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.
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.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 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Feel Nostalgic With the New Hello Kitty-Themed Tamagotchi

Bandai America/Amazon
Bandai America/Amazon

Back in November 1996, Bandai released the cult favorite Tamagotchi, a tiny virtual pet that users could feed, play with, give medicine to, and more. The name itself is actually a combination of two Japanese words, tamago and tomodachi, meaning egg and friend—and it was the toy's egg shape that was key to its distinct design. They could fit in pockets, on keychains, and inside the backpacks of any kid who wanted a distraction during the school day.

According to NME, more than 82 million of these egg-shaped digital pets have been sold since their initial release in the ‘90s, with 10 million of those coming within the first year alone. Now, the handheld pets are back again in the form of a collaboration with another famous Japanese creation, Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty first took over hearts starting in 1974 when a Japanese company called Sanrio put the design on a vinyl coin purse. More than 45 years later, Hello Kitty (her real name is actually Kitty White) has been developed into video games, cafes, hospitals, wine, and more. This new Tamagotchi is the perfect mixture of two of Japan’s most famous brands, both of which have reached a global audience.

Bandi America/Amazon

In these new editions, Hello Kitty will help you raise your Tamagotchi. You’ll be able to feed them Hello Kitty’s favorite foods, like apple pie or milk, and play a balloon game and piano game. Based on how well you raise your Tamagotchi from an egg to an adult will determine which of the seven surprise characters you receive.

These new Tamagotchis will be released on December 1, 2020, and are available to pre-order in red and white on Amazon for $20.

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