Of Jack Barry and the Quiz Show Scandal

A little thing today about game show host and producer Jack Barry (Jack Barasch, 1918-1984). I was first aware of Barry when I was a kid, for he was the host of a show called The Joker’s Wild (1972-86; Others took over the hosting chores after his death). I had no idea at the time that it was remarkable that Barry was on television at all; he’s been embroiled in a notorious scandal two decades earlier. (BTW, please don’t, as I once sometimes did, confuse him with Gene Barry, star of the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. 

From Lindenhurst, Long Island, Barry attended Wharton and began hosting on local NYC radio in the 1940s. With producing partner Dan Enright, he then broke into television. Their early shows were pegged to age-based demographics: Juvenile Jury (1947-54), Life Begins at Eighty (1950-56), Wisdom of the Ages (1952-53), and their popular and influential children’s program Winky Dink and You (1953-57), which featured the voice of Mae Questel as Winky Dink.

Barry and Enright then branched into quiz shows with Tic-Tac-Dough (1956-59, later revived 1978-86), and Twenty One (1956-58). These shows, especially the latter one, were among those dragged down in the quiz show scandal of the late 1950s. The outcome of the shows had been rigged in advance to maximize audience interest, in much the same way as professional wrestling matches are predetermined, and modern reality shows are heavily orchestrated. The crucial showdown between Twenty One contestants Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel was later dramatized in Robert Redford’s film Quiz Show (1994), with Ralph Fiennes and John Torturro as those respective characters, and Rob Morrow as a Congressional prosecutor.

Frankly, I’m at a loss to know why any of this was wrong or illegal. These were entertainment programs. Who was defrauded? Not the contestants, who did not pay to participate. Not the viewers, who watched the show for free. Not the sponsors, who got the number of advertising impressions they paid for. There are the reputations of the “losers” to consider, which might merit a lawsuit, but I imagine they signed some sort of release about that in order to go on the show in the first place. Why was the government involved at all, in any way? It is a lie? It is a SHOW! The press is there to report on shenanigans that go on behind the scenes if need be. If the viewers are disgusted by the chicanery, they can decide not to watch. Here, you see the latent libertarian in me bubble to the surface. Rigged? I don’t care. Is is sleazy and slippery? Sure, but that’s not necessarily a matter for the law, the Federal Communications Commission or the U.S. Congress. The shows weren’t delivering news. They weren’t holding an election. They were pretending to have contests. That’s theatre. At any rate, I don’t watch game shows or sports. I find them intrinsically boring, because, real or fake, I don’t care who wins. Those who do enjoy them may feel differently, but I still don’t see what the harm is unless someone is defrauded of money.

At any rate, as we see, this controversy did not finish Jack Barry. By the 1970s, he had sufficiently rehabilitated his reputation enough to enable to get back on television. If there is some sort of lesson to be learned I have no idea what it is.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous