Love Is On the Air: How The Dating Game Changed Television

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Chuck Barris had a problem. As the creator and producer of a new ABC game show titled The Dating Game, Barris had thought it would be entertaining to see three men vie for the affections of a woman who quizzed them from behind a screen. Because they'd be unable to rely on visual cues or physical attraction, the contestant and her would-be suitors would have to assess their chemistry based on verbal interplay, and wouldn't see each other face-to-face until she selected a winner.

Unfortunately, early tapings of the game in 1965 had not gone well. Barris later recalled that both the men and women had tasteless responses, answering the contestant's questions with profane remarks full of sexual innuendo that would be unacceptable for daytime television. The shows could not be aired.

Then Barris had an idea. He asked a friend of his who was an actor to dress in a hat and raincoat to give the appearance of a law enforcement official. The man walked into the dressing room where the bachelors were waiting to go on air. He lied and told them that any profanity or overt sexual references would be a violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policy, a federal offense. They might even get sentenced to jail time.

From that point on, there were no more problems with people uttering expletives on The Dating Game, a long-running series that acted as a precursor to The Bachelor as well as a host of other dating shows. Recognizable for its campy 1960s set, host Jim Lange blowing kisses at the audience, and its inane questioning of contestants, the show marked a pivotal shift away from game shows that offered monetary gain and instead offered a potentially greater reward: true love.

Barris, a game show legend who would go on to create The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, was an ABC executive at the time. As head of daytime programming, he spent much of his time fielding what he thought were many ill-conceived pitches for shows from producers. He told fellow daytime executive Leonard Goldberg that he could come up with something better. But when Goldberg told him to try, Barris replied he had a wife and child and couldn’t spare the time. Goldberg offered to listen to an informal pitch. Barris came up with The Dating Game.

Some have observed the genesis of the show came as a result of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, which posited that women could enjoy more casual relationships without the prospect of marriage looming over their heads. In the more sexually adventurous ‘60s, a show about a simple courtship—particularly one steered by a woman—was still seen as progressive.

At the time, game shows were relegated to contests that typically featured a prize, or at least bragging rights to having won. Jeopardy! and The Price is Right were on the air handing out cash and cars. But Barris was more interested in an intangible benefit. Though the woman and her chosen suitor would be sent out for a dinner date, the expense was minimal, and no one was paid to appear on the show. For viewers, it was about who would find love—or at least the appearance of it.

To select contestants to appear on the series, Barris devised a referral system. After recruiting an initial round of potential participants, his staff had them fill out several forms consisting of their personal information. One of the sheets was reserved for people they already knew and who they felt would be a good fit for the series; a blue form was used for bachelors; and pink for single women. Staffers would be on the phone all day, calling candidates and ushering them in for further evaluation.

For Barris, a contestant on The Dating Game needed to be gregarious, glib, and able to elaborate on answers. If questions weren’t up to snuff, his writers would help craft queries meant to elicit slightly salacious—but never profane—responses. (The questions ranged from perceptive to queries like, “If men are what they eat, which vegetable do you consider yourself?”) Test games would be held in Barris’s Hollywood offices. Out of a pool of 1000 possible contestants, the show would decide on 132 of them to fill their taping needs.

 

For a host, Barris chose Jim Lange, a popular radio personality, to move the game along. Each episode consisted of two complete games, usually a woman interrogating three men—though the format was soon changed to allow for a switch in roles, with three women vying for one man. Barris also enlisted celebrities or soon-to-be celebrities like John Ritter, Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Selleck, as well as occasionally sprinkling in a crush, work colleague, or someone else the contestant might know in their private life.

The show was an immediate hit on daytime when it premiered in December 1965. The series soon expanded to primetime in 1966 with a slight change in format: The “dates” now included travel to romantic hotspots like Paris and Rome in an effort to broaden the scope of the show. These trips involved the use of chaperones—a necessity, Barris said, because few parents would allow their young daughters out of the country with a veritable stranger.

The Dating Game aired on ABC through 1973 and entered syndication for one year. In 1978, it went into syndication again (Barris was no longer directly involved), with Lange returning as host. This version, however, was perceived as lewd, with contestants and producers making less of an effort to stifle the sexual wordplay. (“Let’s hear about your tool chest” was among the less-than-clever prompts offered by contestants.) Various other iterations have aired over the years, morphing into the more elaborate find-a-mate series like The Bachelor, which not only expects contestants to have chemistry but eventually wed. Strangely, the conceit seems more old-fashioned than the show that started the genre.

Those shows owe quite a debt to Barris, who eventually left television altogether after feeling as though he was becoming pigeonholed by his game show successes. Barris later penned his 1984 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Sam Rockwell, directed by George Clooney, and written by Charlie Kaufman), in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA and executed targets while chaperoning winners of The Dating Game. That sensational assertion is in doubt, but Barris’s contributions to romance as a television commodity are not. The notion of dating as entertainment goes back to his original idea, a simple partition, and a man in a raincoat.

The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet

Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Men aren't the only ones to have rocked the style: Scarlett Johansson and Rihanna have both sported the look—albeit a decade apart.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it "nonsense."

Dacre Montgomery in 'Stranger Things'
Dacre Montgomery rocks a mullet as Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things.
Netflix

But try telling that to the hairstyle's latest throng of fans, many of whom have been inspired to go back in time for the short-long look by Netflix's Stranger Things. "I cut at least one or two a week,” London hairstylist Idalina Domingos, who sports a shaggy-styled mullet herself, told The Guardian in August 2019. "There are these modern mullets, people are coming round to the idea. It’s a fun haircut to have and it's only going to get more popular."

