I consider myself wildly fortunate to have emigrated to America in time to catch the tail end (and death throes) of one of the most endearingly retarded shows ever to illuminate a TV screen. I’m talking about the ’74-’79 golden era of Match Game .
Hosted by Gene Rayburn, a 70′s geezer with a suspiciously lush hairdo and a hauntingly long, thin microphone, Match Game was a very accessible show because it was very silly and required no intelligence.
The premise, for the uninitiated, was as follows: Two contestants compete to fill in the blanks on a series of totally banal questions, e.g., “My wife must be the world’s worst cook … she even burns ______.” The contestants scored one point for every “match” made with the celeb panel, all of whom were simultaneously filling in the same doltishly unchallenging blanks.
The staggeringly pointless show was really a vehicle for the sparkling, bawdy repartee that crackled between flamboyant, nelly gay icon Charles Nelson Reilly and gravelly-voiced Brett Somers, an actress perhaps best known for her turn on The Odd Couple as the caustic ex-wife of slob Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman)-a role she would go on to reprise in real life with Mr. Klugman.
I recently caught up with Ms. Somers, now a spry 79, at Danny’s Skylight Room on 46th Street, where her goofy and charming one-woman show is deservedly playing to packed houses. The show is a blast, in a Match Game– y amateurish sort of way. With much prompting from her long-suffering musical director, Mark Cherry, a black-beaded, chiffon-pantsuited Ms. Somers lurches through 15 mercifully abridged show tunes and assorted ditties, e.g., “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You!”, sung to Mr. Klugman to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” Her random anecdotes about the likes of Ethel Merman and Marlon Brando and her personal disclosures (post-Klugman, Brett took up with a hunky 28-year-old when she was “somewhere between 40 and death”) make for a highly diverting 55 minutes.
While Brett, now based in Westport, Conn., scarfed down a horrifyingly butter-drenched post-show supper of grilled mushrooms stuffed with crab meat ( bletch! ), I grilled her with 10 questions delivered in the style of Match Game .
My first Match question naturally concerned her foulard-wearing co-panelist, TV’s unabashed poofter-king, Mr. Reilly:
Question 1: Working with Charles Nelson Reilly was a _____ because he was such a screaming _____.
“Oh! Please don’t make me say it!” replied the ebullient Ms. Somers of her longtime friend, fellow attention-junkie and oversized eye-wear devotee, while slicing an ersatz-looking mushroom. “I adoooore him! We had sooo much fun,” she growled in a voice not dissimilar to that of her former husband.
(F.Y.I.: Mr. Reilly, in his own recent one-woman show, recalled the 70′s as a super-busy period when, after having spent the previous decade trying to break into the business, he spent much of his time “trying to find the person I had to fuck in order to get off TV.”)
Question 2: Gene Rayburn’s 12-inch mike was a _____ symbol which compensated for his _____.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that to my dear, dead Gene!” honked Ms. Somers in mock-theatrical horror. By now it was clear to me that a fierce loyalty had accrued during those fortnightly Match Game taping sessions. According to Brett, 10 Match Game shows were recorded every other weekend. “We would do three shows on Saturday afternoon-all in front of a live audience-break for dinner and cocktails, and then do two more,” she said. “Same on Sunday, and then we were done for two weeks. It was the best job I ever had.” And that coming from a woman whose résumé is chock-full of guest appearances on Perry Mason , Ben Casey , The Fugitive , Love Boat , Battlestar Galactica , C.H.I.P.S. and Love, American Style .
Question 3: Joyce Bulifant was a _____.
“Dumb blonde!” shrieked Brett, now a platinum blonde herself, of the occasional Match Game guest who played Murray’s wife on the Mary Tyler Moore show.
Before we hit question No. 4, Ms. Somers unfastened her black velvet and rhinestone choker and, dangling it provocatively in front of me, broadcasted its provenance. “Westport! Tag sale! The top’s from Filene’s, and the chiffon pants I found at the back of my closet. Next!”
Question 4: Everyone on Match Game was having a blast because they were totally _____.
“We weren’t snockered, we were just crazy!” replied Brett unconvincingly while quaffing Danny’s house red, only to contradict herself on question No. 5.
Question 5: Brett Somers’ favorite on-air drink was _____.
“O.K., it was vodka and soda,” she confessed. “I had to give up martinis-I enjoyed them too much.”
Question 6: Brett Somers earned _____ for each episode and her residual checks equal ____.
“Nothing! Zippo!” said Ms. Somers with a surprising lack of bitterness, adding, “Once in a while, I get a check for $300 if another network runs a clip. I can’t remember what I got per episode back in the 70′s, but I was making about $100,000 per year, which was pretty good for who I wasn’t.”
Question 7: _____ and _____ were doing it.
“Say ‘Charles Nelson Reilly’ and ‘Gene Rayburn’! Yeah! Go ahead, put that in your column! Ha!” cackled the naughty grandmother. (During the show, Ms. Somers was never far from a framed picture of her beloved granddaughter. She sang to it, kissed it and fondled it in a manner that was endearing, but also a bit mental.)
Question 8: Brett nearly quit Match Game when _____.
” Oooooooh ! No, never,” she said. “We had so much freedom. There was nothing to complain about. I saw an old show recently where I was doing push-ups, fer chrissakes!” (Very proto–Jack Palance.) The energetic Ms. Somers gives every impression that she could easily knock off a triathlon; during the course of our interview, she confided that she is ready to move back to New York from the ‘burbs, “to be where the action is.”
Question 9: Brett always wore _____ and never wore _____ when she went on camera.
“Back then, we wore our own clothes,” Ms. Somers said. “There were no stylists. I would wear the same pants with different tops because nobody saw what I was wearing on the bottom. Tops! Tops! Tops! And yes, I wore wigs! So don’t ask me! And Betty White was nude!”
Question 10: Brett’s current fave TV show is _____.
” Seinfeld. I’ve never seen Sex in the City , and I hate that new Larry David show. Now what the hell is it called?”
Brett’s season at Danny’s Skylight Room has been extended to include the following dates: July 26, Aug. 1 and 8. If you miss it, then you’re a _____ing idiot! Call 212-265-8133 today.
Re TV: If you missed the golden age of Match Game , you can catch it on the Game Show Network weekdays at 6:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.; Saturdays at 12:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.