Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I am Canadian, I am game-show host

My Definition of being Canadian.

Canadians make awesome game-show hosts.

Look no further than Winnipeg's own Monty Hall, who has a Winnipeg street named after him for doing nothing more than hosting TV's Let's Make a Deal for 20-some years, making backroom deals with creepy contestants dressed as produce.

And what about Sudbury's Alex Trebek? Here's a guy who has the nerve to pronounce Nicaragua the way Spanish people do (but not Japan the way Japanese people do!), and who reacts to contestants' wrong answers with mild disgust, even though - we must not forget - he has the answers right there in front of him.

Brush with greatness

I once met Alex Trebek in a Boston shopping mall and couldn't contain my enthusiasm. "I'm from Canada!" I shrieked at him. "Oh, yeah," he responded, containing his enthusiasm with no trouble whatsoever.

His dry demeanor didn't stop me from asking him for an autograph.

"Who is Kenton?" he wrote on a scrap piece of paper, as I'm sure he's done for every other living Canadian at one point or another. (By the way, if you're reading this post, ex-girlfriend, can I have my Alex Trebek autograph back?)

Alex pretty much had to fork over the autograph; as Canadians, he and I had a bond. He knew that, as a guy of a certain age, I was likely familiar with his complete oeuvre, including his embarrassing stints on Stars on Ice and, even more shamefully, Reach For the Top and Pitfall:

I've seen a grand prize, and that's no grand prize

It makes sense that Canadians make great game show hosts. We're the international peace keepers, after all, whether it's our military helping out war-torn Bosnia or Monty Hall holding back a deranged man dressed as a wedge of cheddar from the '77 Chevy Nova "behind door number three."

And it would have been a '77 Chevy Nova, because the prizes and production values on the classic Canadian game shows were surprisingly bad, even by the standards at the time.

When I was in high school, it was customary to go home for lunch, watch the grand-prize winner on the Price is Right take home a Jeep, boat, and three vacations, then flip to Definition where the the grand-prize winner would be lucky to take home a pair of Hanes pantyhose and a $10 gift certificate to Loblaws.

Hosted by Jim Perry, a transplanted American whose hair color changed with shocking regularity, Definition has had surprising traction in Canadian pop culture, its theme song showing up sampled in the Dream Warriors "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" and in Mike Meyers' theme to Austin Powers.

Canadian writer Douglas Coupland pays tribute to our shitty game shows and prizes in his book, Souvenir of Canada. He writes:
"A powerful memory of growing up for Canadians born before a certain year - say 1970 - is of our legacy of bad, bad game shows. Bad lighting, bad taped-to-video appearance, bad sound... the grand prize on these shows was often luggage or a radio - items that were consolation prizes on American game shows.

"Even though they were bad, their badness generated an emotion, and the emotion became a form of cultural glue."
Where's the show?

And what to make of Headline Hunters, This is the Law, and Front Page Challenge? All were popular Canadian game shows where there may have been a "game," but there was precious little "show": contestants just sat their ass down on a bench and boringly guessed headlines, breaches of the law, and the names of hidden guests, respectively.

And Canadians actually watched! According to Mondo Canuck, over 1.5 million Canadians tuned in to Headline Hunters every week in the 70s - the third most-watched TV show in the country, after Stars on Ice and The Bobby Vinton Show. Yes!

So popular were game shows in Canada that after the great U.S. game show scandal of the 50s (as chronicled in the Robert Redford film, Quiz Show), the shamed producers took refuge here, where they created game shows The Little People and Photo Finish to an adoring audience, scandal be damned.

It must have been odd for them, having been caught fixing big, American game shows with $64,000 questions to overseeing the bargain-basement Photo Finish.

According to
"In (Photo Finish), a picture was covered by pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and contestants would answer questions in order to have jigsaw pieces removed from the picture. The goal was to identify the event or person depicted in the picture."
The grand prize up for grabs: $256.

Take it away, Monty!


  1. I am aghast at your erroneous assertion that "This is the Law" was boring. A formative show in my youth (we only had one channel) I found Paul Soles to be compelling! Not only that, but as the voice behind such epic cartoons as Rocket Robin Hood and Spiderman, his participation on the show left wee lads such as myself in Labrador feeling as if we were in the presence of greatness!

    Not to mention the early shows that had sexy Dini Petty as a panelist that left a prebuscent male with a sense of ... err longing(?) they could not quite put their finger on at the time.

    Shame on you sir for denigrating this great Canadian institution! Shame I say!

    [Unfortunately, I must admit that I may not have learned as much from the show as could be hoped...years later when I was being incarcerated, I was left to wonder if perhaps I should not have been paying greater attention to the "Law" aspect of the show rather than to the fine humour in the skits. But that's a different story.]

  2. Err... my bad, in my haste to laud Mr. Soles work on Spiderman - I also erroneously (and cartoonishly) included Rocket Robin Hood... I had meant to cite "Take 30" instead.

    So sorry.


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