, or it’s a boring band story.
To set up a piece on football player Brian Bosworth, Fan Club plays a video postcard from a man with one eyebrow. The man asks whether Bosworth is a murderer. This citizen journalist was the rightful host of Fan Club.
A few months into the late-’80s Squares, blond announcer Shadoe Stevens took up residence in the bottom middle square, probably because a producer realized that sticking him down there meant one less C-lister to book for each taping. When a contestant calls on Stevens, Davidson asks him a question about photosynthesis. The “best voice in television” does his best impression of a scientist, which for him means shuffling the words “water,” “light,” and “moisture” at random for 15 seconds or so. This was generally Stevens’ approach to ad-libbing on the show: He’d just keep talking, confident that his grin, his hair, and his baritone would carry him through.
This tactic had always served Shadoe well before. In the ’80s, he built a strange career out of his blithe surfer-dude demeanor in a series of commercials for the Federated electronics store chain. Stevens played Fred R. Rated, a character that took many forms—a doctor, an explorer, a sportsman, whatever the gag demanded—but mostly relied on one performance style: smirking, bug-eyed chatter.
This technique reaches its apotheosis in one spot, seen early in the compilation reel above, that has Stevens playing all five members of the Federated board. Aside from the wigs, the cigar-chomping bigwigs are barely distinct from each other, and it’s nearly impossible to hear what they’re saying. Yet this and the rest of the Fred Rated ads are faintly mesmerizing because Stevens sells hard while appearing to put in no real effort, like the anti-Mitch Gaylord. He’s a slick huckster and a beach bum at once; the contradiction creates an ineffable humor.
The reel above was either created by Stevens himself or by one of his people. You can tell by the lavish prose in the YouTube description. “In the 1980’s, Shadoe Stevens was retained to devise an advertising strategy and branding campaign for a 14 store electronics chain known as the Federated Group,” it reads in part. Shadoe Stevens is not merely hired, you see. He is retained. “He created and played a character named Fred Rated,” the multi-paragraph blurb continues, “in a series of commercials that were a mix of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python.” Are the Fred Rated spots more like the most famous sketch show of all time, or are they more like the other most famous sketch show of all time? Unable to decide, Stevens settled on both.
The YouTube self-promotion is charming because it tells us that Stevens wants to be remembered for a bunch of regional commercials, an art form even more ephemeral than daytime game shows. A ditzy hunk hawking color TVs, a child actor gazing upon airborne algebra, a washed-up late-night host pretending not to know what a volcano is: These moments were designed to be forgotten, which is what makes them fascinating to remember.