For others, the cut is timeless. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, is hosting its third annual Mulletfest, a celebration of all things badly shorn, on February 29, 2020. “We have so many mullets in town,” co-organizer Sarah Bedford said. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years."

Pitch Perfect: How Billy Mays Conquered the Infomercial World

Standing on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1980s, Billy Mays did everything he could to drag despondent gamblers, tourists, and passersby over to investigate whatever it was he was selling. For years that was the Washamatik, a pump that could spray water from a bucket without the need for plumbing. (A convenient way to wash your car without needing to be near a faucet, Mays said.) Later it was the Ultimate Chopper, a dicing utensil that Mays demonstrated by making a bowl of salsa.

Mays was loud, energetic, and hyper. One of his favorite sales techniques, which he had learned from the older pitchmen on the Boardwalk—considered the pitching capital of the world—was to hold up an object and announce it sold for $29.99 in stores. Today, Mays said, it was priced at $15 so he could meet his sales quota. But if you were one of the first 10 people to buy, it was just $10.

“You,” he said, pointing to the nearest prospective customer. “You’re customer number one.”

Cornered, the customer would hand over the $10. It was nearly a form of hypnosis. Through years of practice, Mays would eventually coerce people into handing over not just $10 here or there, but hundreds of millions of dollars. Mays could sell anything—especially himself.

 

Most people recognize Mays, who died in 2009 at age 50 from suspected heart disease, as the boisterous salesman for cleaning products like Orange Glo and OxiClean, which Mays famously claimed was “powered by the air you breathe, activated by the water you drink!” A stout man with a trademark uniform of a blue dress shirt, khakis, and an ink-black beard, he was a frequent presence in commercials and infomercials and on home shopping channels. “Hi, Billy Mays here!” he barked, as though he could be mistaken for anyone else.

Mays was born in the small town of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Pittsburgh. He attended West Virginia University, where he played football—he was a walk-on linebacker—but eventually tired of the classwork that went along with being an athlete, and dropped out after two years. After a stint working for his father’s hazardous waste trucking company, Mays ran into a high school friend in 1983 who was heading to Atlantic City to peddle Ginsu knives on the Boardwalk. Intrigued and lacking many job prospects, Mays asked his friend to wait while he packed a suitcase, as he wanted to tag along.

Mays and the other pitchmen were carnival barkers, hawking wares. Mays picked up tips from veterans and learned their peculiar trade lingo. The joint was your sales booth. Ballying the tip meant gathering a crowd. If you spent too much time describing an item and not inciting people to buy, you weren’t chilling them down.

Mays spent more than a decade pitching the Washamatik and Ultimate Chopper, traveling to home goods shows, county fairs, and other places to try his luck and hone his authoritative voice, which at one point he described as too nasally. At one show in Philadelphia, Mays began competing for the audience’s attention with a man named Max Appel, who was trying to garner interest in his Orange Glo wood-polishing liquid. Mays later recalled getting “annoyed” when Appel began drawing eyes away from his pitch. But when Appel’s microphone broke, Mays loaned him one of his. It was a generous act that came back to pay dividends.

In the late 1990s, when Appel wanted a TV pitchman for Orange Glo and OxiClean, another product of his, he called Mays (who was known on the pitch circuit as “Bucket Billy” for the Washamatik demonstration). While appearing on the Home Shopping Network (HSN), Mays moved 6000 bottles of Orange Glo in 11 minutes.

From there, the Mays brand of pitching took off. Mays—who was famous for doing endless retakes of taped segments to get it just right—was a pitching pro, and was always focused and prepared. He moved to Florida to be closer to HSN, in case they needed him to fill in at the last minute to meet a daily sales quota. He founded Billy Mays Promotions, a one-man operation that endorsed products he thought provided value to consumers. In addition to the Orange Glo line, Mays pushed Mighty Putty (for patching holes), the Awesome Auger (for digging into soil using a drill), the Handy Switch (a wireless light switch), and the Turbo Tiger floor sweeper. All of it was promoted with Mays’s singular delivery, which fell somewhere between a stage projection and a shout, and often ended in a rhyme. (Of the Simoniz Fix It scratch remover, Mays said that “The scratch has met its match!”)

 

Mays was not a product mercenary. He declined to endorse certain items—like bug zappers and lighted dog leashes—if he didn’t feel like he could get behind the product in a genuine way. Other items, like the Cargo Genie car trunk organizer, bombed. But Mays’s batting average was still so far above the norm that companies sought him out, often paying $20,000 to $30,000 for him upfront and then cutting him in on a commission taken from the revenue.

Mays was aware of his outsized persona; he distributed 300 containers of OxiClean at his own wedding and broke into a pitch while on the dance floor. “Life’s a pitch and then you buy” was his tongue-in-cheek motto. So was “The best things in life are free ... and $19.95.”

Shortly before his passing in 2009, Mays was busier than ever. Pitchmen, a reality show that followed Mays and fellow salesman Anthony Sullivan as they scouted for and endorsed products, was already on the air. Mays also had plans for a radio show. Following his death, many of his commercials continued airing. The reason was simple: Even in death, Mays engendered more product loyalty than any pitchman alive.

At his funeral service, pallbearers paid tribute to Mays in the most appropriate way they knew how—by donning his familiar outfit of a blue shirt and khakis.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER