You're in the Picture: The '60s Game Show That Was So Bad, It Required an On-Air Apology

Jackie Gleason on the set of You're in the Picture, arguably the worst game show to ever air.
Jackie Gleason on the set of You're in the Picture, arguably the worst game show to ever air.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Jackie Gleason tapes a television show in the 1960s.
Jackie Gleason tapes a television show in the 1960s.
Martin Mills/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Jackie Gleason records a TV promo.
Jackie Gleason records a TV promo.
Michael Roberts/Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images

“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.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. 

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.