Behold the power of cheese. Or How to Get From the Jerry Lewis Telethon to Next Sunday's Certain "Sopranos" Sweep at the Emmys Without Getting the Bends:
Consider "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." I didn't lay eyes on ABC's prime-time quiz show until it had become a smash. I missed the beginning of the TV shocker of the summer -- a veritable announcement that as the millennium hits, prime time won't just be cheesey, it will unwrap lots of Limburger and Port Salut.
By the end of its two weeks, it was a summer sensation and had gone through Nielsen's roof (not an easy roof to go through in the summer). By then, the show had already erroneously swatted down a contestant for correctly naming Lake Huron the second largest of the Great Lakes. Shamefaced, but with an accidental sympathetic story line swelling audiences even more, they had to bring the fellow back on the final episode.
Last Sunday, to prep for the newest network fromage from the past, I watched NBC's "You Asked for It," the weekly '90s version of the old Art Baker freak show from the '50s. I saw a two-ton truck slowly roll up a wooden plank that had been placed on the genitalia and stomach of a crazy Brit who was lying on broken glass at the time.
Family viewing time, you know?
The fellow was trying to set a new Guinness World record to go along with the 30 he already held -- making him, as you no doubt guessed, the current world record holder in the number of Guinness world records held.
"You Asked for It" is old-fashioned county fair cheese from a roughneck America when sideshows had tattooed ladies, hermaphrodites and real geeks (i.e. alcoholics, usually, who devoured live animals, rather than the high schoolers with bad acne, thick glasses and inept manners around girls who are the current candidates for that word).
It was a good thing I prepped last Sunday for the grand finale of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" by watching a revisitation of Art Bakerland. In the fromagerie of current network prime time, the quiz show could only be an improvement.
It was, even though one contestant -- a hopeful future stand-up comic -- told us: "I feel like I'm on the toilet and all America is watching me."
But first, a brief word from the bottom of my heart: I refuse to be a kneejerk hater and baiter of TV cheese and sleaze. If you give me the time, I may hold forth for hours on the cultural significance of Fox discovering the joys of a whole prime time hour of animals attacking human beings.
"Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is, strictly speaking, horrible TV. I got into it anyway for a week. If you somehow missed it, don't worry. Host Regis Philbin announced that, as a network response to the huge audience of 22.4 million viewers, it would be back in November. Set your alarms.
What ABC so cunningly did in the middle of prime time was drop a strip show of the kind that is the syndicated bread and butter of local affiliates, i.e. a nightly "Jeopardy" or "Wheel of Fortune" that pulls in addicted viewers and piles up big advertising dough. Leave it to the Brits to set our colonial tubes back 50 years.
In the heyday of the prime time quiz show, of course, they were crooked (see Robert Redford's movie "Quiz Show," written by Paul Attanasio, creator of TV's "Homicide"). But people followed the contestants through every drop of sweat that dangled from the tips of their noses and through every tortured look. (Some -- the immortal Charles Van Doren -- became virtuosos in miming the act of dredging up the tiniest clumps from a vast gooey swamp of chaotic data). They were in the great American tradition of instant celebrity.
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (no one got the million; one guy did get a half million, though) was as cunning as Cheese-TV gets. Its host was Regis Philbin, the reigning chipmunk of daytime TV and a man who can always be counted on to lower any common denominator with a smile.
Rege didn't miss a trick. He inserted crazy, four-beat pauses into the proceedings with shameless abandon to draw out the suspense. After every contestant answer (and four-beat Philbin pause), he'd ask the contestant: "Is that your final answer?," milking it even more. Then before the correct answer was announced, there was the largest possible pause of all. (One fellow on one night shouted at him: "I'm a fat man and my heart can't take it!")
To underscore, reassuringly, the full extent of the emcee's ignorance, Philbin mispronounced Mozart ("Moe-zart"), Jacqueline DuPre ("Due-Preee") and Oklahoma City's Murrah Building. (God only remembers how he did that one.) Alex Trebek, of "Jeopardy," of course, would rather lose an arm than misplace a comma. Even Hal March of the primordial "$64,000 Question" and Jack Barry of "21" always did their homework and got the names out correctly. Not Cheese Uber Alles Rege.
While this is going on, the "I'm Thinking, I'm Thinking" music in the background was stuff that the Amazing Kreskin would have dismissed as being too corny. And the questions -- until you got up to the $32,000 level -- weren't much harder than Groucho Marx' old standby: "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"
For all that, there is a primal thing that the show rediscovered. You can see the same thing nightly on "Hollywood Squares." Despite all the hokiness and fakery -- on "Hollywood Squares" all the celebrity gags and bluffs are pre-scripted -- you can't help caring at the end whether or not the winning contestant will drive off in a new Lexus.
On "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," even the most obnoxious contestants would have you rooting for them to get into six figures and then, just maybe, go all the way.
Deep down beneath all that hopeless cheese and sleaze, the show reached out, grabbed you by your best wishes and found that small rather wonderful part in all of us that wants to see our fellow human beings walk off with $1 million.
Or drive off in a new Lexus. Or, for that matter, get on a plane for an all-expenses paid vacation to scenic Albania.