Deconstructing the Game Show

Craig Ferguson has won his own game show in becoming a celebrity, and he's parlayed his winnings into being the host of The Celebrity Name Game with a chance to challenge the institution that turns so many everyday people into predictable, cookie-cutter contestants.

I had an opportunity to talk with Craig Ferguson, the soon to retire host of CBS’ Late Late Show. Before Ferguson leaves his post, he will take up what may be new permanent spot, as host of the syndicated game show, The Celebrity Name Game, premiering Monday, 22 September.

Ferguson famously worked during his nearly decade-long reign behind the Late Late Show desk to deconstruct the talk show formula. He started the deconstruction with many format mainstays: foregoing a sidekick and a band. Eventually MythBusters‘ Grant Imahara built Ferguson a robotic sidekick. The rather stationary-for-a-robot (let alone sidekick) became known as Geoff Peterson, easily identified by his nametag from The Price is Right, which films in the same building. The robot is openly gay.

Joining the robot was a heavily lipsticked and eyelashed horse, that is, two people in a horse costume. The horse, of course, is named Secretariat, and he became the answer to the regularly asked question, “Who’s at the door?” Secretariat would swing in from off stage to dance with Ferguson, assorted guests, and occasionally, audience members. In addition to these regular sidekicks, Ferguson recently added an invisible band, apparently located behind a stage curtain.

Ferguson made fun of everything, from telling a joke to adjusting his tie. If people have come to expect a certain formula for a talk show, Ferguson has made it a point to mess with expectations. So what is the brash Scottish American to do with a game show that only runs 30 minutes?

The Set-up

As Ferguson shared during a conference call, he has been very purposeful in co-creating the new experience with producers Courtney Cox and David Arquette, whom he describes as powerful people in the industry who will “hurt you if you cross them.” Together, they did something that no game show team has done before: they created a game that is so simple it requires very little explanation.

Here are the basics of The Celebrity Name Game: Celebrities provide clues to contestants who then must name another celebrity who is suggested by the clue. In the last round, Ferguson gives the clues to alternating teams. That’s it. This loosening of the format permits Ferguson and his guests to banter more openly and more often than in a standard show.

But the deconstruction doesn’t stop there. Ferguson shared, seemingly to his dismay, that people on set watch game shows in order to spot cheating and so, with this show, he must work within certain lines, and can’t just cover over mistakes with an Italian flag, a French flag or the International gay flag (his go-to swear gag on The Late Late Show).

But that doesn’t stop him from inching up to the line and throwing his body on it. In one episode, he recalled, he found a contestant who was clearly just not getting anything, so he provided the answer rather than giving a clue. “Anna Paquin” he shouted. Dumbfounded, the contestant said she still didn’t know. So he said “Anna Paquin” again. This time the contestant got the joke and the clue and mimicked it back. Later he made up a bad rhyme as a clue. The now “enlightened” player parroted back the rhyme rather than the not very well hidden celebrity’s name under his mumble.

Aside from Ferguson’s dealings with unpredictable contestants, The Celebrity Name Game‘s most vivid difference from more familiar game shows will be the celebrities who make faces and sounds that betray their real feelings about the behind-the-scenes love fest that is Hollywood.

The Existential Threat

Ferguson reported that he had already shot around 100 episodes at the time of the show’s launch conference call. He also shared, sounding a bit like an incumbent politician, that his work wasn’t done yet, that he will need a second season to get in stride.

There is much, of course, that needs to be undone about the game show, which many people view the junk food of television: it’s always available, it’s predictable, we don’t have to think too much while watching it. The question is, will anyone watch an eclectic bon vivant meticulously demolish this beloved format? Can Ferguson, who won a Peabody for his Desmond Tutu interview, find an audience who isn’t stoned and, when the microwave goes off, has something other than popcorn to eat for dinner?

I, like Ferguson, hope he’s awarded a second season to explore the recesses of format or disclose something we don’t already know about a guest, to toss out the structure altogether, as he did with Tutu, and turn the show into something completely unexpected. Perhaps he can recover something like the wackiness of early Letterman, as contestants must launch themselves at clues from a trampoline or knock a meatball off a Christmas tree before play can begin. Maybe The Celebrity Name Game can leave the studio in search of answers to the clues. Maybe Ferguson can hire a Kardashian as his Vanna White. There are so many possibilities.

The Bigger Picture

In thinking too much about what will likely be a footnote to the game show page on Wikipedia, I’ve concluded that the very idea of deconstructing the game show is worthy of thoughtful analysis. To start, at some fundamental level, game shows serve a deep need for competition — at a level that feels immediate. When consuming sports, we can align with a team and scream and gesture, hug and cry, but most of us can’t be the athletes we watch. But a game show is us. It’s the stay-at-home parent and the twins, the school principal and the firefighter, the NSA analyst and the bank teller, it’s the unemployed construction worker and skateboard artist. Anyone can go on a game show and try to win something.

The movie Quiz Show reminded us that this “anyone” can be easily manipulated, and Slum Dog Millionaire celebrated the outsider, someone from “the edge,” who triumphs over official expectations. Ferguson shows that both can be true. He’s won his own game show in becoming a celebrity, and he’s parlayed his winnings into being the host of The Celebrity Name Game with a chance to challenge the institution that turns so many everyday people into predictable, cookie-cutter contestants.

The new show permits Ferguson not only to find the comedy in the format, but also to raise questions about people’s interactions that game shows tend not to ask. The best deconstructions remove the rust and the artifice, exposing something real or visceral. It’s as if he’s a new guy in town, setting up shop and doing things a bit differently, illustrating to long time residents that the world has passed them by. At first, they might push back, and he might back off, biding his time to gain their trust. Next thing you know, the mayor owns an iPad. All the while, a camera in the shop’s back room reveals the proprietor thinking aloud to himself, his plans to toss out conventions and assumptions. Eventually, he wins over his neighbors with his newfangled ways.

Hopefully Ferguson’s game show will discard a convention here, jettison a tradition there, and occasionally undermine a ritual. We’ll watch everyday people and everyday celebrities find in the off-kilterness a means to break down the barrier of celebrity, for at least 30 minutes. Ferguson might be our Willie Wonka-like guide through an alternative universe, one we can all visit if we take the time to make the casting call. Who says game shows don’t have a plot?

If we choose not to visit, but to stay home and watch, perhaps we will just sit down with our meatloaf, a fork with a slightly bent tine and a dog begging for a taste, just like the contestants will the day after the show records. And if we are lucky, Ferguson will imbue the game with a sense of wonder that leaves us with a different perspective, at least for a moment.