(Ed. Note: This is the second part of a three-part Top 5 series on game shows. Last week, I covered the Top 5 game show themes, and next week, I’ll talk about the Top 5 most important game shows of all time.)
A game show’s success is, in my view, based on three main criteria: (1) the skill in creating the format for the show; (2) excellent contestants; and (3) a game show host that ties everything together. While they aren’t the most important part of the show, game show hosts become the show’s public face and leave their mark on culture in conjunction with the show. (Maybe that’s why I wanted to be a game show host as a kid.) Here are, in my view, the Top 5 most important (American) hosts of all time:
5. Bob Barker (active 1956-2007; best known for Truth or Consequences and The Price is Right)
Let’s be honest here: even though Bob Barker hosted Truth or Consequences for almost 20 years, no one remembers him for that. They remember him for The Price is Right. They remember him for being the dapper, distinguished old man who hosted the show gracefully for 35 years before handing over the reins to Drew Carey. They remember him for “helping to control the pet population” and refusing to have animal-based products on the show (hence a lot of cream of mushroom soup in the Bag Game). They remember him for both letting his hair go gray and still looking like he could kick some rear (as he did in Happy Gilmore). And they’ll probably continue to remember him for generations for these things, due to his supreme longevity.
4. Wink Martindale (active 1972-1998, 2010; best known for Gambit and Tic-Tac-Dough)
I don’t know if a lot of people of my generation know who Wink Martindale is, but the man just looks like a game show host. I mean, just look at him!
And that’s him in 2010, when he was called out of retirement to host the GSN show Instant Recall, his 15th show hosted (behind only Bill Cullen at 23 for the record). Wink Martindale isn’t just a quality game show host; he sets the archetype.
3. Alex Trebek (active 1974-present; best known for Jeopardy!)
Sure, Art Fleming was the original Jeopardy! host, but Trebek’s done it longer – 26 years (and counting!) to Fleming’s 12 – and in prime time. While Trebek always seems to interject himself more in the game than most hosts (good God, if I have to hear him speak French one more time, I’ll something something), he’s been a class act and let the contestants do the work.
2. Dick Clark (active 1973-1988, 1993, 2000; best known for Pyramid)
Aside from Scattergories and that terribly-received American adaptation of Winning Lines in 2000 (probably the result of being rushed into production to compete with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire), he was host of all incarnations of Pyramid (from $10,000 to $100,000) until the 1991 John Davidson-hosted version (while I enjoyed it, let’s just pretend the 2002-2004 Donny Osmond-hosted Pyramid didn’t happen). And damn, was he good at it. If a contestant couldn’t get a Winner’s Circle question after time expired, he would run through some clues he thought up. While some hosts could play the games they hosted adequately, Dick Clark could probably play to win.
But the #1 most important game show host of all time is…
1. Regis Philbin (active 1999-2004, 2008-2009; best known for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire)
While he also hosted the semi-popular Million Dollar Password (the man likes to say “one million dollars!” as much as he likes to say “TD Bank”, it seems) and two short-lived game shows in the ’70s, Regis will forever be known as the host of Millionaire. The game show that raised the stakes by orders of magnitude needed a strong, capable host, and who better than the man who’s logged the most hours in front of a television camera in history? In only 42 episodes, he brought the phrase “Is that your final answer?” into the American lexicon and helped usher in a new era of trivia lovers. I feel like choosing between Philbin and Trebek at this point is like choosing between Kirk and Picard (Picard, BTW), but in this battle, Regis wins out.