Brain Pickings

Everyone’s Favorite Guessing Game: 7 Must-See What’s My Line Episodes

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What girdles have to do with civic activism.

In the 1950’s, the popular TV gameshow What’s My Line? cemented America’s relationship with television as an entertainment medium and a voyeuristic window into celebrity culture. The premise of the show was simple: In each episode, a contestant would appear in front of a panel of blindfolded culture pundits — with few exceptions, a regular lineup of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis, Random House founder Bennett Cerf, and a fourth guest panelist — who would try to guess his or her “line” of work or, in the case of famous “mystery guests,” the person’s identity, by asking exactly 10 yes-or-no questions. A contestant won if he or she presented the panel with 10 “no” answers.

Over the 17-year run of the show, nearly every iconic cultural luminary of the era, from presidents to pop stars, appeared as a mystery guest. Today, we’ve curated 7 must-see What’s My Line? appearances by some of history’s sharpest minds and most compelling creators.

SALVADOR DALI

In a WML episode that aired on January 20, 1952, Salvador Dalí is assigned the line “artist” and identified as “self-employed.” But the real comedic genius of the footage is that the great creative cross-pollinator answers nearly all questions in the affirmative, to the audience’s exponential amusement, not with the intention of misleading the panelists but merely as a reflection of his vast intellectual curiosity and creative output — our kind of character.

There’s nothing this man doesn’t do! What we have to guess is an all-around man.”

WALT DISNEY

On November 11, 1956 — just a few months after the grand opening of Disneyland — Walt Disney appeared as the mystery guest on WML. One particularly interesting piece of the conversation unfolds when Daly asks Disney’s opinion of television, which he had just recently begun dabbling in.

Well, it’s wonderful. You get to reach people in a sort of an immediate way. With pictures, you work for years and then it’s quite a while before you know how what you’re working on is going to come out, how it’s going to be received, but with television you know, well, in a very short time.”

We’re left wondering what Disney would make of the Internet, with its even more instant gratification yet ever-harder to decipher impact.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK

From the impressive pretend-accents and speech impediments to the priceless facial expressions to the facetious disregard for the show’s rules by dodging yes/no questions with lengthy, Yoda-esque answers, Hitchcock’s performance on WML is just that — a performance, and an outstanding one at that.

I was hoping to see Marilyn Monroe here tonight, but I didn’t hear any ooh’s and ahh’s, so I take it you are not Marilyn Monroe. Is this correct?” Hitchcock: “It is impossible.”

Hitchcock’s humor is unparalleled and particularly fascinating in contrast with the dark, often grim undertones of his films.

Daly: “Did you ever make a picture in which you haven’t appeared, in one time or another?” Hitchcock: “The indignity of being a ham is thrust upon me.”

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

In 1954, an elderly yet razor-sharp Eleanor Roosevelt took her seat at WML for a near-silent performance.

Are you now or have you ever been associated with politics?” “The answer to that would have to be a ‘yes’ … but that is also to advise you that, in one way or another, almost every good citizen in this country is associated with politics.”

Well said, Mr. Daly, well said. A powerful statement on civic engagement, delivered with a wink, is just the kind of commentary that made WML as much an entertainment brand as it was a pipeline for the social, political and cultural ideas that moved the era forward.

JEAN DESMOND, GIRDLE TESTER

To step away from the celebrity focus of WML for a moment, let’s return to the show’s original roots — having panelists guess an ordinary person’s occupation, or “line.” To keep things interesting, WML would invite contestants with unusual, bizarre and downright wildcard occupations, from Marilyn Monroe’s calendar salesman to this professional girdle-tester, who actually wins the game by getting all 10 “no” answers.

Judging by that answer, may I assume that this product is not edible?” Desmond: “You’re right, not edible.”

Oh, dear sir, if only you had lived to see the advances in… materials innovation.

LUCILLE BALL

Lucille Ball, the woman who arguably single-handedly catapulted the sitcom genre into its pop culture pedestal, is both witty and charming in her

Perhaps the most priceless moment of this clip, however, is a subtle one that becomes a living hallmark of the medium’s technological deficiency: The telling question, which exposes Ball’s identity, asked on black-and-white national television:

Are you a dazzling redhead?”

JOHN DALY

The final episode of WML aired on September 3, 1967. Besides its grand-finale status, what makes is particularly notable is that on it, host John Daly himself is the mystery guest, an exercise in meta-comedy long before meta was the hottest hipster humor.

The heritage of WML poses one interesting question: In its heyday, the show was essentially the only media property that could “have” any celebrity or cultural figure. The one entity no one said “no” to. And much of this was due to the involvement of Random House founder Bennett Cerf who, through his deep connections in the journalism and media world, was within a few degrees of separation from just about any public figure.

Nearly half a century later, after an epidemic of media fragmentation and audience erosion, we’re left wondering what contemporary culture’s version of WML is, this can’t-say-no-to platform for ideas. The closest thing that comes to mind is TED, spearheaded by Chris Anderson who also rose to status as a publishing entrepreneur. So is TED this generation’s WML, the potent mix of cultural commentary and smart entertainment that frames for its audience the people and ideas that matter in the world? If not, who is? Or are those shoes even fillable in today’s fragmented media landscape? We’d love your thoughts.

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