On January 27, 1961, comic actor and newly-minted game show host Jackie Gleason walked onstage at Studio 52, a CBS television facility on West 54th Street in New York City. The set was practically barren, with a chair, two small tables, an ashtray, and a lamp.
After being introduced by announcer Johnny Olson and with television cameras trained on him, Gleason addressed the live broadcast's viewers directly.
What they had seen in that timeslot the previous week, he said, was “the biggest bomb in the history of television.”
Gleason was talking about his own series, a game show titled You’re in the Picture. And its first and only episode was so awful that Gleason felt the need to apologize for it.
You’re in the Picture was the brainchild of Don Lipp and Bob Synes, both television producers with experience in game shows, and was produced by Steve Carlin, who also had experience—though perhaps not the kind that looks good on a resume. Carlin was at the center of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when contestants confessed to being fed answers or asked to throw games on The $64,000 Question.
The idea was simple, and that was part of the problem: In You’re in the Picture, a panel of celebrities would be tasked with sticking their heads through a large tableau that they couldn’t see and then ask questions of the host in an attempt to identify their situation. It was similar to the kind of muscle and bikini images left on display at Coney Island, where people would have their pictures taken. The dynamic would allow for the host to toss jokes around in a manner similar to Groucho Marx, the film star who went on to great success as host of You Bet Your Life.
Both the producers and CBS had their star in mind: Jackie Gleason. The actor had become a household name thanks to The Honeymooners, the sitcom that ran for only a single season in 1955 and 1956 but managed to remain memorable in the years and decades to come. Gleason, a savvy businessman, had the foresight to film the comedy using the Electronicam, a method for preserving television programs that was uncommon in the 1950s. It allowed him to later sell the show to MCA, who could syndicate the clean and sharp footage. (Gleason got $2 million, a bargain for MCA, which reaped millions from the series.)
Because of Gleason’s popularity, he had a unique arrangement with CBS where the network paid him a guaranteed $100,000 annual salary whether he worked or not. This kept Gleason in the network fold. While a six-figure sum for doing nothing may have been tempting, Gleason enjoyed working and made frequent appearances on variety and game shows, including The $64,000 Question. When he was approached about hosting You're in the Picture, he was eager to participate.
Gleason understood his role immediately: With his quick wit, he would be able to have fun with the concept and use the game as a clothesline for humor. No money was at risk for the players, who would be expected to be amusing personalities.
Gleason later recalled that he and producers did dry runs of the show for secretaries and that everyone loved the idea. But when the show was formally announced in December 1960, the problems began mounting early on. Producers had issues finding guests for the first panel, but finally settled on actors Pat Carroll, Arthur Treacher, Jan Sterling, and Pat Harrington Jr. While they were a talented bunch, none of the performers were particularly known for their sense of humor.
That meant the bulk of the heavy-lifting would be left up to Gleason. For the debut episode on January 20, 1961, he ran through a series of tableaus with the guests, including scenes depicting Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Pocahontas rescuing John Smith, and an image inspired by the popular “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” song, among others.
Unlike Marx, who often had some lines prepared, Gleason went out live and unrehearsed—save for scripted endorsements for sponsors Kellogg’s and Liggett & Myers cigarettes. While he was gregarious and charming, the game play was not. The panelists—who would often all appear in the same scene at once—asked mundane questions, seemed confused, and rarely guessed correctly. Worse, the stakes were nonexistent. If the panel won, 100 charity packages would be donated in their name. If they lost, the packages would be donated in Gleason’s name. For viewers, there was virtually no emotional investment in the outcome.
“You have braved a blizzard,” Gleason told the audience at the conclusion of the episode. A veteran performer, he knew a disaster when he saw one.
The reviews were unkind. “It didn’t just bomb,” wrote newspaper columnist Milton Bass. “No, it lay there in shivering agony, naked to the world, broken, beaten, skinned alive; and expired slowly, agonizingly, beyond pity, contempt, fear, or favor.” The debacle was compounded by the fact that Gleason was one of television’s biggest stars. Though television always offered flops, few were as high-profile. TIME magazine declared You’re in the Picture the worst show in the then-13-year history of television.
Though producers had arranged for another panel for the next week—one newspaper reported a second show was even taped and ready to go—Gleason didn’t believe it could be salvaged. The afternoon before he was scheduled to go on air, Gleason decided to appear on stage and offer an apology.
“Last week we did a show called You’re in the Picture that laid without a doubt the biggest bomb in the history of television,” Gleason said, as the studio audience laughed.
Explaining that “honesty is the best policy,” Gleason proceeded to lay into his own week-old show. Calling it a “catastrophe” and comparing the first episode to the “H-bomb,” he spoke for 30 minutes, acknowledging the show had been terrible. In jest, he had stagehands wheel out one of the tableaus so Gleason could demonstrate how the game was supposed to work. The stagehands kept their faces turned away from the camera.
“You’ll notice, ladies and gentlemen, that the stagehands have their back turned to the audience,” Gleason said. “Now this is understandable. They don’t want to be identified with this thing. They have wives and children and are respected members of their community.”
While sipping from a cup, Gleason joked that he was drinking “a new coffee called Chock Full o’ Booze.” He read the bad reviews out loud and then confessed he wasn’t sure what he would do next week.
The same reviewers who had been so unkind to Gleason and the show were enamored with this rare moment of candor on television, and the apology episode was well-received. Gleason went on to fulfill his obligations with a talk show, The Jackie Gleason Show, in the You’re in the Picture timeslot for the next seven weeks. It was replaced by an anthology show, ‘Way Out, hosted by author Roald Dahl.
While shooting The Hustler in 1961, Gleason reflected on the show’s failure with a reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News.
“The show was just horrible,” Gleason said. “Now the mechanics of the show were perfect; the panel was as witty as possible under the circumstances and there were no technical mistakes. Nevertheless, it laid a bomb and I figure I’m to blame. I think if someone other than myself had been the host, or catalyst, or whatever they called it, the show would have been all right.”
Maybe. But it definitely wouldn’t have been as memorable.