Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The dominant men of Tic-Tac-Dough

One of the more thrilling moments in sports is when a heavily favored team loses. While everyone pretends to believe in the cliche anything can happen on any given day, it's still always something of a shock when a dominant team tumbles, whether it was the 2007 Patriots or Notre Dame snapping UCLA's 88-game winning streak.

This extends to other games, even ones that don't involve a shred of athleticism.

While feeling nostalgic for 2004 today, I visited Ken Jennings' blog. Jennings, the Terminator of Jeopardy who won 74 consecutive games six years ago, still pops up once in awhile on other game shows or trivia outlets. He remains an inspiration to geeks everywhere and comes off as a good guy when he appears on TV and in his writing.

I'm not a huge game show nut, but I enjoy watching dominant game-show performances. I loved when a single family racked up win after win on Family Feud, dispatching weaker opponents with ruthless efficiency. While some families invariably had a ditzy aunt who ruined everything or an oafish brother who simply came along because the family needed a fifth member, the dominant teams exuded strength from top to bottom. They became arrogant after awhile, strangely confident in their ability to decipher the feelings of 100 randomly selected Americans. (Did the fifth member of the family ever resent their lot in life? Mom or dad usually stood in the first two spots, but occupying that final slot was like being the kid who had to play right field in Little League. Rightly or wrongly, the kid's thought of as a scrub. So's the No. 5 person on the Feud.)

When those families lost, even the victors were occasionally surprised, in the same way Buster Douglas had to have been a little shocked when he battered Mike Tyson.

But Jennings's loss might have been the most memorable defeat in game-show history. Jennings won 74 straight times, but the one he lost stands out above all the rest.

This was one of the few times the cuddly Jennings hadn't clinched the victory before Final Jeopardy. He'd been pushed, but no one expected him to lose. Nancy Zerg beat him. Nancy Zerg, who lost the next day, confirming the flukiness of her victory over Jennings. I wanted Jennings to keep winning. Wish he was still the defending champion. Wish his reign would have outlasted Trebek's reign as host. But still, watching Jennings lose was one of those memorable TV moments we usually only get in sports. A great champion falls!

Trebek immediately thinks something might be up, correctly sensing that Zerg's quick response meant she nailed the answer. Jennings's face betrays nothing, though he knew when Zerg unveiled the correct answer that his wrong answer would finish him. The crowd gasps when Jennings reveals he guessed FedEx. Surely stunned, he eventually offers his congratulations to his surprised conqueror. This was like when Y.E. Yang bested Tiger in the final round of the 2009 PGA Championship.

My love of game show savants dates back to the early 1980s. As a kid, I spent many summer days watching Tic-Tac-Dough. The guy I remember was a player named Kit Salisbury, a strapping man with nice hair and a good smile. I'd watch Kit kick ass and then I'd go shoot baskets at the city park. He defeated 38 opponents in 1984 before finally losing. Impressive, even if Tic-Tac-Dough's questions weren't designed to stump the Marilyn vos Savant's of the world. Salisbury lost when he misspelled the word...misspell (although I shouldn't mock, since I once lost a Spelling Bee on the word archery). It's safe to say that Jennings probably would have reached a hundred consecutive victories if he had played under the all-knowing eyes of Wink Martindale.

The all-time Tic-Tac-Dough king was an old Navy brainiac named Thom McKee, who won 46 straight times. Here's McKee's Waterloo. At least he went down on a somewhat difficult question
and not an elementary spelling error. The crowd doesn't gasp like the Jeopardy crew did when Jennings failed, but there's a little extra pep to the applause when the new champion is crowned. These people probably got herded into the Tic-Tac-Dough studios with the promise of free orange juice and a sugary snack. They came to Hollywood to see the stars and got stuck watching grown men answer questions many children would find laughable. But now they watched history.

McKee's wife bounds through the crowd, providing comfort for her vanquished man. Wink provides a nice wrapup, recapping McKee's accomplishments despite the inner disappointment that must have crushed him as he realized the show's ratings would plummet without McKee's dominance. Bet he wished they had rigged the game.

The quiz show scandals of the 1950s nearly killed game shows - Dwight Eisenhower even commented on how the scandals were a terrible thing for America. Picture Reagan discussing the implications of a Tic-Tac-Dough controversy. But the game show format proved resilient.
Watching people win hundreds of thousands of dollars is great entertainment. Watching people bizarrely blow the chance at hundreds of thousands of dollars is great entertainment (Deal or No Deal). But nothing quite beats watching a great champion go down, whether at the hands of an underdog on the court or a four-eyed nerd on a mission.


Dad said...

Good God I never realized the connection between archery in the spelling bee and the angst it created in phy-ed!!!

Shawn Fury said...

I don't know what the excuse for Industrial Arts was, since I knew how to spell that.