'What's My Line?' and the art of asking questions

'What's My Line?' and the art of asking questions
Source: reusableart.com

When I'm cleaning up, exercising, or postponing -- er, recovering from -- those, I have a new way to keep my mind engaged: I like watching an old TV game show, "What's My Line?"

BUZZR-TV (Channel 50.4 on my converter box, from Gary, Ind.) carries "What's My Line?" as part of its roster of game show reruns -- the only thing the channel shows. Yes, that's silly... but only sometimes.

On "What's My Line?," which began in the '50s and lasted until at least the late '6os (since I remember watching it as a little kid when I was sick and home from school), a panel of celebrities had to guess the job -- the "line of work" -- of a variety of guests. One guest per program was a "mystery challenger," hidden from the panel of questioners by the blindfolds they wore.

The game holds up very well compared to present-day trivia. It is entirely made up of asking questions, and the object is to make sure the guest gave a "yes" answer. Ten "no" answers mean the game is over and the panel is stumped.

That makes these old games a great education in how to ask precise questions. (By "old," for example, the most recent one I watched turned out to be from 1955. One question for me is often "What year is it?," so waiting for clues is another part of the fun.)

Each player on the panel gets to ask as many questions as he can, provided he keeps getting "yes" for the answer. That makes later questions a bit tricky, because sometimes the impulse is to say "Are you a bricklayer?," for example. The trick is to say "You're not a bricklayer, then, are you?" because John Daley, the host of the show, will make sure the answer comes precisely, "Yes, he is not a bricklayer."

(In this example, "Are you a bricklayer?" would have gotten a "no" and thrown the question to the next player. With the "yes," the same person may continue.)

Questions can progress from the general -- "Do you deal in services?" -- to the specific -- "Is your product alive?" -- before they reach "Are you (fill in job title)?"

My kitchen is around the corner from my TV, and my apartment is small. Once I discovered the fun of not looking when the guest's job is shown on the screen, I learned that reasoning along with the panel can be great exercise.

On Wednesday, when I had to be up painfully early for an appointment, I turned on BUZZR and found "What's My Line?" for breakfast and getting ready. One guest on this 1955 episode was a panelist on the Canadian TV version of "What's My Line?" (She reported that her program was called "Chacun Son Metier" in French in Montreal.) Panelist Arlene Francis narrowed down the questioning quickly, from "Do you deal in services?" through involvement in entertainment and a seat on a panel to the winning question, which was specifically about the Canadian "What's My Line?"

In this age when complete sentences are rare, listening to these beautiful questions is so refreshing. Getting the correct answer depends on asking the correct question. That's a good reminder that this is always the case -- not just on TV, always.

For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

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  • I remember it was on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. I loved it. I would be sad when each show ended. Bedtime. And back to school the next morning.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I thought you might remember it well. I'm still sad when these reruns end!

  • BTW, another panel show you would have loved was "Down You Go" . It was about words and hosted by the inimitable Bergen Evans, Northwestern professor of English Lit. The panelists, if I remember correctly, were all well-known Chicagoans from the worlds of entertainment and the arts.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    "Down You Go" sounds great. (Any excuse to use the word "inimitable" generally does!) Thanks!

  • I used to watch that show, hadn't thought about Arlene Francis in years, she was good.

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    I'm glad you remember it, Kathy. I always liked Arlene Francis, even as a kid, although I never knew her as anything but a game-show contestant. She was good.

  • I'm surprised it didn't come back, as the similar "To Tell the Truth" did for a while. The impression I get from it is that quiz shows (except for The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy) died in 1985.

    Speaking of the latter shows, "Press Your Luck" seems the crack cocaine of TV. I'm still cheering the Whammy.

    The other thing when watching it or Family Feud is trying to figure out the equivalent answer from 35 years ago, such as a question on who makes the least dependable car, with the answer "Japan." No longer. Also, the cars and kitchens on Let's Make a Deal are really ugly.

    Another thing typical of the 60s era, which Buzzr promotes, is that most (also I Got a Secret) were panel shows with distinguished celebrity panelists. I guess that was the reaction to the $64,000 Question scandal.

    Finally, while the Channel 50 license is to Gary, it is run by Fox Chicago. And like most digital subchannels, I can't figure out what happened to 50.3. If you want something real interesting, watch Korean TV on 24.5-24.7. I can even understand some Korean words, like Arlington Height and Dempster.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. I've never tried "Press Your Luck" (so far), but what a description.
    Your point about distinguished celebrities has certainly changed, these days. Those who are distinguished in their fields are rarely famous any more.

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